I caught my first fish over 35 years ago, right here in Southern California. If you will forgive the pun, I was instantly and irrevocably hooked. Fishing is my favorite way to get outside and enjoy our year-round temperate climate. And it’s a great way to make a meal out of something wild.

Though our region is an arid desert, we have fishing opportunities year-round. And for around $100, you could be fishing in less than an hour!

Getting Started

Purchase a California fishing license at California Department of Fish and Wildlife or at any sporting goods store. When purchasing your license, also check out the regulations as they change every year and some fish have size limits and seasons.

Pick up the basic freshwater license and add the saltwater stamp. For $52.15 you can fish any public water in the state. You can also fish from piers and jetties without a license in California, but you will pay for it with large crowds and poor fishing conditions.

You will also need a rod and reel. There are a variety of brands and levels of quality. Any sporting goods store can set you up with a basic starter rig: a 6 to 7 foot rod, with a medium-sized spinning reel. Shimano and Quantum make excellent low-end rod and reel combos for less than $50.

The hooks, weights and lures you need depend on the species you are chasing. But go ahead and pick up Berkley Trilene fishing line in 10 lb test, ¼ oz egg weights, an assortment of small and large bait hooks, and medium-sized barrel swivels. For all of that (license, rod, and reel), you can expect to spend around $100.

If you have another $20-30, pick up a few lures. Spoons and swimbaits can be used to catch nearly any species. A spoon is simply a shiny piece of metal with hooks—Kastmaster makes the most popular version. A swimbait is a rubber fish-like lure with a paddle tail—Storm makes an excellent version with a hook and a weight integrated inside. Buy a few colors of each but stick to ¼ oz weight.

Freshwater Fishing

In San Diego nearly all our reservoirs are open for fishing but charge an $8 access fee. In most of the state (most notably the Sierras) fishing access is free. Our local lakes plant trout in the cooler months and (sometimes) catfish in the warmer months. Additionally, all our lakes support wild populations of bass, catfish, and bluegill.

Catfish and trout are among the easiest freshwater fish to catch. In either case, thread the ¼ oz egg weight onto your 10 lb line and tie on a barrel swivel. (Look up the Palomar and San Diego knots.) Then tie on another 18 inches of line and a hook.

If fishing for trout, you will want that second piece of line, called the leader, to be much finer—probably 4 lb test and a small hook. You will need to use a bait which floats off the bottom, such as a buoyant fake worm or dough like Powerbait. You can oft en buy the lighter line and dough bait at or near the lake.

If fishing for catfish, use 10 lb line for your leader and a big hook. For bait use something natural and loaded with scent: pieces of anchovy, chicken livers, and shrimp are popular choices.

Cast into deep water and wait. If you are impatient, you can crank in 1 to 2 turns of line every 5-10 minutes. If you are really impatient, tie on a spoon or swimbait and walk the banks of the lake, casting in all directions and experimenting with speed and depth of your lure.

Every lake, every day, every fish is different. Part of the joy of fishing is figuring out the puzzle of how to catch these fish.

Trout can be filleted, but roasting them whole is fun and delicious. Slice along the belly, pull out the guts, and push the black gelatinous goo beneath the spinal cord out with a fingernail or spoon tip. Sprinkle garlic, salt, and pepper inside and outside, line the gut cavity with lemon slices, and bake whole for 20-30 minutes.

Catfish are nearly always filleted (Google how-to). Dip the fillets in buttermilk, then dredge in a mixture of 50/50 flour and cornmeal seasoned with salt and pepper. Let sit 10 minutes before frying in peanut oil until golden brown for one of the most delicious wild meals in North America.

Saltwater Fishing

All of the shoreline in San Diego is open for fishing. Tie on a swimbait and start walking the shores of Mission or San Diego Bays, once again casting and retrieving at different speeds and depths.

This method will net you a variety of species, including halibut and sea bass. You can also tie up a bait rig, similar to what you used for catfish, and see what bites.

Saltwater fishing also offers some interesting variations. Collect mussels on the rocks or learn where to dig for clams in the sand. Pick up some grunion for fish poppers or use them as bait for bigger fish. Pull on a wetsuit and go diving for lobster or abalone.

There are also a multitude of fishing opportunities off shore. Boats can be hired to fish the bays, the kelp forests inshore, the nearby islands or even open water. Species range from sea bass and halibut to tuna, yellowtail and even mahi mahi. For a more comprehensive guide to off shore angling, check out my how-to book Chasing Tuna on Amazon.

The fillets can be fried, like above, but saltwater fish are oft en tastier and firmer fleshed than their freshwater counterparts. Get creative with roasting, soups or whole-grilled recipes. In all cases, drizzle with lemon and enjoy the clean protein of the Pacific.

The world of fishing is vast, interesting, and oft en delicious. Pick up a rod and start probing the depths today!

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