American Fly Fishing

By Loren Elliott

A staple of my early childhood was day-tripping to Stinson Beach with my parents to enjoy the coast. These trips always included a surf-fishing component. We would bait hooks above lead sinkers and toss them into the waves on massive spinning rods that were the epitome of overkill. Few formative memories come back to me as vividly as getting the green light to reel in the rig and check if our offering had fooled an unlucky surfperch. Though far from sporting, landing surfperch by any means was a thrill to me at 6 years of age. My earliest years included more than my fair share of mountain fly-fishing for trout, but it wasn’t until years later that I brought together my budding love for fly fishing and the nearby ocean. With a flimsy stripping basket and a trout rod, I stepped into the surf at Stinson Beach and thus began a passion for fly fishing the California surf that included a solid stint guiding these waters.
   Stinson Beach is an ideal stretch of sand for fly anglers because it has the rare combination of calm surf and abundant fish. Because of the recessed nature of Stinson Bay, the beach is often protected from the mean swells that can make much of the Bay Area coastline daunting. With a northwest or west swell (remember that a swell is described by the direction in which it originates, not the direction in which it’s headed), Stinson is sheltered by the protruding headlands and Duxbury Reef at Bolinas. It usually takes a big southwest swell to make things rough here, and even then it is far more approachable than the treacherously steep beaches of nearby Point Reyes and San Francisco.
   The year-round surfperch action is Stinson’s main attraction, but during the summer there is also ample opportunity to hook striped bass, halibut, and even leopard sharks. I usually stick to my surfperch rig, a 6-weight rod with a light T-8 shooting-head, and toss Clouser Minnows and crab patterns. This keeps me in the game for perch, and creates a seriously jolting surprise when a striper or halibut grabs. For this reason, I never fish a tippet lighter than 12-pound test. Of course, you can specifically target the so-called glamour species with an 8- or 9-weight outfit and large baitfish patterns, and this will catch the attention of more bass and ’buts in the turbid surf zone, but this comes at the cost of missed surfperch hookups.
   Understanding tides and reading structure are key components of success at Stinson. High tides flood the beach, making structure difficult to decipher but bringing feeding fish onto the sand-crab beds. A high tide often means fishing nondescript flats, so I like to stay on the move and keep working water until I find fish. Closer to the low tide, structure becomes more obvious. When I find the deeper, calmer water of a trough or hole on either side of the low tide, I set up shop and wait for the fish to come to me. In this case, I know I am in the most likely spot and it is just a matter of time before fish show up. To get an idea of where the best structure of the beach lies, I recommend a quick stop at the pullout on US Highway 1 high above the southern end of the beach. From there, you can scout Stinson’s entire length with a pair of binoculars. Make mental notes regarding landmarks close to the fishiest structure before heading down to water level. Productive structure can be found from the rocky southern end all the way to the Bolinas Lagoon mouth that marks the northernmost point of the beach. 
   Defined structure is most abundant in winter and spring, a result of storm swells digging out contours along the beach. Much of this structure stays intact during the summer, though it flattens out some, but by fall it is all but gone most years. The lack of structure, combined with warm water, makes fall the toughest season at Stinson. Winter brings cool water temps and defined structure, but big swells can make some days nastier than others. For these reasons, spring and summer are my favorite seasons to fish Stinson, with summer taking the cake for bonus striper and halibut opportunities. Just make sure to fish early and late in the day or be extremely mindful of your backcast, because Stinson gets majorly crowded on hot summer days. If the crowds are bad, I hike all the way down to the lagoon mouth, where fewer beachgoers tread. This is also a great spot, because the flushing action of the tides between the lagoon and the ocean makes the mouth a nutrient-rich feeding zone.
   Few beaches in Northern California offer the tame waves and multi-species action available at Stinson. This is an ideal beach for beginning or experienced surf anglers.


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