Fall Fishing: Sack 'Em Up in San Francisco Bay
October 15, 2018
It was a perfect July morning. No other anglers in sight. The sun was warm, and a light, refreshing breeze created the slightest chop on the surface. I was hot-footing it along a trail, scanning the water. The tide was about an hour from the top. The ocean flat that was high and dry a few hours before was now covered in shallow, but quickly deepening, water. I had a 7-foot spinning rod in my hand, carrying a reel spooled with 200-plus yards of 20-pound braid. I spliced a short 80-pound mono top-shot to the braid and tipped it with a 1/2-ounce bare jig head.
About three-quarters of a mile into my hike, I caught the first glimpse of fish. It was just the flash of a single fin, but just a minute later, I was watching a pod of about a dozen fish tailing as they foraged along the bottom. The water was clear, and the fish were close enough for me to see them pushing up little puffs of silt as they grazed the bottom. My fingers were clumsy with adrenaline. I first fumbled to pin a pre-cut sardine fillet to the jig head, but soon, I secured it with a few wraps of elastic thread. The rig was armed and ready!
I had a line of travel on the fish and trotted ahead about 50 yards into position to intercept them. When the fish were within range, I tossed the sardine strip about 6 feet in front of them and started to worm the jig across the bottom ever so slowly. Pressure on the line was followed by two sharp tugs, and the rod cut through the air and buried into a satisfying arch. For a beat, there was no reaction; then, a short violent slash disturbed the surface. The fish was off on a blistering run. The reel screamed. The braid cut through the water. The fish was fast and strong. There was nothing I could do but hang on and follow the fish.
Working my way back up to the trail above the tidal line, I followed the fish about 150 yards before it lost steam and I was able to work it to the shoreline. As I worked to remove the hook for a quick release, I was struck by the beauty of the leopard shark’s golden flanks and big dark spots that fade away to a snow-white belly. The leopard was a solid fish, weighing 25 or 30 pounds. It measured longer than 50 inches.
It was another great day exploring the waters of San Francisco Bay. I was just getting started!
SAN FRANCISCO BAY’S GAME FISH
The largest estuary on the Pacific coast of all the Americas, San Francisco Bay encompasses 1,600 square miles of water. Much of the bay is made up of shallow flats that range from 10 to 30 feet deep, but there are some much deeper areas, particularly in the central bay where the water may be more than 100 feet deep.
About 40 percent of California’s unconsumed fresh water eventually ends up in the bay, enriching an estuary that supports a vast array of marine life. From an angling perspective, San Francisco Bay is one of the world’s great fisheries populated with a long list of gamefish: striped bass, California halibut, sturgeon, sevengill sharks, leopard sharks, white sea bass, rockfish, lingcod, surf perch and even salmon. Of these, halibut, stripers and sharks are the most popular and abundant species targeted by both boat- and bank anglers with a high level of success.
Shore anglers can round up halibut in San Francisco Bay, but the majority of halibut caught in the bay are caught by boaters drifting live bait. From spring and extending through fall, bait receivers in San Francisco and Berkeley supply anglers with live anchovies and occasionally live sardines that are pinned to the hook that completes a drift-fishing rig.
Anglers often match a medium- or medium-light action rod with a reel spooled with 15- to 20-pound mono. Alternatively, 30- to 65-pound braided line carries about the same line diameter. Bait-casting outfits are preferred, but spinning gear works, too.
The standard terminal tackle used for drifting live bait begins with a three-way swivel attached to the main line. Use a perfection loop to tie 36 inches of 25-pound monofilament leader to another ring on the swivel and tip it with a size 1, 1/0 or 2/0 live-bait hook. Attach a short dropper of 10-pound mono to the other ring on the swivel, finishing it with a loop or snap swivel on the other end for holding the sinker. The dropper is made of light line; if it snags, it will break before the leader or the main line. Arm the hook with a live anchovy. Pin the little guy by pushing the hook point upward, from beneath the jaw through its nose. You don’t want to man-handle the bait or hook it too deeply. You want the bait to be as lively as possible, so handle it with care.
With the bait wriggling on the hook, lower the rig to the bottom, place the rod in a holder and allow it to drag along the sand. When the rod bends deeply, you’ve hooked a fish, and it’s time to fight it to the net.
It’s true that shoreline and pier anglers don’t stack up as many halibut as boaters, but the guys that put in their time on the bank do score plenty of halibut fillets. Many pier anglers spend time working with a spinning rod to catch either a small surfperch or a smelt to use as live bait. With a baitfish secured, they pin the bait on a three-way rig like the one described above, toss the rig out on a tight line, and wait for a halibut to come knocking.
If sitting and waiting isn’t your style, fan-casting with soft-plastic swimbaits in the 4- to 8-inch class can keep you busy. Make long casts and slow-roll the bait just off the bottom. The more hiking you do and the more ground you cover, the better your chances of hooking up.
