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Bud Neville's Blog

WONews Column by Bud Neville

A veteran staffer, Bud Neville has worked for Western Outdoor Publications for 17 years covering Northern California saltwater fishing, as well as several other regions in California. Neville grew up in the Sierra foothills and still lives there with his wife Deanna and three children, Ryan, Desiree and Conrad on the family’s 65-acre ranch near Foresthill.


There is a new kid in town for some of the crab combo boats fishing out of San Francisco Bay. The crews on a couple of the charter boats are playing around with prawn traps to see if there might be yet another overlooked option for winter fishing.

The main quarry is technically called the coonstripe shrimp, which, at 3 to 4 inches, makes a healthy tidbit. The largest can be as long as 6 inches, which is almost a meal in itself. There is a commercial fishery to the north, the main effort made by boats out of Crescent City. The commercial interest is in live shrimp, which bring a pretty good price as marine resources go.

Another species encountered is the spot prawn. Like many of our commercial fisheries, the spot prawn fishery developed in Monterey. Incidentally caught in octopus traps, the fishery developed with trawl nets becoming heavily used, then traps becoming the final gear. Commercial efforts targeting the spot prawn have been more thorough, with the late ’90s offering the largest landings.

Sport shrimping hasn’t been all that popular, possibly because of the specialty gear versus the payoff. Recently, the couple of the charter boats have been experimenting with sport shrimping. On board the California Dawn, the haul hasn’t been too impressive.
“We’re still experimenting, getting it right,” said Captain James Smith. Perfecting the shrimp tactics may have to wait, since he’s taking a break from sport fishing to engage the commercial crabbing season.

Out of Emeryville Sportfishing, the New Huck Finn has also been adding shrimping to their combo trips. When I asked Frank Salazar at the landing to report on how the shrimping is going, he responded, “there really isn’t much to report.”

“It’s hit and miss. We’re getting some, but so far it’s not a very big deal,” he said. Part of the problem has been shrimp pot raiders, as in unscrupulous boaters who take advantage of the gear when no one is looking. The same kind of thing happens with crab pots, but legislation drafted a couple years back made it illegal to take someone else’ sport caught crabs.

For anglers interested in some private boat shrimping, there are some great information resources online. I found this site:, which details exactly how to rig and fish for prawns right here in California.

In addition, biological information can be found in the DFG publication “California’s Living Marine Resources, a Status Report.” While not ultra specific, the info offered does demonstrate how prawns are hermaphroditic. Males turn into females as they grow older. Also, geographical information demonstrates how the coonstripe shrimp dominates the northern waters, while the spot prawn is more abundant to the south.

While the prawn game might be a small bonus for anglers on crab combo trips, you have to hand it to the innovative crews that are giving it a shot. These are the kinds of starts that lead to bigger things, just as the crab combos began some 20 years ago.

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Few of the marine species we can harvest are as widely available, at least north of Point Conception, than the Dungeness crab. Named for a seaport in Washington state on the Olympic Peninsula (hence the capitalization of the first name), this species is one of several present along California’s northern coastline.

Willing to forage along smooth mud or sandy bottoms out to 300 feet, and at times even deeper, the Dungeness can be caught from piers, by casting in the surf, diving and via pots and traps, from boat. Since our winter options in the ocean have dwindled, more and more anglers have discovered the fascinating sport of crabbing.

As with any specialized type of fishing, crabbing choices have definite cult followings. Bait is a choice topic if you want to hear many different opinions. Some say the stinkier the better, while others insist that fresh, clean bait draws more crabs. Some popular baits include squid, both market and giant, a filleted fish carcass or head, and since crab season opens every November, turkey carcasses. Aside from the availability and Thanksgiving specials on turkey meat, poultry seems to really draw the crabs. Why bird meat? Only answers I’ve heard is either that it’s something different from what they are used to, or conversely, that they get a taste for bird meat from seabirds that end up on the bottom of the ocean. Like I said, the only consistent thing about crabber opinions are that they are diverse, and they all think they’re right about a given crab topic.

While female crabs are legally fair game, every crabber I know releases the girls and only keeps the males. Crabs molt when they grow, and a freshly molted crab is considered a softshell; there is typically less meat in a freshly molted crab, so most crabbers toss the softies back, also. Dungies are known to grow to 9 inches, nearly double the minimum size limit of a sport caught keeper.

What makes a keeper by sport law can be confusing. On a private boat, it’s 5.75 inches. On a charter boat, it’s 6 inches. Commercial crabbers are held to an even higher standard of 6.25 inches, and they are also limited to an only-male rule.
Like size limits, bag limits are also a little ambiguous. If you’re on a party boat south of Mendocino County, the limit is six. On a private boat, you can keep 10 in the same region. North of the Sonoma-Mendo county line, party boat and private boat bag limits are the same — 10 per day.

