Saltwater Bay Fishing

Have you ever wanted to troll Chesapeake Bay for striped bass or take your children on a summer salmon trip to San Francisco Bay? Whichever it is, you're very likely to have some luck since saltwater bays are large, partially enclosed bodies of water that are prime areas to find saltwater fish.

Tidal movements, such as currents and eddies that flow through bay areas, create an active estuary environment that attracts baitfish, crustaceans and many species of sport fish. With some research beforehand on regulations, proper tackle, and places to fish, you'll come home with bay fishing tales worth sharing for years to come.

Saltwater Bay Fishing Tackle

Depending on the saltwater fish species being targeted, the area or structure you are fishing, and the size of your baits, different saltwater fishing rigs may be used when bay fishing. Here are some examples:

You might use the gear listed below if you are fishing Chesapeake Bay for striped bass.

  • A 7-foot heavy action rod with a spinning reel or a baitcaster reel
  • A 20-pound monofilament line
  • A 50-pound test fluorocarbon leader
  • Lures such as a white bucktail jig lure to a metal spoon or live bait
  • Some 6/0 or 7/0 circle hooks

If you are fishing the San Francisco Bay during the summer for salmon, the below tackle set up is an option that you can try.

  • A 9-foot downrigger trolling rod with a baitcaster reel
  • A 25-pound test monofilament line
  • A 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader
  • Bait such as frozen anchovies or herring
  • Some 5/0 barbless hooks

Saltwater Bay Fishing Areas

When looking for places to fish in a saltwater bay, consider trying the areas below. You may need a topographical map, fishfinder or GPS to help you locate.


When fishing in the bay, keep in mind that a reef can be defined as any solid structure. This type of structure can be natural, such as a rock outcrop, oyster bed or coral reef. However, it can also be manmade, like a wreck, artificial reef, bridge or jetty. Either way, a reef will improve your chances of catching fish in a bay.

If you are fishing around an area of structure, consider the following:

  • What are the habits of the fish you are targeting? Predatory fish such as striped bass, red drum, amberjack or bluefish will usually circle around the outskirts of the structure looking for baitfish that have wandered away from safety. For predatory species, try dropping your bait or lure into the structure, and then working it back to the boat like an escaping baitfish.
  • For saltwater fish species that live deep in the reef such as blackfish, triggerfish and grouper, you’ll need to use a different bay fishing tactic. In these situations, anchor your boat over the structure and then drop baits down to the fish. Once you get a bite and begin fighting a fish near structure, it's important to maintain steady pressure on the line so the fish can’t swim back to the safety of the reef or wreck.

Hills And Humps

Good places to fish in bays are marked by major variations in depth and bottom contour, these areas are often referred to as hills and humps. Hills and humps are good areas to target because they offer a hiding place for prey and usually increase or redirect the current.

A few tips:

  • To locate these anomalies in preparation for your trip, find a bathy graphic chart of the area. Once in the general area of the hill or hump, use a fishfinder and a GPS to position your boat over the structure.
  • Most situations will require you to drift while dragging baits across the bottom or swimming live baits at various depths. Hills and humps are also good places to troll lures and live baits, or anchor and drop baits down near the bottom.
  • Once a fish is hooked, others are likely to be in the same area. For this reason, it's always a good idea to mark a hook-up on your GPS and then drift back over the same spot to see if another is ready to take your bait.

Channels And Holes

Depressions in the bottom of a bay, such as channels and holes, are the opposite of hills and humps. However, both changes in bottom work in the same way to attract fish. Holes and channels contain areas where fish can hide and offer relief from conditions that predators and prey find intolerable.

Why fish dwell here:

  • If the water temperature rises above the comfort zone for a species, the fish can take refuge in deeper water.
  • Since freshwater is less dense than saltwater, deeper areas will often hold cleaner water that has a higher salinity level.
  • Predatory saltwater fish prefer to patrol the edges of a channel or hole where prey is often found hiding in the deepest sections.

