Stripers from the Surf
Note: Click here to read an excellent article on this very topic by Lou Bignami
Tackle: 9-13 foot conventional surf casting rods rated for 2-4 ounces of lead, equal length spinning rods rated for 1/2-2 ounces, 12-20 pound line
Lures: white and chartreuse hair raisers, 'mickey' jigs, Krocodiles, swim baits, poppers, Bomber Long As, live bait
Location: Pacific coast from Moss Landing to San Francisco
Season: June through August
Rods and Reels
A good surf casting rod needs to be able to cast very far in windy conditions as well as handle heavy lures and big fish. Because of the first requirement just about everyone uses longer than normal rods. The 11-12 foot range is average but some go a little longer or shorter depending on preference. I personally think 12 feet is ideal. There are several good rod manufacturers. I use a Daiwa Sealine-X Surf Series rod. A good rod at a very economical price. Another good rod in the lower price range is Cabela's Predator rods. They were designed for European style carp fishing, but are great surf rods, too. In the upper price range are rods like the G Loomis SUR1266C, or any of the Lamiglas or Breakaway surf rods. If you're throwing the 4 oz mickey mouse jigs I'd go for a rod that is rated for at least 5-6 ounces. A rod rated for 4 oz can throw the smaller 2-3 oz mickeys as well as hair raisers, swimbaits, and other lighter lures.
Spinning or Conventional? They both have their place. In most conditions I believe a conventional reel will far outperform a spinning reel in the surf. It will cast a mickey much, much farther than a spinning rod. This can be very important if the fish are busting just on the other side of the sandbar. There are just many cases where longer casts will get you more fish. They also handle heavy line and big fish better. They have bigger drag washers and more appropriate gear ratios. And lastly, if you've ever tried throwing heavy lures with a 12 foot spinning rod all day you will find your index finger gets seriously traumatized.
There are several good conventional reels out there. The one I use is the Penn 525 Mag. I have no complaints about it, and it's only about $130. It doesn't have a levelwind and only comes in a right handed model however. Another very popular reel is the Calcutta 400 and 400S. Unfortunately they don't make a left handed model either. Some other good reels are the Quantum Iron IR410CX, a good reel at a great price, Abu Garcia's in the 6500 size range, Daiwa Sealine's, old Shimano Speedmasters, and the smaller Newells.
Conventional reels can't do everything. Spinning reels are better for light baits and poppers. Small hair raisers and swimbaits will be nothing but trouble on a conventional reel. I don't know too much about spinning reel brands. Just get a solid reel built for saltwater and you can't go wrong.
With conventional reels spool up with 15-20 pound line, 12 lb on spinning rods. The best line I've ever used for surf fishing is P-Line CXX-Xtra Strong in blue. It is incredibly strong and has a little less stretch than other lines which helps give you solid hookups in the surf. Another good option is Trilene Big Game, a much more reasonable option when you're like me and end up respooling after every trip. That P-Line is spendy!
The three top lures for striper fishing off the beach are mickey jigs, hair raisers, and poppers.
I use mickey jigs almost exclusively. They don't look like much but stripers aren't picky. The first idea is to get the lure in front of the fishes face, and that's just what you can do with a mickey. They cast like a rocket! The most common sizes for mickey jigs are 2, 3, and 4 ounces. Match the weight of the lure to what throws best on your rod. The most common colors are chrome, white, and chartreuse. On real bright days with relatively clear water I like the chrome mickey best. It is the most natural baitfish imitator. In stained water I'll go to a white mickey with white bucktail on the hook. In real dirty water, or at night, I'll switch to a chartreuse mickey. Overall I think the plain chrome is best. Some mickeys need their hooks sharpened up before they hit the water; make sure you bring a file with you for touch ups.
Fishing a mickey jig can be very simple. In most cases just slug that sucker towards the horizon as far as you can, then retrieve it at a medium pace all the way back in. I've caught all my fish this year so far doing just that. The mickey jigs have a decent wobbling action. Sometimes popping it up and down will generate more strikes, especially when it flutters down. In fact, many of the strikes you will get will be at the beginning of the cast as it flutters before you start your cast, or right after you start your retrieve. Be especially aware at this time.
Hair raisers are extremely effective lures for fishing closer to shore. They have better action and the bass love them. The most common sizes are 1/2-2 ounces. The lighter lures will get bit more often, but be sure to use enough weight to cast far enough. They come mostly in white and chartreuse and I use the same criteria for choosing which to use. I fish them much the same as mickey jigs. They work especially well crawled along the bottom. Although a quicker retrieve higher in the water column may catch more fish in the middle of a frenzy.
