|(From PFIC, but still working on the fishing tips and history sections)
What is the best pier in the state? That question has been asked of me many, many times. Because the answer depends on a number of factors (including the personal affection which anglers have for their own piers), I always hesitate to give an answer. Yet pressed, I will usually say Pacifica. There is simply no other pier in the state that yields the number of fish, nor the quality of fish, that Pacifica sees some years. Given that fact, it deserves a number one ranking. But, it is still a complex pier to discuss.
Two stories illustrate the nature of this pier. The first occurred when Pacifica Pier became famous (or infamous depending upon your view) due to the salmon. I had fished the pier for many years and already considered it one of the best piers in the state. But, I had rarely seen a salmon caught off the pier. Then, in the early '80s, salmon began to show up and the pier became famous. Almost all the Bay Area television stations and newspapers had stories about the salmon being caught at Pacifica Pier. Accompanying pictures showed large salmon being hauled onto the pier and anglers lined up like sardines along the railing. In addition, some less-than-accurate articles appeared in fishing magazines. A natural result of all this publicity was that more and more anglers flocked to the pier and it became even more crowded. The crowding caused new problems including tangled lines, shortened tempers, occasional arguments, and a general thrashing of the pier. Although the pier had become famous for the salmon, many viewed the pier as a place to be avoided because of the crowds and the other problems experienced at the pier.
Unfortunately, the picture presented by the media was misleading. I had fished the pier more than 50 times and had averaged more than 23 fish per trip, the highest average for me on any pier in California. I had also caught these fish year round, not just during the main June-August salmon months. In fact, one of the best times to fish the pier is in the winter when the pier is virtually deserted. As example, one winter saw me visit the pier five times during February and March. I totaled 198 fish in those five trips. Included in the mix were 14 large redtail surfperch, 12 large barred surfperch, 3 large calico surfperch, 43 walleye surfperch, 106 silver surfperch, a 38-inch leopard shark, and several other species of fish including Pacific tomcod and jacksmelt. Given those numbers, what was most interesting was that the pier was almost empty of people because fishing was “so slow.” Wintertime trips will also often yield Pacific sanddabs; one such January trip yielded 35 sanddabs out of a 60-fish catch. This second story, not of salmon or crowds, but of excellent fishing for small and medium sized pan fish together with moderate crowds, is at least as important as the first. But rare today is a news story that is balanced, thorough, or devoid of sensationalism.
Environment. The L-shaped Pacifica Pier, aka the Rev. Herschell Harkins Memorial Pier, and sometimes divisively called the Elbow-to-Elbow Pier, is 1,140-foot-long, 138 feet wide at the end, all concrete, and fronts directly on Sharp Park State Beach, a beach that can see strong winds and huge, huge punishing waves.
Looking north you see a sandy beach that runs for miles. Looking south you’ll spot Mori Point, a great fishing spot on its own, and further down the coast picturesque San Pedro Point, another fishing spot of note. The wind can often make the pier uncomfortable, while fog and drippy dew can be a constant companion during the summer months. Pier-shaking waves, that sometimes break over the pier and drench the pier, can lead to closures. But when the sun decides to make a visit, the coastline presents itself in all its glory, whales, dolphins and seabirds make an appearance, the pier isn’t too crowded, and the fish cooperate, you can almost imagine you’re in paradise.
The bottom around the pier is primarily sand, and there is a considerable buildup of mussels on the pilings. The beach itself is famous, at least to western striped bass fishermen. The beach used to be lined with anglers who would come, year after year, to confront some of the largest stripers in America. Unfortunately, the glory years seem, for the most part, a thing of the past. Although there are still some exceptional seasons like 1995, most years see far fewer fish (although the regulars with the proper knowledge and technique still rack up some pretty impressive fish).
It is also an excellent and unique beach for California's largest surfperch. Because of its location, it is an area that sees an overlap of California's three “big” surfperch: barred surfperch from the south, the calico surfperch of central California, and the redtail surfperch of northern waters. Several times I have had the pleasure of hitting a “trifecta” on these fish, the only pier where I have seen this happen.
Pacifica is also the state's number one producer of pier-caught salmon; during one weekend alone, July 8-9, 1995, over a thousand salmon were landed on the pier. In fact, July 8 may have seen as many as 1,000 salmon landed on that single day. After a while, most people gave up on trying to keep an accurate count of the fish (although regulars tend to agree that it was over 800 fish). So many fish were landed in fact that the Fish and Game deputies finally came out to the pier to check on the action. Most notable was the citation to one angler who had caught 17 salmon all by his lonesome self, a figure that is (if my math is correct) about 850% of the 2-fish limit.
