Stripers on the Sand

by Lou Bignami

According to a fellow surf fishing nut who teaches English at San Francisco State, "Summer surf fishing for stripers is 'literary.'" You start when school ends with Great Expectations, and by Labor day, bitch about A Remembrance of Things Past.

Maybe so! Everyone agrees that summer striper fishing isn't what it used to be, but it's still possible to string stripers on lures or bait on foggy summer beaches that offer a cool, open air alternative to summer reruns a short drive from home for most Bay Area fishermen.

During the salad years when I lived at the beach, one hundred or more stripers a summer was not unusual for regulars. Today, the average is closer to one fish every other trip, and stripers come in bunches when they drive bait schools into long rod casting range of the beach. So you can expect quite a few days when you lean up against a fender, tell lies about years past and glass the action off the shore break.

Then, just about the time you suspect stripers will never show, the birds start working, silver stripers slash through the surf, and hundreds of fishermen stream down over the shore dunes and hills to stand shoulder to shoulder as they fling 4-ounce lures as far as they can.

When stripers move fast along the beach, the day becomes one of casting, moving, playing fish and running to catch up to the fast-moving schools. Everything's right in the world when a striper or two drags at the rope stringers most surf casters use to secure their fish. Except, of course, that the run always peters out at the point most distant from your vehicle. It's a long drag back to the zoo from Mussel Rock!


However, as is the case inland, the pros get more than their share of fish. In part this is due to tackle. Only a 10' to 15' surf stick paired with either a squiding reel, the largest spinning reel or the odd looking Australian Alvey loaded with 17 to 20 pound test offers the casting range needed to cover stripers busting bait at the outer edge of the shore break.

So a surf outfit's basic. Standard gear won't cast far enough off the beach. If that's all you have, try drifting recently deceased anchovy off Pacifica Pier. Otherwise Mission or Muni Bait shops in San Francisco can set you up. Admittedly, a good outfit won't be cheap, but it's just the ticket for shore fishing in the bay in the fall, in the delta, and for a host of other applications.

Add a handful of Hopkins and Mickey Mouse spoons, a Cordell 1000 series Red Fin and a Pencil Popper and a pair of the largest Rebel or Rapala anchovy finish plugs you can find and you are set. If you insist on bait fishing you need sinkers and treble hooks which you can use to snag live anchovy, or popular store-bought baits such as sandworms or sardines.

Second only to a quality casting outfit is a good pair of waders --Pacific waters are cold all year! During foggy days it's brisk on the beach, especially since you usually cast into a brisk onshore breeze. So many regulars use wet suits. Some wear heavy boot waders. I prefer featherweight stocking foot waders over wool pants. They are warm enough, but not so warm that they steam your legs when you work up a sweat charging up the beach.

Add a pair of hightop wading shoes and a sweater, jacket -- I like a short one with pockets that stay dry -- and a decent brimmed hat as well as a pair of Polaroid glasses to spot fish and you have the basics. A rope stringer tied around the waist keeps water out of the top of waders and helps you drag fish that always seem to hit at the point most distant from your vehicle. An 8-foot length of clothesline with a 4-inch wooden toggle made from an old broomstick to drag fish on one end, and a loop on the other works well as both a belt and drag. Add an inexpensive pair of binoculars - 10X50 are good -- so you can spot fish or bait from shore outlooks.

Next fill your reel with 17-pound test and a barrel-knotted 30 pound test shock tipper long enough to put a few turns on the reel and extend three or four feet past the rod. This tippet better resists the abrasion of the sand, the sharp gills of stripers and the shock of casting. So it keeps expensive lures on your gear.

If you are not sure how this rig works, ask the pros on the beach; if approached during the waits between sporadic action, most are usually willing to help pilgrims. Do put some time in "blind casting" when fish aren't showing to improve your skills; don't forget that distance equals action. During the excitement of a beach blitz it's easy to blow one's technique. I know that, while I can cast a revolving spool squider all day without backlashes when fish aren't showing, I always get a massive bird's nest when I'm excited. So I use a big and very old manual pickup spinning reel.

Stalking Stripers

With gear organized and enough practice casting so you can cast lures out to the outer break, you only need to find the action. This is either simple, or impossible! Many fishermen simply sit in lots along the Great Highway and wait; others drive back and forth between the Cliff House and Pacifica or Thornton Beaches. If you own a CB you are ahead of the game. Regulars use CB radios and a set of code names and signals to let each other know where the action peaks. With time, you pick up codes and can separate reliable reporters from the optimistic types who imagine action. If you see a lot of cars with rods in their roof-top racks headed at high speed in one direction you might follow along.