Poppers are fun to fish with and can be your best choice at times. They are excellent lures to use in low light conditions, especially at night. The bass can come close to shore at night and the big wooden popper provides an easy target. Poppers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Personally I don't think much of it makes a difference. Just make sure it's big enough to cast and attract bass, and has strong enough components to handle big fish. To fish poppers throw them out as far as you can and give them a fast jerky retrieve back in. Many people use very long, very soft spinning rods for this. They will whip the rod tip back and forth while reeling in quickly which gives the popper a very erratic, noisy action.
Swimbaits are another superb bait for surf stripers. They fish like hair raisers, except they are much more realistic and will draw more strikes in clearer water. They can be difficult to cast, though. Those thick bodied Krocodiles and big Kastmasters are also excellent fish catchers. They will outperform mickeys and the salmon love them, too. However they are more expensive and don't cast as well (they tend to catch some wind and take off in a new direction mid flight, spelling disaster on a conventional reel). You can also use Hopkins, Pt Wilson Darts, or whatever. And finally those big Bomber Long As are also excellent night fishing baits.
When to Fish
The fish follow no schedule that I know of. So to put it simply, fish whenever you can and sooner or later you'll be there at the right time. Even on decent years like this one (2001) the odds are bad for catching fish. The only way to get into the good fishing is to go enough times to turn the odds in your favor.
However there are a few times that are a little bit better than the rest. An incoming tide through about an hour past the high will enhance your chances. Sunrise and Sunset enhance the bite as well. And the fish often feed heavier during the night than during the day.
Seasonally, the stripers normally arrive in earnest around the fourth of July. The runs peak in late July and the fish stick around through part or all of August. On great years the fishing can start sooner and end later, and on bad years they don't hardly show at all. This of course is only for the Pacifica area. If you get really lucky you can catch fish there almost year round, but don't' plan on it.
Where to Fish
The "Pacifica" striper scene takes place mostly between Linda Mar and San Francisco. On a daily basis the range rarely goes past the area between Mori Point and Ocean Beach. The real epicenter of activity is Mussel Rock just north of Pacifica.
If you just want to fish some good beaches to try are the 3-4 miles directly north or south of Mussel Rock. There are always stripers roaming through those areas searching for food. However, most people won't go down to the beach unless they see some kind of activity signaling the presence of feeding stripers. The common signs of stripers are diving birds, stripers themselves, or fishermen catching stripers. From the parking lot at Mussel Rock you can see any of these things from Pacifica Pier to Fort Funston.
If you see any birds diving close enough to the beach theres a good chance that there's a school of stripers pushing the bait that the birds are feed on. The birds often only stay there for 30 minutes or much shorter so you have to get to them FAST. Sometimes the birds are diving into bait but there's no stripers. There are times when there are so many anchovies in the area that the stripers don't even need to push schools to the beach and remain scattered.
Busting stripers are the ultimate indication of a wide open bite. If you see them get to them as fast as you possibly can. Period.
Following fishermen and cars instead of birds also can work. If you arrive at Mussel Rock and there's fewer than a dozen cars you can bet there's something fishy going on. If you see a whole bunch of people bunched together there's probably something happening there. If you see people backing up (sliding fish up the beach) you KNOW something's going on.
The beach is windy, sandy, and cold with big waves. Even though you really never wade in deeper than your knees, chest high waders are a must to keep the cold spray out. Most people wear a light rain coat over the top of the waders to keep water out from the top. If you wear breathable waders and a good raincoat this will be very comfortable. The beach doesn't get warm, even in the middle of the summer. For shoes the two most popular items are boot foot waders or sandals. Whatever you use, make sure it isn't something that sand can collect in. I use sandals which completely solves this problem.
To store gear most people use belts with multiple compartments. You'll need extra lures (and line for me), fresh water (to drink and clean off your reel if it gets sand in it), and something to carry your fish with on the way back up the cliff (there's always a cliff if you catch a fish). The surf stringer consists of a length of rope with a wooden handle on one end and a loop on the other. You can put the fish on the end of the rope and drag it back to your car easily this way. While your still fishing you can either leave your fish on the beach until you go, bury it in the sand, or put it on the stringer and attach the other end to your waist.
I normally bring three each of chrome, white, and chartreuse mickeys, a kroc or kastmaster or two, lots of extra components and a popper.