Every pier has its story and one of the most interesting here took place during a visit in 1997. I had arrived late in the afternoon, checked into the motel, and headed straight over to the dock for some fishing. But, I wasn't having much luck (in fact no luck) until I struck up a conversation with a couple of the local youth who waiting for their father to finish unloading his commercial fishing boat. Did they fish much off the wharf? “Sure,” they replied. Where did they catch most of their fish? “Inshore near the rocks.” So, I moved to the specific piling that they said was “the spot.” And sure enough, I started to catch fish. First a kelp greenling (sea trout), then a small black rockfish, and then a copper rockfish.
About then they asked what I was using for bait and I replied that I had some frozen tube worms that I had bought in Eureka. How much had I paid for them? “About three dollars for a one ounce cup” was my reply. Would I like a couple of batches of the worms? “Sure,” I said, “but where do you get them?” Turns out the tires that line the pilings as protection against the boats are chock full of tube worm colonies. In fact, basically every tire had a mass of the interesting worms and their tube-shaped homes. The helpful duo brought me two of the strange looking masses and then showed me how to squeeze out the tube worms (it's sort of like squeezing out tooth paste). Figure out where the dark head is located and squeeze from that point. Soon the 4-12 inch worms pop out from the other end of the tube. Truly interesting and later, when I had time to squeeze out all the worms, I came out with what I guess was at least $20-$30 worth of the worms. I always say learn from the regulars (the locals) and this fortuitous meeting proved the maxim true once again.
But that’s only part of the story. I noticed while fishing the selected piling that there was a large rock near the shoreline with a hole in it. Not just a hole but a perfectly round shaped hole approximately 8-10 inches in diameter. Might there be a fish in the hole, perhaps a wolf eel or an octopus? Only one way to see so I carefully dropped my line straight down into the hole. Nothing for a second, then a terrific hit. Unfortunately, whatever had grabbed my bait didn't let go and I lost my sinker and hook. Soon I had a new sinker, a sharp new hook, and a new piece of bait. Back into the hole went my line. This time there was an almost instantaneous hit and I gave a quick jerk. I thought I had lost my line again but instead a cabezon came shooting out of the hole, fins bristling and mouth gasping—but he was mine, and I soon had the medium-sized cabezon up on the dock. However, I release most of the fish I catch and he was no exception. I dropped him back into the water and watched him speed toward his personal penetralia, the small hole which apparently served as home. I didn't have the heart to drop the line in there again—at least not on that visit.
Environment. Citizen’s Dock is 900 feet long, has a somewhat L-shaped end, and sits near the eastern corner of Crescent Harbor. The water around the dock is fairly deep and usually calm while the bottom is primarily sand. The pilings, though numerous, seem to have little growth of fish attracting mussels.
The entire area has a “fishy” feel to it and the dock would seem to be a perfect spot for fish but while the dock has proven to be a good base from which to catch the transient schooling species, it rarely is as productive for the resident bottom species unless you target those same inshore rocks mentioned above, a 20-foot section that in reality represents less than one percent of the dock’s railing space.
But why wouldn’t the piling environment attract those fish, the cabezon, kelp greenling, striped seaperch, etc.? It’s pretty clear when you look around the harbor. Rocky shore species of fish tend to be found around rocks and jetties. Here, just east of the pier sits the rocky Breakwater that runs from Whaler Island to the sandy shoreline. South of the pier, connecting to the other end of Whaler Island is the Inner Jetty. The J-shaped structure made up of the jetty, island and breakwater provide protection for the pier as well as assuring a safe haven for boats. At least most of the time!
However, although the rocky structures provide protection they also present a more favored environment for the rocky species. Talk to any of the locals and they will say that if you’re seeking out perch, rockfish, and greenlings, try the jetties. When piers are built over sandy bottom the piers normally act as fish attractants, much like artificial reefs. But here there is abundant shelter and more natural attraction at those nearby rocky areas. Nevertheless, I have caught a variety of the rocky species from the outer portions of the wharf—just not to the same extent as the inshore rocks.
As mentioned, the main species encountered on the outer part of the wharf are the smaller schooling species. Fish transiting the ocean to bay environment supplement these species. Late winter and spring will usually see some schools of herring swing by the pier. In the spring, redtail and calico surfperch may enter the harbor and both winter and spring will offer up starry flounder. In the summer to fall months, schools of walleye and silver surfperch, shinerperch, jacksmelt, true smelt (surf smelt), anchovies and sardines may settle in around the dock. Much of the year will see some black rockfish, blue rockfish, brown rockfish, and copper rockfish down around the pilings, while black-and-yellow rockfish, supposedly only found north to Eureka, have been reported from the adjacent jetty by the PFIC’s Songslinger (and he’s very knowledgable as far as fish). Summers can see the waters around the dock saturated with juvenile black rockfish and lingcod.
