June 05, 2022
By Loren Elliott
California’s striped bass are a beloved target of many West Coast anglers. Mention stripers and fly flinging in the same sentence at fly shops around the Golden State, and conversation will quickly turn to chucking fast-sinking shooting heads from the bow of a boat on inland waters. This anadromous species migrates between its spawning grounds in the rivers that feed the San Joaquin Delta and the Pacific Ocean, providing fishing opportunities each step of the way.
The vast majority of fly fishers target stripers in big rivers such as the American, Sacramento, Feather, and San Joaquin, as well as the California Delta and in San Francisco Bay. All these fisheries are best fished from a boat, which allows you to cover lots of open water until you locate the schools of fish. When that happens, the action can be hot and heavy.
But relatively few fly flingers consider chasing stripers on Pacific Ocean beaches, even though that’s where the majority of the large fish spend their summers gorging on sand crabs, smelt, anchovies, and whatever else they can get into their voracious mouths. Unlike salmon, stripers stick close to the shoreline once they enter ocean. Best of all, they spend much of their time right in the surf zone, where the wave action uncovers crustaceans and disorients baitfish. This makes the tumbling surf a prime fishing zone.
Pacific Striper's Migratory Route
Many of California’s striped bass spend their winters in the American, Sacramento, Feather, and San Joaquin rivers feeding. Their cue to spawn comes when river temperatures warm in spring. By late spring, many have worked their way down into the Delta, which is still fresh water but tidal influenced. Here stripers feed on bluegill and baitfish, often roving in schools. By late spring, many of these bass are in the briny waters of San Francisco Bay hunting various types of baitfish and crustaceans.
Around June, a bump in water temperatures pushes most of the bass past the Golden Gate Bridge to roam the coastline between Point Reyes in the north and Monterey Bay to the south. Once ocean waters cool down, usually in October, the striped bass migrate back into the San Francisco Bay. They eventually retrace their path, moving up through the Delta in the fall and arriving back in the rivers in the winter. Unlike Pacific salmon, they are repeat spawners, and make this migration annually.
Now for the caveats. Possibly because stripers were introduced from the East Coast mid-1800s, they certainly don’t all follow this general migration pattern to a tee. There are plenty of fish that “summer over” in the rivers, completely skipping the western journey to the ocean. With shad and trout to feed on in fresh water, I can’t blame them.
Additionally, many of the smaller schoolie stripers that make it down to San Francisco Bay spend their first summers in the Bay’s protected estuaries and inlets, never visiting the exposed Pacific beaches. Northern California’s beaches are inhospitable. Rough surf breaks and numerous predators make it a threatening environment for a 3-pound bass.
It’s the bigger bass, usually over 5 pounds, which tend to work the surf during the summer months.
The Surf-Fishing Mindset
The surf is not the fishery for you if you are primarily concerned with catching high numbers of bass. While you can easily land over 20 schoolie stripers from 2 to 4 pounds on a good day in San Francisco Bay or the California Delta, a good day in the surf is sometimes just one bass. The trade-offs are that any striper in the surf is likely to be a whole lot bigger than in the Bay or Delta, and you’re doing it on foot. This is an environment where you’re hunting that one lone roaming monster, as schools of smaller fish aren’t found in the surf like they are in the inland fisheries.
From June through September, dedicated fly fishers have decent chances at landing stripers over 10 pounds when conditions come together. A fish over 20 pounds is the ultimate goal, and even larger bass are possible.
The Northern California surf is a daunting casting and wading environment. Heavy shore breaks, steep beaches, undertows, wind, and many miles of sand make the surf fishing rough on beginners.
To find good fishing remember that tide, wind, swell, and structure conditions all must come together and on top of that, these migratory fish need to actually show up, which they sometimes don’t do, even in ideal conditions. This inherent gamble turns off many fly fishers who are looking for a dependable return on their investment of time.
The ideal surf conditions for me are mellow swells, low wind, moderate tidal movement, and fishy structure. Getting all these elements of productive surf fishing to line up may sound next to impossible, but with practice in predicting conditions, it can become a science.
Finding stripers in the surf to me is akin to Spey fishing for steelhead. Everything must come together for that one grab, but it only takes one to make it all worth it.
Unlike in the deeper waters of the rivers, Delta and Bay, where stripers are known to be bulldog fighters, it’s an altogether different battle in the surf. In this shallow environment, where they are hyper alert of their treacherous surroundings, most stripers bolt for the deep water once they are hooked, and will often run far past the breakers on their first effort. This means even smaller surf stripers are likely to take you into your backing.
The fight is unlike that of stripers in any other fishery I’ve experienced. They are all muscle out here, well fed on the Pacific’s coastal buffet and strong from working the coastline.
Gearing Up for Pacific Stripers
Given the turbulent nature of the surf, striped bass here are not afforded the opportunity to be selective. Instead, they are at their absolute most opportunistic. After all, there is only a short window for bass to pounce on a morsel in the suds before the next wave washes it away. As a result, your flies don’t have to be precise imitations. The larger and gaudier the better, so long as you can cast it long distances.