For many reasons, this is a fish-rich area of water, although few years see the type of results witnessed in 1995. The coastal upwelling that year produced tremendous blooms of plankton that then attracted huge schools of anchovies and sardines to the area. The small bait fish were followed by the larger salmon, striped bass and halibut. It was an unprecedented spectacle. Nevertheless, it is a pier that will usually offer some type of fish for the angler year round and which, many days, will yield a variety of quality fish unheard of at most piers. It is also probably the only pier which offers an angler the possibility of a Bay Area “Grand Slam”—a king salmon, striped bass, and California halibut all on one day, but don't hold your breath.
Fishing Tips. At Pacifica, the key is to decide what type of fish you want to catch. An angler should bring two poles and several types of bait and riggings. One pole should be a medium action pole that can be used for a variety of fish; the second pole should be a light pole for the smaller perch. For the large surfperch, fish from just outside the breakers to about halfway out on the pier. Use sand crabs (if you can find them), pile worms, fresh mussels, or small pieces of shrimp or clams. Winter is the best time for large surfperch, but they will hit year round. Fish on the bottom using a high/low leader, a size 6 or 4 hook, and a 3-5 ounce pyramid sinker.
The same area fished June to October can yield striped bass (although many regulars consider July 4 as the kick off date for good bass fishing). For Mr. Linesides, the best bait is probably cut anchovies or sardines although some will also be caught on pile worms. A second approach would be to use a small live shinerperch, spotfin surfperch, or topsmelt. Use a hook size 2 to 4/0, heavier line (at least 20-pound test), and be sure to have a way to bring the fish up onto the pier since stripers to 43 pounds have been caught off the pier. A third approach is to use an artificial lure, most likely a plug or spoon; fish an area away from other anglers (if you can find such a spot) and cast just outside or even into the surf line. During the low tide, check out the inshore area and look for depressions along the surf, these are the places to try first. Unfortunately, it is harder for a pier fisherman to use these lures than an angler fishing off the beach, although Micky Jigs and Pencil Poppers tend to compensate for heavy wind conditions. If conditions permit, you can try a 3 3/4 ounce Krocodile spoon, chrome with a lime-green strip, or a Hopkins jig, these are the choice of the surfcasting “experts.”
From the mid-pier area out to the end, try a high/low set up for kingfish (white croaker), Pacific tomcod, Pacific sanddabs, speckled sanddabs, and white seaperch. While kingfish will often be the most common fish taken, different species will hit at various times of the year and all of these will hit on small strips of anchovy or pile worms. The variety is always part of the fun; I had one day in June of 1977 when I took eleven different species, a January day in the same year saw ten different species. Most of my trips to the pier have included at least six or more different species.
Fishing on the bottom with the same bait, but using a sliding live bait leader, may yield starry flounder (reported here to 12 pounds although the biggest I’ve caught was 17 3/4-inches) or sand sole, a fish often mistaken for halibut (and I took a 19 3/4-inch sand sole one day). The same sliding live bait rigging, baited with a live anchovy, shinerperch or smelt, will sometimes produce a California halibut. The halibut are not that numerous but more and more anglers are fishing for them during the summer months and fish to at least 32 pounds have been landed. Most of these are landed in the mid-pier area.
Surprisingly, a few rocky-shore species also show up at the sand-bottom pier. Lingcod exceeding 28 inches have been landed as well as large and small cabezon, greenling, an occasional rockfish, and rocky-shore perch like striped, black and rubberlip. None of these are common but a few will be landed each year, generally down at the base of the pilings where the mussel act as attractants. Pacific hake, generally a deep-water fish, are also taken from the pier most years, a fact that is probably not that surprising considering hake are frequently found where salmon are found.
King salmon are of course what made the pier famous and at least a few are usually present from June until November most years (although late June to late July is generally the peak time). Hundreds of bobbers/floats will dot the surface of the water when a “run” is on, ranging from the surf area to the end of the pier. The best spots, when you can get them, are at the far end, both the left corner, and the end area that runs to the right corner (an area affectionately known as “Little Manila” or “Manila Town” and populated by the regulars—“The Filipino Mafia.”