Year round, an angler may encounter a resident kelp greenling, rock greenling, cabezon, striped seaperch, or any of several types of sculpin but, as mentioned, the inshore rocks are the best area for these species. At times dogfish sharks, leopard sharks, skates and bat rays are caught, but since most of these hit better at night, and since the dock is closed at night, the numbers are small. Most years will also see a few halibut, salmon, and lingcod landed, but generally it’s only a few (although some years have seen big numbers of salmon).
Fishing Tips. You’re presented two environments to fish. The first is the deeper water areas out on the wharf. Here you can fish for the resident bottom fish, and a simple high/low rigging utilizing shrimp, tube worms, or fresh mussels will be most productive. Keep the gear light; use a small hook, size 4-6, and fish under the pier, as close to the pilings, as possible. Most commonly you will catch sea trout (kelp greenling), cabezon or small rockfish. Striped perch are your best bet for large perch although redtail surfperch and a few pileperch will also enter into the mix; striped and redtails are most common in the spring while piles will be taken most of the year.
When schools of smelt, sardines, herring or anchovies show up, jigging with a size 10-12 Sabiki or Lucky Lura-type bait rig can produce fast results. Generally the best approach is to cast out and use a quick retrieve but different fish sometimes require a different retrieve so don't be afraid to experiment. Put a shiny torpedo sinker on the end of your line or use a gold or silver spoon equipped with a hook; sometimes this will hook the fish. For herring especially, the late hours just before dark, and the top of high tide, should be most productive. For jacksmelt, a series of small hooks baited with pieces of worm, and fished under a bobber, tend to yield the best results.
The only problem with using bait rigs at the dock is the danger of hooking small, juvenile, illegal fish. Sometimes the waters around the dock seem saturated by juvenile rockfish—mainly black rockfish, but also a number of other varieties including canary and bocaccio. None of these are legal and if you let your bait rig go stationary, and drop down in the water, you may come up with 4-6 of the tiny fish. To make it worse there are sometimes schools of ravenous juvenile lingcod hanging just under the rockfish. They too will hit the bait rigs and sometimes you’ll wind up with several rockfish and a couple of lingcod on your bait rigs; all of course are illegal. It can be almost impossible to keep them off your bait rig and when it is, it’s best to just switch over to your bottom set up. This situation primarily seems to be an aestival, June to September problem, when the juvenile fish enter the harbor for the summer months. The bad news is that you don’t want to hook the fish. The good news is that the hoards of small fish undoubtedly attract larger fish.
When (and if) the salmon show up near the dock, use a whole frozen anchovy or catch a small fish off of the dock (perch or smelt) for live bait. Fish the bait under a large float and keep it 3-4 feet under the top of the water. Since the dock surface is fairly close to the water, you may not even need a sinker. Try to position yourself so that the current is taking the rigging away from the pier.
A few legal lingcod will make an appearance and most are caught on swim baits fished with a leadhead jig. Pacific halibut (generally small), as well as California halibut, are sometimes caught from the dock by people using swim baits although actual bait—sardines, herring, or anchovies, is still most common. When the latter three baitfish show up, use them as live bait, when absent use frozen bait. I’ve never seen them used as live bait here, but shinerperch are common inshore and should also make good live bait for the halibut. Sand soles and sanddabs are other commonly encountered flatfish but for both of these use small size 6-4 hooks and strip bait, worms or shrimp.
This is a pier that also sees heavy “crabbing” action, both further out on the pier and inshore. In fact, sometimes more crabbers are doing their thing than anglers. Rock crabs are a goal throughout the year while Dungeness crabs are sought during the winter and spring. Generally they’re taken on the old standbys, a hoop net baited with chicken necks or salmon scraps—take your pick.
The second environment is the small rocky shoreline near the front of the pier. One or two small size 6-2 hooks above a torpedo sinker will produce a variety of fish—kelp greenling, cabezon, grass rockfish, copper rockfish, striped seaperch, and sometimes way too many shinerperch. I’ve also caught a couple of coralline sculpin in this area as well as a blackeye goby, the only one I’ve taken north of San Francisco Bay. And, see if you can find the “special piling” that the locals fish.
Author’s Note. The inshore “fishing hole” mentioned above is still there and still productive. My most interesting visit to the “hole” took place in August of 2008. The mid-afternoon visit saw a falling tide but water at still a good depth. I set up with a one-ounce torpedo sinker and about six inches above it a size 6 hook baited with a pile worm. I dropped down the first bait and within about five seconds had a hit and pulled out a smallish kelp greenling. It was released, the hook was re-baited, and the rig was dropped back into the hole. Again an almost immediate hit only this time the fish was a decent-sized grass rockfish. Repeat release, re-bait and re-drop. The next fish was a strange little sculpin that required a check of the Peterson Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes. Turned out that it was (I think) a coralline sculpin. Repeat sequence but next fish was a mid-size copper rockfish. Seven drops into the “fishing hole” would produce seven fish before the bite stopped. The net result was 4 kelp greenling, 1 grass rockfish, 1 copper rockfish and the lone sculpin. In watching the hole I could see the water level go up with each tidal surge so I imagine there is an entryway down at the bottom that leads to an underwater grotto of sorts that contains the fish. As long as the water level is high enough the fish are there and they’re just waiting for some food.
