Updated: May 15, 2020
Here is a beginners’ guide to hunting in San Diego, California. This information really applies to all of Baja and Southern California, but I wanted to keep it specifically about San Diego because my knowledge is based primarily from spearfishing this region. I’m doing this because I’ve had a lot of guys coming from other areas that were in the military or just moving to San Diego asking for help because they can’t find any complete information on diving locally. This article is all about helping new divers get up to speed on basic diving tips and techniques to use for finding, hunting and landing these fish.
Before we get into breaking down your gear and what you should use, let’s first get into when are these fish prevalent in our waters. Usually my rule of thumb is when the water starts to hit mid 60s you start to get yellowtail and tuna. This is just one factor that I use but sometimes the fish will show up when the water is cooler in the low 60s. Low or mid 60s usually occurs around the spring time, March or April. Coincidentally enough, spring time is when the spawning begins for white seabass, and March is when I like to start diving for them. These are just my rules of course, and if you start your dive season around this time, you’ll start with seabass in early spring, going into early summer targeting yellowtail and chasing bluefin tuna all the way into late October or early November. This pattern is all depending on how the water temperature is that year.
As far as a specific time of day for hunting, Southern California is like anywhere else in the world. Peak times are sunrise and sunset combining with an incoming tide. I personally like to get in the water an hour or two before peak high tide and stay in the water during the tidal shift. Having said this, nothing beats time in the water where you might get lucky or gain experience at the least. Either way, just get in the water!
Where do we find each type of fish?
The following fish require very different ways to hunt them in very different terrain using different equipment and techniques for the most part. Reef, kelp beds, and Bluewater hunting are totally different and whatever species you are targeting will require a very different approach to diving.
Reef Fish (Bass, Sheephead, Halibut, Sargo)
If you’re just starting out or you just moved out here from somewhere else, let’s get your feet wet, literally. You’re going to be hunting mostly reef fish at first. As for reef hunting, calico bass (pictured left), sand bass, sheephead, sargo, and halibut can be done year round. I like hunting these fish because they are found on the reefs or on the sand bottom just off of the rocks and allow me the opportunity to keep diving year around. This is important because when you move to targeting gamefish, your body will be in good diving shape. Finding a reef to hunt is quite simple if you get a chart or pay attention to where the waves are breaking due times of big swell. Hunting on these reefs are easy and you can learn a lot about fish habits in a short amount of time. First, go to the up current side of the reef. You will notice when you get there, that there is a lot more activity than the down current side. Pay special attention to the tides because they will dictate what the current is doing, and that affects all life on the reef. Typically, I like to dive as the tide is filling in and approaching the high tide time for the day. When the tide is switching over, going from high, to slack, then to low tide, watch how the fish move from one side of the reef to the other. You can learn a ton by the watching the reef fish while you diving.
When hunting reefs, I prefer to drop down to the bottom and wait. You can aim for the top of the reef or along the edges. Fish like to hide under the ledges, and holes provided by the structure. I prefer to aim for the spot where the sand meets the rocks. In my opinion, this gives me the best chance at a variety of fish. Oftentimes, while I am waiting, l will scratch on rocks or throw up sand to attract fish like sheephead (pictured right) or bass. Sand bass also are found mainly in this location as well. Here’s a tip: when dropping down, try and look around as you are approaching the bottom. Sometimes while you are dropping you can “dive bomb” an unsuspecting fish. Another reason for this is that you don’t want to drop right-on top of a nice fish, and never see it again. Halibut require a slightly different approach in regards to where on the reef you want to hunt. For these fish, I look for sand channels in the reef where bait fish are congregating. Another place I look is a little farther out in the sand off the reef on the sand. Not too far out, but maybe around 20’ or so. Another spot to find halibut is in the shallows at night along sand beaches during a grunion run. This technique requires a diver to cover a lot of ground if necessary, but it can pay off bigtime. Wherever it is that you choose to hunt along a reef, another fish you can see often is sargo. Sargo can be found pretty much on any reef. The good thing about these fish is that they are delicious, and prevalent in the shallows. They are easy to find and hunt. A real nice fish to start targeting when first starting out.
