San Diego’s Best Fishery

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  • Anglers in San Diego can make convincing arguments on any of a number of things, ranging from which lake is best for big bass to who is the best saltwater skipper?

    There is one question that leaves little room for argument and the answer to that question is San Diego Bay.

    The query in this case is to name the region’s best fishery, but the same answer comes up if asked to name the one fishery that is the most diverse, the most consistent or most accessible.

    Anyway you want to filet it the answer is the same:  San Diego Bay is this region’s beat all-round fishery – bar none!

    With a length of 12 miles and a width that ranges from one to three miles, this remarkable natural harbor covers over 12,000 acres of water surface bounded by five cities:  San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and Coronado.  In addition to being an important port for the United States Navy, it is one of the nation’s major ports for cargo ranging from Toyotas to bananas.

    Until 1886 it had whaling stations for the extraction of whale oil and prior to arrival of the whalers was a major birthing grounds for the California Grey Whale.  Before that, it was home for thousands of years to Native Americans who staked out their villages along a shoreline that yielded a bounty of fresh seafoods, including annual runs of steelhead.  The Otay River is documented as the southernmost stream in the United States to have been home to annual spawning runs of the southern Steelhead until the early 1900’s.

    As the natives were pushed out, the bay was taken over by white immigrants who over time took actions that have badly damaged the bay and its once bountiful resources.  Raw sewage from rapidly growing cities was dumped into the bay for a century or more until the 1950’s.  The same was true of effluent from industrial and plating facilities that discharged chemicals and metals that can still be found in the bay’s sediment.  Water circulated through the South Bay Power Plant for cooling raised the temperature of the South Bay in particular.

    Despite the assaults we have heaped on this remarkable natural resource prior to environmental regulation, and although it may only be a shadow of its former self – San Diego Bay is far and away our best fishery – and is home to a variety of resident species as well as many that move in and out of the bay on a seasonal basis.


    SDFish member Tomaso took this spotted bay bass on fly tackle in June

    From an angler’s perspective, the most consistent species year-round is the smallish, but highly aggressive spotted sandbass more affectionately known simply as the “spottie.”  Its cousins, the larger barred sandbass and the kelp or calico bass seem more inclined to come and go from the bay as they see fit, which is also true of the California halibut which are most prevalent during spring spawning runs that draw them to the south bay which is also favored by a resident population of bonefish.

    Add to this list, the regular appearances of barracuda, bonito, mackerel, jacksmelt, corbina, yellow and spotfin croaker among many others and you have a diverse fishery on your hands.  Add to this a fish like the exciting shortfin corvina which seems to have arrived in the last 20 years and now thrives, and you have a most remarkable fishery.

    The above list is far from complete when it comes to the variety of species that have been caught in the bay, including striped bass, steelhead, salmon and black sea bass, among others.  The species that may be attracting the most dedicated following in recent years is not a fish at all, it is a crustacean – the California spiny lobster that can be taken by hoopnet.

    One of the greatest aspects of bay fishing – aside from the fact it is free and that no license is needed from piers put in place for public fishing – is its accessibility.  As a boy in the 1950’s, I was often dropped off at the foot of Broadway for either of two purposes.  If the Pacific Coast League Padres were in town, I likely headed across the street to Lane Field to take in a ballgame.  Otherwise, I arrived with a rod and reel and bucket with the first order of business being to catch a mackerel which could then be cut into pieces for bait.


    Rodney Marquez, or “rodmaster858” as he’s known on the SDFish forums has been getting nice halibut like this from the shore all year long in San Diego Bay

    The search for fish along the embarcadero took me as far north as Grape Street where the tuna fishermen could often be seen mending their nets to the area across from the old Police Station now known as Seaport Village.

    I don’t recall that I ever caught much or anything particularly big, but the main point was that I was fishing.  I certainly never had the success of my two young friends, brothers Javier and Miguel.  When they find a free moment, the are dropped off or pedal their bikes from home in National City to fish their favorite spots.

    One other winning aspect of fishing San Diego Bay is that you can fish it as you like: with bait or artificials and from shore or boat, which can include trolling, anchored or drifting.  Regardless, the results are almost always the same – fish will be caught.

    Bay anglers are advised to be aware of health advisories pertaining to eating fish caught in the bay, restricted areas and observance of state fishing regulations.

    As a final note, there is an abundance of information on bay fishing that can easily be found on SDFish and therefore does not need to be repeated here.

    A list of links follows below:

    About Author

    Jim Brown

    Jim Brown ran the San Diego City Lakes Program from 1974-2003, where he oversaw the operation of the fishing programs of the county's biggest and best fisheries. Over his 70 years as a native San Diegan, including 65 of them as an avid fisherman, Brown describes himself as someone who has fished most bodies of water in and around the county that hold fish, and all of those that don't.


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    Tom SuggVic CookKenneth BellJim BrownJeffrey Cox Recent comment authors
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    Joe Terrazas
    Joe Terrazas

    I myself haven’t Fished/Kayaked San Diego Bay, But Mission Bay On The Other Hand, in my opinion is some of the best Spotted Bay Bass Fishing..Any Recommendations for launching my Kayak in the Big Bay?

    Jeffrey Cox
    Jeffrey Cox

    Shush lol

    Jim Brown
    Jim Brown

    If you’ve not kayaked the bay, I’d drive around it checking out the ramps as well as those areas that are otherwise accessible to you and your kayak. I agree that Mission Bay is an excellent fishery, but like the greater chance of running into a bonefish in SD Bay,… Read more »

    Kenneth Bell
    Kenneth Bell

    Maybe I misunderstood, but fishing in the bay requires a license last I checked.

    Vic Cook
    Vic Cook

    Bay is all fished out. Nothing like it was 30 years ago.

    Tom Sugg
    Tom Sugg

    Great article Jim, My father was an avid hunter and fisherman who grew up in La Jolla and he has many great pictures of himself as a young man at the mud flats catching all kinds of clams and fish (which is now Mission Bay) or in a wooden boat… Read more »