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November 06, 2012

Fishing for San Diego Bonefish

The bonefish of San Diego Bay are plentiful and eager to fight.

Currents and Clarity

Surprisingly, water movement has little effect on the feeding habits of bonefish. “Current is unimportant,” says Nelson. “Unlike other bay species such as halibut, yellowfin croaker and spotted bay bass, bonefish seem to be out looking for food all of the time, whether or not there’s water moving.”

Love agrees: “My observations of the species in Bahia San Quintin on the Pacific coast of upper Baja California indicate that Cortez bonefish are not necessarily current driven. I also believe they don’t care about visibility, as we have caught them in turbid water.”

However, Nelson’s drift-fishing technique is aided by current and/or wind, as it helps keep the bait moving. The wind on San Diego Bay usually blows out of the west, and in the afternoon, it can get pretty strong. On these occasions, Nelson likes to deploy a drift sock to slow the boat’s drift. “This allows us to use a minimal amount of weight, and yet still keep the baits moving along on the bottom,” he explains.

Lighten Up

Tackle for San Diego bonefish is pretty light — usually 8- to 10-pound-test monofilament line on a 7-foot ­light-action spinning rod and matching reel. The biggest bonefish we catch is around two pounds, but as I fight my first San Diego bone, I marvel at its strength. It uncorks three blistering runs, and once it is close to the boat, Nelson warns me that the fight is far from over. He’s right. The fish continues to dive for the bottom with stamina that takes me around the boat twice before we put it in the net.

Yet even after that, I marvel at its strength. Just holding it for photos is difficult, a job made even tougher thanks to the fish’s copious coat of slime. During the spawning season — usually April and May — the Cortez bonefish get even slimier, but the action can also be spectacular. These are when Nelson’s 20-plus-fish days occur.

“The fish school-up during spawning season, and once you find them, the action can be nonstop,” says Nelson. “Still, you can catch them any time of year, and we release every single fish to help keep it that way.”

The next time someone mentions bonefish, watch his face when you tell him of the most unlikely yet ­productive destination for bones: San Diego Bay, home of West Coast chrome.

San Diego Bonefish Tackle Box

Nelson likes to use a Carolina rig with tungsten bullet weights that slide through eelgrass and shed weeds.

Weights range from 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-ounce, depending on the depth and speed of the drift, and Nelson puts a small bead between the sinker and swivel to help protect the knot. Leader length ranges from three to four feet. Nelson uses small, light hooks such as Gamakatsu’s size 4 Split Shot/Drop Shot hook or an equivalent hook size and style.

Threading the delicate ghost shrimp on the hook takes a bit of practice, but start by inserting the hook on top of the shrimp just in front of the tail, then inch the hook forward, and bringing the point out on top at the carapace. As a result, the bait drifts backward, as if kicking its tail to evade a predator.

Baits and Rigs: Live or frozen ghost shrimp

Rods: 7-foot light-action spinning rods

Reels: Light spinning reels such as Accurate SR-6 or Okuma Inspira 20

Line: 8- to 10-pound-test monofilament

Terminal Rig: 1⁄4- to 1⁄2-ounce tungsten bullet weight and bead on main line, swivel, and 4-foot, 8- to 10-pound mono leader, with a No. 4 Gamakatsu Split Shot/Drop Shot hook

San Diego Trip Planner

What: Cortez bonefish.

Where: Lower San Diego Bay south of the Sweetwater River. Focus on water ranging from five to 12 feet, fishing the edges of 20- to 30-foot depressions throughout the lower bay. For a list of area ramps, visit

When: Year-round, April to May for spawners.

Who: Private-boat anglers with reliable craft from 16 feet and up.

Here are guides who fish San Diego Bay, and can help you learn the most productive techniques:

1) Capt. James Nelson 619-395-0799

2) Capt. Bill Schaefer 858-277-8087

3) Capt. Barry Brightenburg 619-540-8944