I have written about fly fishing in places all over the world so it’s long past time I write about the fly fishing in my own backyard: Carlsbad, CA
Southern California, including Carlsbad, has a long history of saltwater fly fishing. In the Surf, legendary Fly Fishermen like Al Quatrrocchi, Nick Curcione, Kirk Deeter, Dr. Milton Love, Jim Solomon, Glenn Ueda, Bernard Yin, Lee Baermann, Jeff Solis, and others have written, presented, and taught us how to fish the Socal Surf…especially for the elusive corbina. In terms of Off-shore John Loo for off shore fly fishing and Conway Bowman always come to mind when fly fishing for Mako’s off the san diego coast.
This article is about fishing Carlsbad’s Agua Hedionda Lagoon from a float tube (or fishing kayak). It’s funny that I have lived in Carlsbad for 22 years; within a mile of Aqua Hedionda lagoon and I had never fished it until just recently. Mainly because I’m a trout guy and just don’t have a lot of expertise in the salt water. Trust me. As I write this I have only fished Hedionda 5 times so I am no expert. But, because I have had success, I want to share it in case you are interested in C&R fly fishing it.
Firstly, let me elaborate my 2 main inspirations and motivations:
- If you are a Socal then you have driven by this lagoon many times and stared at it. It’s just south of the Tamarack exit on the 5 in Carlsbad. It’s the lagoon with the water skiers on the east side of the 5. You may have stared at that water and said to yourself, “I wonder if that fishes?” You may have seen kayak fishermen in there and said, like I did for years, “How in the world did they get in there and I wonder if they are catching fish?”
- Recently, Mel Ochs and Kai Schumann did a SDFF club presentation on how to fish the bays of San Diego in a float tube or kayak. It was outstanding. I learned so much from that presentation. Let me be honest: I serve as the programs chair for the San Diego Fly Fishers club. It is my job to ink the speakers for the club presentations and I have signed up some famous ones, both worldwide and from the list above. So when I roped them into doing this presentation I was a bit selfish in my needs.
< Side Note: let me put in a plug for joining the San Diego Fly Fishers Club. It’s only $40 / year and along with all the other benefits, there are 2 presentations by zoom per month during the pandemic; in person once we are finally past it. If you want to go fly fish the bays with the group of folks from the club, at a minimum, they go every Wednesday and would love to have you and show you the ropes of fly fishing the bays. >
About Hedionda: The Science and History
Three major highways cross Hedionda: Highway 101 (aka PCH) along the coastline, the train tracks and Interstate 5. These 3 bridges divide the Hedionda into 3 sections:
- outer bay – just east of the coast highway; closest to the ocean. This section holds the oyster, abalone and white sea bass farms along with carlsbad’s hydro electric power plant and the largest desalination plant in N America.
- middle bay – separated by the train bridge and highway 5. This section holds the YMCA aquatic park
- inner bay – east of interstate 5. This section holds California Watersports and numerous homes and condos with docks on the North side and the infamous Carlsbad Strawberry fields on it’s south site.
Hedionda extends 1.7 miles inland and is up to a half mile at its widest point. All three sections are 8-10 feet deep at their deepest part of the high tide….except for the channel that flows the tide to and from the ocean. That channel runs the entire length from the ocean to the head of the bay where Hedionda creek feeds it. The channel is over 30 feet in depth in and around the 3 bridges. This depth information is important in relation to the fishing. There is more on tides below in the fishing section of this article.
Hedionda is fed by Agua Hedionda creek to the southeast and Lake Calavera Creek to the Northeast. Numerous spring creeks feed those two creeks. But, in reality Carlsbad is a a natural desert so a majority of the water feeding Hedionda is simply lawn sprinkler runoff from well into Oceanside and Vista. There is a significant amount of fresh water that enters the lagoon at the head of the bay making that “back-bay” brackish for those that want to chase mullet with a fly rod. When it does rain that creek is a raging dangerous river.
The most amusing part of Agua Hedionda is the name itself: It means “Stinky Water” in Spanish. The reason is most likely because before a small boat harbor was constructed in middle bay somewhere between 1940 and the 50s, the lagoon was not dredged; it was truly a lagoon. Between the decay of vegetation, the mud and the methane escaping it probably was pretty stinky before dredging provided a constant flush of tidal flow.
From the InterWeb: “The main difference between Bay and Lagoon is that the Bay is a body of water connected to an ocean or lake, formed by an indentation of the shoreline and Lagoon is a shallow body of water separated from larger body of water by a barrier.”
By way of this definition then Agua Hedionda is a bay; not a lagoon. In fact, it has significant tidal flow just like san diego or mission bay. There is plenty of great information from the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation here.
The history of Hedionda is pretty sketchy but, in the early half of the 20th century Carlsbad was a mostly an agricultural area….boasting the only place you could get the rare and hard to get exotic fruit: the avocado. At that time the bay was not used for anything short of the quickest transportation from the farms to the beach: by row boat. There is some interesting information about the area’s history that the Carlsbad Historical Society turned me onto here. But, not much on Hedionda itself.
How to fish it
The Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation says there are 70 species of fish that populate it. Being that said only a small portion of those fish are predators: the type of fish you would be catching with a fly rod. And in my limited experience the spotted bay bass dominates that group. But, I’m a pretty friendly fly fisherman so I did talk to a number of gear guys both on the shore and in kayaks. And they all gladly provided a tremendous amount of knowledge to me. In fact, more than once I’d catch a fish, hold it up to a shore fisherman and say, “what the hell is this?”
There are pelagic fish that wonder into Hedionda with the tide. Of those the most common are white sea bass, rays and halibut. But sharks and even corbina are caught there too…along with all the usual suspects you see in the surf. It’s worth nothing that any ocean fishing in a float tube is not for the faint of heart for many reasons. And being that said I did fish Hedionda in a tube in January of 2021 the day after the beach in front of it was closed down because of a 15 foot great white patrolling the surf.
