Bonefish — synonymous with the shallows of Florida and the tropics — are also plentiful in the Pacific, if you know where to look and how to fish for them. San Diego Bay makes an excellent starting point for expanding your bonefish horizons.
Ah, a tap! A bonefish nailed the bait. I set the hook, and line hissed through the water as it melted from the light spinning reel. My hands trembled, and I felt my heart in my throat. Though the setting was unlikely, this was my first bonefish.
Mention bonefish and most anglers think of clear, radiant flats and tropical destinations like the Florida Keys, Bahamas, Christmas Island and San Diego. Wait. San Diego? For bonefish? Really?
Yes, really. We’re talking about California’s San Diego Bay and chrome speedsters that look nearly identical to bonefish of the tropics.
“Relatively few people realize that San Diego Bay has a healthy population of bonefish and that you can catch them year-around,” says Capt. James Nelson, who specializes in guiding anglers on San Diego Bay.
While they look like transplants from Florida, these bonefish aren’t the same variety you catch in the Keys, or even at Christmas Island in the Pacific. The species in San Diego Bay is known as the Cortez bonefish, more diminutive than its cousins but still a beautiful and challenging light-tackle quarry — one that has long held a spot on my bucket list.
A chance to cross it off came this year with Nelson, who targets bonefish aboard his 24-foot bay boat. Not only did I land my first bonefish, we went on to catch-and-release seven more of the hard-fighting bones in a single morning of fishing. Nelson says he has had days when guests have caught more than 20 bonefish, proving the vitality of the San Diego bonefish population.
But they are not always easy to catch. A number of elements help improve your chances of success, starting with the right bait.
“I thought you’d want to see this,” says Nelson as he puts the bow of the boat on an exposed mud flat near the mouth of the Sweetwater River before we head out to fish. He pulls out a device that goes by names such as slurp gun, yabbie pump and mud sucker. It’s a tube with plunger inside. Stick it in the mud, and pull up on the plunger handle to suck up a cylinder of goo. Then push down on the handle to eject the mud, and paw through the muck to see if you caught one of the bonefish’s favorite foods: ghost shrimp. The technique works best on mud and sandy back-bay areas exposed at low tide.
Nelson hops out of the boat and goes to work, slurping up 50 ghost shrimp (the maximum daily limit per person in California) in about 15 minutes, putting the two-inch-long crustaceans in a small bucket of salt water to keep them alive.
According to Milton Love, Ph.D., with the Department of Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Cortez bonefish prey on a wide range of creatures, including amphipods, crabs, worms and even small gobies. However, ghost shrimp are relatively easy to obtain (you can also buy them at some bait shops), and so they have become the preferred bait among San Diego bonefish specialists.
With our bait on board, we motor out of the mouth of the Sweetwater River, and Nelson turns south and heads into the shallow lower reaches of San Diego Bay, an area encompassing approximately four square miles, separated from the Pacific by a spit known as the Silver Strand. To the east are the shores of Chula Vista, the last city before the Mexican border at Tijuana.
Fish the Edges
In this region of the bay, the bottom is pockmarked with craterlike depressions, according to Nelson. “There are big holes throughout the lower bay, 20 to 30 feet in diameter and 20 to 30 feet deep,” he says. “I often meter lots of fish in the holes on the fish finder, but these fish rarely bite. Instead, we usually catch bonefish up on the edges of the depressions.”
Water depths favored by bonefish in San Diego Bay vary with the time of year. Nelson finds that once you discover the right depth, the bites come fast. “I usually start in eight to 10 feet of water, but will move to six to seven feet if we’re not getting bit,” he explains. “If you’re not getting bites, try a different area, as the bonefish are always around, but you need to find them. Sometimes you need to go even shallower — say four or five feet.”
“Cortez bonefish like to poke around in eelgrass, as well as in sand and mud,” says Love. “So these are the types of habitats you should focus on if you want to catch bonefish in San Diego Bay.” The fish are generally looking down for food, so keeping the bait close to the bottom is important, Love says.
Rig for Drifting
Because these fish inhabit deeper, murky water rather than clear, shallow flats, traditional sight-fishing methods don’t work well in San Diego Bay. Instead, drift-fishing is the preferred technique. It’s an effective technique, as bonefish eagerly inhale the shrimp we drift past them, sometimes even jumping on just pieces of bait. “They don’t miss many chances to eat, even if it’s just a morsel,” says Nelson.
San Diego bonefish aren’t nearly as spooky as their East Coast cousins. “I tell people, don’t cast. Just drop the bait straight down and try to keep the line as vertical as possible,” he says. “Many times, they will get a bite right under the boat.”