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September 21, 2007

California's Hidden Bones

Bona fide bonefish are turning up in the backwaters of Southern California, with some indication that they're here to stay.

Stealthy Immigrants

California's Hidden Bones
Christianson carefully draws a tuckered-out bone to boatside, ever wary of a final, line-snapping run.

So what's the story behind the growing number of bonefish in Southland waters? The theory that makes the most sense is that the majority of these fish are immigrants that slipped up the coast from Mexican waters during the extreme warm-water El Nino events of the recent past. Rumors of bonefish and small schools of jack crevalle in San Diego Bay surfaced after the 1983-84 El Nino, and on the heels of the more significant 1997-98 El Nino, encounters with bonefish, as well as another Baja species--shortfin corvina--have increased dramatically.

It should be noted that bonefish are actually indigenous to Southern California, with their normal range reported to extend from Peru to San Francisco Bay. Some evidence of this could once be found at the Balboa Angling Club in Newport Harbor, where the mount of an eight-pound-plus bonefish hung until recently. The fish was taken from adjacent bay waters back in the '70s.

"Yeah, I caught a couple of four-pounders back then, myself," says SoCal angling icon Jed Welsh, now in his 90s. "The first one was in Alamitos Bay (Long Beach)," he recalls. "It took off with my fiddler crab. I knew I had somethin' different when I saw my sinker skippin' across the surface." Soon after, Welsh caught a second bonefish in Newport Bay.

The likely reason behind the more recent influx of bonefish into California waters is the large population of these fish along the west coast of Baja, particularly those found as far north as Scammon's Lagoon and Laguna Manuela, about 350 miles south of San Diego.

"I remember when we were doing some research in Scammon's Lagoon back in the '70s," recalls Steve Crooke, veteran California Department of Fish & Game (DFG) biologist. "When we hauled out our beach seine, I couldn't believe it. There must have been a thousand bonefish in it." Scammon's and Manuela Lagoons are also known to host significant populations of shortfin corvina.