Spearfishing in San Diego: A Beginner's Guide

May 9, 2022 | 8 minute read
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Much like the rest of SoCal, “America’s Finest City” is famous for its angling. Whether it’s close to shore or around one of the islands off the city’s coast, there’s plenty of fish you can catch on a rod and reel. However, if you’re among those who prefer a more active approach to hunting your fish, you’ll be happy to know that spearfishing in San Diego is also world-class.

A photo of San Diego's skyline at sunrise.

The waters surrounding San Diego feature various underwater reefs, ledges, and dropoffs. These all provide hiding places for fish and spots for you to explore. So if you want to learn more about the kind of spearfishing opportunities this stretch of Southern California has on offer, read on. We’ll cover the fish you can catch, where to find them, and what to look out for along the way. Let’s dive in!

What does spearfishing in San Diego look like?

Spearfishing is a well-established sport in San Diego. This means you’ll have no trouble finding experienced guides to teach you one of the oldest ways to put dinner on the table. On the other hand, if you’re a seasoned spearo, those same guides can take you on wild adventures where you’ll get to show off all your skills.

Four men in spearfishing gear sitting on the back deck of a boat in San Diego.

For novices or those new to the area, San Diego features great action close to shore. Exploring the local reefs and cliffs first will help you get familiar with the waters in a safe manner. And you’ll still be able to spear a whole range of species hiding underwater.

But for those with some experience under your belts, these waters will give you a backdrop for some truly epic spearfishing. You’ll have the option of hunting offshore for all kinds of passing pelagics. If that’s not enough, you can pay a visit to islands such as San Clemente or the Coronados and go diving in a picture-perfect setting.

Which species can I catch spearfishing in San Diego?

Since there are great diving spots both close and far from shore, there’s no closed season for spearfishing in San Diego. Although most pelagics show up in the area between spring and fall, the inshore waters feature year-round action. It’s really all about timing your trip based on what you want to target. So let’s take a look at a few local favorites…

Halibut

Regardless of your skill level, Halibut is one SoCal species you’ll never get tired of targeting. They’re specialists at camouflage so you’ll really need to tune into your senses as you seek them out. But once you spot them and spear them, you’ll have one of the best-tasting fish stowed away for your next meal.

An angler on a boat, holding a big Halibut.

You can find Halibut in the shallow waters close to shore, which means you won’t have to dive too deep. They like to bury themselves in the sand, so you’ll find them by exploring the sandy pathways that run between different reefs. The Halibut season is typically open throughout the year, giving you plenty of room to hunt for them.

California Sheephead

Another species you can find close to San Diego’s shores is California Sheephead. You’ll find them lurking around reefs and along the kelp beds. Sheephead are active hunters that use their strong teeth to feed on urchins, crabs, and lobsters. This means you’ll need to adjust your strategy when you’re hunting for these fish.

A woman holding a California Sheephead up to the camera.

One way to spearfish for California Sheephead is to simply drop down to the bottom and wait for them to come by. To lure them in, you can even smash a nearby urchin or kick up sand. On days when you can see Sheephead through the water, you can also try hiding in their blind spots and sneaking within firing range.

Similar to Halibut, Sheephead season is usually open year-round for divers in California. However, keep in mind that these fish play a very important role in the ecosystem. They feed on crustaceans and urchins, preventing them from overgrazing on kelp beds. So while it’s fine to target Sheephead, you don’t necessarily need to limit out every time.

Yellowtail

Of all the different species, one you definitely shouldn’t miss out on while you’re spearfishing in San Diego is Yellowtail. They’re the most popular game fish in Southern California, whether you’re fishing on a rod and reel or with a speargun. Yellowtail can get really big, they fight really well, and they taste amazing.

A diver posing with a Yellowtail he caught while spearfishing in San Diego.

They’re also very curious fish, often swimming up to divers to see what’s going on. This fortunate character trait makes Yellowtail both fun and fairly easy to hunt for. In San Diego, you’ll find smaller Yellowtail in schools not too far off the coast. For bigger ones, you’ll want to ride out to the islands off San Diego’s shores.

Bluefin Tuna

If you’re a seasoned spearo who’s already hunted for most of what’s out there, there’s one more elusive species to set your sights on – Bluefin Tuna. These fish make their way along SoCal’s waters between May and October every year. This being said, finding them and hunting them successfully is no easy task. Bluefin are incredibly intelligent and strong. You’ll need both knowledge, skill, and a fair amount of luck when chasing them.

A diver in the water, posing with a big Bluefin Tuna that he caught spearfishing offshore from San Diego.

To get the chance to hunt for Bluefin Tuna, you’ll have to make a run offshore. They typically move along different underwater banks, ledges, and dropoffs. However, it really pays off to hook up with a charter guide if you’re spearfishing for Bluefin in San Diego. Their migration patterns can vary over the course of a season, so finding a captain who has their finger on the Tuna pulse goes a long way.

In terms of gear, you should prepare a speargun that packs a punch (60 inches or bigger), as well as a wetsuit to match the colder offshore waters. You’ll also need at least 100 yards of bungee float line attached to the boat you’re diving from. Finally, remember that you’ll be hunting for a big fish, so it’s wise to always act with safety in mind.

