California Fishing: The Complete Guide

Jul 28, 2023 | 11 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 11 minutes

California could easily be considered the jewel of the United States. With over 800 miles of stunning Pacific coastline and beaches, more national parks than any other state, and year-round mild weather, there’s no limit to what you can do here. It’s hardly a surprise then, that fishing in California is a dream come true for anglers from all over the country, and beyond.

You might come here for a magical day in Disneyland or an iconic cablecar ride around the steep streets of San Francisco, but believe us when we say you’ll stay for the incredible angling action. Superb fishing is synonymous with both freshwater and saltwater angling in the Golden State. You’ll be hooked for life – pun intended!

But let’s see what makes fishing in California so incredible. In the following sections, we’ll examine the fish species you can find here, top hotspots, fishing seasons, rules and regulations, popular angling trips, and common fishing methods. There’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get started!

What are you interested in?

Best Catches in California

California is the third-largest state in the US and, as such, its offer is vast and diverse. Go after amazing Chinook Salmon in NorCal or battle the biggest Tuna of your life in SoCal, the choice is yours. From Lake Tahoe to San Clemente Island, the Golden State will prove that the wildest fishing ambitions can and do come true. Read on to discover the most coveted catches in California.

Top Catches in Northern California

Top Catches in Southern California

Best Freshwater Catches in California

You’ve had a glimpse of the most famous fish throughout the state. Now, let’s dive deeper and take a look at the prized freshwater catches first. While the deep blue’s celebrities steal the spotlight, California’s freshwater residents are equally deserving of your attention. So, here are the inland superstars of Cali’s fishing scene.

A photo featuring two anglers wearing jackets, caps, and sunglasses while standing on a charter fishing boat and holding a decent Sturgeon caught while fishing in California on a cold but sunny day
Photo taken by Barbarian Sportfishing
  • White Sturgeon: If trophy catches are on your radar, how do you feel about battling a White Sturgeon? These behemoths can grow to be up to 12 feet long and weigh more than 100 pounds! Overpower them, and you’ll feel invincible. The rivers of Northern California are their kingdom. To boost your chances of reeling them in, go Sturgeon fishing in January and February.
  • Golden Trout: While not as size-inspiring as White Sturgeon, Golden Trout are so important that they’ve easily taken the title of California’s Freshwater State Fish. Native to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Golden Trout are ultimate California gems. These 8″ fighters rule the rivers in summer and fall. Small but mighty, Golden Trout should find their place on your California freshwater to-catch list.
  • Striped Bass: In spring, Striped Bass start moving from the bays toward the Sacramento River and California Delta, which happen to provide some of the best Bass fishing spots in the state. Average Stripers are in the 5–10 pound range, but you can also find 40-pounders, especially in the Delta. Regardless of their size, Stripers will be ready to attack your lure and make you break a sweat.
  • Kokanee: These landlocked Salmon are on the menu in lakes and reservoirs throughout the state. Spring and summer are your go-to seasons for outsmarting Kokanee. Gear up with bright-colored lures, spinners, spoons, hoochies, and even a kernel of white corn if you want to grab their attention.
  • Largemouth Bass: No freshwater angling lineup is complete without Largemouth Bass. The reasons for this are numerous, but the most important one is that Largemouth Bass are excellent game fish. They’ll put your skills to the test and make you earn your catch. Spring and fall are the ideal seasons for pursuing Largemouth Bass in the California Delta.

Best Inshore and Nearshore Catches in California

California’s saltwater offer is unmatched by any other state on the West Coast. Be it the shallows or the deep blue waters, you’ll be in for a treat. Since there are more species than we can count, we’ll focus on the predominant saltwater game fish. Without further ado, let’s kick off your California fishing journey with the inshore and nearshore stars.