At one time, crab “theft” was a big problem among sport crabbers. Seems that a loophole in the law left sport caught Dungeness crabs fair game among unscrupulous fishermen. Since a sport caught crab has no commercial value (you can’t legally sell them), taking one from someone else’s pot wasn’t theft. After all, you can’t be charged for taking something that has no value. Taking crabs from a commercial pot was theft, since those crabs had a dollar value. The DFG drafted special regulations to make it illegal to take crabs from another’s pots, solving this problem from an enforcement stance. Monitoring the pots to make sure violations of the law don’t occur is the hard part here!

While crabbing laws protect Dungeness crab numbers, the population is cyclic. Likely based on ocean productivity, the current prospect for the coming season is excellent. We’ve had a three year downturn on landings, but last year’s numbers were on the rise, and the number of small crabs reported last year supported a growing population. With the status of ocean productivity among the highest ever recorded, it’s certain crab numbers will bloom in the next two to six years. There’s never been a better time to take up pursuit of the tasty crab!

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A most versatile fish

Take a broad look at our different game fish, and one stands out above the rest in what I can only call versatility. There are several fish we can catch both in the ocean and in brackish and freshwater, like the king salmon, for example, but the striped bass can not only be caught high in the river systems, but the variety of methods used to catch them is amazing.

In the ocean, stripers hit topwater plugs and spoons cast from beaches. They hit trolled gear meant for salmon, and live bait. One of the prized trips on live bait party boats is the surf trip, where skippers back their boats into the surf and chum up the fish. In the bay, there is a period of time that stripers are caught on the rocky structure in main San Francisco Bay.

Anglers walk the shoreline casting plugs, jigs and spoons into bay waters to hook stripers. Others sit patiently with cut bait that the striper has no problem adding to its diet.

In the fall and winter months, stripers become a big option for charter boats that fish “on anchor.” Bullheads are the top bait for big bass, but midshipmen, gobys, shiner perch and cut baits also work for these fish. But you don’t have to kick back, soaking the sun’s rays and watching a rod tip for the telltale rattle of a visiting linesides, because you can also troll for stripers in the bay.

While most anglers use hair jigs, some will tempt weedy fate and put out minnow imitation lures like the Predator. Or, you can drift the shoreline and cast swimbaits and Rat-L-Traps to shoreline structure, black bass style, and still get plenty of action.

The voracious nature of a striped bass means just about anything smaller is fair game, and that’s one of the reasons these fish aren’t looked at with quite the respect us anglers think they deserve. The striper, an introduced game fish, is now the focus of politicians looking to point a finger at something other than water draws as the scapegoat for our ailing Delta smelt and salmon numbers. Evidence proves it’s not the bass, it’s the water draws at the source of the problem, but whoever said politicians are logical creatures.

Once up in the Delta, stripers continue to amaze with the variety of tactics that can be used to catch them. Jigging heavy spoons in deeper spots can be a super way to rack up the big numbers. Slinging swimbaits works great, and trollers use a hair jig and minnow lure on a spreader rig to great effect.

There is even a contingent that would rather fly cast to linesides than catch them any other way, using 10 weight rods and flashy streamers the length of your hand. And many are the tales of black bass tournament anglers who thought they had the contest in the bag after hooking a monster, only to see those familiar thin stripes on the weighty fish they are bringing to the boat.

Finally, these fish will arrive in the spring in their favorite upriver spawning areas, where anglers once again will catch them from both shore and boat. Whether big poppers or bottom sitting cut bait, the striper is consistent here as out on the ocean beaches in that they’ll eat just about anything smaller than them.

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One rather ignored shark species is gaining some respect in the Bay Area. The cow sharks, of which there are two different species in California waters, have been important at times in the history of California’s fisheries.

What I didn’t know is that, as predators, cow sharks are exceeded only by the great white.

According to “California’s Living Marine Resources: A Status Report” published by the Department of Fish and Game, sevengill cow sharks are at the top of the food chain, willing and able to take down marine mammals. They also eat other large sharks and rays, and other fish.

One interesting trait described in the report was the way sevengills will cooperate in packs to hunt and kill marine mammals including seals and dolphins. They are not particular about food sources, and have been known to feed on whale carcasses. One of the popular baits used to catch them are squid and salmon trimmings… testimony to the fact that they are probably feeding on just about anything reasonably fresh dead that they find on the bottom.

Sevengills come big, reaching lengths of 10 feet, and weights over 300 pounds. Heck, when born, they are 14 and 18 inches! They grow quickly, doubling their size in the first two years of life. At 5 feet, the male sevengill is mature, while the females don’t mature until they are 7-plus feet long. That means all those 3- and 4-foot sevengills you are catching are just babies.

