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California Beach Fishing

Frequently Asked Questions  |  Guide to Central California Beach Fishing  |  Guide to Southern California Beach Fishing  |  Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions: Pier and Shore-Based Sport Fishing


Where and when can I fish in the ocean without a fishing license?

Anyone 16 years and older must have a fishing license to take any kind of fish, mollusk, invertebrate or crustacean in California, except for persons angling from a public pier for non-commercial purposes in ocean or bay waters. A public pier is defined in the sport fishing regulations as a publicly owned man-made structure that has the following characteristics: is connected, above the mean high tide, to the main coastline or to the land mass of a named and charted natural island; has unrestricted free access for the general public; and has been built or currently functions for the primary purpose of allowing angling access to ocean waters.

Additionally, publicly owned jetties or breakwaters that are connected to land, as described above, that have free unrestricted access for the general public and whose purpose it is to form the most seaward protective boundary of an ocean harbor are public piers. Jetties, breakwaters, promenades, sea walls, moles, docks, linings, barriers and other structures that are not the most seaward protective boundary of an ocean harbor, are not public piers.

Even though a license is not required on a public pier, all other regulations (including minimum size, bag limits and seasons) apply while fishing from a public pier.

If you are in doubt about whether or not a license is needed to fish a particular location, the best way to avoid a potential citation is to purchase a license or find another spot to fish where you are sure that a license is not required.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife offers two "Free Fishing Days" per year to encourage new and lapsed anglers to participate in this great outdoor tradition. On these dates, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife waives the normal licensing requirements; all other fishing regulations, such as bag and size limits, gear restrictions and fishing hours remain in effect, however. To find out the dates for this year's Free Fishing Days, visit the CDFW License and Revenue Branch website.

Do I need an ocean enhancement stamp while fishing from a public pier?

No. An ocean enhancement stamp is required when fishing anywhere in the ocean south of Point Arguello (Santa Barbara county) where a fishing license is required. This stamp is not required to fish from a public pier.

While fishing from a public pier without a fishing license, am I allowed to go down onto the beach to land a big fish that I hooked on the pier?

No. A fishing license is required when fishing everywhere except for a public pier. Even if you hooked the fish on the pier and only came down onto the beach to land the fish, you would need a valid license to avoid a potential citation. Purchasing an annual fishing license will make this a non-issue; or you may want to buy a pier net to help you land bigger fish from the pier.

How many rods can I actively use while fishing from a public pier?

You may use no more than two rods and lines, two hand lines, or two nets, traps or other appliances used to take crabs. Species-specific gear restrictions (such as for rockfish, lingcod and salmon) do apply when fishing from a pier.

How many rods can I actively use while fishing from a public pier inside San Francisco bay?

On public piers in San Francisco and San Pablo bays between the Golden Gate Bridge and the west Carquinez Bridge, you may only use two lines, two hand lines, or two nets, traps or other appliances used to take crabs. Species-specific gear restrictions (such as for rockfish, lingcod and salmon) do apply when fishing from a pier.

How many rods can I use while fishing from the shore where a fishing license is required?

Any number of hooks and lines may be used to take finfish in all ocean waters and bays except in San Francisco and San Pablo bays between the Golden Gate Bridge and the west Carquinez Bridge, where you may only use one line with no more than three hooks. Species-specific gear restrictions (such as for rockfish, lingcod and salmon) do apply when fishing from the shore.

How many rods can I actively use while fishing from the shore inside San Francisco bay?

While fishing from the shore in San Francisco and San Pablo bays between the Golden Gate Bridge and the west Carquinez Bridge, you may only use one line with no more than three hooks; you may also use an unlimited number of crab traps. Species-specific gear restrictions (such as for rockfish, lingcod and salmon) do apply when fishing from the shore.

If I have two rods and lines in the water on a public pier, can I also put a baited hoop net in the water?

No, you may use no more than two rods and lines, two hand lines, or two nets, traps or other appliances used to take crabs.

Can I have more than two rods with me while I'm on a public pier?

Yes, as long as you are actively using no more than two rods at any one time.

Can I keep a crab or lobster if I catch it on a hook with bait?

No, hook and line is not a legal method of take for crustaceans. Any lobster or crab taken on hook and line shall be returned to the water immediately.

Do I have to use barbless circle hooks while fishing with a lure for salmon in the ocean from a public pier?

Yes and no. Hooks attached to lures must be barbless, but they do not have to be circle hooks. You must use barbless circle hooks when fishing with bait in the ocean from a public pier for salmon.

Can I use two rods while fishing for salmon in the ocean from a public pier?

No. Salmon may be taken by angling with no more than one rod in ocean waters north of Point Conception.

Is the monkeyface prickleback (eel) considered rockfish, and included in rockfish seasonal and emergency closures?