Kelp Beds and Offshore Gamefish
Depending on how you are progressing and how comfortable you are in the water, the kelp beds, offshore banks, or kelp paddies, provide an excellent opportunity to land some proper gamefish. If you have access to a boat, gamefish like yellowtail, white seabass, tuna and even mahi are possible to find if the water gets warm enough. The season for these fish starts in early spring and starts slowing down in October or November depending on local water temperatures. Even though, white seabass, yellowtail, mahi and tuna are all considered gamefish, they require completely different ways to approach hunting them as well as different types of gear setups for the most part.
To start with, these fish are usually found in different areas of the water column as well as different areas of the ocean altogether. Having said that, occasionally you will run into one species or the other while hunting for a different type of fish so always bring a couple of setups in the boat. I typically bring a light bluewater setup with a reel for jumping in on kelp paddies. I feel it just makes things easier and keeps the deck free of entanglements. The other setup I bring is a larger tuna speargun setup with a floatline and a 3-atmosphere float. Always be prepared because there’s nothing worse than losing a dream fish due to having the wrong equipment.
Yellowtail & Mahi
The first fish you will most likely encounter will be the yellowtail or king fish as they say down under. Here's Jon Stenstrom from Cast and Spear pictured below with a solid 40 pound Baja yellowtail. I typically have had most of my success locating and hunting these fish around drop-offs and pinnacles. Usually with these fish I find them while dropping down about halfway into the water column or dropping down to the bottom and waiting. Yellowtail are extremely curious fish and while the big ones can be standoffish, the smaller grade ones will swim right up to you. Another popular way to find these fish is on offshore kelp paddies. This is where newer divers will have the most luck. Why?
Well, the fish are usually within 100 meters of the floating paddies and shallower than 50’ so use your depth sounder when approaching. In regards to approaching paddies, drive slowly, do not drive right up to it, and if another boat is fishing or diving on the same piece of kelp, stay away and find your own. There’s nothing that upsets fishermen and divers alike, then to have another boat come and spook all the fish. Finding kelp paddies can be tough. However, I find that as you head in your desired direction, when you find one, the others will be in a line on the same current. Once you get in the water to check a paddy, do not be surprised if you find other fish as well. Once the water gets over 70, mahi can be found on kelp paddies. This water temperature happens slightly later in the summer around July-September timeframe. Usually, yellowtail like slightly cooler water (68 or below) than mahi (70 or more), so if you want to find one or the other water temperature is key. Both types of fish will hang around kelp paddies, and relatively shallow within the water column, especially mahi, and both are delicious to eat. Due to the curiosity of mahi and yellowtail, they will usually swim right by you not long after you get in the water or sometimes they come right by the boat when you first approach a spot. When attempting to lure these fish in, flashers and teasers work really well because of their curiosity. I find these fish like all other fish, up current from structure and around bait. Bait is the key for this whole process reguardless of what you are after. Remember, these fish are predators so find their prey. Simple enough.
As mentioned above spawning occurs from April to August, but you can hunt them from late February to October. They prefer cooler water temperatures ranging from 58 to 65 degrees. I focus on the moon phases when hunting these fish. I try to be in the water about 30 minutes before slack tides. Here's Lance with a nice La Jolla seabass.
These fish are tough to hunt thanks to the extremely sensitive lateral line on their body. They can spook very easily so be as quiet as possible. Try to not even clear your ears at the same depth that you suspect they are at in the water column. Depending on the visibility and current, I may not even have to dive at all if the thermocline is only a few feet down. However, if the thermocline is at 30' and the visibility is only 10', I would drop to that depth slowly moving through the kelp. Current plays a big part in this hunting process as well. When there’s less current the fish like to hang out sleeping in the kelp bed right at the thermocline layer. When there's more current, I usually find them slightly deeper in the water column, but it can be a combination of both current and thermocline location. The current does play such a big role in finding these fish, which is why I try and focus on the moon phases when choosing to dive. Another important tip for these fish is getting in the water right at first light or an hour or two before sunset in the evening. Most of the fish I have encountered occurred at these times.
