San Francisco Fishing: The Complete Guide

Aug 1, 2022 | 9 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 9 minutes

The beauty of the Golden City, where nature and civilization co-exist in ease, is something to be witnessed. Cradled by the prolific San Francisco Bay, with the Pacific Ocean but a short boat ride away, this city was built on its immense fishing opportunities from the get-go. These days, fishing in San Francisco is as popular as ever, and how could it not be?

The weather is gorgeous year-round, and let’s be honest, so are the fish. Anglers from all over the country may come for the sights, but they’ll stay for the fishing action. It doesn’t matter if you prefer pier fishing, surf casts, or going off with a charter – San Francisco offers all that and so much more.

Top Catches in San Francisco

San Franciscans love the variety of fish species they have at their disposal and they’re big on seafood. Not only are most of the fish super fun to catch, but they’re also super tasty, and that makes every day on the water doubly awesome.

Anything from fly fishing for Striped Bass to deep sea fishing for Tuna is on the menu. Is there that one special fish that everyone wants? Possibly. Do you have good chances of hooking a trophy? Definitely! Read on for our short overview of top catches in San Francisco.

It All Starts With Striped Bass

If ever there was “a fish of the people,” it must be Striped Bass! You can be a beginner, a pro, or on the water with your youngsters, and you’ll enjoy going after Stripers. Fishing for this species is open all year, but it’s important to keep their spawning runs in mind.

A man holding a big Striped Bass, standing on a boat, with the Golden Gate Bridge and water in the distance

Head to the city in the summer and fall, when Stripers come back to the bay after their spawning season. Bass love brackish waters and wherever a river or a stream flows into the bay, they’ll be there too.

Drift fishing with live bait is a foolproof way to get the attention of these feisty fighters, especially if you use anchovies, shad, or shiner perch. Locals recommend keeping your bait close to the bottom and carefully choosing a sinker to match the currents. You can land Stripers from beaches and piers, but you’ll find the best bite if you cast your line from a boat.

Chinook Salmon – Everyone’s Favorite

Remember how we talked about SF’s favorite fish? Well, it’s no secret that Chinook, aka the “King” of all Salmon, is the most prized catch here. In fact, the whole Bay Area is known for its exquisite wild Chinook, which is open for fishing from May–October.

A man in a cap and sunglasses holding a big Chinook Salmon with water and cloudy skies in the background

You can go after Salmon in the bay or head into the open ocean waters. The choice is yours. At the beginning of the season, it’s generally better to go further out and look for patches of “dirty water,” because that’s where the fish congregate and feed. In the heat of the summer, you don’t have to go further than the bay – the bite is superb, and you could easily land a trophy.

Trolling is the name of the game when it comes to Salmon fishing in San Francisco, though every angler has their own philosophy when it comes to picking and presenting the bait. Chinook rely on their sense of smell when they’re hunting, so using dead bait like herring and anchovy will certainly get their attention.

And when you get that King on the line, you’d better be ready for a fight. Don’t worry, the reward will be well worth the effort!

Halibut – the Flatty of Our Hearts

If we’re talking about the famous fish of San Francisco, we have to mention Halibut. They’re fun to reel in, they’re tasty, and they can be huge – all the signs of a great catch. You can target both California and Pacific Halibut in these waters, just remember that their seasonalities differ.

Six smiling anglers, sitting on a boat, holding their Halibut catches

California Halibut (more closely related to Flounder than Halibut) is available for fishing year-round. Their Pacific relatives can be caught from May–November, but there are usually several closed periods within the season, so be sure to double-check the regulations before you hit the waves.

If you stay within the San Francisco Bay, you’ll be chasing California Halibut. These guys are generally smaller than Pacific Halis, but a lot of people claim they taste better. Also known as “chicken” Halibut, they can weigh anywhere from 10–50 pounds, and you can find them all over the bay. The peak season is usually from April–September when large Halis come closer to shore to spawn and hang out in warm waters.

To land a Pacific Halibut, your best bet is the ocean waters, where you can snatch some real monsters. We’re talking hundreds of pounds, bigger-than-an-average-human, doormat Halibut. If you think you’ve got what it takes, then get ready for a hunt of your life.

