Out on the Waves

South San Francisco Bay
Gorp.com

What a shame such an expanse of water could be so ignored! South San Francisco Bay is huge and unique, but because of tremendous declines in many fish species here it is largely overlooked by anglers and the government bureaucrats who have the power to restore the South Bay to what it once was.

Actually, this is not a bay, but an estuary that experiences huge changes in water temperature and salinity levels throughout the year. A key factor is rain and the resulting storm runoff that enters the bay. It can provide just the right freshwater/saltwater mix during the spring, and the end result is huge bumper crops of grass shrimp, the favorite food of most fish in the South Bay, especially perch and sturgeon.

Boat ramps: Oyster Point Marina, Coyote Point Marina, Alviso Boat Dock, Alameda Estuary, San Leandro Marina, and Port of Redwood City. Note: The Alviso Boat Dock can be rendered unusable if the small harbor isn't dredged regularly.

Piers: Oyster Point, Coyote Point, San Mateo Pier, Dumbarton Piers (from both East Palo Alto and Newark), Palo Alto Baylands, and Alameda Estuary.

When heavy rains hit the South Bay, the first thing to look for is an upturn in the number of perch and sturgeon. Perch are common during good moving tides along rocky areas (such as the cement-block breakwater at Coyote Point), near pilings (at the Dumbarton and San Mateo Bridges and adjacent to San Francisco and Oakland International Airports), and in sloughs that experience a good tidal flush (such as Burlingame's Showboat Slough and the Alameda Estuary). What to use for bait? Live grass shrimp, of course.

The same bait works well for sturgeon, although it also attracts pesky bullheads and small sharks. After decent rains, the areas in the main channel just south of the San Mateo Bridge and in the vicinity of the Dumbarton Train Bridge are often excellent fishing spots. After very heavy rains, big sturgeon can be found farther south along the PG&E; towers. Another option is to wait for herring spawns in late December and January, then anchor off Candlestick or Alameda and use herring eggs (during a spawn) or whole herring for bait. Some of the best sturgeon scores in the past 10 years have been recorded in these areas aboard the party boat Chucky's Pride out of San Francisco.

What is so disappointing about the South Bay is the lack 'of striped bass. Once you could toss out a cut chunk of sardine from the shore and catch 20-pounders. In fact, I caught my first striped bass at age six in an obscure South Bay slough near Palo Alto. That slough has been unfit for any fish for more than 15 years, and catching a striper anywhere in the South Bay now requires highly specialized skills and precise timing.

School-sized striped bass will sometimes arrive in mid-March and early April in the vicinity of Coyote Point, where they can be taken by trolling white, one-ounce Hair Raisers during high tides. They can also show near the flats off Candlestick Point and at the nearby Brisbane Tubes, and also off the Alameda Rock Wall in June during high and incoming tides and, even more rarely, again in September. The higher the rainfall during the previous winter, the better the chance of getting a bite.

The same formula holds for excellent runs of jacksmelt in the spring, primarily from mid-February through early April. After decent winter rains, head to the western side of the South Bay near Burlingame's Fisherman's Park for the best fishing, using a chunk of pileworm under a big float. Timing is important, of course. Be there at the top of the tide then focus on the first two hours of the outgoing tide, when it will take your float out to deeper points.

Although you'll need a boat, timing, technique, persistence, and the willingness to keep a constant vigil, the South Bay can still provide the stuff of magic. For starters, always monitor the daily recorded fish reports offered by Bob Dittman at Sun Valley Bait in San Mateo by calling (415) 343-4690. For finishers, be willing to go when the fish are going. This is one place where you'll have to tailor your schedule to the demands of the fish. Otherwise, you might as well buy a ticket for a slow boat to China. So take a long, careful look, then go for greatness.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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