TIP: When fishing these holes, try drifting baits using a rig such as a two-hook bottom rig. Be sure to let out additional line as the depth increases over a depression to keep your bait on the bottom. If trolling through these structures, try dropping your baits in several different directions since fish will move depending on the current and food sources.

Shallows And Shoals

Like holes, hills and channels, shallow shoals are another good bay fishing habitat because of the abundance of bait in these areas. When fishing shallower water, it’s best to look for any variation in the bottom structure in order to find saltwater fish. Shallow water fishing will often improve at night when baitfish and game fish can move onto the saltwater flats without becoming a victim of fish hawks or sea gulls. Depending on the situation, trolling, anchoring or drifting can be effective techniques over the shoals.

TIP: Be sure to exercise caution at all times, since changing tides and shallow water can cause a bay fishing boat to run aground and potentially damage the habitat or become the victim of a breaking wave.

Convergence Zones

One aspect of fishing bays and estuaries that makes the experience unique is the merging of freshwater and saltwater, which is called a convergence zone. Convergence zones are good places to fish because variations in water salinity levels will attract saltwater fish for feeding and breeding. While the border between these two bodies of water might only appear as a ripple or color change to an angler, the boundaries can act like a concrete wall to a fish. Whether the two bodies of water are different temperatures, currents, colors or degrees of salinity, fish will use them as feeding stations where they can find and round up bait.

When bay fishing in a convergence zone, always explore both sides of the break. Trolling is a good way to cover this ground, but you can also find fish by drifting baits or casting towards the break.

TIP: When looking for places to fish in a bay, out on the open ocean or in the backwaters, keep in mind that similar concepts can be applied. Remember to monitor the water temperature, structure, bait and current while paying attention to the weather conditions, and you’ll find fish. If the wind happens to pick up and conditions aren't ideal for bay fishing, it might be a better day to fish in sheltered inshore or backwater areas.

Bay fishing is done best by boat, check out the Boat Selector Tool to find the perfect boat for you and your family.


Ocean bays don’t have much freshwater influence. But because they are protected from severe ocean conditions, they become ideal nurseries for many species of baitfish and shell fish, which can draw bigger saltwater fish into the bays to feed.

Bays and Estuaries

If you're fishing in a bay or estuary, you better have a big tackle box. These bodies of water contain a mixture of fresh water and salt water. They also contain a mixture of freshwater and saltwater fish. Bays and estuaries can be fished from shore or from a boat. Estuaries are locations in which the mouth of a river meets the ocean. Estuaries support saltwater fish such as tarpon, snook, redfish and striped bass. Other saltwater fish like shad, herring, salmon and sea-run trout can also be found in estuaries because they need to find saltier or fresher water when it’s time to mate. Freshwater fish like largemouth bass can also survive in the salty waters found in estuaries. Weather can also affect the mix of fish in combined waters. Stormy weather pushes fresh water from the rivers closer to the ocean, causing freshwater to move farther downstream. Dry weather pushes salt water and saltwater fish further upstream into the rivers.

Nearshore Reefs And Shoals

Reefs and shoals provide some of the most productive fishing grounds. In fact, reefs hold a great concentration of biodensity and diversity. The reefs offer shelter to many bait fish that game fish prey on, and this occurs throughout the water column. One can bottom fish, jig, or troll around a reef. All methods attract various fish that inhabit these areas. Chumming the water helps to concentrate the fish and bring them up from the bottom. Depending on your fishing method, you can catch anything from a grouper to a king mackerel.

Merging Water

Locations where two bodies of water meet provide excellent places to fish. Flow from one body of water converges with flow from another body of water and creates areas of merging water known as rips. Food in the form of crabs, shrimp and minnows flow through these areas of water especially during strong periods of tidal flow. Game fish will gather at these rips because bait from two separate water bodies converge at this single point. A great spot to find these rips is where a bay meets an ocean.

Learn about deep-sea fishing in our next section.