You’ve heard the saying, “They sure are good, but it takes a whole mess of them to make a meal.” That saying definitely applies to sanddabs.
You could not ask for a better-tasting fish. It really does taste like a halibut, only sweeter. A 10-inch sanddab is a very mature animal, so figure on two or probably three fish per person at the dinner table.
They are easy to find and fish for. Near Santa Barbara, there are plenty of sanddabs on the flats near the row of four oil rigs about five miles out of the harbor. Another place where they congregate in big numbers is off of Ellwood in 250 to 300 feet. The deeper parts of the Ventura Flats, in the eastern part of the Santa Barbara Channel, hold plenty of sanddabs.
I’ve encountered them wherever relatively flat mud or sand bottoms occur in 180 feet and deeper. My favorite depth range is 200 to 300 feet. They seem to congregate best in that depth range, and it is easy to fish those depths with medium rigs and 5 to 8 ounces of weight.
One really nice thing about sanddabs is that they are relatively easy to fish for. They are not at all picky, they always seem to be in the mood to eat, and they compete so fiercely for food that they bite quickly and immediately take the bait deeply into their mouths so that competitors can’t steal the morsel away. All you do is bait a multihook sanddab rig, drop it down to the bottom and wait for a few bumps before reeling up the fish.
Squid strips are the usual offerings. Sanddabs love them, and they stay on the hook well. That’s reason enough to stick with squid strips. Other baits will also work. I’ve caught them on pieces of anchovy or sardines, shrimp, mussel, clams and even small plastic grubs. They aggressively swarm a baited rig, so even hooks that are several feet up off of the bottom tend to get bit frequently. It is pretty common to bring up several fish on one drop.
Once you have a bunch of them aboard, it is time to think about taking proper care of them.
The way we take care of them aboard my charter boat, WaveWalker, is to simply cut off the head and body cavity. Take the fish home and cook it whole. There is no need to remove the skin because it is very thin and cooks nearly entirely away. I’ve heard great reports from folks who have fried them, baked or broiled them, and barbecued them. Possibly the most common recipe is to fry them for 30 seconds on each side in hot peanut oil.
I just have to share some sanddab humor with you. When my passengers ask me the best way to prepare sanddabs, I explain that our nickname for them is “pop tarts” — and ask if they have a toaster at home. I won’t claim to have tried that myself, but I’ve had a few repeat groups who said it works just fine — as long as they remember to wipe all the slime off first, so they don’t mess up their toaster!
— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.