Lingcod and Rockfish – Two for the Price of One

Both Rockfish and Lingcod live in pretty much the same places, they’re not much to look at, and they make for fabulous table fare. That’s why anglers often target them as a package deal, because when you hook one, the other won’t be far behind. They also share their open season, and you’re allowed to catch them from March until the end of the year.

A smiling fisherman holding a Lingcod with blue skies and water in the background

When it comes to bottom sea fishing in San Francisco, you’ll hardly find a more popular duo than Lingcod and Rockfish. Even though they’re not lookers, they do make for top-notch sparring partners. These fellas stick to the ocean floor and pulling them up from down there is a challenge because they’re relentless fighters.

The good news is that they’re gluttonous, so they’ll gobble down just about anything you throw at them. Squid, anchovies, and sardines seem to work the best and are perfect for enticing your prey. Beginner anglers should try their luck in the waters that are 100–150 feet deep, while seasoned fishermen can look for these peculiar bottom dwellers in up to 300 feet.

White Sturgeon – the One for the Bucket List

Fishing in San Francisco has many levels and if you’re ready to reach new angling heights, then Sturgeon is your fish. There’s no fish that’s more strange looking and more acrobatic than White Surgeon, and when you combine all that with the sheer power of their bite, you’ve got a worthy opponent.

A smiling woman in with a cap, standing on a boat, holding a White Sturgeon with water in the background

These fish liked their look so much that they haven’t changed for many millennia, and just by looking at it, you know you’re dealing with a different kind of beast. Sturgeon can grow to be up to 12 feet long and weigh several hundred pounds. Having a monster like that on the line is not for the faint of heart. There are also plenty of smaller specimens in the bay if you want to start off easy.

Sturgeon fishing season is open year-round, with the peak time from November–March. They prefer colder waters, and during the winter, you can even catch them from some piers. Their diet changes depending on the season, but they’ll always go for nice squid, smelt, night crawlers, and sand shrimp.

Bear in mind that Sturgeon fishing is strictly regulated in California, and you’re allowed to keep only one per year. If you’re targeting Sturgeon in San Francisco Bay for the first time, help from an experienced local is all but necessary in order to get to the best spots.

Types of Fishing in San Francisco

Just like there’s an abundance of fish to chase, there’s plenty of ways to do it. When you come to Fog City, how and where you’ll cast your line depends solely on your preferences. Here are some of the most frequent and productive types of fishing to explore.

Surf Fishing in San Francisco

Two anglers fishing on a beach on a cloudy day

Going to the beach and spending a day in quiet contemplation with frequent fishing action is something a lot of locals live for. You can hit the shore any time of year, and there will be something to catch. That’s why surf fishing is such a big deal in San Francisco.

There are loads of species you could find at the end of your line, and the most common catch is Surf Perch. Fishermen often go out solely to land their share of this tasty fish, that can be cooked on the grill right there, on the beach.

The bay waters could also treat you to nice Halibut, Striped Bass, Leopard Sharks, and even Salmon and White Seabass. Surf fly fishing for Stripers is a blast in the summer months if you know where to go.

Another perk of surf fishing is that you don’t need a lot to have a great fishing day. Basic spinning gear, a variety of lures, a cooler for your catches (and some cold drinks), and some patience. Then, all you have to do is wait for the magic to happen.

Pier Fishing in San Francisco

San Francisco pier after sunset with a city panorama in the distance

If there’s one thing SF isn’t lacking, it’s piers. In fact, the city has so many piers, that it’s famous for it. Follow Embarcadero Street and you can take your pick from over a dozen piers at your disposal. Chances are, you’ll check out Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf first, but don’t forget about other options you’ve got in the neighborhood.

When you get there, you’ll see anglers lined up and down the piers, all in search of Halibut, Perch, and Striped Bass. Sharks are also out there, and you can even do some night-time crabbing for a fantastic seafood dinner.

Some of the top fishing spots to check out include Pacifica Pier and Pier 7. The best part – fishing is free and you don’t need a fishing license. And when you’ve had your fill of fishing for one day, head to Pier 39 for some light shopping and to visit the adorable sea lions.