Where do you find halibut in the bay? For consistency, the central bay is the place, but the south bay and north bay can kick out fish, too. Fish areas that have a firm sand or gravel bottom and evidence of baitfish. Days with clear water and small tides are generally best for halibut fishing.
The minimum size limit for halibut inside the bay is 22 inches. Fish up to 20 pounds are common; 30-pounders are trophies; and fish up to and heavier than 40 pounds are possible. The limit on California halibut is three fish per day. Spring through fall is the best time.
As a general rule, when you target stripers from a boat in San Francisco Bay, you’ll be using the same gear, leader and live bait used to tempt halibut. The only real difference is, stripers tend to favor areas with more big rocks and current than halibut, but I’ve caught plenty of stripers while drifting sand flats for halibut.
Casting plugs and fishing cut baits are the most effective ways for shoreline anglers to bag stripers, and there are miles of shoreline to work throughout the Bay Area. Consider teaming up a quality spinning reel on 7- to 8-foot spinning rods, in medium-fast action models, for casting as much as 1 1/2 ounces of weight (lure or baited lines). Fill the reel with 200 yards of abrasion resistant 12-pound monofilament or braid in the 20- to 30-pound class.
Nothing matches the shoreline fishing excitement of plugging for stripers — a run-and-gun proposition that keeps anglers on the move seeking out actively feeding bass. The best opportunities for action take place during the last hour of the incoming tide and the first hour of the outgoing tide. This is when the bass move within close proximity of the shoreline, where shiner perch, anchovies and smelt are the primary forage. Your lures should be chosen accordingly. Nothing does a better job of imitating a perch better than a small swimbait, a Kastmaster spoon or a Rat-L-Trap. If the bass are feeding on anchovies or smelt, the top artificials include Rapala, Bomber and Rebel minnow-styled lures in the 3- to 7-inch range. And when they don’t want those lures, try a Gulp! 6-inch swimbait rigged on a 1/2-ounce jig head or a similarly sized bucktail jig.
While plugging for stripers offers excitement, targeting them with bait offers consistency across a broader spectrum of situations. When baitfish are not present, stripers will happily feed on crabs, clams, marine worms, shrimp and a long list of other creepy crawlers that call the bay mud home. For this reason, bass cruising the mudflats will readily take a variety of baits including pile worms, ghost shrimp and cut anchovies.
When presenting natural bait, the standard set up is a 1- to 2-ounce sliding-sinker rig, armed with a 20-pound leader, 24 inches long, and tipped with a size 2 bait-holder hook.
Not that many years ago, leopard sharks were considered trash fish by most anglers. Today, after anglers have discovered the excellent table fair they offer, leopards are designated a game fish, with a 36-inch minimum-size restriction and three fish daily limit. They strike readily and put up tremendous fights.
Shark fishing for bank anglers gets productive in June and then remains good until water temperatures drop in the fall. In winter, leopards retreat to deep water, but during the warm water months they will be found cruising the nutrient-rich mudflats, feeding on whatever is available.
Whether I’m fishing for leopard sharks from the bank or from an anchored boat, I use the same sliding-sinker rig I use for stripers, except my leader is shortened a few inches and made of either light woven-wire cable or a shank of 100-pound-test monofilament, tipped with a size 9/0 circle hook. The shark’s sharp and abrasive teeth wear through standard leader material, and the circle hook prevents gut-hooking and allows unwanted leopards to be released unharmed.
Because it is cheap and effective, squid comes in first place for many bait-fishermen, but it attracts a lot of small sharks and bat rays. I have found no better bait than sardines. To use them I simply cut them in half and pin them on the hook. For me, sardines have proven highly effective in drawing strikes from large sharks and bat rays, while the smaller fish tend to leave them alone. I’ve landed leopard sharks to 61 inches and bat rays in excess of 100 pounds while soaking sardines on the mud flats.
GETTING OFF THE DOCK OF THE BAY
Many anglers in northern and central California are aware of the striper and halibut fishing that exists within San Francisco Bay, but many of them don’t realize that traditional ocean species — such as rockfish, lingcod and even salmon — are also available in the bay. This is a boon for folks who like the simplicity of drop-fishing and don’t have a boat capable of taking on ocean waters beyond the Golden Gate.
During salmon season, trollers work a deep-water area known locally as “California City,” between the west side of Angel Island and Sausalito. This is where Chinook salmon heading for the spawning grounds on the Sacramento River first enter the bay. The period of an incoming tide during the second half of summer typically provides the best action.
Rocky structure in the central bay can be productive for rockfish and lings. A lively anchovy, pinned on a three-way rig, works well for both.
No matter your perspective on ocean fishing — from shoreline adventures to boating excursions — San Francisco Bay offers plenty of great action on the surface, on the flats or deep beneath the surface of the water.