Another tip for locating these fish is finding squid. White seabass love to eat squid either live or dead so chumming with a box of it may not be a bad idea even though I have not personally done it. Recommended gear would be a powerful gun with larger shaft equipped with a slip tip. Seabass have very tough thick scales which is why I recommend at least a 3 banded gun to penetrate their body armor. Reels work great in the kelp while floatlines with carrot floats or no float at all are other good options. I personally like reels for the kelp beds.
Bluefin tuna usually show up in Northern Baja, Mexico or San Diego, California water around April or May and do not leave until well into fall. Bluefin tuna typically like the water temperature to be in the Mid to high 60s with 68 degrees being optimum point. These fish are usually located miles offshore on banks or high spots. Bluefin tend to favor the Bluewater and avoid the murky water, but last season (2019) they could be found in both areas. These fish travel fast and cover long distances so just because they are in an area on one day doesn’t mean they will be there the next. One trick I found to locating these fish is check the fish counts or fish reports daily. See which boats are targeting these fish then download the MarineTraffic app for your iPhone, and see where they are heading during the day. Another tip is to join Fishdope. Fishdope is a community of fishermen and spotter planes that give the latest up to date information on location of certain species of fish. The $150 membership will save you a lot more money in gas if you are not driving all over the ocean looking for fish that aren’t there.
Now that you have found the area where the bluefin are the fun is just beginning. These fish are very smart and can learn quickly. They have the ability to recognize different frequencies of sound coming from boats. I have noticed that as the fishing season progresses, these fish change their behavior drastically. Somedays you can drive your boat near a feeding school of tuna, and the next day they will not let you get within 500 yards of them. In addition to this, every school tends to behave completely different from day to day. Going after bluefin tuna can be one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences in spearfishing all at the same time. Best practices for these fish include approaching the school slowly and from a distance. The fish are usually pushing bait up current, find out the direction the school is traveling. Try to get in front the school and shutdown your engines down while the divers get in the water and approach the school. Speed is key as far as having your gear and divers ready with guns loaded. Another helpful tip is keeping your gear and line organized on the deck of the boat. Safety is a big concern when chasing fish big enough to drown you. As divers approach the fish, they should dive and level off depending how deep the school is located. Keep in mind that the fish you see on the surface are just the tip of the iceberg, there are a lot more fish right around the bait ball. DO NOT RUN UP ON A SCHOOL OF FEEDING FISH!! Do this process about 30 times and you’ll start to get the hang of it. Maybe you'll get your chance at a fish like the two above that Nick Garcia from Nitro Gun Co has in the picture. It’s always really nice to have an experienced group of divers with you on the boat who know how to drive around bluefin, setup gear, and safely drop off divers.
Figure 1: My guidelines for hunting fish
Places to dive in San Diego County
Now this is all very general information but I know a lot of you are like thinking OK but where I understand how bait works and how predators work where the hell can I dive in Southern California. I also am aware that there’s a lot of you that are going to be like, “Don’t blow up my spot!” So, taking that into consideration, the spots I’m about to mention are easily accessible, very popular, and a quick Google search will show you where they are located exactly. There’s no mystery, or secret spots so everyone calm down before you guys flip out. Warning: Throughout San Diego County there are State Marine Reserves where spearfishing is not allowed. Check out the California Fish and Game website for more information.
Starting with South San Diego County, and working our way up the coast.
The first spot I would recommend to divers that are new to the area would be the region around Sunset Cliffs/Point Loma. Sunset Cliffs provides easy access from the trails. Please be aware that the tides and surf can hinder your ability to exit where you entered the water. Low tide and small surf are ideal. The diving here is shallow, less than 30’. The bottom is rock reef with sand channel throughout which are perfect for finding halibut. To be honest, I’ve swam in 10 feet of water off the Sunset Cliffs area, and scored really nice fish from halibut, sheepshead, calico bass, and even white seabass.