Fishing With a Charter

A fishing boat on the water, with anglers fishing on it

Some anglers prefer hitting the water with professionals who know the local waters like the back of their hand – it’s a good way to ensure a productive trip. The good news is that when you go fishing in San Francisco, there are dozens of charters to choose from. That means that there’s something for every taste and appetite.

Private trips with a fishing guide are the most popular choice, especially among first-comers. Half day excursions will keep you in the bay, targeting Bass, Halibut, Salmon, and White Seabass. You could also book a spot on a party boat and make new friends while reeling in your catch.

Full day options are great for more experienced fishermen because you get to go beyond the Gate and chase bottom dwellers like Lingcod, Rockfish, as well as massive Chinook Salmon. During the summer, you can venture further offshore to come face to gills with Albacore Tuna, the ultimate catch of the area.

Top Fishing Spots in San Francisco

A fishing boat marina in San Francisco, with a lot boats moored on the clear water and blue skies

Now that we know what fish we can find and how we can catch them, it’s time to talk about the best fishing spots in and around the city. There’s a slew of them to choose from, and where you go will depend on what you’d like to fish for and for how long.

  • Fisherman’s Wharf. This is probably the most popular fishing spot in San Francisco, and you’ll hardly find better pier action anywhere else. Sharks, Striped Bass, Perch, and Flounder are all in the cards, and on a good day, you might even have a showdown with a Sturgeon.
  • Berkeley Flats. If you’d like to step away from the city center and try out less localized fisheries, Berkeley Flats is the place for you. You’ll see a good share of boats on the water here, all in search of good-sized Halibut, Striped Bass, and White Seabass.
  • Marin Islands. Come to this Natural Wildlife Refuge, and you get to combine excellent fishing with bird-watching. Rockfish reign supreme in these waters, but Striped Bass, Lingcod, and Halibut follow close behind. This is the perfect spot for a full day fishing trip.
  • Candlestick Park. This is the fishing spot for all outdoor enthusiasts. The park is actually a huge recreational area with hiking trails and two fishing piers. The usual suspects you can catch here include Flounder, Perch, Striped Bass, and massive Sturgeon.
  • The Farallon Islands. We can’t talk about fishing in San Francisco without mentioning the Farallones. If you’re in the mood for premier Lingcod, Rockfish, and Halibut action, you’ll have to travel 30 miles offshore to get to the islands. The bite is fantastic, and the only question is – are you brave enough to fish around the Devil’s Teeth Islands?

Fishing License and Regulations

Signage signalling the sale of bait, tackle, and fishing licenses.

Whether you decide to go fishing on your own or with a charter, the one thing you need to think about is your fishing license. Any person that’s 16 and older should have a valid California fishing license with them at all times.

If you’re fishing from a public pier, you don’t need a license, but you do need to abide by the state fishing regulations. Anglers looking to hook and keep a Sturgeon need to buy a Sturgeon Report Card along with their fishing license.

Fishing in San Francisco – It Doesn’t Get Better Than This

A panorama of San Francisco with the Bay Bridge

If there ever was a place that perfectly combines a great city vacation with even better fishing times, it must be San Francisco. The City By The Bay is one of those places that you simply must have on your bucket list, and we promise you, its unique charm and fishing abundance will steal your heart forever.

Have you ever fished San Francisco’s waters? Do you have tips and tricks to share? What’s your favorite spot? Share your impressions in the comments below.

Comments (15)
  • Timothy Weiss

    Mar 24, 2022

    No boat. Handicapped. Must fish from shore the piers are ok but to many people. Any good shore spots. Cat walk far…

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      Vuk

      Mar 24, 2022

      Hi Timothy,

      Thanks for getting in touch. Have you tried fishing at any parks, say Port View Park or Heron’s Head Park? Those might be less crowded than the piers. Hope this helps a bit.

