I grew up in the Bay Area and learned the productivity of fishing the rich waters of San Francisco Bay at an early age. Indeed, some of my earliest fishing memories dating back to the early 70’s concern accompanying my dad and uncle Bob on outings along the Alameda, Oakland and San Leandro shorelines.
When they were after stripers they would typically work the area around the Bay Farm Island Bridge with plugs after the sun had set. At other times, Dad would use anchovies and pile worms to tempt flounders, jack smelt and other fish that frequent the south bay flats.
By the time I reached my teens we were living in San Lorenzo about a mile and a half from the shoreline trail that runs from the San Leandro Marina to the San Mateo Bridge. As a result, I became a dedicated bay angler, employing a mountain bike and surf rod to ply south bay waters for sharks, rays, stripers, perch and anything else that came within casting range of the shoreline.
These days I live in the Sierra and enjoy the fishing opportunities that the streams and reservoirs in the foothills and mountains provide. Yet, my day dreams are still filled with images of big stripers grabbing Rat-L-Traps and defiant leopard sharks smoking 25 pound mono off the spool of an oversize surf reel.
While the bay is home to a myriad of different fish, the dynamic duo as far as bank anglers are concerned are striped bass and leopard sharks. Stripers generally begin showing up in bay waters during the month of March, but this year due to the heavy rains we experienced, stripers might not begin arriving in numbers until late April. Once stripers begin arriving in the bay, angler success typically goes up and down throughout the spring, summer and into early fall as fish migrate back and forth between the ocean, bay, and Delta.
For shore anglers plugging and fishing cut baits are the most effective ways to bag stripers. For these approaches, I employ two different rods. A good set up for plugging is a 7 to 8 foot spinning rod with a medium fast action and enough power to cast up to an ounce and a half of weight. The rod should be teamed with a spinning reel spooled with 200 yards of abrasion resistant 12 pound monofilament such as Yo-Zuri Hybrid or Trilene Big Game line.
This same rig can be used for bait fishing, but a 10 foot surf rod mated with a large capacity spinning reel loaded with 20 to 25 pound mono or 30 to 65 pound braid is an all around better choice for hurling bait. I also use the surf stick for targeting sharks.
When the water has a decent level of clarity, nothing can match the excitement of plugging for stripers. Shiner perch, anchovies and smelt are the primary forage fish within the bay and your lures should be chosen accordingly.
Nothing does a better job of imitating a perch better than a small swimbait, Kastmaster or Rat-L-Trap. If the bass are feeding on anchovies or smelt, top artificials include Yo-Zuri, Rapala, Bomber and Rebel minnows in the 3 to 7 inch range, Gulp! 6 inch swimbaits rigged on half ounce jig heads and bucktail jigs such as the P-Line Pulse Raiser. Early in the season lures in the 1 to 2 inch range should be utilized since the baitfish will be small at this time. As the summer progresses and the forage fish grow you can begin using larger lures.
Plugging for stripers is a run and gun proposition in which the angler is well advised to stay on the move seeking out actively feeding bass. The last hour of the incoming tide and the first hour of the out going offer shore pluggers the best opportunity, since this is when the bass will move within close proximity of the bank.
Fleeing baitfish, swirls and diving birds all betray the presence of feeding stripers. When you go fishing it is wise to carry a light weight pair of binoculars to help you spot promising signs such as these from a distance. If you discover no visible cues as to where feeding bass might be located, explore areas such as creek mouths, the ends of rocky points and the back corners of rip rap lined coves as these are the types of areas striper cruise in hopes of corralling prey.
One of the fundamental rules of striper plugging is to finish out your retrieve. This means retrieving the lure and being ready for a strike until the bait is lifted from the water. Stripers like to force prey up against shoreline structure when they attack. As a result, they have the heart-stopping tendency to grab lures right at your feet, when you least expect it.
While plugging for stripers offers excitement, targeting them with bait offers consistency across a broader spectrum of situations. When baitfish are not present stripers will happily feed on crabs, clams, marine worms, shrimp and a long list of other creepy crawlers that call the bay mud home. For this reason, bass cruising the mudflats will readily take a variety of baits including pile worms, ghost shrimp and cut anchovies to mention only a few. When presenting natural bait, the standard set up is a sliding sinker rig weighed with a 2 to 3 ounce weight and featuring a 24 inch 20 pound test leader tipped with a No. 2 bait holder hook.
When I was doing a lot of bay fishing I was often annoyed by small sharks and bat rays nipping at my striper baits. One day I had some clams left over from a delta catfish trip, so I decided to see if bay stripers would hit them. Not only did I find out that bass loved them, it also became quickly apparent that sharks and rays didn’t like them very much at all. Since that time, globs of clams have been my favorite bait when bank fishing for bay stripers.
Not that many years ago leopard sharks were considered trash fish by most anglers. Today after discovering the excellent table fair they offer leopards are considered gamefish, with a 36 inch minimum size restriction and 3 fish limit. In addition to the great eating they provide, leopards are ready strikers and put up a tremendous fight.
Shark fishing for bank anglers gets productive in early May and remains good until water temperatures drop in the fall. In the winter leopards retreat to deep water areas, but during the warm water months they will be found cruising the nutrient rich mudflats feeding on whatever is available. Tides are not that important when it comes to catching leopards. I’ve seen them feeding in shallow water that barely covered their backs.
For catching leopards, I use the same sliding sinker rig that I use for stripers except I incorporate a light 20 inch leader either made of cable or a 100 pound test monofilament tipped with a 9/0 circle hook. If standard leader material is used, the shark’s abrasive teeth will quickly wear through it. The circle hook prevents gut hooking the sharks, and allows unwanted leopards to be released unharmed.
For bait a lot of anglers rely on squid because it is cheap and effective. The downside with using squid is that it attracts a lot of small sharks and bat rays. In terms of availability and cost I have found no better bait than sardines. To use them I simply cut them in half and pin them on the hook. For me sardines have proven highly effective in drawing strikes for large sharks and bat rays, while the smaller fish tend to leave them alone. I’ve landed leopard sharks to 61 inches and bat rays in excess of 100 pounds while soaking sardines on the mudflats.