Catching Spotties on Mission Bay
Updated: Jun 10, 2021
As a teenager, I spent countless summer days fishing the rocks around King Harbor. When I moved to San Diego, I read numerous posts about the great spotted bay bass fishing around the local bays, but barely gave it any effort. I would wander the Mission Bay shoreline a few times a year and catch one fish if I was lucky. My experience catching calicos around King Harbor didn't translate to catching spotties around Mission Bay. When the pandemic hit and the launch ramps were shut down and the local lakes were closed, I decided that fishing the bays was the only real fishing option available and I needed to get get good at it. I read hundreds of posts on SD Fish (an invaluable resource for bay fisherman) and watched hours of YouTube videos about locations, techniques, rigging, etc. After one year and 80 or so trips to Mission Bay, my average catch has gone from less than 1 fish to half a dozen or so. Here are some lessons I've learned in the past year:
Every species of bass associates with structure, whether it be rocks, plants, docks or ledges. The vast majority of Mission Bay is flat and sandy, which means the massive population of bass living in the bay are likely to be found in a relatively small area. Most of the rocky shoreline doesn't extend far enough out for the bass to associate with it and the channel edges have a mild slope. The best structures that you'll find in Mission Bay are boat docks and eelgrass, though I focus on eelgrass as I find it more productive and easier to fish than docks.
There are eelgrass beds all over the bay and there are tons of bass sitting on the edges of those beds ambushing passing baitfish. Because Mission Bay is sandy and shallow, it's very easy to find grass beds using the Google Maps Satellite view. The location, size and density of the grass beds will vary over time and it can be hard to gauge the quality of a grass bed from an overhead image, but using Google Maps to find starting points is much more efficient than randomly wandering the shoreline.
There are plenty of bass hiding in the middle of the beds and chasing bait in the sandy flats around the beds, but the most active bass are sitting on the edges of the bed. The best casts work your bait parallel to the edge of the bed.
I spent hours digging through forums for advice and pictures of the lures that anglers use to catch spotties. Many people advised using orange, green and brown swimbaits, though pictures suggested that white and gray are equally effective. I purchased a few dozen swimbaits from 2-5 inches with various tails and found that the most effective lure is the 3" Big Hammer "Creeping Death".
Day or night, this lure drew significantly more bites than anything else I tried. How confident am I in this assertion? I ordered 200 of these and you'll frequently find me at the shoreline with nothing more than 1 rod and several of these baits.
The only other swimbait I use is the Big Hammer "Black Widow", which draws strikes from bigger fish at night.
One evening I was working the shoreline with a pocket of "Creeping Death" lures and watched a fellow angler land 20 bass in 30 minutes, with half of them being keepers, while I caught one dink. He was generous enough to share that he was using black swimbaits because the dark color stands out better in extremely low light conditions. Have you ever noticed that in low light conditions, a camera will go into a monochrome mode where you can really only see black and white as it struggles to deal with the lack of light? Supposedly, the eyes of a bass behave similarly so a solid black lure is actually the most visible at night. Counterintuitive, right? Regardless, you can't argue with results and I can tell you from experience that black swimbaits will catch you fish at night.
I shopped around and the best prices that I've found so far are:
Turner's Outdoorsman sells 3" Big Hammer swimbaits for $0.60
1/4 oz jigheads are as cheap as $0.30 on eBay
When fishing swimbaits, try to find the edge of a grass bed, cast along the edge of it, let it sink to the bottom and then slowly work the bait back in. If you never feel your bait contact the bottom, reel slower. If your bait is dragging along the bottom the entire time, reel a little faster. After several casts, you'll figure out the optimal retrieve speed for that spot. Once the sun goes down, the bass come out of their hiding spots and are more willing to bite higher in the water column so you can increase your retrieve speed or switch to a lighter jighead.
I take a lot of beginners and kids out fishing and found that they really struggled to use swimbaits, so I spent some time experimenting with dropshot rigs, which were much easier for them to use. 1 3/4" Big Hammer "Root Beer" grubs on a double dropshot rig is effective and easy to use. Be aware that you will lose a lot of fish and tackle because bass will dive into the grass and rocks as you get the fish near shore and the dropshot weights frequently get lodged in the structure.
Rods and Reels
Most of my fishing is done with 6# line on a 2000 size spinning reel and a 6'6" rod. I land the vast majority of fish that I hook with this setup and its small size is comfortable to fish all day. I used to fish 4# line, but I lost a significant number of fish to structure because I couldn't pull hard enough to get them out. I only go up to 10# line if there's wind in my face and I need to use more weight to combat the wind.
Timing and Current
In my opinion, the most productive time to catch fish is just after sunset, approximately 1-2 hours before a 5'+ high tide. However, as long as there is some current, fish will bite and there's no such thing as too much current when fishing for bass. I've also found that bay bass are most active at sunset and in the dark. On warm summer nights, I'll fish from sunset into the early hours of the morning and catch fish the entire time. That being said, I've caught bay bass at every time of day and even during completely slack tides so it's always worth going out if you have the time.