Point Loma Kelp Beds
Another common area with a fair amount of kelp is the kelp bed in Point Loma just farther offshore from Sunset Cliffs. This spot is a little bit more difficult to access, and it may require a paddleboard, boat, kayak or just a really long swim out to the kelp bed. It a process but can be very rewarding, and always worth hunting. The diving here is a little deeper ranging from 35'-70’ at the edge of the kelp beds. Towards the south end of the kelp there is a State Marine Reserve. Here you can find yellowtail, white seabass, and all kinds of reef fish.
La Jolla Reefs
The reefs in these areas around the La Jolla reefs are great place to start diving. Usually this zone has better visibility than the rest of San Diego, This area covers the northern boundary of the MPL to the south which you cannot spearfish in, to the northern/west boundary of the La Jolla Cove protected area. The area in between is GAME ON! I would recommend starting first with La Jolla Cove at first. You can exit and enter from the cove, but you cannot actively hunt in the cove because it is still part of the Marine Preserve. There is good kelp right around the corner past alligator rock, just make sure when you go there that it’s relatively calm. Another beach to enter from is Boomers beach which is directly in front of the grass at the La Jolla Cove bathroom area. There also is big shore break here during swells. Literally, this region of a coastline is littered with beaches for easy access and rock reefs with kelp beds right off shore. Spend some time diving there and with a little bit of luck you’ll see some fish. The diving can range from 10’ in the rocks to 70’ in the kelp. There are a wide variety of fish in the area including yellowtail and white seabass. Caution: heavy boat traffic in the summer time so bring a float and be careful.
Del Mar-Oceanside Beaches
San Diego County spot is just to the north of La Jolla. and the Delmar area and North up to Oceanside. The beaches are littered with reefs scattered throughout the coast line. On calm, clear days, it’s a real treat to dive. I thoroughly enjoy taking my kids out there and hunting along the 10’ to 25’+ shallow rocky reefs surrounded by sand. You can find halibut in the sand to all kinds of reef fish on the reefs.
Moving further up the coast and less accessible would be the kelp beds off of North County known as the Barn Door kelp. These kelp beds have produced solid fish over the years, but require a boat in order to access them. If you have a boat, you can launch from Oceanside Harbor, head North, and get there at a relatively short amount of time.
San Onofre Kelp
Moving now into San Diego/Orange County line, we have the San Onofre kelp just off the powerplant. You can access this spot via boat from Dana point. This is another area popular with yellowtail and seabass.
First of all, there’s two types of guns maybe three types you would actually need and use the majority of the time.
In general they are:
1. Two band 45 inch plus rail/wooden gun
2. Four or five band 60 inch+ Tuna gun
3. Two or three band light blue water 55+ inch plus gun.
Speargun 1: This speargun is used for diving on reef fish or in the kelp targeted ideal species would be sheepshead, calico bass, halibut, sargo, and yellowtail.
A list of trusted manufacturers:
Speargun 2: I use exclusively to hunt the offshore banks for large bluefin tuna. If you are a beginner you will use this gun maybe only a couple times a year before selling on craigslist for half the price.
A list of trusted manufacturers:
Speargun 3: These spearguns are just great all-around guns for hunting in the kelp for white Seabass or on kelp patties floating offshore or even for smaller grade tuna. Note: if you’re going for tuna I would recommend not relying on this gun because you don’t want to run across 200 pounders and be caught with a knife at a gun fight it’s not worth ruining a fish and losing all your gear. The reason why these guns are great it’s because they have more range and more penetration power than a standard to band done. Once you get off shore in the Bluewater the Fish tend to stay further away or your judgment of how close the fishes will be off based on the visibility. You want to be able to confidently make a shot at 15-20 feet.
A list of trusted manufacturers:
The Set Ups: Reel vs Floatline, and Rigging
The ideal set ups to go along with these types of guns.
Reels are great to have in the kelp because they don’t foul up when swimming through the kelp the same way that float lines do. There are a couple of issues to consider however. Visibility wise boats are less likely to see you if you are hunting in the kelp on a busy weekend with only a reel. I’ve personally been almost run over on a number of occasions. One way to prevent us is getting a kayak or a float that you can tie off to a lobster trap with a flag on it and stay near it. Another little heads up with a reel is that if you are not used to diving with one or operating one, entanglement is possible so line management is key if you shoot a larger fish and they takeoff.
If you prefer a float line while you’re hunting on a reef or in the kelp beds I recommend either a carrot float or no float at all and just let the float line drag behind you. You can hook it directly to the gun or have a breakaway set up. For the newer divers that aren’t sure what exactly that is or how to rig it up there are a ton of really good videos available. In short your shooting line is connected to the float line. The shooting line is held on to the gun with a piece of bungee that sets free when fired so that your gun is independent from the float line shaft and shooting line.
For Tuna and rigging up your tuna gun, A float line is a must preferably using 100’ bungee for targeting big bluefin. On top of the 100’ bungee you need at least one 3 atm float. I have seen floats disappear into the depths never to surface again when a 200 pound bluefin decides to sound. Remember if you are new to this whole thing, tuna will humble you with their power. I prefer to over rig everything because you never know what you’re going to come across. One last thing, always rig this setup as a breakaway.
Shooting Line, Shafts, & Tips
When it comes to rigging your gear, there are a lot of combinations to choose and everyone has their own opinions. So I will break down what I use on my spearguns and why I use these setups.
As far as shooting line is concerned for hunting around reefs, monofilament works well for the majority of applications here in California. Personally, if I am hunting around rocks and looking for larger fish like grouper down in Baja, I'll use dyneema shooting line. I like using dyneema or spectra shooting line due to its' abrasion resistant qualities. But locally, I use just regular 200-250 pound monofilament. Shaft sizes are smaller with 7.0mm-7.5mm or 9/32"-19/64" and I use either and flopper tip or the new SideSlip from Kimera Spearfishing I have been doing a lot of testing with this tip over the last year and it is a really good product.
For my mid range or light bluewater speargun, monofilament works fine for this as well, but I will use dyneema for a couple reasons. These fish are getting bigger and fighting harder such as seabass, and yellowtail. Seabass run through the kelp so again the abrasion resistant quality comes in nicely. Also, I trust my knots more than I trust my crimping ability with monofilament. If I am going to use monofilament, I can use a little bigger without slowing the shaft down too much. I would use 300-400 pound mono line. With shaft size I typically stay fairly consistent, I use a 8mm or 5/16" shaft with a SideSlip or slip tip both rigged with dyneema, not cable. I feel that uncoated cable acts like a saw on the fish and tear outs are possible. Coated cable would be my choice if I had to choose cable at all.
If I’m going for large tuna I’ll use 500 pound plus dyneema for the shooting line as well as for the slip-tip. When rigging up the shooting line I try to avoid crimps unless I’m using monofilament otherwise I’ll tie a variety of low profile knots. I prefer dyneema shooting line of at least 500 pounds or greater and the connections using quick links. And if you do decide to use crimps it’s a good idea to put a half-hitch on the tail end in order to prevent it from pulling through if it does slip. However, if I am using monofilament, I would use 400 pound and double crimp every connection. Also, I recommend changing it out as often as possible and double checking it for every use which you should do anyways.
Other things to consider when doing your setups are:
1. Boat traffic hazards
2. The ease of getting in and out of the water
3. Where you’re going to be hunting
Flags are nice because it increases your visibility to other boaters. Often times people are too busy trolling for fish, and they’re not paying attention to the fact there’s a dive flag on your boat or looking around for another diver in the water. Another thing to consider is what type of hunting you’re going to be doing. If you’re going to be jumping in on kelp patties, sometimes having a reel is nice in order to avoid tangles and a mess on the boat deck. However, be aware if you are going in the open ocean, it’s always a good idea to take a large speargun with a breakaway system with you just in case you come across some big pelagic.
Join a Dive Club
It’s always a good idea to join a club if you are new. There are a lot out there and they each have their own culture. See what the best fit is for you by attending meetings.
If you still need help please feel free to reach out to me.
And always remember dive with a buddy, and no fish is worth your life