San Diego Bay offers county’s most diverse fishery – and bonefish!


The “Big Bay” (drawn from its comparison to the smaller Mission Bay) as it is affectionately called by locals, provides the most diverse fishing opportunities in the county. No other body of water offers such a wide variety of willing fish species. It is puzzling to me that more anglers don’t take advantage of what San Diego Bay has to offer.

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  • Despite its extreme ease of use – being located adjacent to downtown San Diego, Coronado, and Chula Vista, it is often overlooked. Unlike the majority of the lakes, there are no launch, parking, or permit fees. If you own a fishing license, and you should if you’re reading this, San Diego Bay is free to fish.

    I took a recent trip with Captain James Nelson, an experienced local fishing guide to find out a little bit more about the bay, and a particularly interesting species of fish that inhabits it. James is a former touring freshwater bass pro, and for the most part has given up freshwater to concentrate on bay and inshore fishing. The majority of his guide trips take place in the South Bay, the section between Chula Vista and Silver Stand.

    A casual San Diego angler might be surprised to hear what his main target is down there; the bonefish. Yes, the same silver, bullet-shaped fish you see on TV if you wake up too early on Saturday morning. The very same one that Jose Wejebe stalked on a Florida Keys sand flat in mere inches of water with a fly rod and push-pole in hand.

    Anglers like James who have figured out effective ways to target the growing population of South Bay bonefish are reaping the thrills of these lightning-fast fish. When James and I discussed a future fishing trip, I expressed interest in one thing – catching my first bonefish. I imagine James is used to this type of pressure, guide clients of his frequently make the same request. But at the same time, being a fisherman myself, I understand that nothing is guaranteed in this sport. Even with the best preparation, conditions, and knowledge, the fish is still the wild-card.

    Kellen-Sand-SharkEven “pesky” sand sharks are fun on spinning tackleMike (administrator of and I met James at Chula Vista’s J Street Launch Ramp, which is conveniently located near the bonefish grounds. Captain James Nelson is well prepared, as you would expect from a popular and experienced fishing guide. All his rods were rigged, fresh bait was already onboard, and his boat was already on the water, tied up to the dock when we got there (a couple minutes early even). After a short idle to one of James’ favorite bonefish spots, he handed me a rod and explained thoroughly how this particular spot was laid out and how we were going to attack it. We used a technique of drifting live ghost shrimp on a carolina rig on Quantum spinning tackle with light line.

    After about 30 minutes of fishing, it seemed like we were going to catch every species of fish other than a bonefish. We caught spotted bay bass, corvina, sand sharks, a skate, black croaker and yellowfin croaker. The action was almost non-stop, and although the bonefish had eluded us, we were having fun catching fish. A half-hour period like this reminded me just what a fishery San Diego Bay is. The diversity in fish species, their willingness to be caught, and the extremely easy task it takes to get to them makes the Big Bay an absolute jewel.

    kellenbonefishTypical San Diego Bay BonefishOf course there was still no need to panic after only 30 minutes on the water. James remained confident in his approach, and confidently maneuvered his bay boat around with the bow-mounted trolling motor, aided by his electronics. We passed a channel marker, and the fish finder lit up with baitfish and predators. In mere seconds my rod doubled over, and the drag of the Quantum reel was being tested. Conscious of the channel marker, I persistently coerced the fish in the other direction. The fish complied, and after several tense minutes on the light tackle James netted my first bonefish. It was mission accomplished. It took less than an hour for James to put me on one of these fabled fish, he truly has them dialed in.

    This same channel marker and ball of bait provided us two more bonefish and several other catches, including more shortfin corvina. When the last ghost shrimp was used (Mike caught a bonefish on the very last one) we targeted spotted bay bass, the most vastly distributed fish in San Diego Bay.

    San Diego Bay is truely unique, not only is there a laundry list of fish species to be caught, there are certain species that provide unparalleled excitement. Southern California fisherman need not go all the way to the Florida Keys to cross the bonefish off their list, bonefish reside only 5 minutes from downtown San Diego.

    For anglers that want the true VIP treatment, and a near guaranteed bonefish catch, you can book a trip with Captain James Nelson. You’ll have a great time.

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    Kellen Ellis

    The owner, editor and administrator of


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