No. The term "rockfish" in the sport fishing regulations refers to members of the genus Sebastes. While the monkeyface prickleback is considered a "nearshore fish stock" under Section 1.90 of the regulations, it is not a nearshore rockfish, or any other kind of rockfish.


Guide to Central California Beach Fishing

Guide to Central California Beach Fishing

View a printer-friendly version of this brochure (PDF).

Getting Started

A few simple practices and gear choices can greatly enhance your enjoyment of Central California's year-round surfperch fishing. Anglers also enjoy seasonal opportunities for striped bass, California halibut, jacksmelt and surf smelt, among others.

When to Go Fishing

You are more likely to catch fish:

  • In the early morning or an hour before dusk
  • On an incoming high tide. The rising water level dislodges small invertebrates in sand bars, stimulating fish to feed.
  • During mild to moderate surf

EXCEPTIONS: Surf smelt and night smelt fishing are best in the daytime and evening respectively, on a falling high tide. Both species usually spawn on coarse-grained sandy beaches when the surf is mild.

Peak months for some favorite species in Central California

Peak Months October-June April-September May-August April-August February-August
Species Surfperch Striped Bass California Halibut Jacksmelt Night/Surf Smelt

Casting Tips

  • When you are beach fishing, cast to the edges of sand bars and drop-offs and be on the lookout for fish "highways," or channels with transiting fish in search of food.
  • If you are surfperch fishing, try casting near sand crab beds.
  • If you are striped bass or halibut fishing, look for signs of baitfish, such as feeding birds and marine mammals, and cast into these areas.
Commonly Caught Central California Surf Species

Rod and Reel Tips

  • If you are heavy bait fishing or "plugging," use a 10- to 12-ft rod rated for 2- to 8-oz casting, with spinning or conventional reels capable of holding 150 to 200 yds of 20- to 30-lb monofilament line.
  • If you are fly-fishing, try a 9- to 11-ft rod, rated for a 6- to 8-weight line, with matching reel and sink-tip or shooting head lines. Stripping baskets help manage line in the surf.
  • If you are light bait fishing or using Carolina-rigged grubs, try a 7- to 9-ft rod, with either a spinning or bait casting reel. Use a 6- to 12-lb test line that can comfortably cast a 1/2- to 1-oz egg sinker, depending on surf conditions.

Net Fishing

  • For surf smelt fishing along San Mateo County beaches, try cast or "throw" nets in the 6- to 8-ft range, with 1 to 1 1/2 lbs of lead per foot and 3/8-in webbing.
  • For night smelt fishing, try "A-frame" nylon webbing nets constructed of two rigid poles and a cross-member.

Equipment Checklist

  • Waders, hat, polarized sunglasses and sunblock. Besides protecting your eyes, polarized sunglasses will help you see fish in the shore break and run-up. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device if wading.
  • Pack for fish, tackle, tape measure, and needle-nose pliers for removing hooks
  • Bucket and scale to weigh catch, if fishing for night or surf smelt

Guide to Southern California Beach Fishing

Guide to Southern California Beach Fishing

View a printer-friendly version of this brochure (PDF).

Getting Started

A few simple practices and gear choices can greatly enhance your enjoyment of Southern California's year-round fishing for surfperches, croakers, California corbina, and California halibut, among others.

When to Go Fishing

You are more likely to catch fish:

  • In the early morning or an hour before dusk
  • On an incoming high tide. The rising water level dislodges small invertebrates in sand bars, stimulating fish to feed.
  • During mild to moderate surf

Peak months for some favorite species in Southern California

Peak Months September-May June-September July-September July-September June-October
Species Surfperch Yellowfin Croaker Spotfin Croaker California Corbina California Halibut
Commonly Caught California Surf Species

Rod and Reel Tips

  • For heavy bait fishing or "plugging," try a 10- to 12-ft rod rated for 2- to 8-oz casting, with spinning or conventional reels. The reel should be capable of holding 150 to 200 yds of 20- to 30-lb test line.
  • For fly-fishing, try a 9- to 11-ft rod, rated for a 6- to 8-weight line, with matching reel. Use a sinktip or shooting head lines. Stripping baskets help manage line in the surf.
  • For light bait fishing or when using Carolina rigged grubs, try a 7- to 9-ft rod, with either a spinning or bait casting reel. Use 6- to 12-lb test line that can comfortably cast a - to 1-oz egg sinker, depending on surf conditions.

Equipment Checklist

  • Waders, hat, polarized sunglasses, sunblock. Besides protecting your eyes, polarized sunglasses will help you see fish in the shore break and run up. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device if wading.
  • Pack for fish, tackle, tape measure, and needle-nose pliers for removing hooks.



Marine Region (Region 7)
Regional Manager: Dr. Craig Shuman
Main Office: 20 Lower Ragsdale Drive, Suite 100, Monterey, CA  93940
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