Almost without exception, the salmon will be caught on modified sliding “trolley” leaders that use a frozen anchovy (a popsicle) and a float to keep the bait suspended a short distance under the top of the water. A few are caught on live bait using a sliding leader. Be sure to bring a pier net with you to bring these large fish up onto the pier. Although most Pacifica salmon will weigh 6-12 pounds, fish over 20 pounds are common, and 30 pounders are seen fairly often. The record appears to be a 51-pound monster that was caught the last week of July 2002; the same week a 24-pound halibut was landed. Both were weighed at the nearby bait shop.
Do make sure you know what you are doing if you decide to join the fray when the salmon “are in.” The fishing is serious business to the throngs who invade the pier during the salmon invasion and fools are not suffered lightly. Using improper sinkers that don’t hold bottom (resulting in tangled lines), failure to get out of the way of a hooked fish, or barging into someone’s space can result in things like cut lines and threats. It’s elbow-to-elbow fishing that the more caustic liken to a “combat zone” and be alert if you hear someone yelling “headache” while making an illegal overhead cast. The less caustic simply say it’s a “zoo” while some people simply stay away seeing little piscatorial pleasure in such surroundings.
Read up, ask questions, bring the right equipment (including a rod holder and a hoop net) and know what to do when you head out to the pier. You can usually also get some advice from the locals but it will depend upon your already existing knowledge, your willingness to listen, and a little bit of common sense. In all the years I’ve fished Pacifica I never had a problem but Î have heard stories of some that have. By the way, an early arrival is always good. Depending upon the tide there may only be a small contingent of anglers when you arrive, thus assuring yourself of a good spot. As high tide approaches the numbers can jump up to 200-300 people and soon there’s a crowded railing. But, it’s better for them to barge into your space than for you to barge into their space (not fair but better).
One problem that has increased over the years is sea lions; when the salmon do show up they will not be far behind. Some days may see as many as a third of the salmon ambushed by the sea dogs before they reach the nets that have been lowered into the water.
But, as mentioned, salmon are only part of the pier’s story. By using your light pole, you can also catch a tremendous number of the smaller surfperch—as well as other species. Included in the perch numbers will be walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, spotfin surfperch, too many shinerperch and, at times, the perch-like Pacific butterfish (Pacific pompano). You can use a commercial bait rig like a Sabiki/Lucky Lura, or make your own leader with three or four size 8 hooks tied directly onto the line. For walleye, use a very small strip of anchovy and fish mid-depth. For the silver and spotfin surfperch, use a small piece of anchovy, pile worm or shrimp; drop the line to the bottom and slowly reel to the top. When using pile worms or shrimp, you may also be startled by a large jacksmelt latching onto your bait. If jacksmelt are present, fish at or near the top of the water and be prepared for some hot action. Some years may also see mackerel, both Pacific and Spanish (mackerel jack), and Pacific herring, while sardines are becoming a more and more common catch. Bait rigs are usually the method used to capture all of these schooling species.
If you do use a bait rig, Sabiki or Lucky Lura, you often don't need any bait on your line, a simple up and down jigging motion will generally hook the fish. However, if you sweeten a couple of the hooks with a small piece of bait, more fish may be attracted to your line. Do be cautious. One trip saw me jigging with a Lucky Lura leader for some live bait (to use on my heavier salmon pole). Unfortunately, the water was thick with smolts (baby salmon) about the size of herring. After hooking and releasing about a dozen of the small fish, I decided to call it quits with the leader. These small, illegal fish need to be left alone by anglers. Enough of these fish will be eaten by other predators before reaching adult size so don't complicate their lives any more than necessary.
As for sharks and rays (sharays), occasional fish are taken but rarely in large numbers considering the plethora of anglers who fish the pier. To be fair though, few anglers seem to specifically target the sharks, they’re too busy fishing for salmon. I’ve taken leopard sharks and brown smoothhounds and heard of some dogfish being taken (to 40”) but few of the larger sharks. Thresher sharks do seem to show up most years, usually during the summer if the salmon are around, and a few will be taken. It’s not clear if they are chasing salmon or the same baitfish the salmon are chasing but they appear about the same time. In addition, bat rays make an occasional appearance and a few big skates have been reported.
PFIC regular Red Fish reported the sighting of a great white about 1991, a fish that decided to grab a ten-pound or so salmon that an angler had hooked. Unfortunately for the angler the shark was just a little more deft at grabbing the salmon than the angler was at keeping it away and the huge beast left nothing but the head and a pool of blood for the loser. Anglers guessed the white’s length at 12 feet and weight at 700 pounds. Whatever the size, it must have been quite a spectacle and several additional sightings have been given on the PFIC Message Board over the years (not unexpected considering this area is in the so-called red triangle populated by great whites.
