Calico Bass: Species Guide & How to Catch Them

Calico bass in murky water

Calico bass, a treasured find among saltwater anglers, offers both a challenge and reward for those who understand its behavior and habitat.

With the right knowledge about calico bass, such as understanding their predators and the best bait, you can increase your chances of catching this prized fish!

This guide offers in-depth insights into the fascinating world of the calico bass and how to catch them. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced angler, there’s always something new to learn. Stick around to learn more!

Calico Bass Overview

Scientific Name:Paralabrax clathratus
Common Name:Calico bass, kelp bass, bull bass
Range & Distribution:From central California to southern Baja California, Mexico, and, rarely, north of Point Conception in California
Habitat:Kelp forest, rocky reef, shallow coastal waters
Size:14–28 inches (35.5–71 cm)
Weight:1–10 pounds (0.45–4.5 kg)
Legal Minimum Size:14 inches
Record Size:14.4 pounds
Legal Bag Limit:5 per day
Fishing Season:Year-round
Baits:Anchovies, mackerels, sardines, shrimp, crabs, squid, and artificial lures like soft plastics, jigs, and crankbaits
Conservation Status:Least Concern

Calico Bass Range & Habitat

Two calico bass swimming side by side

Calico bass, also known as kelp bass, are a popular target for anglers along the west coast. Their range stretches from central California to Baja California, Mexico. However, it’s rare to spot them north of California.

This fish loves the sun-drenched waters of southern California, making it a key location for calico bass fishing.

The kelp forest is the signature haunt of the kelp bass. Lush kelp beds provide the ideal backdrop for these ambush predators.

They lurk in the shadows, hiding between kelp stalks or within submerged rocky crevices, waiting for the perfect moment to strike their prey.

Nonetheless, kelp bass aren’t just limited to kelp forests. They’re often found near shore, especially around reefs, jetties, and other structures.

This preference for heavy cover means anglers must be smart with their lure choice. For those looking to catch calico bass, remember they reside at depths up to 150 feet.

Calico Bass Appearance

Calico bass side view

The body of a calico bass displays a mix of colors, including brown, gold, black, olive, and white. These colors help the fish blend into its kelp forest and rocky reef habitats.

While the calico bass has some physical similarities to other freshwater bass species like the largemouth and smallmouth bass, there are notable differences.

Its body is stout, with spiny dorsal fins, a broad tail fin, and a large mouth. White splotches that appear horizontally on its sides are unique to the calico bass.

Compared to the sand bass, the calico bass is darker and lacks the elongated dorsal fin typical of the sand bass.

Calico Bass Size and Weight

The calico bass can achieve impressive sizes from 14 to 28 inches long. They can also weigh anywhere between 1 and 10 pounds but can reach 14 pounds in their natural habitats.

The record-breaking calico bass weighed 14 pounds and 7 ounces and was caught off Newport Beach, California.

As these bass mature, they undergo various growth phases. For instance, a calico bass typically reaches sexual maturity between the ages of two and five years.

By the time they are around five years old, they average about 14 inches in length. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old calico bass can be approximately 18 inches long.

Calico Bass Lifespan

Calico bass up close

Kelp bass has a slow growth rate. Notably, they are slow growers and often take up to five years to mature sexually. The oldest recorded kelp bass lived for 34 years.

Their delayed maturity emphasizes the importance of conservation. Since they grow slowly and take years to reproduce, protecting younger bass for a balanced marine ecosystem is crucial.

Calico Bass Spawning

Calico bass spawn from April to November. This activity peaks in July, primarily in kelp beds, reefs, and open water.

During spawning, female calico bass release eggs into the water column. These eggs are then fertilized by male bass. Notably, even though maturation takes a few years, a single female can spawn several times within one season.

The heightened aggressiveness of calico bass during spawning is well-documented. This behavior, prevalent in the summer months, offers anglers in southern California an optimal time to target them.

How to Catch Calico Bass

Group of calico bass

Inhabiting various terrains and adapting to changing seasons, calico bass have unique behavior patterns that anglers often seek to understand.

In this section, you’ll learn where, when, and how to catch calico bass.


Calico bass predominantly thrive along North America’s Pacific Coast, from central California to the southernmost tip of Baja.

While these fish can adapt to varying depths, even up to 150 feet, they still prefer shallower terrains, with popular locations being the vibrant kelp forests and the diverse terrains of southern California’s harbors and bays.

Notably, Catalina Island stands out as a prime location. Renowned for its lush kelp forests and intricate bays, this island is a hotspot for anglers keen on reeling in a record-sized calico bass.

Feeding Spots

Being ambush predators, calico bass choose their feeding spots strategically. They frequent the kelp forests, often hiding amidst its thick growth, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting prey.

Moreover, they have a penchant for rocky shorelines, breakwalls, and reefs. These structures provide them with an excellent vantage point to surprise their prey.

Sunken ships, shallow water reefs, and harbor seawalls are hotspots for these predators. Anglers aiming for a big catch should consider using sinkers to descend bait into these structures.


Fishing for calico bass is viable year-round, but summer is especially productive due to peak spawning activities. During this period, targeting areas rich in kelp and rocky formations using surface lures yields the best results.

In fall, they continue to feed voraciously, prepping for winter. When winter sets in, they favor deeper terrains, staying close to submerged structures.

By spring, they start transitioning back to shallower waters, marking the onset of another active fishing season.


