Saltwater Shore Basics
by Goldie Sutton
Summer finds many casual fishermen hanging up their gear until Memorial Day. Such seems a shame.
Trout bite best in the mountains in September and October. Salmon and steelhead run into coastal rivers to provide sport anytime water is reasonably clear and not out of the banks. But the best, the closest and the least crowded action all year lurks as close as the coast. Striped Bass bite from the shore along San Francisco, Half Moon, Tomalas and Coos Bay. Salmon and steelhead stack up at river mouths. Perch, jack smelt and other saltwater panfish hit small baits suited to light tackle off seawalls, piers and bay beaches. Best of all, cooler inland temperatures moderate the winds of summer to provide near perfect conditions before, and between, winter storms. As a bonus you can, on low tide days, spade up clams, mussels and oysters or net delicious crabs.
Since most Westerners live within 50 miles of the coast, it seems a shame that more don't enjoy such fishing. Those who need to drive farther can easily find all sorts of public and private campgrounds, motels and other inexpensive lodgings.
Granted, I'm prejudiced. I grew up in Berkeley and spent happy summers and falls fishing off the Berkeley Pier, seawalls behind the race track and, best of all, wading the sand bars that lace the mudflats around today's Watergate. On weekends, if we were lucky, we fished the Richmond seawall or Yellow Bluffs on the Sausalito side of the bay. My family traveled often so I have memories of the battered pier in Port San Luis and the circus of ill-equipped fishermen who gossiped away the days on the Santa Monica Pier. When we visited San Diego we fished Mission Bay. To the north we clammed and fished Tomalas Bay, Bodega Bay and Coos Bay. Then, after the freedom of a driver's license was mine, I enjoyed jetty fishing off river mouths all the way to the fine shore fishing on the banks of Puget Sound. All this fishing is still there. In fact, it's not much worse, or better, than it was 30 years ago.
Saltwater shore fishing does present one or two special challenges. If you fish from rocks or seawalls, stay well above the water to avoid sneak waves. Waves are much less of a problem in protected bays. If you wade or scramble out to prime spots at low tide, do return before you need to swim back. In fall and early winter, weather changes fast so wise fishermen try to plan trips between storms or early in the morning when winds calm. Do wear warm clothing and bring wet-weather gear. However, I've heard of an even better system. "The best wet weather gear is a set of car keys so you can drive home if it starts to rain." Fish don't, however, care much about rain so I sometimes fish, crab or clam in the wet.
Last July I managed a lovely fishing trip to Archie Field's Rio Colorado Lodge in Costa Rica where I got to surf cast for big snook and fish the mouth of the river for tarpon. Tropical coastal fishing is certainly special. Our West Coast action and, of course, the Texas Coast offer solid action too!
Fishing tackle need not be complex. If you fish from piers you can even use hand lines or cane poles.
Note: in California, municipal piers don't require a license!
Black bass or other medium-weight tackle works nicely off seawalls and rocks. Six or eight pound test works on saltwater panfish such as perch or jack smelt. Fifteen to twenty pound test handles most anything else except very heavy fish and/or extremely rocky conditions with strong tides.
For fish under five pounds, small baits such as pile or mud worms, live shrimp or saltwater minnows work well on size six hooks. Add a small sinker to take bait to the bottom for fish such as flounders or halibut or a bobber to keep it near the surface for jack smelt or topsmelt. Larger fish hit whole anchovy, mussels, bullheads and cutbait on larger hooks and, in faster currents, heavier sinkers.
Saltwater fish don't seem picky about lures either. Striped bass and salmon bang plugs, big silver spoons and plastic lures. Bottomfish available off cliffs and river mouth jetty rocks gobble just about any kind of plastic worm or jig. If you do fish near rocks, use price as a guide to lures and go with plastics. You will doubtless lose lots of lures!