The surf turbulence, combined with the solitary nature of big surf stripers, means that your flies need to be able to attract attention from a distance. I prefer large baitfish patterns in bright colors with plenty of flash when light is on the water, and black variations with large silhouettes when light is low.
There is no need to be fancy with your flies. These opportunistic feeders would likely grab a bare hook out in the surf if they could find it.
Because the surf feeding zone is usually only a few feet deep, there is no need to fish heavy flies and lines. In fact, fast-sinking lines combined with weighted flies usually result in ineffective presentations. Your hook point will drag through the sand, dulling it and robbing the fly of action.
I prefer to fish intermediate sinking lines with unweighted or lightly weighted flies. Floating lines and poppers can be effective at first and last light when the wind is down. In the wind, a sinking line’s thinner diameter cuts through the wind better than a floater or intermediate. Additionally, a lightly weighted fly punches through a headwind and turns over better than an unweighted one.
My typical patterns are in the 4- to 6-inch range, and when fishing close to the surface, the grabs are often followed by thrilling thrashing at the surface before the first run.
While single-handed 8- and 9-weight rods work just fine in the surf, I prefer 11- and 12-foot two‑handers because of the added casting distance. Sticks specifically designed for overhead casting, as opposed to deep-bending Spey or Skagit rods, perform best in this environment. With a stiffer, fast-action overhead casting rod, you can keep longer heads in the air to reach out to where the big ones feed among the breakers. And the heavier lines you use with bigger two-handed rods have more mass to turn over larger flies.
I recommend always fishing the largest fly possible, so long as it doesn’t hamper casting distance. Even a small surf striper will annihilate a 6-inch pattern if you give it the chance.
When I was guiding, I was often asked whether an incoming tide is better than outgoing, or if high is better than low. Unfortunately it is not that simple, but doesn’t have to be overly complicated either.
Tides boil down to two main elements: water movement and water height. Regarding movement, it is key to have enough tidal movement to create current and turbulence to stimulate feeding, but not so much that the surf becomes so rough you can’t properly present a fly. Tidal movement is what uncovers crustaceans and disorients baitfish—creating opportunities for predators—so what you’re looking for is a happy medium.
Tidal height is relevant to the structure you are fishing. The idea is that you need sufficient water height to flood outside sandbars and fill the connecting contours to bring feeding stripers within casting range. Too much water though, and you will be pushed so far back on the beach that the fishy water will be out of range altogether.
If the tide is too low, the beach drains, sand bars become exposed, and fish retreat to deeper waters offshore until the water rises on the next tide change. Again, it is all about finding the happy medium for the location and the beach structure you are fishing, and maximizing this window of opportunity while it lasts.
With miles and miles of beach, finding elusive stripers where they feed close to the beach can be an overwhelming undertaking to novice surf anglers.
The reality is that 90 percent of the beach terrain is devoid of stripers. It is the defined deep contours in the form of holes, rip currents, and troughs, where bass feed for limited windows in each tide cycle. These are the spots where bass swim within casting range and forage for sand crabs and baitfish. Here, they don’t have to the fight the surging wave action that pounds sand bars, but can still find plenty to eat as morsels get swept off the nearby bars and into these deeper travel and feeding troughs.
Find this productive structure and then camp out. It is often a matter of hammering this juicy water until the tide brings the fish to you, then record and remember those tide levels to plan your travel more efficiently in the future.
To find these spots, look for areas where the water is green or blue as opposed to frothy white. This difference in color is the result of depth and turbulence.
Waves are nothing more than swells that have finally hit a shallow sandbar and are forced to crest and break. Where the water is deeper, the swells don’t break. This means these deep areas are often free of the white foamy water left over from beating waves. This also means these pieces of structure are calmer because of the lack of waves. This makes fishing them much easier.
Safety in the Surf
Because of the rough nature of the surf, safety should be your primary concern. No fish is worth your life.
Wading out those extra 10 yards might seem just barely doable, but it only takes one rogue sneaker wave to change your mind. Wade shallow and cautiously. Never turn your back to the surf. If you must change flies, tie new knots, or untangle fly line, back out of the water before diverting your attention. The surf is unforgiving.
There is no other fishery in California as challenging and rewarding as striped bass in the surf. When these bass migrate out to the Pacific beaches each summer, coastal fly fishers have a special opportunity to connect with them in their ocean environment. And out here, in the early mornings and late evenings, there are no crowds, and no loud motors.
For Bay Area anglers lacking the time to trek all the way to the Sierra for a weekend trout outing, the beaches in your own back yard provide some of the best fishing California has to offer. This is especially true in light of the scary megadrought that is being experienced throughout the West, and felt especially hard by California’s freshwater fisheries.
When the warm days of July and August roll around, consider tying on a 3/0 streamer instead of a size 16 dry fly. The results can be monstrous.
Loren Elliott grew up in Marin County, California.