Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

047: Kelp or Calico Bass

One of the more common fish in our kelp forests is the kelp bass. Despite its name, kelp bass do not have to live in areas with kelp. All they require is a high relief environment such as a rocky reef rather than a flat sandy bottom to be happy. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to use their other common name, calico bass, instead. Since this name derives from the brown or olive color alternating with pale patches on their body, it is a more appropriate common name to describe this species.

The kelp or calico bass is found from the mouth of the Columbia River to southern Baja California, but is most numerous south of Pt. Conception. Although they may be seen in depths up to 200 feet (where they are safe from me!), they are most common down to 70 feet.

Dr. Milton Love from UCSB (a very "fishy" person) states that calico bass may live 30 years or more and reach lengths of 28" or more. I guess they adhere to the old 1960's belief that you can't trust anyone over 30. As year-old "toddlers " they are only 4" long. All are sexually mature at about 10" but some precocious ones may reach that glorious stage in life when they are a mere 2-3 years old (about 7"). Fish a foot long are about 6 years old, and those 18" long are over 9 years old.

Calico bass are fortunate. Rather than mating over brief periods each year, they may spawn any time from April to November. Apparently during this time they form large groups a little further from the coast. The fertilized eggs drift in the plankton for a few days before hatching into larvae. The larvae remain as temporary plankton ("meroplankton") for about a month before they settle out over appropriate habitat.

Although some scientific reports suggest that members of this species stick around their home reef or kelp forest, Dr. Love has observed large schools of them miles at sea. Some believe these groups move into suitable habitats like rocky reefs for short periods. Those that find habitats with plenty of food may exhibit "site fidelity" and stick around.

The younger fish may be found swimming among the kelp fronds, or resting on the bottom out in the open during the day. At night they hide in the rocks. The older and larger "lunkers" (sometimes called bull bass) often hide among the rocks and in small caves at least during the day. When I encounter them and start to point my camera in their direction, they quickly swim away. Maybe these are the old gurus of the tribe who have some memory of when spearfishing plagued their families before the Dive Park was set aside as a reserve.

Like humans, calico bass change diet as they grow. We may begin with mother's milk, transition to Gerber's, spend our youth feeding only on hotdogs or macaroni and cheese, and then switch to steak and potatoes if we live in the Midwest or to sushi if in California. The smaller calicos nibble on plankton and tiny invertebrates on algae. Older ones feast on brittle stars, shrimp and small fish. The big ones add octopus, squid, crabs and even algae to their diet. I guess they finally realize the need to eat their veggies. ** When I first got my underwater camera, it really attracted the attention of calico bass in the Dive Park. They would stare at it for several minutes, coming right up to the front plate to take a closer look. I think they were really admiring their reflection in the glass. Now, after several years of diving with it, these fish usually ignore me. And with plenty of footage of them already "in the can," I usually ignore them... which I shouldn't.

Calico or kelp bass are the fish most commonly taken by recreational fishers on party boats or from piers. Many a youngster has squeeled with joy as they reeled one in (mostly undersized, like the angler!). They are quite tasty, although the last batch I tried cooking ended up like a Viking funeral pyre rather than on my dinner plate. Of course social preferences can change over time. Our Native American peoples ate them. However, Charles Frederick Holder, co-founder of the Tuna Club in Avalon and the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, wrote in 1910 that "no one cares for the rock [calico] bass... we could never reduce the numbers of these pests." Back in that fishing heyday there were probably a number of even more palatable species that have since declined in number.

Although calico bass are strictly for "recreational" catch, a commercial fishery for them existed in the past. It was stopped the year I was born (no clues given there). Perhaps I should be the patron saint (yeh, right) of calico bass. At least the calicos in our marine reserves should survive for our children and grandchildren. thanks to the foresight of some early Catalina dive professionals like Karl and Maggie and our City Council.

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Kelp or calico bass in front of giant kelp; giving me (or the camera) the eye;
several kelp bass feeding on octopus carcass; aggregation of kelp bass in kelp forest

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia