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