Red Fish also mentioned that the old Pacifica bait shop, circa 1990, had pictures on its wall of what were labeled an oceanic whitetip shark (weighing approximately 250 pounds) and a blue shark, both supposedly taken from the pier. The blue shark sounds plausible, the more tropical whitetip doubtful. But who knows?
Lastly, it must be mentioned that Pacifica has become the favorite crabbing pier for many anglers. It is illegal to keep Dungeness crabs caught from piers in San Francisco Bay but perfectly legal at this oceanfront pier. As a result, many anglers seek out the delicious crabs during the winter months, at least during those times when the weather permits crab nets to settle properly on the bottom. Most other months will see anglers seeking out rock crabs and fairly rare (to this pier) spider crabs. At times when the crabbers are out in force, fishing for actual fish is almost non-existent.
Two types of tackle are used to get the crabs, the normal old-fashioned crab nets and the increasingly more common crab snares. Crab nets work well during mild conditions but the gigantic waves at the pier can render the nets almost useless at times and make it hard to keep the nets away from the pilings. Snares have proven effective and reduce the chance of losing gear. Whatever the tackle it’s common most days to take at least a few keeper-size crabs and some days will yield limits of the tasty crustaceans.
Just like their cousin “lobster poachers” to the south, “dungee poachers” can also be a problem. They like to show up at night armed with multiple snares and a proclivity to keep Dungeness that are out of season, as well as too small. Another problem is sea lions that have learned to rob the nets and snares of crabs and there isn’t much that a crabber can do to prevent the thefts.
But, as one angler mentioned to me, what other California pier allows you such a good chance to catch both salmon and crabs on the same day, a veritable potpourri of gastronomic delicacies. Makes you kind of want to take along a tablecloth, a bottle of white wine, and some sourdough bread. Of course I'm not too sure where you would stage this Epicurean feast; when fishing is good the pier can be both dirty and, in blunt terms, smelly. Dried blood, bullhead slime, sun-ripened bait, angler urine and sea gull droppings do not exactly lend the proper ambiance for a picnic. I did suggest to my daughter that her wedding would be fairly unique if it took place alfresco, out at the end of the Pacifica Pier. She said, in no uncertain terms, NO THANK YOU!
Author's Note No. 1. El Nińo, warm-water years will often see species of fish that are more common to southern piers. One of the most notable was a 41 1/4-pound white seabass caught in July of 1992. Barracuda were also landed at the pier that year, a feat that was repeated in August of ’99 and then again in September of 2001 when a 39-inch barracuda was reported from the pier.
Some years see Pacific mackerel make an appearance, and I've heard stories of bonito making a splash (including a 5-pound bonito caught by long-time PFIC regular Salty Nick in the warm water year of 1997). I've even heard tell of one small giant (black) sea bass being taken along with a “monster” black sea bass that supposedly weighed 200 pounds. However, I have been unable to substantiate either of these catches.
A fish that is not limited to warm-water years, but one that is rarely caught, is the common mola, also known as the ocean sunfish. These huge creatures, some of which can weigh over a ton, will occasionally be seen swimming near the pier (if swimming is the correct term). Although I have never seen an angler actually hook (in the mouth) one of the fish, I have seen several anglers break out their jigs and snag the hopeless-acting creatures. Generally the fish were brought into the pier and then the problem became how to get it up onto the pier. A couple of times treble-hook gaffs did the trick and the anglers returned home with their unusual prize. Never heard how they tasted although the Bible on molas is that they are pretty much inedible. Not surprising since they mainly subsist on jellyfish.
Several anglers at this pier have also “hooked a whale.” California gray whales migrate through this area each year and several have made the mistake of passing beneath the pier and becoming entangled in the lines of startled fishermen. It is usually a short fight, only long enough for the reel to become spooled or the hook to break loose. But, when it happens it provides a story that will be told again and again.
Author's Note No. 2. How dumb it this?
Pacifica Pier Vandalism
The vandals who pried up concrete benches from the Pacifica Pier and possibly tossed them over the side into the ocean cost the city nearly $6,000. That’s the estimated cost to replace the benches, which were discovered missing July 20. The culprits also pried up a steel plate from the floor of the pier.
