Out on the Waves
The San Francisco Bay Area has more diverse fishing opportunities than any other metropolitan area in the United States. Time it right, and you can get the best of salmon, striped bass, sturgeon, halibut, rockfish, and lingcod in San Francisco Bay and the adjoining coast. Migratory fish can be followed throughout the bay system. There are also 30 piers and miles of coastline for shorefishing, as well as 50 freshwater lakes. You have lots of choices, whether it's going out for deep sea fishing, going out on the numerous piers, or fishing the area's many creeks and lakes.
Deep-sea fishing trips run regularly from several points in the greater Bay Area, including Fisherman's Wharf, Sausolito, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Rafael's Loch Lomond Harbor, and Half Moon Bay at Princeton. San Francisco is one of the few places where you can catch salmon all year long. The renowned Golden Gate Striped Bass is more seasonal, the run kicks off in June. During the magical five week period between late June and August, some of the best fishing in the world happens in the waters off of Pacifica. Half Moon Bay is another prime ocean spot. If you want to try your luck in the estuary, San Pablo Bay is a good choice, especially for sturgeon and striped bass, while South San Francisco Bay is way over-ignored.
Golden Gate Salmon
The richest marine region on the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska lies along San Francisco, and salmon are king of these waters. The key is an underwater shelf that extends about 25 miles out to sea before dropping off to never-never land. The relatively shallow area is perfect for ocean upwelling in the spring, which brings cold, mineral-rich waters to the surface. Sunlight penetrates that water, causing tiny aquatic organisms to be born in great numbers. Shrimp, squid, anchovies, and herring are attracted to the plankton-filled water and in turn draw hordes of hungry salmon, which roam the Bay Area coast searching for baitfish. This is the only portion of the Pacific coast where salmon can be found year-round.
Party boats: Party boats depart at 6 AM daily from San Francisco, Sausalito, Emeryville, and Berkeley. Skippers ask that those who will be fishing arrive at 5:30 AM for an orientation. Bait is provided, and tackle and rod rentals are available on each boat.
Regulations here change often, so it's wise to check before each trip. The season usually starts in March and runs through October; during that time, anglers get some widely varied, quality fishing. In spring, the primary feed is shrimp and squid, which are often found in tight balls near the Farallon Islands, and a sprinkling of juvenile rockfish and small schools of anchovies off Pedro Point near southern Pacifica, the Deep Reef southwest of Half Moon Bay, and Duxbury Reef offshore near Marin. The fishing is usually best around the shrimp balls just off the Farallon islands in 55- to 90-foot-deep water.
Early in the season you'll get top results by trolling, not mooching, often well offshore. In their search for fish, the big charter boats fan out like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. A skipper who finds fish will often alert the rest of the fleet. If you are on the water in a private boat, you can listen in by tuning your marine radio to Channel 67 and, occasionally, Channel 59.
By mid-June to early July, however, huge numbers of anchovies migrate into the inshore waters off Half Moon Bay, Pacifica, and Marin. This causes the salmon to swarm together in large schools, then move inshore to corral the baitfish. The result can be the best fishing of the year, with calm seas and packs of salmon on the bite within close range.
Drift-mooching, in which the engine is turned off and the boat is allowed to drift with the current, is a popular technique at this time. Trolling tends to provide higher catch rates, while mooching nets larger fish, since anglers can use lighter tackle and sense every bite (it can also be much more fun). For special techniques on trolling and mooching, see Secrets of the Masters in the front of the book.
By fall, many of the salmon school in the vicinity of the Channel Buoys, located 10 miles west of the Golden Gate, as they prepare to journey through the bay and upriver to their spawning grounds. Catch rates are often lower during this period, but this is when the largest salmon of the year are caught, with a sprinkling of 25- to 40-pound fish in the area from mid-August through early October.
If you are new to the game, learning how to play is as easy as tumbling out of bed in time to board the boat. Bring a lunch, drinks, warm clothing, and if vulnerable to Neptune, seasickness pills. Before heading out, the skippers will provide brief instructions on the techniques planned for the day. If you need help at any time, a professional deckhand will be there for you.
The salmon fishery remains one of the best fisheries in the state, despite dramatic fluctuations in population due to perpetually troubled water conditions in the spawning areas of Northern California and the San Joaquin Delta.
I haven't missed an opening day since 1980 and have closed out several seasons as well. On the last day of one particular season, I took my buddy Dave"Hank" Zimmer out on the Wacky Jacky for his first salmon trip. About midway through the day, I hooked a salmon I figured for a 10-pounder, then passed the rod to ol' Hank.
"Here ya go, Hank," I said. "Enjoy it."
Well, 40 minutes later, he brought a 32-pounder alongside. It was one of the greatest fights with a salmon I have ever witnessed, the fish streaking off on long runs the first three times it saw the boat. Afterward, Hank just sat down kind of stunned, and looked at the giant fish.
Then he calmly said: "Hey, this fishing is fun."
You ain't lyin', Hank.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication