Bass “On the Rocks”

Drifting live bait over the rocks for striped bass is easily the most challenging fishing option on the bay. It takes a certain amount of skipper moxie to put the boat on the spot, and a measure of skill from the angler bouncing the bottom. The better the coordination the more bites you get.

This type of fishing is not for everyone. It can be a lot of work, especially on a June afternoon at the Rockpile, which can resemble driving down I-880 at commute time in a rainstorm. This is a place were size matters– the larger your vessel the more comfortable the ride. As a teenager, I spent many days on the bay in a 13-foot Livingston, and I don’t recommend this to anyone, but the young and very hardcore. A 17-foot vessel should have no problem, but be prepared for a wild ride.

A Little History

Traditionally the end of May, or mid June is when stripers make their first appearance onto the main bay rocky reefs. One of the first spots they show is the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is no longer legally fishable, but still one of the most thrilling areas to fish on the bay.

The South Tower was a big fish spot, when 30 and 40-pound stripers were common in June. Anyone who remembers Captain Vince Sancimino and the “New Mary S” will know exactly what I¹m talking about. Nobody could catch bass like Vince. After every trip he¹d get out his cane pole and proceeded to catch shiners off the back of his Fisherman’s Wharf-based charter boat until he had enough bait for the following day.

He’d fish the inside reef (third or fourth light) at the Tower, and be done before many of the other boats even got to the spot. I can remember many times getting back to the dock, after being blown in from salmon fishing, just in time to watch Vince¹s customers climb up the ladder with huge tails sticking out of the old paper sugar sacks.

Another time I recall fishing right next to Vince behind Treasure Island, and watching him net fish after fish while we just hoped for a bite, any bite. And yes we did have shiners. I learned that day how occasionally kicking the boat in gear while drifting can make all the difference in the world.

Where It Starts

The movements of striped bass are certainly somewhat predictable, but in reality no one really knows from one year to the next what to expect. They’ll usually show first in lower San Pablo Bay in March; this is primarily a troll fishery with hair jigs, lipless crankbaits and soft-bodied plastics doing most of the damage around Hamilton Flats, Brickyard and Marin Islands.

The same is true of the South Bay and East Bay flats where live bait action often kicks off in April. Places worth a look are anywhere from Emeryville to Albany, the Alameda Rockwall on the east side of the South Bay, and from Coyote Point to Candlestick Point along the western shore. Both trolling and live-bait can be winners.

Trolling the flats in 15 feet of water or less is as easy as tossing a half-ounce Rat-L-Trap 75 feet behind the boat and trolling about three knots. Depending on the depth of water, lures used, and mood of the fish you might tweak the speed up or down.

Trolling in deeper than 15 feet of water requires more weight, and different techniques, which is where trolling three-hoochie rigs and wire line comes into play. This will be covered elsewhere in the Coastside Graybeard journals.

The First Stop

In theory, as the bass work their way downstream the first rocky stops are the Brothers and Sisters Islands in lower San Pablo Bay. The Brothers are the more consistent area so that¹s where we¹ll concentrate. The Brothers is both an incoming and outgoing tide spot. Live bait works best, but tossing plugs at the rocks and rips can also work.

The most popular drift is between the islands on both the ebb and flood tides. There is a high spot between the islands, and fish will feed from where the bottom comes up, to the top of the high spot. You¹re looking at a range of about 45 feet deep up to 15 feet. The spot is very small, and can get crowded which can put the fish off the bite. The key to working this area, and other tight spots, is keeping the boat moving up to and through the rip. This usually means going through bow first, and maneuvering by occasionally kicking the boat in gear. This helps keep the boat stay straight, and gives the bait added movement. It also means unless you have a center console, or a wheel on the outside, the skipper is probably not going to drop a line.