Police Beat, Pacifica Tribune, August 1, 2007
History Note. The Rev. Herschell Harkins Memorial Pier a.k.a. the Pacifica Pier (“Dedicated to a fisher of men”) was built in 1973 and designed in part to serve as a support structure for sewage pipes that stretch from the shoreline out a short distance past the pier. Almost immediately after opening, the pier began to attract a devoted legion of anglers (including myself). In the winter of 1992 engineers warned that the sheet pile bulkhead supporting the first span was corroded. The city quickly closed the pier—and then reopened it a week later. Meetings were held, letters streamed in from throughout the United States, and the mayor and council debated what should be done. Eventually it was closed again. In July, just in time for the main summer fishing season, the pier was reopened after a five-month closure; anglers quickly began to catch salmon, kingfish, perch, jacksmelt, sanddabs and some mackerel. Although most people agreed that it was safe enough to open, all agreed it still needed additional repairs. The repairs were finally started that October and the pier was declared “fixed” a few months later. However, major problems still exist.
Pacifica Pier given repair funding
PACIFICA—For 30 years, Pacifica's pier has been among the city's most popular attractions, drawing hundreds of visitors daily. People say the pier is so crowded with fishermen on weekends that they're forced to stand shoulder to shoulder.
But the years and the elements have taken their toll on the popular pier. Its floor is scarred and cracked, and its railings are decaying. Add to that the sewer line the pier originally was built to support has been removed—a line replaced by Pacifica's new wastewater treatment plant—and it's no wonder the pier's admirers are worried about the structure's future.
“The pier is falling into the sea,” said Anna Boothe, chairwoman of Preserve Our Pier Supporters, a community group. “Something has to be done.”
This sentiment is widely shared. State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Daly City, applied for and received $500,000 in state aid for pier repairs, as well as $90,000 in federal grants. The city had a party Friday to celebrate the achievement.
Although acquiring these funds is cause for celebration in town, the total cost of refurbishing the pier is far from covered. According to a 1998 study by Kermani Consulting Group, repairs to the pier could total between $3 million and $5 million.
But those who really love the pier have set their minds to raising the money and making sure it's put to good use. Boothe says her group is committed to planning events such as concerts to raise money and awareness.
The group's initial efforts netted $525, which was promptly donated to the city for use on the pier. Boothe says she hopes the city will paint the concessions building and the bathroom. “We want to augment the value by making the pier pleasant,” she said.
Perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the pier is Andy Pappas, a 70-year-old fisherman who spends nearly every day there. His prowess at netting crabs has become legendary, as attested to by other fishermen as well as photographs taped to the side of the concessions building.
Turning his weatherworn face into the wind, Pappas gazes lovingly at the pier. “Not only is the pier beautiful to fish from, but you can also see wildlife,” he said, pointing at a flock of pigeons flying in formation in the distance. “I like the fresh air, the smell of the beautiful ocean, the friends, the barbecues and mainly the beautiful salmon,” he said. Strolling down the pier toward his two fishing poles, Pappas greets nearly everyone he passes, his eyes crinkling beneath his blue Pacifica Pier cap. “What we're trying to do is to keep the pier open, but in order to do that we need more bucks," he said. “ If there's someone out there that can help us, I, Andy Pappas, will personally thank them."
Pacifica, meanwhile, has applied for an additional $620,000 from the state Department of Boating and Waterways and plans to contribute $207,000 in matching funds.
That's still not enough, but they're working on it. The City Council planned to discuss how to spend the funds in hand at its meeting Monday night.
—Steven Raphael, San Jose Mercury News, August 29, 2000
Pacifica Pier Facts
Hours: Open 4 A.M. to 10 P.M.
Facilities: The pier has lights, fish cleaning stations, some benches, restrooms at the base of the pier, and a bait shop/snack bar at the front of the pier. There is free parking on adjacent streets; although not enough when the salmon are “running.”
Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking. The surface of the pier is concrete with a ramp leading to the south side of the pier. The concrete siding on the pier is approximately 40 inches high and provides safety for both children and wheel chairs. Not posted for handicapped.
How To Get There: Take Highway 1 to Pacifica, take the Paloma Avenue-Francisco Boulevard exit, take Paloma west to Beach Road, turn left and follow the road to the pier.
Management: City of Pacifica.
Support UPSAC! Preserve pier and shore angling in California.
Last edited by Ken Jones on Sat Mar 21, 2009 10:05 pm; edited 2 times in total