A Complete Guide to Salmon Fishing in the Bay Area
Mar 12, 2021 | 7 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Happy fishermen on a Salmon fishing trip in the Bay Area
First class Salmon fishing action in 3…2…1!

If you’ve never experienced the Salmon fishing the Bay Area has to offer, you might be wondering what the hubbub is about. Well, some say that the Salmon runs around the Golden Gate Bridge and along the coast of Marin County give Alaska’s Salmon fishery a run for its money. That alone speaks volumes.

Generations of fishermen in the Bay Area have dedicated their lives to pursuing (the sometimes elusive) Salmon, and finding this amazing fish is in their blood. And after you’ve given it a try, chances are you’ll be hooked, too.

In California, the state of sunshine and Hollywood, the fishing action is nothing less than stellar. If you’re looking for your next angling adventure, the Bay Area is a great place to start.

Salmon Species in the Bay Area

Three anglers holding their daily limit of Chinook Salmon in the Bay Area

Among the five species of Pacific Salmon you can encounter on the West Coast, Chinook (King) Salmon reign supreme in the broader Bay Area. You can also spot Coho (Silver) Salmon here and there, but they’re a much less common sight than the King.

The Salmon season usually starts in April (the dates change every year) and lasts until October, at least for sportfishing. Because of the worrying decline in spawning Salmon in the last decade, commercial fishermen have much more restricted regulations and seasonality.

The Short Story of the Mighty Salmon

Chinook Salmon swimming upstream a waterfall
Salmon swimming upstream is one of the most unusual sights you’ll come across.

Salmon are anadromous fish – they’re born in freshwater, but soon go into the ocean to feed and grow. They then return to their home waters to spawn. Their astonishing physical ability to adjust to such different conditions makes them unique.

Most fish can’t survive the change in salinity and water temperature, but not juvenile Salmon (also known as smolts). Once they’ve hatched and spent some time in freshwater, they seek out food around the Cordell Bank and Farallon Islands, where they stay until they’re fully grown.

After two or three years, Salmon are ready to go back home and spawn. There are debates about how exactly Salmon find their way home with such accuracy. These species are famous for their epic migration upstream to reach their spawning grounds and final resting place.

For Coho Salmon, home is Lagunitas Creek and other tributaries at Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Kings prefer the waters of the Klamath and Trinity River for spawning. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River system is their top destination in the fall. While going upstream, Salmon use astonishing amounts of energy which causes them to take on bright and varied patterns, depending on the species.

The females make gravel nests (called redds) to lay their eggs, which males then fertilize. Up to seven days after this final act, the Salmon die, but their role in the ecosystem doesn’t end there. Their bodies then serve as food for animals and their remains keep the rivers and streams fertilized.

When it comes to Salmon, their impact on everything from economy to culture can’t be overstated. It’s hardly a surprise that the area around the San Pablo, Suisun, and San Francisco Bay estuaries rely so heavily on their survival and abundance.

The Migration of Salmon in the Bay Area

Gif showing the migration patterns of Chinook Salmon in the Bay Area

Salmon that migrate into the rivers and creeks of the Bay Area trickle down both from the north (Tomales Bay) and work their way up from the south (Santa Barbara) of California. On their long journey, they pass spots that are known for their superb Salmon productivity – San Francisco Bay, Marin County’s coastline, Tiburon Peninsula, Half Moon Bay, and many more.

After that, they start their long upstream travels to countless freshwater streams and rivers, Sacramento River being the most popular fishery among many. Here’s an overview of just a few of the most productive Salmon fishing grounds.

Where to Go Salmon Fishing in the Bay Area

From April to mid-October (dates change every season), certain parts of the Bay Area become the ultimate playground for Salmon fishermen. Most of these spots are “interception fisheries,” which makes the angling experience all the more exciting, if somewhat uncertain. It takes the right mix of local knowledge, skill, and luck to take you to the Salmon hookups you’ve dreamed of.