A photo featuring a beautiful Calico Bass being held with both hands up in the air above a charter boat and against Coronado Bridge in the background on a sunny day in California
Photo taken by Risen Tide Sportfishing
  • Calico Bass: If you ask any angler what fish is a must when fishing in California, the vast majority will tell you to go after Calico Bass. They’re synonymous with inshore fishing, especially in the SoCal region. While mostly a summer fish, you’ll find them camouflaged in the kelp beds year-round.
  • Chinook Salmon: The “King” of its species, Chinook is the star of both saltwater and freshwater fishing, and you can encounter them up and down the California coast. Spring and early summer are reserved for ocean Salmon fishing, anywhere from Crescent City to the Bay Area.
  • Halibut: Sure, Salmon pursuits are all the rage, but Halibut fishing isn’t lagging far behind either. These flatties are known for delicious meat and distinctive features. They can reach 9 feet in length and 500 pounds in weight! All this makes them worthy opponents and perfect dinner material.
  • Lingcod: Lingcod are fierce predators and rivals, and, as such, they’re a very much admired game fish in angling circles. They inhabit areas near kelp beds and rocky seafloors, and you can find them in various depths. But you can always lure them your way with crabs or squids.
  • Rockfish: While Rockfish are heavily monitored, anglers shouldn’t feel discouraged from pursuing them. In fact, you should be spurred on to find the key to outsmarting Rockfish! So far, live shrimp or Berkley Gulp near rocky bottoms in spring have proved to be winning combos.
  • Sharks. You can’t go California fishing without at least trying your luck at landing a Shark or two. These intimidating beasts are ideal for all adrenaline seekers coming to the Golden State. Leopard, Shortfin Mako, Thresher, Blue, and Hammerhead Sharks… you name it and California has it!

Best Big Game Catches in California

While they’re neighbors to the above-mentioned saltwater residents, these next beauties are so special that they deserve a category all to themselves. They’re the crème de la crème of California’s game fishing. If you thought that we already highlighted some celebrities, just wait to see what these big game catches have in store for you. We present you the deep blue royals:

A photo of a professional angler wearing a hat, a pair of sunglasses, a face fishing mask, and sun-protective clothing while standing on a charter boat and posing with a Tuna he caught while angling in California
Photo taken by Brothers Sport Fishing 
  • Tuna. SoCal is the cradle of Tuna fishing. Besides first-class Yellowfin Tuna action, you can also come face-to-gills with Albacore Tuna and Bluefin Tuna in San Diego. These giants love warm waters, so the best time to chase them is between May and October. To land a three-digit monster, you’ll have to head at least 20 miles offshore. Even then, you’ll want to be well-prepared for a serious clash with these titans.
  • Yellowtail Amberjack. Tuna might be the exotic trophy many anglers crave, but Yellowtail Amberjack are among everyone’s favorites. You’ll find these gorgeous fish around reefs and wrecks in deep waters all year. SoCal boasts a premium Amberjack fishery with Yellowtail coming in all sizes, so both beginners and pros can target them.
  • Billfish. No bluewater leviathans are as sought-after as Billfish. You can’t think of deep sea fishing without hoping to cross paths with these colossal beings. Luckily, the deep blue waters of California will bless you with not one but two prominent species. The spectacular acrobatic jumps of Striped Marlin and Swordfish are a reality when exploring the Pacific Ocean.
  • Mahi Mahi. Dolphin fish – more commonly known as Mahi Mahi – are regulars in these waters. Equally as vigorous as Billfish when hooked, Mahi Mahi will wear you down with their leaps and restless pulls. But you’ll prevail. And then you’ll have a cool story to tell and a picture-perfect catch to show off. Mahi Mahi patrol the offshore structures year-round, but they thrive in summer.
  • Barracuda. If you’re into fast and furious rivals, you can always go after Barracuda. Their razor-sharp teeth and piercing attitude has earned Barracuda a reputation as a scary fish. They frequent the fisheries off the California coast from April to October and, while they prefer the open waters, you can find them anywhere from the kelp beds to depths of 100 feet.

And More!

There’s simply not enough room to cover every single creature that can grace the end of your line when fishing in California. But this is great news! It means a non-stop angling action and screaming reels are guaranteed here. In case you’re wondering what else may pop up, here are a couple of freshwater and saltwater surprises.

