Southern California Fishing: The Complete Guide

Oct 26, 2022 | 11 minute read
Reading Time: 11 minutes

When you think of SoCal, you’re probably thinking of popular, bustling beaches like Santa Monica and the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills, right? Well, you wouldn’t be wrong. You already know that the bottom third of the Sunshine State is diverse. But quite how diverse is sure to amaze you. One way to discover it is by exploring the Southern California fishing scene.

A view from a hill of Dana Point marina on a sunny day

From the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River, there’s plenty of angling action. From big offshore fishing boats to quiet stream spots, via bays, lakes, and more, fishing here is anything you want it to be. And that’s why we’re here today. By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll be reaching for your rod and reel and heading toward this incredible holiday destination. So let’s dive in. 

Where to Go Fishing in Southern California

With such a range of options on offer, it makes sense to start with an overview of your angling possibilities. We’ll take you through some of the best saltwater and freshwater locales, letting you in on a few secrets that make casting a line in SoCal so great. 

Saltwater Fishing

There’s no point beating around the bush, so we’re just gonna come out and say it. Saltwater fishing in Southern California is incredible. If you’re an avid angler, you must give it a try. Seriously, it’s up there with the best in the world. Don’t believe us? We’ll just let the range of spots do the talking. 

A view across the marina towards an old building on Catalina Island on a sunny day

From kelp beds and flats, to reefs, islands, and the mighty Pacific Ocean, there’s something for every kind of angler. If you’re a beginner or coming with the family, try your luck inshore. Up for some stunning scenery? Hit Catalina or San Clemente Island. Or, if you’re looking for that big game adventure, go out to the continental shelf, where Billfish, Tuna, and other pelagics may be biting. 

With warm weather almost guaranteed throughout the year, there’s never a bad time to come fishing. Something will always be biting and you better believe that the bustling seaside towns and cities never let up. Combine your angling adventure with a trip to Disney World, Universal Studios, or even just the good old beach. SoCal caters to all tastes.

Best Saltwater Fishing Spots in SoCal

An infographic with a map of Southern California showing the top saltwater fishing spots against a blue background

With that in mind, we’re sure you’d like to know exactly where to go, and for what. While anywhere along the Pacific coast promises serious action, here are our picks for where you should go:

  • Santa Barbara Bay. Starting from the north, Santa Barbara is a great place for an inshore or nearshore fishing voyage. Bottom-dwelling favorites like Halibut, Seabass, and Rockfish are aplenty, with Crabbing an additional option for the kids. 
  • Los Angeles. The City of Angels is no secret for many reasons, and angling here is simply incredible. Explore the shallows out of Long Beach. Discover the flats around Huntington – and don’t forget its impressive pier. Or, head offshore from Dana Point. Los Angeles is even more diverse than you’d imagine.
  • San Diego. The only place, probably in the whole of California, to rival Los Angeles for diversity is San Diego. With its namesake bay, along with Mission Bay, it’s already a haven for anglers. But it also boasts quick access to the deep blue. Choose from Catalina or San Clemente Islands, or even head to the Coronados in Mexico. Just don’t forget your passport! 
  • Catalina and San Clemente Islands. Just 20 miles out from the mainland, these two gems deserve a mention of their own. While tourists can enjoy the unspoiled beaches, prized fish just love the foliage and bait fish nearby. We’re talking Lingcod, Calico Bass, Sand Bass, Seabass, and Rockfish. And that’s before you reach Yellowtails, Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and more. 

Freshwater Fishing

A view from a hill of a bridge connecting Arizona and California across the Colorado River on a sunny day

If the rich waters of the Pacific weren’t enough to tempt you to SoCal, maybe the range of freshwater options will be. We’ll start with the Colorado River – if only for the fact that it spans over 1,200 miles in SoCal. Just as the river hits the California border, Rainbow Trout are stocked, making for an impressive fishery. With Bass, Crappie, Catfish, and much more in good numbers, it’s a playground for all kinds of anglers. 

There are many more locales where efforts are being made to replenish the Rainbow Trout population. Explore the Santa Ana River in San Bernadino County for the best action, while all smaller lakes and reservoirs are full of a range of sought-after fish. If you’re looking for trophy Bass, then Castaic Lake is your go-to fishery, and there’s even Tilapia in the Salton Sea!

Best Freshwater Fishing Spots in SoCal

An infographic with a map of Southern California showing the top freshwater fishing spots against a blue background

Much like with saltwater, it wasn’t easy to come up with a shortlist of places to wet your line when it comes to the sweeter waters. We’ve mentioned some prolific fisheries already, but let’s shine a light on the best spots to visit.