The Farallon Islands

Waves crashing around the rocks of the Farallon Islands

You’ll find the Farallon Islands some 35 miles from San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a well-known hotspot among local guides both because it offers excellent deep sea fishing opportunities and Salmon action. You will find the best bite right in between the mainland and the islands. Want more options in this area? Right offshore from Stinson Beach and around Duxbury Reef is the place to be for some wild Salmon action.

Half Moon Bay

Fishing boats in the Half Moon Bay Marina

When you mention Half Moon Bay to any fisherman in the Bay Area, they’ll immediately know you’ve set your sights on catching Chinook Salmon. This bay is particularly productive in the first months of the Salmon run, when anglers from all over the country flock here to fish for Kings. These fishing grounds are rich in the bait fish Salmon feed on, and they’re close to a range of hotspots like Davenport and Pigeon Point to the south and the Golden Gate Bridge to the north.

San Francisco Bay

A fishing rod with a view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge

One of the best places to fish for Chinook Salmon on the West Coast is San Francisco Bay. In the summer and fall months, you’ll get the chance to chase King Salmon with a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and that sight alone should be enough to have you reaching for your rod.

There’s a route that Salmon take through the bay to their spawning grounds, dubbed “The Salmon Highway.” It’s one of the best fishing grounds for trolling in the bay, and for good reason. This is a great chance to land massive 20–40 lb Chinook that will fight you for every inch of the line. The effort will be well worth it!

The Salmon Highway runs from the Marin County coast all the way past the Golden Gate Bridge and Tiburon Peninsula to the Carquinez Strait. If you cast your line at the right time of the season, the Highway will yield an excellent catch. From there, Salmon are en route to the Sacramento River, where they will spawn in its numerous streams and tributaries.

Pillar Point Harbor is one of the best known spots here when you’re looking to hook your next trophy King. If you can’t wait for the Salmon season to start, Half Moon Bay is the place to be in April and May.

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

The aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

On the eastern border of the Bay Area stands the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, or simply “the Delta” among locals. This fishery doesn’t need much introduction, as it’s one of the best places to catch your Salmon limit. This mix of freshwater from the Sacramento River and saltwater from the Pacific Ocean is a significant crossroad in the Chinook Salmon migration. From here, the fish branch out to the river tributaries to find their birthplace and make their spawning nests. You’ll have the most success casting your line around the depressions in the riverbed and deep tidal waters where Salmon like to hide.

Bay Area Salmon Fishing Techniques

A fisherman holding a good-sized Chinook Salmon with beautiful nature in the background

Generations of fishermen in the Bay Area have developed foolproof ways to get Salmon to bite. Trolling and all its “relatives” work best here, but it’s the choice of the right live bait that is a game-changer. Another trick is to start your trip with a variety of setups dropped at different depths. So let’s focus on different trolling tactics that will prove most efficient in your hunt.

Drift Mooching

Drift mooching for Salmon in the inshore waters is a recipe for success in the summer months. Your boat will slowly drift with the current, with fishing lines rigged with dead bait dropped beneath the vessel. If you’re looking for quality over quantity of fish, then drift mooching is a good approach. Follow the state fishing regulations, and use barbless circle hooks while mooching.

Trolling with Downriggers

When you’re fishing for Salmon, following the schools of bait fish is a foolproof way to get on the bite. Trolling with downriggers is one of the most precise techniques to use when you’re fishing different depths. You can cover a lot of water by using two lines on each downrigger, in various depths. Combine that with slowly circling the school of bait fish and it’s only a matter of time before the rods will start springing up. Chinook Salmon won’t be able to resist herring and frozen anchovies on your line.

How to Prepare for a Day of Salmon Fishing

A happy child holding a massive Chinook Salmon

The Bay Area fishery is all the more appealing because you won’t need any special preparations before your trip. Local guides will provide their invaluable expertise, as well as all the necessary fishing tackle, live bait, and lures. Some of them will even clean the catch for you after the trip.

Everyone in your fishing group age 16 and older needs to have a valid California fishing license with them. Your captain will explain the local laws and regulations you need to abide by, and these can change from area to area. Because the weather can change quickly, bring rain gear and dress in layers to protect yourself from the cold. If you’re going on longer (8+ hours) trips, don’t forget to pack plenty of food and drinks, you’re going to need it.