      Tight lines,
      Vuk

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  • Shaun Neal

    May 28, 2021

    I fish the Farallon Islands almost monthly, pulling up 14, 15 and 19 pound Lingcod from 300 feet is a job. Pulling up doubles of rockfish from the same depths, you’ll feel it the next day but it’s so worth it seeing other sealife while being out there.

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      Andriana

      May 28, 2021

      Hi Shaun,

      Wow, that sounds like a workout for sure, but one that’s well worth the effort when you get that Lingcod into the boat. You’re right, the Farallons are an excellent fishing spot, but they’re also so much more.

      I hope you have many more productive days around the islands, Shaun.

      Tight lines!

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  • Rick

    Mar 10, 2021

    If you want to try fly fishing for stripers, you’ll need a boat to fish the Flats between the Bay Bridge and Emeryville/foot of Powell street. The flats are very shallow (2-4 ft) and you want to fish the last 2 hrs of the incoming tide. First, troll the flats with a hair raiser jig until you get hits. Since stripers are a schooling fish, mark and fly cast to that area. Work from shallow to deeper water. Use a white and blue or black minnow type fly. Good luck!

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      Andriana

      Mar 11, 2021

      Hi Rick,

      Thanks for the awesome Striper tips you shared, local insight is always welcome.

      Have a wonderful day!

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      Jim Gifford

      Mar 19, 2021

      I have a 18ft ski boat that I use for fishing, would it work in the S.F.Bay

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      Andriana

      Mar 22, 2021

      Hi Jim,

      From what we know, you’re allowed to fish from a ski boat on the bay, as long as you have all the necessary licenses. Make sure to pick the right spots for the species you’d like to target, the appropriate gear (local anglers could help a lot when choosing the right tackle), and a day with good weather so that you don’t have to wrestle the waves.

      Hope you have many great fishing days on the beautiful SF Bay!

      Andriana

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      Ron trotter

      Apr 11, 2022

      I do it all the time just watch for when sail boats start showing up means its time to go

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  • Kris Moe

    Feb 19, 2021

    New to realizing what amazing fishing opportunities there is in the bay and our coast. I’m hooked and your blog is a good read. Thanks for sharing.

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      Andriana

      Feb 22, 2021

      Key Kris,

      Thanks for reading, I’m happy you liked the article. You’re 100% right, the fishing in the Bay and in San Francisco is fantastic, both when it comes to diversity and quantity of fish.

      I’m sure you’ll have a blast exploring the area, feel free to always share your impressions and catches with us.

      Tight lines,
      Andriana

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  • Peadie

    Dec 9, 2020

    I Grew Up Here In The Bay And Been Fishing It My Entire Life. I Have Fished and Hunted For Each and Every Species The Bay Offers. I Really Like Your Blog and It Is Very Informative To Those Who Havnt Had The Pleasure of Enjoying The Fishery of SF Bay and The Pacific. One of My Favorite Species As A Kid To Fish For Was Rubber Lip Perch, Porgies and The Entire Perch Family. This I Feel Would Be Great For Kids Just Starting Out and They Are Also A Real Fight on Light Tackle. Thank You Again For The Good Reading I Will Continue To Read and Share.

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      Andriana

      Dec 9, 2020

      Hi Peadie,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words, I’m happy you like our blog, especially because you’ve got so much fishing experience in the Bay. Thanks for the tip about the best species for kids to catch, I agree, there’s plenty for the little ones to get started on and it’s a blast to catch them.

      All the best,
      Andriana

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  • Georg A Gottschalk

    Sep 27, 2020

    Hello! Are there guides who can help us learn fishing in SF Bay on our own boat?
    We have a Catalina 36 in South Beach Harbor and would love to learn techniques, equipment, and sites available to a boat with 5-6 knots top speed.

    Thank you!

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      Andriana

      Sep 29, 2020

      Hi Georg,

      Thanks for reading!

      When it comes to fishing with a guide in San Francisco Bay, it’s usually done with a charter company, with the use of the captain’s boat and equipment included in the price of the trip. There may be locals who offer just their guiding services, but from what I know, it’s not that common. It might be worth getting in touch with a charter captain in the area you want to fish in and checking if they would be willing to provide their service on your boat.

      I hope this helps.

      Tight lines!

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