A photo of an angler wearing a cap, a pair of sunglasses, and a jacket while standing on a charter fishing boat and posing with two Crabs – one in each hand – on a sunny but cold day
Photo taken by Pacific Angler Sportfishing

Lobster, Crabs, California Sheephead, White Seabass, and Garibaldi are among some of California’s most beloved saltwater fish. Garibaldi are so cherished around here that they’ve even officially been chosen as the Saltwater State Fish. As for additional freshwater catches, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, Brown Trout, and Lake Trout are common species when fishing inland in California. All in all – and as you can see – California is brimming with life.

California Fishing Seasons

While fishing in California is a year-round activity, not all species bloom at the same time. Some peak in spring like Bass, others such as Mahi Mahi prefer summer, whereas Trout shine in fall. Meanwhile, Rockfish, Lingcod, and Chinook Salmon follow strict seasons. This means that you won’t end up empty-handed whenever you visit.

However, you can always boost your odds of landing a trophy fish if you align your visit with your target’s peak season. Here’s an overview of the most commonly caught freshwater and saltwater species in California and their availability throughout the year:

California Freshwater Fishing Calendar

Species Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Largemouth Bass Weak Weak Good Good Great Great Good Good Good Weak Weak Weak
Brown Trout Good Good Great Great Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good
Sturgeon Great Great Great Good Good Weak Weak Weak Weak Good Great Great
Chinook Salmon Closed Closed Closed Closed Good Good Great Great Great Great Great Great
Smallmouth Bass Weak Weak Good Great Great Great Good Good Good Good Weak Weak
Striped Bass Good Good Great Great Good Good Good Good Good Great Great Good
Spotted Bass Weak Weak Weak Good Great Great Good Good Good Weak Weak Weak
Lake Trout Great Great Great Great Great Great Good Good Good Good Great Great

California Saltwater Fishing Calendar

Species Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Yellowtail Amberjack Weak Weak Good Good Good Great Great Great Great Great Good Weak
Mako Shark Weak Weak Weak Good Great Great Great Great Great Great Good Weak
California Sheephead Closed Closed Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Crab Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Weak Weak Weak Great Great
Halibut Good Good Good Great Great Great Great Weak Weak Good Good Good
Lingcod Closed Closed Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Rockfish Closed Closed Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Bluefin Tuna Weak Weak Weak Weak Good Great Great Good Good Weak Weak Weak

Best Fishing Spots in California

From family-oriented coastal fishing spots to remote big game fishing grounds, California welcomes both seasoned anglers and novices alike. It’s hard to resist the Golden State and slowly, but surely, you’re getting hooked, too. With the year-round angling playground that California is, how could you not?

Now that you know what fish await you here and when you can pursue them, let’s take a look at the hotspots you should check out. Brace yourself, there are a lot of prolific corners across the state. We’ll try to make your life easier by diving them into NorCal and SoCal.

Top NorCal Fishing Spots

Top SoCal Fishing Spots

California Fishing Techniques

With a multitude of fish species and angling grounds at your disposal, it comes naturally that you’ll have a plethora of fishing techniques to choose from as well. We’ll outline some of the most common inshore, nearshore, and offshore angling methods in California below. They might help you decide how you want to explore these waters, especially if you’re visiting for the first time.

  • Deep sea fishing: Deep sea fishing is probably the most exciting and most efficient way to conquer the bluewater of California. It allows you to troll for Mahi Mahi, Marlin, and Tuna and stand up to them on the open offshore waters. You can also reach the Pacific Ocean’s depths and bottom fish for Rockfish. One thing is certain – deep sea fishing promises memorable battles.
  • Spearfishing: If you’re curious to literally dive deeper and find out more about California’s underwater world, then spearfishing is ideal for you. There’s no limit to what you could catch – from Halibut and Calico Bass to California Sheephead and Yellowtail, a wide array of targets is in the cards. There are, however, some species you can’t spearfish for (e.g. Spiny Lobster). Big Sur, Breakwater Cove, Huntington Flats, and Catalina Island are the top spearfishing spots to check out.
  • Pier fishing: Pier fishing is more flexible than you might think and it can yield plenty of catches, which is why so many people love it. Add to that the fact that you can fish for free on some ocean piers… what’s not to like? San Diego, in particular, is famous for its pier fishing opportunities. You can reel in anything from Calico Bass to Barracuda.
  • Fly fishing: California is a fly fishing mecca. The entirety of NorCal could be dubbed a haven for all fly fishing enthusiasts out there! With miles of shoreline and superb freshwater fisheries under its umbrella, it’s not surprising at all that fly fishing is a popular way to go. There’s no doubt about it, California is perfect for fly fishing and testing your skills, especially against prized Trout.