Another way to reduce the number of lures and terminal tackle rigs you lose is a shock tippet or leader two feet longer than the distance from your reel to terminal tackle when you are ready to cast. When added to a Bimini twist or other knot that lets the heavy line slide through your rod guides, this "mostly" prevents cast off lures and such. This kind of rig also keeps fish, such as sharks, with abrasive skin, fins or mouth parts from rubbing through and breaking your line. So why not use heavier line to start? First, heavier line reduces casting distance or requires huge sinkers and plugs that are more tiring to cast and more expensive to buy. Second, heavier line cuts the amount of line your reel holds so you have less room with which to work. The secret to playing big fish in fast is not really your sweat, rather it depends on your knowing how to tease or force the fish into working as hard as possible. Light line does this well enough for coastal fishing.
There is, however, one situation where you will need specialized gear. That's beach fishing where you have a big, heavy surf and onshore winds. Here you need an 11 to 15 foot rod, big spinning reel and 15 to 25 pound test line to fling big lures or bait out over the shore break. If you fish north of Morro Bay you might want to add chest-high waders as ocean waters get very cold after September!
Off Baja inside the Sea of Cortez and other sheltered beaches in warm water it's possible to fish in shorts and sneakers. ALWAYS wear sneakers. Barefoot wading results in cuts from bottles and in some areas if you don't shuffle your feet, a neat shot from a stingray tail.
In sheltered, shallow bays like Matagorda Bay in Texas and other areas with shallow flats you can often wade with sneakers and cast to moving fish in ultra-clear water often not deeper than two feet. Many feel such fishing best tests fishermen. You need an accurate cast, light lure and light line so you don't scare the fish. Then it's "Hang on, Sam!" as fish such as sea trout, reds, snook or bonefish streak away over the flats. In many cases fishermen and guides make high-speed runs through shallow water to the area they plan to fish, then wade until they cast to cruising fish. Sometimes you cast to tails, other times you can't see fish but can see their shadows or the puffs of sand or mud they make when feeding. On these kinds of flats the incoming or high and early outgoing tides work best.
It's also possible to wade in flats such as those near Watergate and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Bay. You need a low tide and the ability to stay on sandbars instead of straying off onto stick mud flats. Fish generally follow deeper channels on flats and lurk near stronger currents in deeper water.
Bank fishermen do well on the corners of seawalls or in spots just a cast inshore from clam beds or other likely habitat. Breakwaters and jetties at the mouths of rivers offer particularly good fishing. For example, there's super perch fishing each fall all along the West Coast and a chance to hit steelhead or salmon as they enter freshwater. However, the most consistent results come to jetty fishermen who concentrate on cod, ling, flounder and other bottom fish available year round.
The mouth of any bay also produces if you can find deep water within casting range. Piers on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge give access to such fishing. So do piers in Port Angeles and other coastal cities from Mexico to Canada.
Piers on open ocean beaches seem a bit tougher for beginners who should stay in bay. Ocean piers are high above the water so require special landing techniques and, usually, heavier tackle. They do, as is the case with Monterey Piers or Pacifica Pier just South of San Francisco, let you reach prime salmon or striped bass. Southern California ocean piers offer mackerel, Bonita, all sorts of perch and, from time to time, barracuda or yellowtail.
Rocky, and in tropical waters, coral reefs offer special excitement. In Northern California, fishermen tie a foot of line to the end of a long cane pole, bait a hook with mussels from the rocks and probe deep into cracks in the reefs at low tide. In tropical waters locals use the same kind of poles with longer lines to fish tide pools. In many cases you can enjoy clamming, musseling or crabbing in the same waters and take home a sack of delicious seafood.
Enjoyment is really the key to coast days. You can watch oil tankers play dodger cars with sailboats in the mouth of the Golden Gate or check the aquatic traffic jams off any Southern California marina. You can listen to the foghorns off Oregon river mouth jetties and imagine them the cries of mysterious sea beasts. You can simply park near the water, toss out a bait, stick your rod in a holder and listen to your favorite sport on the radio as the day passes. Best of all, you escape phones, traffic jams and the cares of the city in fresh ocean breezes. So the fish you catch become a bonus that punctuates an enjoyable day with a period or even exclamation point, rather than the quarry you must seek with grim determination.