There are a couple issues involved with fishing for sevengills that responsible anglers should be concerned about. Number one, this is a sensitive resource that can be easily impacted by overfishing. History supports this. In the 1930s and ’40s, sevengills were targeted commercially, resulting in a collapse of the population. In the ’50s and ’60s, restoration of the population was hampered by competitive shark fishing. Things were quiet for the big sharks, then along came “Jaws,” exciting a whole new wave of interest in catching sevengills.

For the ’90s, a whole new awareness of the sevengill cow shark vulnerability feathered the angler interest. A few charter boats focused on the fishery, encouraging catch and release. Biological studies by the Monterey Bay Aquarium has helped understand the big ’uns, but there is much that remains unknown about the sevengills, and their more broadly based cousins the sixgills.

“I’ve never been so humbled by a fish in the bay,” said Captain James Smith on the California Dawn, who recently took a few hours out with a shark charter to target the bigger fish in the deep water of San Francisco Bay. Fishing in 100 feet-plus, his group lost some five or six fish per one boated. In some cases, the fish bit clean through the leader; in others, they rolled up the wire leader and their abrasive skin shredded the mono line. Such monster action is addicting; “We’re going again,” said Smith. “But it’s just going to be a small group of regulars. I don’t think I’d want to promote catching these things, they are too vulnerable.”

There are two main spots along our coast you can get into some sevengill action, in San Francisco Bay and Humboldt Bay. I imagine there are some in Tomales Bay, and perhaps around some of the spots like Bolinas Bay and Drakes Bay. The bigger ones like the deep water, but the juveniles can be caught right alongside leopards and soupfins in the shallower south bay flats. Top baits are squid and live baits like sardines and midshipmen, but they’ll take a variety of other baits, including Berkley Gulp! baits, which are a little easier to handle.

Just remember that if you decide to spend some time on these big monsters, please catch-and-release, particularly on the bigger females. It takes years for these giant cows to reach breeding age, and killing one is pointless- if you must, keep a smaller male for the table.

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One of the most prevalent nearshore habitats that hold a variety of game fish are the kelp forests. Rockfish, halibut, striped bass, seabass and a myriad of baitfish will call the kelp forests home, and anglers who know this and can learn to fish the somewhat frustrating belt of water can do quite well.

There are actually two types of kelp, the giant kelp found mainly south of Monterey Bay, and the bull kelp, ranging from there northward. Giant kelp is a perennial, overwintering and regrowing year after year. The bull kelp is an annual that fulfills its life cycle in one year.

The giant kelp is the king of kelp. Growing as much as two feet per day, giant kelp outcompete bull kelp, which grow an average of 4 inches per day. That’s why there is no bull kelp much farther south from the northern tip of giant kelp range.

Either variety have some unique traits that make fishing in around kelp forest interesting. They have air bulbs at the top of their growth that suspend them upwards. Instead of roots, they have anchors that secure the plant on rocky structure. The stronger the rocks, the more likely the plant will survive, and not be separated by a big surge and swept up on shore. This vertical garden is easy enough to fish in, but when the tide is low, kelp make a matt that covers the surface of the ocean.

Kelp is prime forage for abalone, so kelp forests are a great place to find abalone. Unfortunately, more than one ab diver has become entangled in kelp, panicked and drowned. While low tides are favored for abalone diving in some areas, high tides are much better for diving in kelp infested areas, because the kelp doesn’t form that solid matt.

For innovative anglers, fishing the kelp has become a kind of mirror in tactics borrowed from black bass anglers. For years, black bass fishermen have been enticing and pulling fish out of similarly thick weeds in freshwater lakes and ponds. Many bass lures, designed to be weedless, work great in kelp. Texas rigged plastics, with or without the bullet slip sinker, are great for enticing rockfish. The use of braided line also helps by cutting through fronds once a fish is hooked.

Another neat trick adopted by kayakers is to fish vertically in the kelp. At higher tides, you can often slip a swimbait or similar lure down to the fish in pockets in the kelp. Of course, taking a propeller driven boat into the kelp is asking for trouble, but even party boats have been known to flirt with fishing the edges of the kelp beds.

A few more interesting notes about kelp that transcend beyond the anglers interest include the potential for this weed’s use in fertilizers, foods and other uses. Kelp has a high iodine content, so can be used, in concentrated form, as an antiseptic. With such a high rate of growth and no need for irrigation, kelp has been considered for production of methane and ethanol. It’s also used extensively in Japanese cooking. Prior to the 1800s, kelp was a main source of soda ash, and alginate, derived from kelp, is used to thicken food products like ice cream, jelly, salad dressing and even toothpaste. There is a fairly large commercial kelp business in Southern California waters.

But for us, kelp means mostly one thing; where it’s the thickest, the fishing is great.

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