The list doesn’t end here. You can always explore the inshore, nearshore, and offshore waters with a charter operator and try out staple California fishing techniques like mooching and boondoggling. Surf casting, wading, and kayak fishing are also possible. Truth be told, it comes down to what makes you tick. So, feel free to try out more than one approach and see what works best for you.

Fishing Trips in California

When it comes to booking your California fishing adventure, you should know that just about any trip under the sun is available. Be it a 2-hour party boat excursion or a multi-day Tuna expedition hundreds of miles from the land, California’s got you covered!

Inshore trips usually last between 2 and 4 hours and are geared toward beginners and families. This, however, doesn’t mean that professional anglers can’t book a 6 hour or full day inshore trip if their preference is to target species such as Sharks, Halibut, or Calico Bass. But shorter adventures are most commonly booked by novices and people who would like to wet a line or two while on their vacation.

Offshore trips are reserved for thrill seekers and seasoned anglers in pursuit of their next record-breaking catch. Spending between 8 and 24 hours offshore while chasing Tuna is no small feat. But it’s certainly worth it!

Besides the shallows and open waters, you can cast your line inland, too. You can opt for a specialized fly fishing Trout trip or a drift fishing Salmon adventure and you’ll be in for a treat. Be it a river, lake, or pond, California has the right trip for you.

California Fishing Regulations

Before you start enjoying your fishing vacation, it’s important to learn about fishing regulations in California. Unless fishing from a public pier, all anglers over the age of 16 need to have a valid angling permit. This goes for both freshwater and saltwater angling. Regardless of whether you’re going out with a guide or solo, you’ll still need to buy a California fishing license.

It’s also important to respect bag, size, and season limits. Bear in mind that some species like Sturgeon and Steelhead require special report cards as well. Make sure to have everything sorted before casting a line, so that you can enjoy fishing in peace.

Fishing in California FAQs

Comments (6)

Daniel R.

Oct 26, 2021

thanks for sharing your tips and places.
im from Germany and im in January back in SoCal.
wich kind of species is good to fish in winter ? Bass are probably not that active or in deeper waters in winter. Without Boat i think i have no chance.
Any recommandations?`
THX alot

Leave a reply
NameRequired *
Your comment Required *

  • Reply icon


    Oct 27, 2021

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for reaching out. If you’re dead-set on freshwater fishing in SoCal, you might want to try some of the lakes. For example, Lake Casitas in Ventura county and Lake Perris in Riverside County both have good Bass fishing all the way through February.

    Hope this helps, tight lines!


    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *


Sep 29, 2021

Hey, Adriana–

Would it be possible to get your permission to use the Bodega Bay photo as the basis for a painting? It’s really a nice view!

Leave a reply
NameRequired *
Your comment Required *

  • Reply icon


    Sep 30, 2021

    Hi Steve,

    Rhys here, in for Andriana. Thanks for reading. You can absolutely use the Bodega Bay photo as the base for your painting. Good luck with it and feel free to share it with us when you’re done!

    Tight lines,

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *


Mar 4, 2021

It is illegal to spear any lobster or crab in California, yet you have a picture condoning just that!!

Leave a reply
NameRequired *
Your comment Required *

  • Reply icon


    Mar 5, 2021

    Hi Darrel,

    Thank you for reading and for pointing out the spearfishing photo. I just changed it for a more suitable option and added a sentence about Lobster fishing regulations, just to make things very clear for our readers.

    I hope you have a wonderful day!

    Leave a reply
    NameRequired *
    Your comment Required *

Leave a reply
NameRequired *
Your comment Required *