Calico bass predominantly consumes crustaceans and baitfish. Therefore, anglers often succeed with baitfish such as mackerel, sardines, anchovies, shrimp, and crabs.

Whether you’re using them dead or alive, they’re highly effective in luring these game fish. Moreover, artificial lures mirroring the color and appearance of these baitfish have also proven fruitful.

For those keen on enhancing the appeal of their lures, adding a thin strip of squid can be quite productive, as it complements the lure’s natural swimming action.


When you’re fishing for this popular saltwater species, the methods you use can vary widely.

Swimbaits, particularly paddle tail swimbaits, surface lures, and metal spoons, rank as top choices for many. When fishing near kelp or rocks, these are especially effective.

Drifting, trolling, and fly fishing are other methods to catch these fish. When fly fishing, use large streamer flies mimicking baitfish like anchovies. Slow and twitchy movements often outperform rapid retrieves, given the ambush nature of the calico bass.

For those like me who love fishing close to inshore structures, I keep my trolling line short, about 15 feet, and I stay close to submerged rocks and wrecks, which can yield fantastic results.

For this, my swimming plugs come in handy. The key here is to effectively present the lure or bait, making it irresistible for the calico bass hiding inside the kelp or rocks.

Watch this video for more tips and tricks in fishing calico bass:

Calico Tricks & Tips with Erik Landesfiend

Legal Size and Limit

Fishing regulations are essential for preserving the fishery. In California, the rules are clear. The minimum size limit for calico bass is 14 inches, and the daily bag limit is five fish per angler.

Adhering to these guidelines ensures sustainable fishing, allowing future generations to enjoy the thrill of catching this marvelous game fish.

Catching Calico Bass From the Beach

Calico bass in the deep waters

Fishing for the spirited calico bass from the shoreline depends mainly on the sea’s tidal patterns.

The strategies to target calico bass can vary greatly between low and high tide, and being aware of these changes can enhance an angler’s success rate when they set the hook.

Here are some calico bass fishing tips to help you fish like a pro:

Low Tide

When the sea recedes during low tide, it exposes more of its floor, often revealing prime spots like rocks and reefs. These are locations where you’re likely to find big calico bass.

Anglers aim to target areas where these structures are submerged but within comfortable casting distance. Using a swimbait and other lures at this time becomes beneficial.

During one low-tide surf fishing trip, I caught a calico bass near a kelp-rich area. Using a weedless lure and the bite-straight braid method, I found success.

It was evident that understanding the habitat and behavior of this saltwater bass is crucial for effective fishing.

With the braid line on a baitcasting reel, you can efficiently maneuver the lure in calm waters, a common feature of low tides.

Fluorocarbon leader also ensures the fish doesn’t get spooked by the line, increasing the chance of a bite.

Hence, focusing on lure fishing near these vegetative and rocky structures is the strategy to adopt during low tide.

High Tide

As the sea engulfs more of the shoreline during high tide, it pushes the usual hotspots, like the vegetation zones, further from the shore. Here, a swimbait is less effective.

When the water is high and the shoreline shrinks, it’s time to go classic and opt for bait fishing.

Leveraging the strength of a baitcasting reel, you can cast farther, reaching distant structures where big fish, like sea bass, might lurk.

Predators of the Calico Bass

Calico bass heading to the surface

In their juvenile stage, kelp bass are at risk from various kelp forest fish. As they mature, their main threat shifts to the giant sea bass, Stereolepis gigas.

Larger bass species, notably the giant black sea bass and white seabass, pose significant threats to the calico. Moreover, seals, adept at hunting, frequently cut through the kelp to find calico bass for a meal.

Calico bass employ tactics like hiding inside thick kelp or using weedless environments as camouflage against predators.

Frequently Asked Questions

Calico bass swimming deeper

Is Calico Bass Good to Eat?

Yes, just like other bass species, calico bass is considered good to eat by many anglers. Their meat is white, flaky, and has a mild flavor, making it versatile for various culinary preparations.

As always, if you plan to consume any fish, it’s important to ensure it’s fresh and properly prepared to reduce the risk of contaminants or foodborne illnesses.

It’s also worth noting that local fishing regulations may have size and bag limit guidelines to ensure sustainable fishing practices.

What Is the Difference Between Kelp Bass and Calico Bass?

Kelp bass and calico bass refer to the same species of fish. “Kelp bass” is used because these fish commonly inhabit kelp forest areas. They use the thick kelp as both a hunting ground and shelter.

On the other hand, “calico bass” is a name given due to the fish’s calico-like color pattern, especially visible in younger fish. In saltwater bass fishing, both names are used interchangeably.

There is no difference between the two; they are the same fish known by two different names.

What Is the Best Bait for Calico Bass?

One of the best bait for calico bass is live bait, specifically anchovies, sardines, and smaller mackerel. When using these baits, ensure they are lively and fresh to entice the fish.

Swimbaits that mimic perch or croaker are highly recommended for anglers who prefer artificial lures. These swimbaits should be presented in a way that replicates the movements of real fish.

Surface iron lures can also be effective, especially when calico bass feed close to the surface.

It’s also crucial to ensure your bait and lures are weedless, especially when fishing in kelp-rich areas where calico bass hide. This will help avoid snagging.

Lastly, remember that while bait is essential, technique and presentation play equally important roles.

If you’ve had an experience fishing for calico bass or have any tips, leave them in the comment section below. We’d love to hear your insights and questions, too, on this remarkable fish!

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