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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.

It was nearly 20 years ago--on the heels of the El Nino of 1983-84--that I first heard the rumors. Back then, Southern California anglers were preoccupied with offshore action, as schools of exotic game fish such as yellowfin tuna, dorado, striped marlin and yellowtail followed warm-water currents north from Mexico into Southland waters. Other migrants such as hammerhead sharks, triggerfish, giant squid and even pelagic red crabs were also evident, as well as some smaller marine species that slipped almost undetected into our bays and harbors. As water temperatures cooled, the offshore fish retreated, but apparently the inshore species did not. That's when word of bonefish being taken in local waters first reached my ears.

Bonefish? In California?

The reports were vague and scattered, and I didn't give them much credence until after the mother of all El Ninos in 1997-98. That's when my father showed me hard evidence--one of five eight- to ten-inch bonefish he had caught while casting small lures from the shoreline inside Dana Point Harbor. Since then, reports of bonefish being taken from Southern California's back bays have been on the rise, though bay fishermen in the know aren't talking much. When you ask questions, you tend to get blank stares or responses like, "I could tell ya, but then I'd have to kill ya." Finally, my friend Grant Christianson invited me to join him for a morning in the far reaches of San Diego Bay, where he virtually assured me that I would hook my first bonefish.