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.

September 21, 2007

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.

Dredgin’ Bones

“How do you know where to start fishing?” I asked Christianson, scanning the wide expanse of the bay’s largely featureless surface once the boat had come off plane.


My host threw me a wry smile. “You don’t.”

Meanwhile, Christianson’s 15-year-old son, Ryan, was busy threading a live ghost shrimp on his hook. Ryan and his dad had “pumped” a fair number of shrimp from the mud flats the night before, so we had a good supply of the kind of baits Christianson said bonefish like best.

As we began our first drift in 11 feet of dirty-green water and I pinched a small split-shot on my six-pound line, Christianson explained that much of the back bay was of a similar depth–nothing more than a flat mud bottom. “You just pick a spot and start drifting,” he said. “If you don’t get bit, you just keep moving around until you find the fish.”


I was the last one to get a bait in the water, but I hadn’t bounced bottom for more than a few seconds before my line tightened abruptly. Instinctively, I set the hook hard and felt something solid. Christianson laughed. “Must be a bass. If that had been a bonefish, you’d have broken him off.”

As I struggled to bring in what indeed proved to be an 11-inch sand bass, Christianson explained that back-bay bonefish often slam a bait with authority and take off like a lightning bolt, so setting the hook hard is a good way to snap the light line. “Believe me, I know,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Striking Silver

California's Hidden Bones Grant Christianson admires the light-tackle challenge bonefish provide – and their size and population both seem to be on the upswing.

For the first hour, the three of us enjoyed a brisk bass bite as we drifted different spots around the bay; however, the mysterious bonefish was proving elusive. Christianson was just beginning to voice his concern when his rod tip dipped sharply and his drag began to sing. “Bonefish!” he shouted. Moments later, Ryan’s ultralight rod doubled over as well.


As much as I wanted to catch my first bonefish, I was even more anxious just to see one. For the next few minutes, father and son seemed to be engaged in a dance of sorts as each attempted to follow his fish around the boat. Christianson’s was the first to come to the surface, where its rusty-brown back and dusky vertical bars immediately identified it as a bona fide bonefish. Moments later, the foot-long specimen was lifted from the water, it’s silver scales flashing in the sun.

Ryan’s fish was a bit larger–as healthy a bonefish as you’d ever hope to see. It measured nearly 16 inches and weighed around two pounds. I was pumped, but reigned in my excitement just long enough to loosen my drag; it was easy to see how the fish’s high-speed runs could easily snap the light line we were using.

My opportunity to catch one of these chrome-plated beauties was to come, but not before the wind picked up and we had to deploy a sea anchor to slow the drift. I also added more weight to my line and used an old bay-drifting trick by opening the bail of my spinning reel and hand-feeding line to further slow my presentation. That proved to be the ticket, as line suddenly ripped from my spool. I flipped the bail and lifted the rod. Nothing.


“Quick, start crankin’!” Christianson shouted. “He’s runnin’ at ya!”

I turned the reel handle furiously and the line came tight, then it made an immediate U-turn and sped away on a sizzling run. As I slowly fought the fish to the boat, I noticed its strong, determined pulls and its lack of bass-like headshakes. On light tackle, the fish proved an incredibly stubborn adversary. I could see why others have said that bonefish, for their size, are unmatched in terms of their speed and stamina.

We finished the day with five bonefish–a good catch, but not the numbers Christianson was hoping for. “In the last few trips we’ve taken up to six fish per person,” he said, “and I know other guys who have caught and released a dozen each–some up to 20 inches and weighing three pounds.”

Stealthy Immigrants

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.

Wide Ranging

A couple of warm-water events later and these fish appear to be thriving in the harbors, bays and estuaries from Long Beach to San Diego. Understandably, the wide expanse of San Diego’s back bay seems to hold the greatest numbers, but anglers to the north are hooking bonefish, as well. My dad caught his fish in Dana Point Harbor, and Steve Crooke says he knows of fishermen who catch them regularly in Newport Harbor’s back bay.

“Huntington Harbor has them, too,” says Mark Wisch, owner of Pacific Edge tackle headquarters in Huntington Beach. “People occasionally bring them in and want to know what kind of fish they are.” Wisch says the bonefish live in the shallows in the far reaches of the harbor. They run from ten to 14 inches, and have been caught on everything from ghost shrimp and mussels to plastics, small plugs and flies.

Even though he hasn’t caught any bonefish recently, Jed Welsh claims to have seen post-El Nino evidence of the species in Alamitos Bay–once when he came across a shore angler with a brace of two- to three-pounders on a stringer, and again when he spotted a school of a half-dozen bonefish along a back-bay beach. The staff at Rick’s Bait & Tackle in Long Beach confirmed that bonefish are being caught in Alamitos Bay, but would only say that to find the fish you need to “go as far back in the bay as you can.”

The same advice seems to hold true in San Diego County. Besides San Diego and Mission bays, it seems only natural that the lagoons, estuaries and sloughs north of San Diego would provide a good home for bones.

The fact that bonefish are being caught from ten to 18 inches long indicates that fish from different year-classes are present, and begs the question: Are these fish continually migrating northward from Mexican waters, or are they part of a resident population that is reproducing locally? What seems certain is that the fish are growing in both number and size, and can be taken year-round, even though it may not yet be possible to target them predictably. Time will tell if a dependable fishery can be established, as well as how large these fish will get, but it will be exciting to find out! In the meantime, Southland anglers have another inshore game fish to pursue, and that’s certainly something to celebrate.

Ghost Buster

California's Hidden Bones Anglers have found success with ghost shrimp carefully rigged on an Owner “Mutu Light” fine-wire circle hook.

Arguably the most effective natural bait for bonefish in the Southland bays is ghost shrimp. These pale creatures live in burrows in the mud of quiet, shallow bays and estuaries. They can grow to two or three inches in length, with male specimens having claws that can measure over half their body length. Some coastal bait shops have ghost shrimp available for sale, though most advise calling in advance, as availability is often uncertain.

An alternative is to gather your own shrimp from back-bay tidal flats, most commonly during minus tides. Small holes in the mud will reveal a bed of shrimp, but in order to remove them from burrows that may be up to 20 inches deep you can (1) stomp mud over a burrow entrance, sealing it off and forcing the shrimp to swim to the surface; or (2) where the tide is just high enough to fill the burrow with water, use a plastic “slurp gun” (you can buy these or make one from PVC pipe) to suck the shrimp out of their homes.

Owner’s Mutu Light circle hook in a No. 4 size is ideal for rigging ghost shrimp. The fine wire will penetrate the soft, segmented tail without breaking the bait apart, and circle hooks tend to lodge in the corner of the fish’s mouth after it takes the bait, making for an easy release. That’s important, because bonefish are an unattractive food fish (they don’t call them bonefish for nothing), so you will want to release them.


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