There are three other areas around the islands that can produce on the outgoing tide. One is near the cable cross on the east side of the large island, and another is on the northwest end of the small island. Both spot form rips and are easy to see. The third area is a reef located about a quarter-mile south of the small island and east of channel Buoy 18. This is obviously the most difficult to find and the water is a little deeper, but it can easily be the most productive spot.

An example of this is on volume two of the “Hooked on Fishing the Golden Gate” video with Captain Art Roby. We fished the first three spots on the outgoing tide with very little result, but when we shifted to the outside reef, everyone hooked up (the lineups are on the tape). This is a classic example of the importance of moving around to find fish – I can’t emphasize this enough.

The Brothers Islands are often productive all the way into October.

Seen One You’ve Seen Them All

All the bay¹s rocky areas are worked the same – for the most part that means your line goes down in 55 to 60 feet of water, and you then walk your weight up the high spot – usually about 35 feet. Once you get it, you can apply the principle to every location.

Looking at the mid-bay reefs–the spot known as the Rockpile, or Arch Rock, is closest to San Francisco and almost directly in front of Alcatraz. Shag Rock is a short distance to the north, and Harding Rock follows along the same line. Blossom Rock is pin-pointed by a red buoy found a short distance southeast of Alcatraz. These areas, along with all the other rocky spots on the bay, can be very productive into October.

The mistakes most folks make is first not feeling the bottom on the drop, then missing the high spot and continuing the drift passed the high spot. You¹ve got to stay in contact with the bottom throughout the drift. It’s also easy to have out too much line, or not enough line. You’re likely to have too much line out if you don¹t feel bottom on the initial drop, especially if the current is ripping and the wind is blowing. By the time you realize too much line is out, chances are you¹ve moved up the reef into shallower water, and your weight is now snagged on the bottom.

Two things you can do are first are to start your drift in slightly shallower water, say 50 feet instead of 60 feet, or increase your weight. Standard weight for this type of fishing is an eight-ounce round ball. This will cover your uses 95% of the time. I will often simply shorten my drift, and start in shallower water.

It’s very important to stair-step your weight up the reef, not drag it. As your sinker taps the rocks, slowly move your rod up and down to stay in contact with the bottom while taking in line, as it gets shallower. Most of the bites will come as you near the top of the reef. Once the reef levels off and starts to drop off on the other side, it¹s time to pick up and go around again. I say go around because out of respect to other anglers, and to keep happier fish, don’t go charging back through the rip. It¹ll take a little more time to get lined up, but it¹s the right thing to do. In the case of the Brothers, that means going all the way around the island to realign.

Tweaking The Drift

I¹ve mentioned wind and current quite a bit, and as we all know these two conditions can change within a very short time. In fact, they can also change from one drift to the next. This calls for constant tweaking of the drift. Only on the nicest days will you actually see a rip on most of these spots, so you have to know how to find the hot spot. First is a visual lineup, this is what I use almost exclusively. Every one of these spots has a visual lineup (all are shown on the “Hooked on Fishing the Golden Gate” tapes). Once you find a starting location it¹s easy enough to mark in the GPS.

The best way to locate the high spot is to follow behind someone who is catching fish, then mark it or learn the lineups. I say follow behind because first you are respecting their space, and second they will lead you right over the sweet spot. Fishing 100 feet to one side or the other may land you completely off the mark.

Once you’ve found the hot spot the trick is going over it each time. As the wind and current changes you will have to adjust by dropping a little north or south of the original successful starting point. This is to compensate for the change in current or wind velocity. As the current picks up you may also want to make shorter drifts starting in 50 or 55 feet of water. If the boat is being pushed too fast, it’s difficult to find bottom, and stay there, in 60 feet or greater.

Team Work

Coordination between captain and crew is vital for success. These drifts, at every one of these locations, last about one minute. That means you’ve got 60 seconds to drop the line, find bottom and work your way through the sweet spot. Remember when the bottom flattens out, or starts to drop in the other side, reel up the lines.

