San Diego Sand Bass

By Bill Schaefer
San Diego’s main harbor is the spot, and the fishing here can be quite good during the winter.

Secluded from storms, this body of water is like fishing a lake most of the time.

The bay is 9 miles long and averages about ½ mile wide, so no matter what you fish in — boat, kayak, float tube or from shore — there is plenty of room.

What you’ll catch

In the winter, the bay can produce great sand bass fishing, both for size and numbers of fish.

Although they hang out in the bay year-round, barred sand bass — larger cousins to the spotted sand bass — usually return from the ocean and enter the bay in greater numbers and size when the water here starts cooling.

They average 1 to 3 pounds in size, but some reach up to 6 to 8 pounds! To catch them, drift with the moving tides and fish swimbaits.

Sand bass tend to favor the deeper waters of the main channels, although it’s not uncommon to catch them in the shallows.

Where to find sand bass

One thing to remember when drifting the tides is to use a fish locator or meter.

The bottom of the bay constantly changes.

It has to be dredged from time to time to accommodate large ships pulling in, and the movement of the tide, such as in the central part of the bay, can cut different contours into the bottom.

These factors can cause a stairstep effect going toward the shore from the center of the channel.

The channel is easy to find; the Coast Guard has marked it with green and red buoys, beginning at the entrance and going south into the bay.

The sand bass will travel along these breaks and slide toward the shallows with rising tides or out with falling tides.

But also watch your meter for rocks, old cut-off pilings, blocks of concrete or any other structure that may hold fish.

How to catch ’em

Depending on the strength of the tide, when using the jigging method, your bait can vary from ½-to 1 ounce and the leadhead on your jigs about the same.

Drop the spoon or jig to the bottom until your line just goes slack.

Pull up sharply with your rod, then drop
the tip to let the jig or spoon flutter back to the bottom.

The bite will occur on the fall, and even if you don’t feel the bite, the next sharp snap of the rod upward will set the hook on a fish whose bite went undetected.

The alternative is the wind-and-grind method — drifting with the tide and letting your line back behind the boat, so almost half your spool of line is out.

This will keep your bait on the bottom and in the strike zone longer during the retrieve.

When bit, increase the speed of your retrieve until the stretch is out of your line and set the hook.

The bite usually feels like a heavy weight as you’re retrieving it.

This style of channel drift fishing covers more bottom and can produce numbers as well as larger bass.


I usually use a Daiwa Millionaire reel, with 10- to 15-pound Maxima green line.

The reason for the slightly larger reel is line capacity. Most tackle companies make a round-type reel that works great for this.

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll be letting a lot of line out to cover as much bottom in a retrieve as possible.

For the rod, I suggest a 6½- to 7½-foot medium to heavy trigger stick. This longer rod will let you set the hook harder and better.

The sand bass have hard mouths for crushing clams and you’ll need the power to drive the hook home.

For fun, and a real challenge, use a spinning reel with 6-pound test, but a reeling hookset is usually necessary.

When winding and grinding, I prefer to use a 4-inch swimbait to start.

If the bite is hot, I will move up to larger swimbaits to weed out the smaller fish, such as spotted bass, which you’ll catch using these methods too.

There are many companies, such as FishTrap, Aztec Plastics, Big Hammer and Western Plastics, that make plastics, so you can always change and experiment with size and color.

Basic rule: more fish on smaller baits, bigger fish on larger baits.

Hot colors include golden brownbait, sardine, olive brownbait/ orange belly and kelp kritter.

For smaller spotted sand bass and the larger barred sand bass, throw spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and spoons.

Take along all your leftovers from your freshwater box, because they’ll work out here!

Al Valdes is all smiles as guide Bill Schaefer shows off his first ever San Diego bonefish!
Al Valdes is all smiles as guide Bill Schaefer shows off his first ever San Diego bonefish!

What: SoCal barred sand bass.

Where: San Diego Bay is located just west of I-5 and south of I-8.

Species: Barred and spotted sand bass, calico bass, halibut, croaker — even bonefish!

Launch ramps: Located at Shelter Island; at J Street in Chula Vista; and on Coronado in Glorietta Bay.

All ramps in the bay are free at this time.

Boat rentals: Seaforth Boat Rentals (619-437-1514) on Glorietta Bay.

Capt. Bill Schaefer

Capt. George Tuthill

Tides are important

As far as tides, you should have at least 3 feet of total movement; in the winter months, there can be up to 9 feet of total movement.

A tide calendar, such as the one made by Tidelines, is great for getting the tides sizes and times right and they’re very easy to read.

Giant tidal swings can really stir up the bottom when they get moving, and for that, Kalin Lures makes a swimbait that accepts a rattle into the tail, which can really help attract fish in the murky water.

The saltwater bass feed by their lateral lines as well as by sight and that rattle lets them home in on the bait in the murky water.

If you go to a hobby store and buy a piece of ¼-inch brass tube, sharpen the edge, and use it to bore a small hole for the rattle, you can make any bait rattle.

Grubs too

At times fish will key in on smaller baitfish, and consequently, a smaller grub may work better.

Assalt, Yamamoto and Kalin make grubs from 2 to 6 inches and in a giant assortment of colors.

Some of my favorite colors for grubs are pearls, various shades of green or brown, and chartreuse.

Many of the incidental catches you make are fish that will eat the grubs. The croaker, corvina and bonefish love them!

To top