Author’s Note No. 2. Winters are very wet here and summers cool or even cold; bring some warm-layered clothing with you. One year I was shepherding a group of junior high basketball players to the town in March for a basketball tournament. The morning after the last game I decided to give the pier a visit before heading home. But no, it wasn’t to be! The wind was so strong that it was almost impossible to walk across the parking lot to the car. Then, the driving rain began. Soon after, we got word that a huge redwood had fallen over and was blocking Hwy 101. We wouldn’t be heading back until a road gang had a chance to do some cutting and hauling! It explains why sometimes there is little fishing going on at the dock from January through March. Instead, the anglers head to the rivers and creeks for some steelhead fishing.
Special Recommendation. Remember that the dock is a working wharf and gets extensive use from the commercial fishing boats. There are at least three fish buyers on the dock and traffic can sometimes be heavy with boats and trucks coming and going. So, be careful and stay out of the way.
History Note. The name Citizen's Dock is an appropriate name for this pier. Since the earliest settlements, wharves have been important for coastal towns, and it was no different for Crescent City. Settled in 1852, the city's first wharf was built just three years later, in 1855, out on the appropriately named Whaler Island. The north Pacific whaling fleet used the island and wharf for many years. In 1860 a wharf was built out from the shoreline, only to be destroyed the following year. A third wharf soon followed, one that would be used until the late 1930s.
By the mid '40s, that wharf was both unusable and unsafe. However, local citizens were unable to get government help (financing) to build a new wharf. Undeterred, the citizens got together, donated cash, labor and the needed materials (estimated value $250,000) and built themselves a new wharf. It officially opened on March 18, 1950 amidst some well deserved festivities—a parade, fish boat race, basketball games, crab feed, and dance. Additional improvements were made to the parking areas, boat launch and bulkheads in 1958-59 and 1962 with help from the Wildlife Conservation Board.
Of course people in this small town are used to being self-reliant and getting together to accomplish projects; witness the rebuilding accomplished after the tsunami that struck on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, a huge tidal wave generated by an 8.4 earthquake near the Gulf of Alaska. Twenty-nine city blocks and most of the structures in the harbor were damaged or totally destroyed. Citizen’s Dock was included in the latter.
That tsunami followed the Aleutian Island tsunami of 1957 (8.3 earthquake) that caused the evacuation of Crescent City, and the Chilean tsunami of 1960 (8.6 earthquake) that had also flooded much of the town. The events followed the installation of 1,975 giant, concrete tetrapods onto the outer breakwater during 1956-57. The 25-ton, four-pronged structures resembling jacks interlace and protect the breakwater and give some, but obviously not total, protection to the harbor and the town.
“The ocean’s sudden draining and surging back numbers of times battered and twisted the dock out of shape, including damaging beyond repair or washing out over one-half of its support pilings. A huge lumber barge was tethered to the dock; it was 210 feet long with a fifty-five foot beam and drew fifteen feet of water... the Crescent City boat was not only fully loaded with over a million board feet of lumber, but also securely tied to its dock. The violent waters forced this heavy vessel up, over, down, and under the dock, and the barge smashed every part of the pier that it rammed into. The currents also swept over the barge, carrying lumber away and scattering it over the bay, city, and surrounding coastline. After the tsunami passed, Citizen’s Dock had buckled and the Coast Guard Station and Harbor Commission Building had washed out to sea, along with the boats, cars, and fishing boats.
—Dennis M. Powers, The Raging Sea, 2005
But, as said, the people of Crescent City are resilient. Federal disaster funds were available in 1964 to repair and rebuild public facilities but not individual homes or business. The citizens went to work rebuilding their homes and businesses while the Army Corps of Engineers began rebuilding Citizen’s Dock. Work began two days after the tidal wave. A newly reconstructed Citizen’s Dock was finished in mid-June and while work continued to rebuild the city, there was at least some semblance of normality for the businesses that depended upon the dock.
The city has apparently survived more than ten tidal waves since 1964 including a tsunami in 2006 that did $700,000 damage to harbor facilities (including destroying two docks and severely damaging a third).
Citizen’s Dock itself was partially rebuilt in 1987 and today remains the center of a busy harbor that caters to both commercial and sport fishermen, tourists, and locals.
Citizen's Dock Facts
Hours: Dawn to dusk.
Facilities: Restrooms, fish cleaning stations, and free parking are all available at the foot of the pier. A boat hoist is available part of the year. Englund Marine Supply, just up the road from the dock carries some (frozen) bait and tackle but most of it is geared for the boat fisherman.
Handicapped Facilities: None.
Location: 41.74611 N. Latitude, 124.18389 W. Longitude
How To Get There: From Highway 101 turn west on Citizens Dock Road (near the southern entrance to Crescent City) and follow it to the dock.
Management: Crescent City Harbor District.
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