Harvesting – I have caught a couple legal halibut and let them go. It’s partly because of ~30 years of catch and release fly fishing and partly fear of eating from a bay fed by fertilizers and the cancer causing weed killer, round-up. If I ever do catch a legal white sea bass I’ll have a tough decision to make. The white sea bass farm is in outer bay and there are escapees.
It’s all about the tides – just like any surf or bay fishing in the san diego area your best success is going to be during an incoming and/or slack tide. In fact, the only time you will be able to fish close to the train bridge or Highway 5 bridge is during a slack tide. Not that it was unsafe, but the very first time I fished Hedionda, this trout fisherman was inches from getting pulled from middle bay under the 5 and out into inner bay. I wasn’t paying attention staring at my fish finder as the tide grabbed me. The current during that incoming tide was so strong it was like any large river I have fished before. It took everything I had to paddle my fins away from getting sucked in. I was huffing and puffing more than I have even done on lake Crowley in the wind. Again, I was never in danger. But, if pulled through to the other side I would have had to wait hours for the slack tide to even consider swimming back through again. and it’s not like I could have gotten out of the water on the other side and carried my tube back.
Along with the tide, there are a number of things that negatively or positively affect your fishing success. Here are a few:
- fish finder – My aha moment was from the gang of bay fly fishers from the San Diego Fly Fishers Club. They all use portable fish finders. There are some super inexpensive ones from the company “Lucky”. You can find them on amazon.com from $40 and up. After a ton of research, I ended up with the Garmin STRIKER™ Cast GPS. Its list price is $179. It’s an amazing little device that deserves its own gear review on this site. you tether and drag it behind your float tube. I chose 15 feet (of old floating fly line instead of the cord they included). since you paddle backwards in a float tube it looks for fish right in the zone you are stripping through (as opposed to directly underneath you like all other fish finders). I’ll typically cast ~40 feet, let it sink, and strip back. The device uses your smart phone with the garmin striker app as its UI. It clearly shows depth and structure and the fish in the water column they are swimming in. it even counts the number of fish in the schools. I found myself not blind casting until I saw fish on the finder. but, in one of my fly fishing sessions, after running out of my allotted spousal time, I quickly paddled right across the bay where the fish finder showed a ghost town. For the purpose of straightening out my line and tightly winding it back up I hooked up and landed a nice halibut. It made me late. Oh well’ she’ll live. After 31 years of marriage, she knows the “one last cast” thing. So, there is the lesson learned. you will not be able to see the halibut on the fish finder because they sit flat and still on the bottom, typically waiting for prey to swim by.
- time of year – I have only fished in winter and done pretty darn well. But, in talking to the experienced gear guys they have all said it gets pretty nuts in spring and summer so I am looking forward to that. They also told me the big halibut come in Hedionda to spawn in spring. Every year I read about 40+ pound halibut being taken in Hedionda by the gear guys. That sure would be fun on a 6 weight.
- the moon phases and solunar theory – it’s the hunters and saltwater fisherman that believe in solunar theory. Read about my research and findings on Solunar theory here. Again I have limited experience fly fishing Hedionda but I did fish on a really good solunar day and “killed”. Plus I saw a ton of fish on my fish finder. I also fished on a really bad solunar day and didn’t do so well…and saw very little fish on my fish finder. Draw conclusions as you may.
- red tide – whether you believe in climate change or not, the red tides are getting worse and worse each year here in San Diego. I had a bad outing and didn’t see a thing on my fish finder only to find out later there was a little red tide going on. FYI, there was a huge fish kill in Hedionda last year (summer of 2020) because of a red tide. Many of the gear guys I talked to were really worried that it ruined the fishing in Hedionda. It has not.
I use a fast action 6 WT with a sinking line. In my first outing I used a Rio outbound short line and didn’t do so well. That outbound line is an intermediate sink line. Although it was before my Garmin Fish finder I just felt like I wasn’t getting it down to where the fish were. It’s like my line wasn’t cutting through the current. So, the next time out I switched to the exact rig I use in Lake Crowley: a heavy sink fully integrated 450 GR integrated heavy sink line. That is a line that really gets down quickly.
For a leader I just use 4-5 feet of straight 12lb flouro. Flies: I tie my version of a clouser. I use synthetics, including EP fibers instead of buck tail. I always tie white on the bottom to imitate the naturals. And I tie in a red patch of flashabou to imitate an injured gill plate. I tie the top in chartreuse, blue and grey in sizes 2 and 4. And they all worked. I fish two flies: a size 2 in front trailed by 18 inches of more flouro and a size 4. i really think color does not matter. but, just like in trout fishing the trailing fly gets most of the hookups.
This may go without saying, but there is nothing peaceful and serene about fly fishing Hedionda. This not like fly fishing the Gallatin canyon in montana. The freeway noise is constant. And depending on which way the wind is blowing the freeway noise can be downright loud. In fact i had a trucker honk at me while i battled a halibut right off the 5. I raised my fist to him in glory.
I know what you are saying, “Where do I park? Where do I Launch? Where did you catch all your fish in Hedionda? I did write that part and created detailed maps. And then I removed it from this article. Why? Well, in respect to the handful of gear guys that helped me. But, honestly, although it’s rare, I recently got a hate mail from a selfish fly fisher that wants his fly fishing location to be his and his alone. So, consequently, doesn’t want me publishing this type of info on the public interweb. I am a strong believer in conservation by awareness. Granted, for every one “hate mail” I get a hundred emails thanking me for info. Fly fisherman are typically such unselfish, trustable and “giving back” type of people. But, there are exceptions; people are people.