From San Francisco, the first beach outlook is the Cliff House at the end of Geary Boulevard. Glass the beach to the south towards the zoo. If you don't see action, drive south to the zoo parking lot and check the beach to the south. From here you can drive past Lake Merced and take the turnoff above Thornton Beach State Park. The bluffs near the old stables offer a good view of the beach all the way to Mussel Rock. Thornton Beach does charge seasonal or daily fees, but it certainly reduces the slog down the soft sandy bluffs to the water.

The next outlook is a walk in to near the base of Mussel Rock at the end of a winding road network from Highway 1 -- check on your map. From this point you can see north to Thornton Beach or even the San Francisco Zoo and south past Pacifica Pier with Pillar Point in the background. Next south is "Super-X", named after its market and "the apartments" fishing areas. Next south a well-marked road leads to Pacific Pier, a good spot to fish live or "recently dead" anchovy for stripers or salmon on days when fish don't run on the beach. South of here there are stripers at times all the way to Santa Cruz.

Times And Tides

It takes time to learn access points and the driving patterns that let you see the maximum amount of beach with minimum driving, but, once mastered, you can improve results by visiting during peak conditions. Some claim you do better on days with maximum differences between high and low water. Others favor the top of incoming or the bottom of outgoing tides. I just hit the beach whenever I can and stay as long as possible.

Repeated trips to the beach let you recognize the cars of the pros. When you see these cars with empty rod racks you know action is near.

Finding stripers on your own isn't impossible. When bass savage bait you can easily spot swirls and the silver flash of fish from outlooks. Diving gulls and, to some extent, pelicans tip off action. Terns, which can dart down and snatch bait from the surface without "splashdowns" are less reliable indicators because they snatch fish without the help of feeding stripers.

During the late summer months you'll spot immense flocks of small black birds migrating down the coast. These, to the pilgrim, sometimes look like stripers working bait. Watch for big swirls and silver flashes and you're assured action.

Once you locate working stripers, check to see which way they are headed. For example, from Thornton Beach outlook, working fish to the north under the bluffs where the hang gliders soared can be cut off by driving to the Great Highway and parking near the zoo. This can be much quicker than trying to slog through deep sand after fast moving fish. Watch the pros; they know where to find shortcuts!

When you finally arrive at the water's edge and are ready to join the line of wildly casting fishermen at The End Where the Stripers are Heading watch it! Pros look toward the beach to make sure their backcasts are clear. Pilgrims don't. Getting stuck with a 4-ounce jig or big plug armed with treble hooks is no joke!

When you ease into place an arm's length from other fishermen, watch the water and try to cast to spots just beyond swirls. Spool or thumb your reel so the slack is out of your line when your terminal gear hits the water so you can hook quick strikes. Then, if you use a plug, reel immediately and hang on. If you use a popper, "stop and go" reeling gets strikes. With jigs or spoons, pause a moment, for larger stripers seem to wait a bit for wounded bait to fall below the surface. A drop may also produce a salmon or halibut.

Don't reel too fast for the first thirty feet of your retrieve. Then crank like mad so you can keep your lure way out where stripers most often lurk. When you hook a fish bang home the hooks at least twice and scream, "fish on, fish on." This will, with regulars at the beach, give you the right of way. Clamp down on the drag:, stripers make their longest run first, then slow on succeeding runs. As the fish works in with the waves try to stay directly inshore so you don't cross too many lines. Work your rod tip over and under other lines so you don't snag them.

Then, with about thirty feet of line still out to cushion a last lunge, pull as waves push your striper up the beach. Hold on when the waves ebb; crank and back up when the wash pushes the fish in. Then dash out and release or grab or gaff your fish and haul away from the water so it can't escape. I whack fish to kill them, string them immediately and drag them after the action that's usually moved a few hundred yards up the beach. However, like many regulars I no longer keep big females. The smaller, thinner ten to fifteen pound males offer better eating and leave the females to spawn. 

Once you've learned the basics, you can add some extra methods. Some dunk bait on the beach between runs; some fish from rocks and cliffs at Land's End or Mori's Point, and night owls fish after dark. All of these brave souls must watch for sneaker waves.

However, most fishermen find the search for fish, the shoreline banter and the periodic feeding blitzes suit long summer evenings when the Giants play ball and the fog rolls in late. That's my choice. For anticipation builds over the dull periods so the action seems that much more exciting.

Louis Bignami is a full-time outdoor writer and was the West Coast Correspondent of STRIPER MAGAZINE over ten years. He caught his first striper in 1947 at age 10..