You’ve got to have a lively anchovy on the hook before the skipper says, “let ’em down.” Everyone should be hooked up and ready to drop as you’re approaching the spot. If the crew is really working for you, someone will have put a bait on the captain’s hook too. The skipper will be the last one to get a line in the water, but at least on most of these spots he can fish.

It¹s also very important to change bait on every drift. That means finding a lively bait, not the lethargic fish swimming near the top of the tank. You also want to have plenty of extra rigs and leader material within arm’s reach. Popping off a weight from a 15-pound test dropper is quite common, so most of your tying will come from adding new dropper lines and sinkers. The more rookies you have on board, the more weights and terminal gear you¹re going to need.

The Gear

A standard three-way swivel live bait leader with a 2/0 hook can be found at any tackle shop, but very often the hooks are poor quality, and the knots questionable. My recommendation is to always tie your own leaders. That way if something goes wrong you can only blame yourself. Always use a thin-wire super sharp hook; Gamakatsu or Owner hooks are a good place to start.

Striper leaders need be no more than five-feet long of stiff 30-pound test. The same length works well with halibut. Longer leaders have more of a tendency to get hung up, and a five-foot leader makes it easier to scoop the fish. The dropper line off the three-way swivel should be about 12 inches of 15 to 17-pound test. Longer is OK, but it tends to get in the way when scooping a fish.

It’s your choice to either tie a loop on the end of the dropper for the weight, or use a small snap. If using the leader strictly for main bay stripers on the rock, I’d go with the loop, or directly tie the ball to the dropper. Most folks will likely use the same leaders for halibut. In that case I¹d go with the snap because you¹ll be changing weights to match the depth and conditions. When you lose that first weight on the rocks, just tie the next ball directly to the dropper.

As the main line, 20 to 25-pound test are standard. I usually fish with 20 – It gets down a little better, and works well for halibut. Just remember to use a dropper that is at least 5 pounds lighter than you main line; otherwise you¹re defeating the purpose of the dropper.

Any reel with a decent drag will work. A high-speed gear ratio is helpful for keeping the weight from dragging on the reef.

The rod should have a medium-action tapered tip with enough backbone to put a good set into the fish. Remember there is a lot of line and stretch between you and the fish, so taking up line and a good hard set is greatly beneficial to lining the box.

Time and Tides

When it comes to bay fishing, timing is everything, and that timing has everything to do with tides and current. Successful striper catching is keyed to current. From a visual standpoint, that means when you see the rip form it’s prime time. This is true if you’re fishing from shore (there are many good shore spots, mostly all keyed to a rip forming off a point), or a boat. The rips you see mid bay, or other similar locations are formed by upwelling of water hitting a high spot. The fish are always going to be stacked in front of the rip.

Optimum tides for striper depend on where you¹re fishing, but generally a 4.5-foot difference or greater is best on the incoming tide in locations -like the Rockpile, Shag Rock, Harding Rock, Blossom Rock, Raccoon Strait and the Brothers. Shag Rock, Blossom Rock and the Brothers can be fished successfully on both tides. The key is having enough current to form a rip.

The ebb tide locales like the South Tower and Yellow Bluff can fished with a slower current, especially the South Tower. The key to Yellow Bluff is seeing the rip, which can get pretty nasty for such a small spot.

June 16, 2004 is potentially a prime day at the Rockpile. There¹s a tide of minus .7 feet at 5:43a which rises to a high of 4.3 at 1:05p; you¹d like a higher tide (up to 6 feet), but there should be enough current to make the fish bite. Prime time should start about 11a, and last until the current slows at about 12:30p.

When Raccoon Strait was my favorite haunt, this was a perfect tide. It¹s a great spot for the small-boater, but for some reason it hasn’t produced the way it once did. It¹s a great wire-line location because if you stay in front of the rip, in 40 to 45 feet of water, the bottom is clean, smooth, and not very snaggy.