  • Havasu. Undoubtedly the best spot to explore the Colorado River, the wildlife refuge is technically on the Arizona side of the river. Despite this, the stocked Trout carries over into Californian waters, with Catfish and Crappie also possible on the end of your line. 
  • The north shore of Salton Sea. What was once a thriving Corvina fishery has now all but dried up due to the water’s salinity. But there’s one non-native creature that thrives just because of that. Mozambique Tilapia is a must for any angler looking to cast a line inland in SoCal, and you can get your fill of this exotic species from the lake’s north shore.
  • Diamond Valley Lake. Created in 2003, this is one of California’s most recent lakes. However, efforts to stock the lake were underway well before it was completed. It’s home to a healthy population of all freshwater favorites, and is still very underdeveloped, meaning it’s the perfect getaway for a quiet day’s fishing. Looking for some fishing buddies? Nearby Skinner Reservoir is more built up. 
  • Silverwood Lake. This offshoot of the Mojave River is gold-medal worthy, in our books. The world-famous Pacific Crest Trail passes through, and the fishing action is top-notch. Think Stripers, Largemouth Bass, and Trout. Visit on a day trip or stay for longer. Everything is possible. 
  • San Bernadino County. Silverwood Lake is technically in San Bernadino County, which should be enough for you to want to visit anyway. But there’s more freshwater action in store, thanks to the stocked Rainbow Trout on the Santa Ana River. Explore the national forest and its stunning scenery, while also hooking into some prized fish. It’s a win-win!  

What fish can I catch in Southern California?

So we’ve mentioned some of the prized species you can catch on your SoCal fishing adventure. But let’s take a closer look. We’ll run through our favorite catches, letting you know what makes each of these creatures special. And, like before, we’ll start with saltwater. 

Calico Bass and White Seabass

A group of anglers pose on the dock with a large White Seabass that's hanging next to a board indicating its weight and size

If you’re fishing the kelp beds – and we strongly suggest you do – there will be two species in particular that deserve your attention. Despite inhabiting the same grounds, these two fish are pretty different. Calicos are smaller species, reminiscent of freshwater Bass species. They’re also pretty prolific, being found all across the shallow waters of SoCal. As for Seabass, they grow to incredible sizes (up to 90 pounds) and are also very picky when it comes to what they eat and when they feed.

But both offer excellent action. Some light tackle gear will do the job for either, but don’t forget a braided line to give you extra protection. Both of these species taste absolutely delicious, too, so get ready for lots of meat. Despite this, we suggest you release smaller Calicos, as they take a while to grow to full size. 

Yellowtail Amberjack and Rockfish

A group of anglers show off their Yellowtail Amberjacks on the dock after a successful fishing trip in Southern California

If you know something about fishing, you may be surprised to see that we’ve put these two species together. While Rockfish are commonly found in shallow waters and Yellowtails further out, in Southern California, they actually swim together nearshore and out in the deep. Both are favorites in the area for the BBQ, which is why Rockfishing is actually only possible further out. They’ve actually been overfished inshore!

Mix up bottom fishing and trolling to get your fill of these creatures, with the waters around the islands offshore proving to be particularly productive. Both species are around pretty much whenever you come, but Rockfish are heavily regulated. Make sure you brush up on your fish knowledge to make sure you’re fishing within the legal limits

Mahi Mahi and Tuna

A group of anglers on a fishing charter hold a Tuna each on a sunny day

Wherever these two creatures show up, chances are they make the shortlist of fish to catch. Their meat qualities need no introduction whatsoever, while Mahi Mahi’s dashing looks are also another reason why anglers love them. Along with Tuna, they promise an intense battle to hook aboard, too, making this pair the ultimate big game fish in Southern California. 

Trolling is the most effective way to get the attention of these creatures, and both will swim away with your line at pace. Tuna dive deep, while Mahi go far. They grow to impressive sizes in these waters, so you’ll really need to bring your A-game to reel ’em in. Come in summer for your best chance of filling the coolers, with three species of Tuna providing plenty of action. 

And More!

A smiling angler on a boat holds a California Sheephead with the water and land in the background

That’s by no means all you can catch in the rich waters of Southern California. Inshore fishing in the bays can yield California Sheephead, Lingcod, Spotted Sand Bass, and Halibut, so there’s no shortage in the table fare department. And that’s only added to by the presence of Lobster! Bring the kids along from October through March and you could get your hands on these delicacies. 

Head offshore, and the opportunities are endless. Billfish show up in summer, but you may need to head toward the continental shelf to encounter them. You’re more likely to run into a Shark, however, with Blue, Mako, and Thresher varieties all promising an adrenaline-pumping angling experience. 

Bass

An angler on a small boat holding a Largemouth Bass with a lake behind him

It’s impossible to talk about freshwater fishing anywhere in the US without mentioning Bass fishing. It’s the most popular freshwater game fish in the world, and Bass fishing in California takes it to the next level. Why? Well, their sheer abundance for starters. But also the variety of Bass species on offer – and even those who call themselves Bass but don’t belong to the family. 

Largemouth Bass are the stars of the show and, with over 21 of the 25 record catches in the world coming on Castaic Lake alone, it’s easy to see why they make headlines here. But apart from them, there are Smallmouth and Striped varieties available in lakes and rivers across the region. Stripers are technically not a part of the Bass family, by the way, but they offer some of the best pound-for-pound action wherever you find them.

