In many respects, when it comes to sport fishing, Southern California is a world of its own, offering anglers a number of distinct fisheries targeting different game fish in different ways.
What is known as the Southern California Bight encompasses nearly 300 miles of Pacific coastline from the border with Mexico north to Point Conception. (The bight includes another 150 or so miles of Mexican coastline as well, south of the border.) The offshore fishing here is productive, but heavily seasonal, being dependent upon critical water temperatures. For many of the popular, larger coastal and bluewater game fish — such as tunas, California yellowtail and white seabass — summer and fall are prime time, particularly for bluefin and yellowfin tuna because the bight sits pretty much at the northern end of their range. These species follow warming waters north.
Not so long ago, one could be forgiven for not mentioning bluefin tuna when describing SoCal fishing. They rarely came to the party here. That changed around 2015, a year marked by great numbers of bluefin, as well as a surprising showing of wahoo and even some blue marlin. Matt Florentino remembers it well. The hardcore offshore angler and AFTCO marketing director says that since then, the annual bluefin invasion has endured, and when the 20- to 300-pound tuna show up — typically by April and into October or even November — they become the main game in town for many fishermen.
The go-to offering for the biggest bluefin these days is a rigged flying fish dangled under a kite, often with a helium balloon in light wind conditions. While that’s hard for trophy tuna to pass up, Florentino says that pulling high-speed trolling plugs such as Madmacs 200 proved popular in 2022. When the bite’s on, throwing clear poppers and stickbaits into schools of bluefin feeding on baitfish at the surface is tough to beat. Early in the summer, he says, anglers on long-range boats fishing the bight off Mexico will drop knife jigs into 200 to 400 feet of water with heavy braid to hook bluefin. This is particularly effective at night.
Planning a Trip
The offshore excitement level really hits lift-off when mahi show up with the influx of warm water in summer and early fall. Some years, they’re almost absent, but in other seasons they’re temporarily abundant. Florentino cites the summer of 2022 as: “Insane for mahi locally! The best mahi fishing we’ve seen.”
California yellowtail remain enduringly popular along the SoCal coast, from schooling “firecrackers” of a few pounds on light tackle to grizzled old “mossbacks” of 40 pounds or more. Best fishing for these amberjack cousins starts in spring. Florentino suggests yo-yo jigging with metal jigs or dropper-loop bait fishing, but in summer’s warming waters, anglers go to surface iron jigs for fly lining bait such as mackerel or sardines.
The white seabass is a coveted game fish that can be encountered anytime of the year but particularly in spring when squid are spawning, especially around offshore islands.
Calico bass are the prized catch of nearshore reefs and kelp beds, becoming most active — as one might guess — in late spring and early summer (look for water temps of at least 62 degrees). Florentino cites the “three B’s” — bass, barracuda and (Pacific) bonito — as the mainstay of the popular local partyboat fishery, with California halibut often part of the mixed bag. This fishery in the spring of 2023 proved particularly good in the waters of the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara and Ventura county coasts.
When to Go
Yes, there is something of a pattern here. That is, the warming temperatures from spring into fall mean lots of variety and plenty of action for anglers. While offshore fishing is generally on sabbatical in the winter, calico bass can be taken, though often around deeper structure, well out beyond their warm-water kelp-bed haunts.
Traditionally, winter was the time to go “rock codding,” as day boats took scores of anglers out to drop for a whole host of rockfish (Sebastes) species in many colors and sizes, both in relatively shallow waters and in much deeper waters. Typically, the toothy and tasty lingcod is part of these mixed bags, also. These days, the Pacific off Southern California is closed to all harvest of rockfish during that prime time, January through March. However, San Diego party boats regularly make forays south into nearby Mexican waters for great catches of rockfish — one of the tastiest fish in the sea.
Spring also means thresher sharks for enthusiasts who fish them just off the beaches. The action continues into the fall when smaller threshers hammer anchovies or other small bait. During the same period, small mako sharks (50 to 200 pounds or more) a bit farther out, offer an unusual sight-fishery off San Diego for fly-rod enthusiasts.
In Southern California, private boats as well as charter and partyboats operate primarily out of the many landings found along the coast. An alphabetized list of landings can be found at socalfishreports.com/landings. Regulations change from year to year, so check the latest regs at wildlife.ca.gov/fishing/ocean.