I also prefer the first couple days of the minus tide versus maxing out on the other end of the full or new moon. The incoming tide rip will form about two hours into the tide at Raccoon Strait – on this particular day I’d get there about 8a. If the action is not as hoped, there¹s still plenty of time to hit the Rockpile about 10a; the bite will probably start about 10:30.

Stick and Move

Now that you’re at the Rockpile, if the fish aren’t on the bite, move to Shag Rock; if Shag Rock isn¹t happening move to Harding Rock. If that¹s not happening, move back to Shag Rock. Unless one spot is going off big-time, I try and avoid the crowd by sliding from spot to spot. Generally, most of traffic will be where ever the party boats are parked. Learn to use your nose, and find these spots on your own. As I mentioned previously, Shag Rock is my favorite spot because most folks hang at the Rockpile. Shag Rock is a little stickier, and the slope comes up a little quicker, but often worth the effort.

Here’s the line up for the Rockpile – The east/west lineup is Alcatraz covering Treasure Island, you can use the southern tip of Alcatraz with the Bay Bridge to be more specific. Looking north, line up Harding Rock buoy and the white building in Tiburon. Keep in mind this is an incoming tide spot, when the buoy gets past Belvedere Point the drift is just about over. Total drift time about one minute.

Shag Rock and Harding Rock lineups are little more difficult to explain, but you can find them both on volume one of “Hooked on Fishing the Golden Gate.” After you limit out at these spots, or the current slows down head over to the southwest corner of Angel Island where halibut and an occasional striper are always waiting. Start your drift east of the red buoy in about 40 feet of water, be sure to drift past the buoy on the east side, and in toward the small beach. Fish can be found all the way into the beach.

On The EBB

Angel Island is not a bad place to hang while waiting for the outgoing current to pick up. Once things get rolling you can go back to Shag Rock, check out Blossom Rock or head over to Yellow Bluff located right off a small point between Sausalito and the Gate. You¹ll rarely have much company at Yellow Bluff mainly because there’s not much room, and it’s got to be the most difficult place to fish on the bay. There¹s enough space for no more than two boats at a time going through the rip, and the skipper must stay at the wheel. It¹s similar to the middle spot at the Brothers, in that you’ve got to go through bow first, and maneuver in and out of gear to be successful. That’s all fine, but the real kicker is the bottom comes up from about 90 feet to less than 20, as quick as you can take up line. I like to drop the lines in about 40 feet and work our way up. This spot takes constant adjusting, and hitting the rip in slightly different locations to stay on the fish. This is not a good place to bring a beginner unless he or she is paying for the weights.

In the past, as the current slows down it would be time to hit the South Tower. The most popular drift is right up against the south side of the tower, the closer to the wall the better. Start at the east end of the tower, and work your way back to the eddy formed on the lee side of the tower. Hookups can come anywhere along the wall.

There are two other spots toward shore, known as the third and fourth lights. They get the name from looking up at the bridge and counting the third and fourth lights from the south end of the span.

Blossom Rock is another little used location that doesn’t usually get hammered. This is a rock with a buoy sitting on top that’s workable on both tides. Mot only that, it couldn¹t be much easier to fish. Like many spots the lines go down in 60 feet of water, and work you way up. When you pass the rip the drift is over. You can be fish on either side of the buoy, just beware there¹s a chain attached to the buoy.

Versatility

Keep in mind the key to success on the bay is versatility. You¹ve got to be flexible and willing to move as conditions dictate. If the current is too slow for bass, spend the time chasing halibut. Crissy Field and Angel Island are two solid spots to scratch out a fish. The East Bay flats are another area where you can almost always get a bite or two. The key to anyone of these locations is finding bait. If there¹s no bait, your chances of finding fish narrow considerably.

See it Live

For more information on fishing the bay check out the award winning video series “Hooked on Fishing the Golden Gate.” The three-volume set is available at most tackle shops for $29.95. You can also go to www.alureproductions.com for information on the tapes.

©Copyright 2004 Craig Hanson