The Salmon fishing the Bay Area is famous for is coming back with a bang. As the Salmon population begins to grow every year, so does the enthusiasm of avid anglers. Once you feel the tug of a headstrong King on your line, your fishing priorities will shift forever.

Are you thinking about going Salmon fishing in the Bay Area? Do you have any advice for first-timers? We’re excited to hear your stories in the comments section!

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Comments (6)
  • Erik

    Apr 6, 2021

    Great article Adriana! I am a new angler thanks to the pandemic…turned out to be a favorite hobby. I now have the Sea-Doo Fish Pro which works great, just somewhat limited. I cannot fish in the Bay due to local laws and best to avoid Monterey Bay due to all the restrictions/limited jet ski areas. However, once 1,200 feet off shore, I am okay in other areas in the Pacific Ocean.

    Based on your helpful map, did I understand correctly that during April, it’s best to Salmon fish off the peninsula near Drakes Bay and or off Pillar Point or towards the Moss Beach area?

    Do you know how far off shore it’s recommended as well as the typical depth ranges?

    Thanks for the interesting read.

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      Apr 6, 2021

      Hi Erik,

      Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked the article. Fishing is one of the best hobbies you could take on right now, you can have a lot of fun without worrying about anything else.

      As for where Salmon are in April, you’re right, you can find them off Pillar Point in April, this is one of the Salmon’s “entry points.” The only thing is that you would need to go pretty far off, usually some 12 miles, you would pass the Deep Reef at this point (these coordinates could help, but they’re not definitive guidelines – 37.21.30 / 122.37.03).

      Another option is to explore the 40-fathom line that you’ll find on the outside of N Buoy, then slowly head south while trolling for Salmon. It’s important for the weather to be calm and not too windy, so it would be good to check the weather forecast before you go. Make sure you’re comfortable going this far offshore as well.

      I wish you the best of luck on your Salmon fishing adventure, Erik!

      Tight lines!

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  • Sam I.

    Feb 27, 2021

    I enjoyed your article. Thank you! Is there anywhere you can try for salmon from the beach? Best time? Bait or fly? I am an old striper surf guy, but have never tried for salmon.

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      Mar 1, 2021

      Hi Sam,

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you liked the article, it means a lot coming from a local fisherman.

      When it comes to Salmon fishing from the beach, I don’t think you’ll have a lot of luck casting from beaches, Salmon don’t particularly like those shallow waters. A good alternative is pier fishing which, while not as productive as casting from a boat, can still yield decent catches.

      Later in the summer, as Salmon prepare for their spawning run, you can find Chinook swimming quite close to piers, and this is your opportunity to catch some. They usually weigh around 5–10 pounds. Pacifica Pier, though not that close to the bay, is one of the all-time favorite spots for Salmon fishing.

      Point Pinole Pier is another good spot, not to mention that the park is gorgeous and perfect for a day in nature. The water here is quite deep so you can find Salmon on their route to spawning grounds. You can also go to Sausalito, piers there offer decent action in the summer. Moore Road Pier and Fort Baker are your best options.

      Live bait is the way to go when fishing for Salmon from piers. Anchovies work very well, as well as sardines, grass shrimp, and herring. Make the most of the incoming tides, and use a bobber to fish about three feet under the water’s surface.

      I hope you enjoy Salmon fishing, let us know how pier fishing works out for you.

      Tight lines!

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  • Chris W

    Feb 9, 2021

    I enjoyed reading your salmon page. I fished and deckhanded on my uncle’s Sausalito party boats from the 1950s to early 1990s. Strictly salmon from Half Moon Bay to Farallones to the light bucket and so on. Sometimes we fished up into Suisuin and even Franks Tract. Great reading brought back pleasant memory.

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      Feb 9, 2021

      Hello Chris,

      Thanks for reading and even more for your kind words – coming from a professional angler, it means the world.

      Wow, your fishing career is impressive, you must have had some incredible experiences on the water. I’m happy that the article brought back some happy memories, the charm and beauty of the Bay Area are truly something special.

      All the best!

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