Before these latest storms moved in we enjoyed a week and a half of perfect winter weather ... high 70s, calm air and glassy flat water — that invited boaters to head to sea for a fishing trip. Problem is, many of our popular fish are out of season in January and February. Of the fish we can keep, most are not very active in the dead of winter. But we have one delicious little exception, sand dabs.
On a sand dab charter, one of my enthusiastic passengers described it, “You just sorta watch for a wiggle on your rod tip. Then wait for a second wiggle, and then reel up two of the tastiest little critters you ever met. Once at home, fry ‘em quick-like in peanut oil, and there’s nuthin’ like ‘em!” I’ve also experimented with sesame seed oil, grape seed oil and others. I haven’t had a bad sand dab yet. The only risk is overcooking. About 30 seconds on each side, for a medium size sand dab, will cook it to perfection.
Finding sand dabs can be tricky because they do not register on a fishfinder. You’re fishing by trial and error, although if sand dabs are in the spot you are trying, you will know it very quickly because they are voracious and competitive feeders. Once you find one of them, you’ve probably found all you’ll need, since they seem to congregate in the thousands. I find them on mixed mud and sand bottom in 150 to 300 feet. My own favorite places are off of the backside of Anacapa Island, outside the oil platforms off of Santa Barbara and off of Ellwood.
Rigging and baiting is simple enough. We tie up a double dropper loop, bait it with 4-inch strips of squid and drop it to the bottom. The fish lie on the bottom to ambush their prey, so keep the weight touching the bottom.
A 10-inch sand dab is a big fish. Seven or eight inches is more the norm. When really small ones — say four or five inches — come up, they are quite easy to release, providing the hook doesn’t tear flesh while being removed. Sand dabs do not have air bladders so they don’t suffer from barotrauma when brought up from deep water. Just carefully remove the hook and put them back in the water with a minimum of handling. They usually swim away unhurt, and that is gratifying. Put the keepers in cool water in a fish box, or on ice. Never put them in a gunny sack in the sun. That ruins fish flesh in a hurry.