Some of the best bay fishing in the world can be found right in the United States. From the Chesapeake Bay to the San Francisco Bay, these waterways hold a vast array of fish and exciting opportunities for adventure.
The same principles apply to finding fish in a bay as locating fish in a backwater or on the open ocean. Find the right water temperature, structure, bait and current under the right weather conditions, and you’ll find fish.
In bay fishing, any solid structure will likely hold fish. They can be natural, such as a rock outcrop, shellfish bed or coral reef; or they can be manmade, like a shipwreck, artificial reef, bridge or jetty. Either way, they improve your chances of finding bay fish.
When bay fishing around a hard structure, first consider the habits of the target species. Predators such as striped bass, red drum, amberjack or bluefish will usually swarm around the outskirts of the structure looking for wayward baitfish to wander away from safety. To target these bay fish, it is best to cast or drop a saltwater bait or lure into the structure, then work it back to the boat like an escaping baitfish.
Fish that live deep in the reef such as blackfish, triggerfish and grouper require a different bay fishing tactic. In this instance, it is often better to anchor or tie the boat over the structure and drop baits to the fish.
To secure the boat over the reef, either snag the reef with a grapple anchor or drop a Danforth anchor up current of the structure and let the boat drift back over the fish. When bay fishing bridges or breakwater, anglers can tie directly to the structure, anchor up current from the rocks or pilings, or hold the boat off the structure with the engines.
When fighting a fish that is hooked near a structure, it is imperative to maintain pressure on the line so the fish cannot swim back into the reef or wreck to escape. Use heavy action and high-quality tackle with a powerful rod, strong line, and smooth drag to give you an advantage.
Larger bay fishing spots are marked by major variations in depth and bottom contour, commonly referred to as "hills and humps." Not only do hills and humps offer a hiding place for prey and predators; they often increase or redirect the current, which further confuses and confounds the saltwater bait.
To find these anomalies while bay fishing, before leaving the dock look on a bathographic chart of the area. Then once on the scene, use a fishfinder and a GPS to position the boat over the structure.
Most situations will require an angler to drift over the hills and humps while dragging baits across the bottom or swimming live baits at various depths. Hills and humps can also good places to troll lures and live baits, or anchor and soak baits.
Fish can be anywhere in relation to the structure (up tide, down tide, on either side, or on top), but once one fish is caught, others are likely to be in the same area. Always mark a hook-up on the GPS and then return to the same area looking for another hungry fish.
Even though depressions such as channels and holes are the exact opposite of hills and humps, these structures work in the same way to attract fish while bay fishing.
Holes and channels provide structure where bay fish can hide, and often offer an escape from conditions that predators and prey may find intolerable. For example, if the water temperature rises above the comfort zone for a species, the fish will often take refuge in deep water.
Also, since fresh water is less dense than salt water, deeper areas will often hold cleaner, saltier water than is found in surrounding shallows.
In many cases, predators will patrol the edges of a channel or hole while prey will hide in the deepest sections. Again, using a GPS in conjunction with a fishfinder will allow you to map out the structure and track the boat’s position over it to find the best spots for a successful bay fishing trip.
When drifting bottom baits while bay fishing, be sure to let out line as the depth drops over a depression to keep the bait on the bottom. If trolling through these structures, be sure to attack from all directions since fish can be picky about what direction a bait is heading.
Like drops, hills and channels, shallow shoals provide another great bay fishing habitat because of the abundance of food for bay fish. When fishing skinny water, it’s usually best to look for any variation in the bottom structure in order to find the bay fish.
Depending on the situation, trolling, anchoring or drifting will work over the shoals, but on a clear, sunny day anglers may be able to see fish in the clear shallow water.
Shallow water can heat up at night when predators can move into the saltwater flats without worrying about becoming a victim of fish hawks or sea gulls.
When bay fishing from a boat in the shoals and shallows, always exercise extra caution. Not only can the boat run aground and damage the habitat; in some cases it could become the victim of a breaking wave.
One thing that makes fishing in bays and estuaries unique is the meeting of fresh water and salt water, called a convergence zone. Variations in salt levels attract fish for both feeding and breeding.
While the border between two bodies of water may only appear as a ripple or color change to a fisherman, to a fish, these boundaries can act like a brick wall. Whether the two bodies of water are different temperatures, currents, colors or degrees of salinity (saltiness), fish use them as feeding stations where they can find and corral bait.
When bay fishing in a convergence zone, always explore both sides of the break. Trolling is usually the best way to cover this ground, but you can find fish by drifting baits or casting to the break. Keep your eyes peeled for fish chasing bait or cruising just below the surface.
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