Trout

A male and female angler pose with a Rainbow Trout caught while lake fishing in California

Where there are Trout, there are anglers, and SoCal is no different. We’ve mentioned some of the top spots to land Rainbow Trout already, but what makes these creatures so special? They’re prone to leaping out of the water once hooked, making them incredibly fun to target. And they’re caught in a range of streams and lakes, both here and elsewhere.

They’re a favorite of fly anglers all over the world, with mountain streams particularly popular. For this kind of fishing, we suggest heading to the Colorado River, where Trout are stocked yearly. The rivers and lakes in San Bernadino County also offer some serious angling. Looking for spinning action? Any lake where these creatures are found will serve you well. 

And More!

An angler in a hat holding a Panfish caught while fishing in California

Much like with saltwater species, the list of freshwater fish available doesn’t end there. While Bass and Trout are certainly the most popular creatures in lakes and rivers, there’s enough to cater to anglers of all ages.

Panfish like Crappie and Sunfish are great to get the kids into fishing, while Catfish that grow to sizes as big as 6 feet are possible for those of you looking for a test. With Tilapia on offer in the Salton Sea, the opportunities are endless. But the best way to truly find out is to come and test the waters yourself. 

How to Go Fishing in Southern California

Now you know where to go and what to catch, but what about the techniques you should try? Thankfully, SoCal makes the most of its fishery, so there are plenty of locales and guides suited to what you need. Let’s take a look at them.

SoCal Surf Fishing

An angler casts a line into the surf at sunset in Southern California

If you’re looking to pair your angling adventure with a beach getaway, there’s nothing quite like surf fishing. The inshore and nearshore waters are full of favorites like Calico Bass, Halibut, Seabass, and more, so you can get your fish on without even leaving the beach. 

With miles and miles of open coastline, it’s easy to find a spot where you can cast your line without disturbing anyone. We suggest hitting sheltered areas like Mission Bay or San Diego Bay, or even head up to Santa Barbara where the action is also exciting. 

When it comes to freshwater fishing, while technically not “on the surf”, you’ll be using the same techniques, so we thought we might as well include it here. Most lakes in a public park will have designated fishing areas, while some of the more remote bodies of water and rivers may require a more DIY approach. But that’s all part of the fun, right? 

SoCal Pier Fishing

A rearview shot of an angler bending down on a fishing pier with a rod to his left, with land in the background

Another way to enjoy the seaside while casting a line is from a pier. SoCal has plenty of them, and these purpose-built structures give you the elevation and purchase simply not possible from land. Not only that, but fish are attracted to algae that builds up around piers, meaning that you’re fishing on top of a real fish aggregating device. 

Another benefit of pier fishing in Southern California is that you don’t need a license to fish from one. That means that you can just rock up for the day and cast your line. Some include bait and tackle shops, so if you’ve forgotten something from your arsenal, you can borrow or buy it. And with the more popular piers offering restaurants and arcades for the kids, the whole family is able to enjoy! 

SoCal Charter Fishing

An aerial view of a fishing charter in Southern California with the captain on the flybridge and two anglers casting a line over the side of the boat

Undoubtedly the best way to get your fish on in Southern California, however, is on a charter. By pairing up with a local guide, you’ll get all the inside tips on where to go and how best to attract the fish. Not only that, but they also provide all the gear you need, and will make sure that you stay within legal limits. More on that later. 

In marinas across the state, experienced captains are waiting to take you fishing. This could be anything from bay or kelp bed fishing to a deep sea adventure offshore. In the freshwater realm, both lakes and rivers are possible hunting grounds. With trips ranging from a couple of hours up to multiple days, and even shared trips for those of you on a budget, there really is something for everyone.

Southern California Fishing Regulations

An infographic featuring text that says "SoCal Fishing Regulations" and "All You Need to Know" in white text on a blue background, with the California state flag, a vector of a boat, and the FishingBooker logo

Before we let you go, we’ll just run you through some of the rules and regulations surrounding your SoCal angling adventure. First things first, you’ll always need to get a valid California fishing license – unless fishing from a pier, that is. Options vary depending on the length of time you want to spend fishing. For more information, check out our handy guide

As we’ve already mentioned, there are also strict seasons for certain fish. These include Lobster, which are only available from October through March. You’ll also need a report card if harvesting Lobster. Meanwhile, Lingcod, Sheephead, and various Rockfish are also subject to closures. Other than that, there are also size and bag limits for pretty much every fish. For more information, be sure to check out the California DFW website.

Southern California Fishing: You Really Can’t Go Wrong

A view from the shore of a fishing pier in San Diego at sunset

Everyone has always dreamed of a vacation in the Golden State, and SoCal is the reason why. But now that you know about the angling secrets it hides, you simply must come and visit. Try fishing in Southern California and you’ll never be the same again. Whether exploring the rivers, lakes, bays, or deep waters offshore, you’re in for a treat. Trust us. 

Have you ever been fishing in Southern California? How was it? What are your favorite places to visit? Let us know in the comments below!

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