And More!

Of course, the fish we listed so far are just a few of the prizes you’ll encounter while spearfishing in San Diego. These waters are also home to the likes of Sargo, Calico, and Sand Bass, as well as dozens of species of Rockfish. At times, you’ll even run across Barracuda looking for prey on the reefs.

A diver holding a huge Mahi Mahi caught on a San Diego spearfishing trip.

Further from shore, you’ll get to spearfish for delicious Mahi Mahi and White Seabass. Other types of Tuna also frequent these waters, including Albacore and Yellowfin. All in all, considering the sheer number of species that swim through these waters, there’ll always be something to hunt!

Are there any species I can’t target while spearfishing?

If you’ve been wondering if there are any fish you should avoid on your outing, the answer is definitely yes. San Diego waters serve as hunting grounds for several types of Sharks, including the Great White. While Sharks are very timid most of the time, blood in the water from spearfishing can lead to unwanted encounters.

A Great White Shark swimming through the ocean.

So if you meet the man in the white suit while you’re diving, it’s best to pay the tax and let him have a fish. Most Sharks won’t just attack you out of nowhere, so staying calm and not provoking them will usually be enough to keep you out of trouble. However, if you’re in the water a lot, you can also look into Shark deterrents to give you some peace of mind.

On the other hand, there are some fish you simply can’t target due to regulations. Billfish, for example, should always be left alone if you’re lucky enough to see them. The same applies to Giant Sea Bass. There are also a few species of Rockfish that can’t be harvested. These include Yelloweye and Bronzespotted Rockfish, as well as Cowcod.

Best Spearfishing Spots in San Diego

A photo of the La Jolla cliffs and the waves crashing against them.

Once you’ve figured out what fish you want to target and what kind of waters you’re comfortable diving in, it’s time to pick a spot. Of course, spearfishing with a guide lets you skip this step as they’ll probably know exactly where to take you. But if you’re planning on heading out on your own, here are a few places you can visit:

  • La Jolla: The waters off of La Jolla are among the most popular spearfishing spots in San Diego. They’re rife with reefs and will give you a shot at the likes of Yellowtail, White Seabass, and Sheephead. The only caveat is that you’ll have to avoid hunting in South La Jolla and Matlahuayl marine reserves.
  • Sunset Cliffs: A bit further south, you’ll reach Sunset Cliffs. Since the waters aren’t too deep, this area is a great starting point for divers not yet familiar with San Diego’s waters. Look for sandy pathways between the reefs and you’ll likely come across Halibut. Besides flatfish, you’ll often see Calico and Sand Bass, as well as Sheephead here.
  • Kelp Paddies: If you’re going out on a boat, you’ll have the option of spearfishing around the various kelp paddies found off the coast of San Diego. Some of these are Point Loma, Barn Door, and San Onofre kelps, all of which provide a home to numerous species of fish. As you explore the kelps, you’ll run into Yellowtail, Halibut, Sheephead, and more.
  • San Clemente Island: If you’re willing to make the journey, the underwater kelp forests surrounding San Clemente are truly a sight to behold. And they’ll provide you with a whole assembly of fish to catch, too. Besides Yellowtail, you’ll encounter Sheephead and White Seabass in healthy numbers. During summer, you might even see Bluefin Tuna and Mahi Mahi in the area around the island.
  • Coronado Islands: You can even leave US waters behind altogether and head to Mexico. If you don’t mind some pesky seals, the Coronado Islands will let you enjoy some of the best Yellowtail and White Seabass action around. You’ll just have to stick to freediving as scuba spearfishing is not allowed around the islands. Also, you’ll have to obtain a Mexican fishing license, an FMM visa, and don’t forget your passport before you set out.

Rules and Regulations

An infographic that says "San Diego Spearfishing Regulations" and "What you need to know" against a blue background.

To go spearfishing in San Diego, all anglers aged 16 and up will need to get a California fishing license. If you plan on spearfishing for more than two days, you’ll also have to pay for an Ocean Enhancement Validation. And, if you’d like to pick up some Lobster along the way, you’ll need a separate report card. You can read more on these, as well as some exceptions, in our dedicated California fishing license article.

Besides making sure you have your licenses in order, it’s really important that you abide by the local fish regulations. You can visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website for up-to-date information on fish seasons and size limits. There, you can also check whether the area you intend on diving in is designated as a marine reserve. If it is, it means you won’t be able to harvest any fish.

San Diego: The West Coast’s Spearfishing Capital

Torry Pine Beach near La Jolla in San Diego.

While there’s great spearfishing all along the coast of California, San Diego is where you’ll find the most variety. It’s the ideal destination both for beginners looking to sharpen their skills and pros seeking new challenges. Out here, there’s always something new to discover, underwater nature to explore, and fish to catch. All you have to do is get your gear ready, pick a spot, and dive in.

Have you ever been spearfishing in San Diego? What’s the species you enjoy hunting for the most? Let us know in the comments below!

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