California is a massive state, the third largest in the nation, with over 800 miles of shoreline, more than 3,000 lakes, and almost 200,000 miles of rivers. You know what that means: California has many places to go fishing. And, since California has a huge population of nearly 40 million people, there are also plenty of California fishing charters. In fact, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, nearly two million fishing licenses are issued here annually.
This state's tremendous size and different geography also mean a huge range of diversity in fishing opportunities. People fishing along the coast in northern California have very different species available than people in southern California. And anglers in the mountainous eastern portions of the state will be encountering different fish and using different methods than those along the west coast. Fortunately, in all corners, the state has a lot going for it. The long coastline grants access to all sorts of saltwater fish ranging from tunas to halibut. And the mild climate means freshwater fish have a long growing season — in fact, California reliably turns up on just about every list you can find of the top five states in America for bass fishing. Add to that a strong state-sponsored stocking program (California has 21 hatcheries and plants millions of fish in lakes, rivers, and ponds every year), and it's clear that fishing in the Golden State is a golden opportunity for anglers.
From big water to backwater, California has it all. You won't be disappointed if you want a shot at a billfish or have catching bass in mind.
In the major harbors near California's population centers, plenty of "six-pack" charters take up to six passengers per trip on boats ranging from center consoles to cabin cruisers. Most will fish for either full or half-day trips, and may fish along the kelp forests, on structures close to shore, or on open water not too far from the coast.Browse California fishing charters
Some charters focus on catching pelagic big game species, which can mean hours-long runs and fishing from pre-dawn until sunset. The boats captained by professionals focusing on this experience tend to be a bit larger and often have a cabin for protection from the elements. It's a big (and expensive) endeavor to run far offshore, but if you're lucky, you may be rewarded with epic battles and stories to last a lifetime.Browse California fishing charters
Because of California's huge range of waterways, guided inland fishing can take many forms. In some areas, guides will have you casting from a bass boat that carries just two or three anglers. In others, larger boats may be used to fish a river or lake, and up to four people may be accommodated. And on occasion, you'll run across options for freshwater six-packs.Browse California fishing charters
With so much territory to cover, it's hard to pick just three places, but these areas are top picks among the state's anglers.
The City of Angels may as well be called the City of Anglers because the fishing opportunities here are huge despite an urban environment. Both the offshore and the inshore options will prove attractive to saltwater anglers, with easy access to the Pacific close at hand from Marina Del Ray, Long Beach, Seal Beach, and Newport Beach. There are also several good freshwater options nearby, like Castaic Lake, Pyramid Lake, and Diamond Valley Reservoir.View fishing boats
San Diego is another land of opportunity for anglers, ranging from deep sea fishing for tuna and mahi-mahi to casting for rainbow trout in Lake Cuyamaca. Anglers in the area also have the opportunity to fish in San Diego Bay, which has a vast and rather eclectic collection of species. It maintains the only west coast population of bonefish, along with the expected local fish like sharks, corvina, sand bass, halibut, and more.View fishing boats
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Delta is a large area — the Delta alone covers over 700,000 acres — with an exceptionally wide range of diverse fishing opportunities. It includes everything from freshwater environments crowded with bass and crappie to tidal zones where there are annual runs of saltier species like salmon and striped bass. In-between, the brackish waters can hold a mix of both fresh and saltwater species.View fishing boats
All anglers over16 fishing in California waters need a license, although a couple days each year the Department of Fish and Wildlife does hold free fishing days. Reduced fees or free licenses are available for disabled and recovering veterans, low-income seniors, and some others meeting specific requirements. Additional validations and/or cards are necessary in some cases. Visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Sport Fishing License webpage for more information.
When fishing on a charter or with a guide, you can expect the bait and tackle to be provided. And if you're fishing on your own or renting a fishing boat that you'll captain yourself, you'll have no problem finding a local bait and tackle shop in any of the densely populated parts of the state. When traveling to remote areas, however, planning ahead is in order.
Many charter operations will clean your fish for you, though it should be noted that a few marinas don't permit fish cleaning on-site. It will usually be up to you to ship the fish, which can be done via either Federal Express or UPS (see this helpful guide on How to Ship Perishables). Some resorts do offer cleaning, packing, and shipping services as well.
What type of fish will you target on your next California fishing adventure?
Catching tuna is the goal for many anglers heading to offshore fishing grounds. Whether bluefin, yellowfin, or albacore are the main target, these fish are some of the hardest fighting and best tasting creatures in the Pacific. Where and when tuna will show up is anyone's guess from season to season, and targeting them can mean running anywhere from 10 to 100 miles. Some of the larger boats travel even farther on multi-day tuna fishing adventures.
The most popular freshwater gamefish in the nation is the largemouth bass, and in many of California's freshwater lakes and rivers, these fish are the number-one target. Although it didn't qualify as a record because it was snagged, a 25-pounder reeled up in southern California's Lake Dixon is believed to be one of the largest bass ever caught. For the most part, this is a catch-and-release fishery, so taking fish home to eat isn't usually part of the plan.
A huge part of California's fish stocking program focuses on rainbow trout. As a result of their widespread availability, they're among the most popular species to fish for in the state. Rivers, lakes, and even urban ponds get their share of fish planted every season in every corner of California. Coastal sea-run trout, called steelhead, are a very popular target in certain waterways, too.
How you fish will greatly depend on what species you hope to catch, but there's a good chance one of these top three fishing methods will come into play.
Anglers searching for big game off the coast often fish with live sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and squid, which can be purchased at "bait pens" in many harbors. Rigged on small hooks and fluorocarbon leaders, which are nearly invisible underwater, even fish with keen eyesight, like tunas and billfish, have difficulty holding back when live bait is struggling in the water. Many boats will carry extra baits and toss them over the side to trigger a feeding frenzy.
Most freshwater anglers enjoy cast-and-retrieve fishing with lures, especially for those uber-popular largemouth bass. There's a wide range of offerings including temptations like plastic worms, spinnerbaits, and crankbaits. As a general rule, it's impossible to know what the fish will like most from one day to the next, so savvy anglers experiment with different offerings until they hook up regularly.
As hard as it may be to believe, some of the most widely used baits, especially for trout, come out of a jar. Fish that were hatchery raised are often conditioned to eat pellets, so anglers often use nuggets designed to look and smell like what the fish are accustomed to dining on. All an angler needs to do is thread one on the hook, maybe add a split-shot to weight it down, cast out, and wait for the bite.
People love California's mild climate, and so do the fish. No matter the month, you can bet something will be biting on the freshwater and saltwater scenes, though some areas will have better action than others.
Many saltwater fisheries are slow during the winter, but halibut and calico bass might be available in some places. On the freshwater scene, trout will be biting, and ice fishing is a thing in the mountainous areas and northern California.
Fishing in February is similar to January, though a few select areas do also see a run of sturgeon this month.
As water temperatures rise with spring-like weather, largemouth bass begin fattening up for spawning and provide steady action. On the saltwater scene, inshore fisheries like white sea bass, calico bass, and sheepshead begin to bite better.
Both freshwater and saltwater venues pick up steam as water temperatures continue to rise with the new season. Bass will continue hitting hard until the water temperature begins to approach 60 degrees; then, they can become tougher to catch as they begin spawning. Along the coast, yellowtail numbers will begin to increase, and new species like barracuda begin popping up with more regularity.
Once May arrives, saltwater fishing can bust wide open — while there's a lot of variability from one season to the next, pelagic species like tuna usually move into targeting range. On the freshwater side of things, many anglers have been waiting for April to end because on the final day of the month stocked trout season opens back up in many high Sierra waterways.
As summer sets in, the number of oceanic species within reach grows. Mahi-mahi and billfish show up, while yellowtail and barracuda numbers continue to increase. In lakes and reservoirs, the bass have ended spawning by this point and put the feed bag back on.
With balmy temperatures now found more or less throughout the state, freshwater action can slack off a bit as many fish move deep in search of cooler temperatures. Along the coast, however, offshore and inshore fishing is often hitting the peak as just about every summer, species visiting the state's waters can be caught at this point.
Oceanic action continues to be red-hot through August. And while freshwater fishing may not be at its best, with school out and summer vacationers on the move, this is certainly one of the most popular months for casting a line.
Pelagic fish continue to bite strong and may even provide intense fall action this month or next, depending on the water temperatures. Meanwhile, in lakes and ponds, many fish begin trying to fatten up for winter, and the fall bite's peak could kick in at any time.
October is the month of fall runs, when steelhead and striped bass action takes off in the rivers they use. Historically this is the time for salmon runs, too, though climate change has hit this fishery hard. In lakes and rivers, the fall action should be reaching its peak by now: bass, crappie, landlocked salmon and striped bass — you name it.
There may still be good action on inshore fish, but the summer pelagics have disappeared by now. However, Halibut action can pick up, and there can be stripers and sturgeon in the Delta. Lake anglers will still get some bites, too, but they will be fewer and farther between.
Most fisheries have slowed quite a bit by the time December hits, but that doesn't mean there's no fishing to be done. Inshore species like halibut and rockfish will still bite, and those trout and bass will feed to one degree or another all season.