Accessing San Diego’s Kelp Paddies

Getting offshore is the first step...

February 24, 2004

Offshore Access Options

Fly fishermen have several options for getting out to San Diego’s offshore fishing grounds:

The first option is to use a small boat guide. There are just a few guides in this category in the San Diego area, but they are all excellent. They run fast, seaworthy, center console or walk-around cuddy cabin boats that work well for fly fishermen.


The second option is to book a seat on one of the “6-pack” or “party boats” that run from the various landings around San Diego. “6-pack” is a local term that refers to 26 – 65 foot flybridge fishing boats that take no more than 6 passengers. “Party boats” refers to the 45 – 105 foot sport fishing boats that usually carry 12 or more anglers per trip.

These types of boats have several advantages over a small boat, such as much better range, more amenities, and the ability to carry a much larger amount of live bait for chum.

However, these larger boats are not laid out well for fly fishermen. Their decks are much higher off the water, which makes retrieving line and landing fish more difficult. Their superstructures interfere with backcasts, so at any given time, only a few anglers can make an overhead cast. Since there are so many people fishing simultaneously, it is usually impossible to move the boat to chase a large fish. Some of the larger party boats carry skiffs or inflatable boats for this purpose, but most do not.


Despite these drawbacks, many fly shops in Southern California, and a number of independent booking agents organize fly-fishing only charters on these boats. With careful choreography, it is possible for up to a dozen fly rodders to fish from one of these vessels, although many trips will be limited to less. Trips are often 1-2 days or longer, and the added range can often make the difference in catching fish. In the 2003 season, for example, the majority of albacore were taken 80 – 120 miles away from San Diego. A cold band of water prevented the tuna from moving closer, and many small boat fishermen (the author included) were left out of the action.

The third option is to go out on your own. If you have a reliable, seaworthy vessel 18 feet or longer, and are experienced at operating a boat in the open ocean, trips to San Diego’s inner banks are entirely practical. While many people are leery of fishing from small boats offshore, a cautious and well-prepared boater can safely make the trip when the weather is good.

Southern California is blessed with having more predictable weather patterns than either the Gulf Coast or East Coast states, so the threat of sudden squalls and thunderstorms is less. We do get wind chop and large swells, but a careful eye on the weather and a large dose of common sense will usually avoid trouble. Just be sure to carefully review weather forecasts before any trip, and remember the old saw, “There are old sailors, and there are bold sailors, but there are no old, bold sailors”.


Experienced offshore anglers keep their boats in top shape mechanically, and carry safety gear far in excess of the minimum required by the Coast Guard. My boat has a foam-filled unsinkable, self-bailing hull design, and I have the motor serviced every 100 hours or less. To give you an idea of serious a topic this is, here is a list of safety equipment that I carry:

– Coast Guard required offshore signaling kit and safety gear (fire extinguisher, personal flotation devices (PFDs), lights, horn, etc.). PFDs have whistles and chemical light sticks attached.

– Safety tethers (used in rough weather to make sure you stay attached to the boat if swept overboard)


– Extra flares, signal mirror

– Fid collection (a set of tapered hardwood plugs that can be used to plug holes in the hull in case a thru-hull fitting comes loose)

– Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

– 25 watt VHF radio with 8 foot antenna

– Emergency whip radio antenna

– Handheld VHF with connectors to attach to the big antenna

– Cell phone

– Spare GPS

– Sea anchor

– Manual bilge pump (in addition to the automatic electric bilge pump)

– Spare prop blades for my composite prop, as well as a spare aluminum prop, extra thrust washers, prop nuts and cotter pins

– Extra in-line and water separator fuel filters, and an extra bulb for the fuel hose

– Three marine batteries, any of which can be used to start the boat

– Engine pull rope for manual starts, in case the three batteries are dead

– Backup horn

– Extra batteries for handheld electronics and flashlights

– Spare fuses, spark plugs, nuts, screws, hose clamps, extra engine oil

– Rearming kits for the inflatable PFDs

– Duct tape, of course

– Tool kit

– First aid kit, space blankets

– A couple of days worth of extra water

I also subscribe to the Vessel Assist towing service ( At my level of coverage, VA will come to get me as far as 120 miles from San Diego, including Mexican waters. SeaTow ( is also available in this area. Boaters should consult with their insurance agents to make sure that their policies cover this kind of trip, especially if they will be crossing into Mexican waters.

If you fish south of the border, make sure that you have Mexican boat and fishing licenses, and are familiar with Mexican fishing regulations. The appropriate licenses are usually included in charter boat fees, but you may have to buy your own license when using a small boat guide. Licenses are available from the Mexican Consulate offices in San Diego, or from many of the tackle shops in the San Diego area. Be aware that tackle shops are allowed to add a surcharge, so it will pay to shop around a little. For more information on Mexican regulations, check this website:

Boats returning from Mexican waters must go through U.S. Customs. The inspections are performed at the San Diego Harbor Police docks on the end of Shelter Island. Customs inspectors are not stationed here 24 hours a day, so it may be necessary to call for an inspection upon arrival. San Diego has a number of free public launch facilities. In San Diego Bay, Shelter Island is the launch area closest to the ocean, but gets very crowded on weekends. Other good launch ramps in San Diego Bay include Chula Vista Marina and Glorietta Bay. The Pepper Park launch ramp in National City has limited operating hours, and is not a good departure point for fishermen.

To the north of San Diego Bay is Mission Bay. Mission Bay also has numerous launch ramps, the most popular with fishermen being Dana Landing and South Shores, both near Sea World. There are three other launch ramps in Mission Bay, but Mission Bay has large areas that are restricted to 5 mile per hour or “No Wake” speeds, and these ramps are farther away from the harbor mouth.

No matter how you make it offshore, remember to have fun, and be safe!


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