If a survey were done on the most visited pier in the Bay Area, the winner undoubtedly would be either the pier at Pacifica or this pier in Berkeley. This might seem strange since angling at Pacifica is generally better. But for availability, transportation, ease of fishing, and facilities, this pier is hard to beat. Of course it is also located right smack in the center of the Rodeo-Oakland-Hayward population corridor. A lot of fishermen live close to the pier and a lot of fishermen use the pier.
This pier is also somewhat famous among those interested in piers. It was the first pier to be funded by the Wildlife Conservation Board and showed, after opening in 1959, the cost effectiveness of piers as a recreational resource. For the money spent there are few resources so heavily used -- and able to be used by all segments of the population. Since then, more than forty piers have been co-funded by the WCB.
Given the heavy use, it's not surprising that a lot of fish are caught every year from the pier. However, this is one pier where the regulars really outshine the newcomers in taking fish. The average angler will, much of the year, catch little or no fish, or the catch will be primarily small shiners and bullheads. Regulars on the other hand almost always can find something biting. Use of the right bait and knowing what time of the year different species are present will help increase the catch. Numerically, the main species caught here are shinerperch and bullheads (staghorn sculpin) but they make up the so-called incidental catch. Knowledgeable anglers fish for, and primarily land, jacksmelt, pileperch, blackperch, walleye surfperch, kingfish (white croaker), sand sole, starry flounder, sharks and rays. Most years will also see some large halibut (to 30 pounds), striped bass (to 45 pounds) and perhaps a few white sturgeon.
Among the most reliable of the pier's fish are the sharks and rays. It is possible to catch brown smoothhounds, leopard sharks and bat rays almost any time of the year, though summer and fall are the peak times. One of the most unusual catches at the pier, at least recently, was a close relative of the sharks and rays, a skate. While big skates are fairly common in the bay, this was a sandpaper skate (Raja kincaidii) , a deepwater skate that is rarely caught less than 200 feet deep (and it's reported down to 4,500 feet). It was caught in May of '99 by James Pan who reported that it was extremely fun to catch because it actually jumped out of the water once during the fight. However, he also reported that it did not put up as strong a fight as bat rays. What the deepwater skate was doing in this shallow water area is anyone's guess.
An interesting trivia item, at least for those interesting in such things, is that the Berkeley Pier is recorded as the northern limit for the yellow snake eel (Ophichthus zophochir), a reddish-olive to yellow eel that reaches 30 inches in length and whose range to the south is Peru. We can assume that at least one of the rare creatures was caught at the pier.
Winter and spring is the best time for starry flounder. Try using a sliding sinker leader on the bottom baited with grass shrimp, cut anchovy or pile worms. The same rigging, or a high/low rigging, may yield a few Pacific sanddab during the winter, and possibly a diamond turbot or two during the spring and summer. Best spots for the sanddabs and turbot seems to be out toward the end. Summer to fall will also yield some good eating sand soles.
From late spring to fall, but especially late April to early June, the pier can be one of the best in San Francisco Bay, if not the state, for California halibut. It isn't great every year, but it does typically see at least a good short-term run of the fish which congregate in the shallow Berkeley flats around the end of the pier. As mentioned, the regulars are the ones who really catch the big flatties. Live bait, essentially shinerperch, are the bait of choice -- if they're around. If snagging and netting doesn't produce the shiners then small smelt become the next preferred bait. If neither of these is present anglers will settle for frozen anchovies or live grass shrimp but neither is nearly as good a bait. At times live anchovies can be purchased at the nearby Berkeley Marina! Since live 'chovies are the best bait of all for the halibut, it makes sense to make a visit to the shop before heading out to the pier (and remember your bait bucket and aerator). The rigging for the live bait is a sliding sinker rigging or the modified sliding sinker with a bobber approach. If unclear on the rigging ask the regulars for advice, usually someone will help you out.
Striped bass are the second of the big three typically taken from the pier (together with halibut and bat rays). Many stripers are taken every year and most years will see 30+pound fish landed. The stripers can be taken on a variety of baits including live anchovies, shinerperch, and smelt, but also will be taken on bullheads (staghorn sculpin), pile worms, shrimp (grass shrimp and ghost shrimp), as well as frozen anchovies and sardines. Some are taken on the aforementioned sliding sinker method but many are also caught on high/low rigs so it's a less specialized gambit. The fish are also taken from almost every area of the pier and quite often the primo area is the rocky shoreline area. You can also try artificials for the big bass (spoons like Kastmasters and Krocodiles, top water lures like Pencil Poppers and Rapalas) although the heavy winds that are common at the pier can make casting a little difficult when using a light lure.
Kingfish (white croaker) are one of the more common fish and can be caught much of the year using a high/low leader on the bottom, hooks size 2-4, with small pieces of anchovy or pile worms. Although most any time of the day can produce kingfish, I've heard of some very large catches at night, especially during some late January-early February winter months.
The pier yields a plethora of sharks and rays. Small (and large) brown smoothhound sharks, leopard sharks and bat rays lead the hit parade. Less common, but occasionally seen, are prickleback sharks (spiny dogfish), 7-gill sharks and (a few) thresher sharks. The smaller sharks and rays can be taken on a high/low outfit with size 2-4/0 hooks. Live midshipman tend to be the best bait for the big sharks but anchovies and other frozen fish baits -- sardines/mackerel -- are the most commonly used bait. Squid is preferred by the bat rays. If you're seeking the larger beasts, use a sliding sinker leader and appropriately larger hooks (2/0-6/0) and heavier line (40-50 pound test). For almost all of these species, the right side of the pier seems best even though the wind is usually blowing right into your face. Remember that the best results for sharks and rays is at night. Also remember that many rays approaching, or exceeding, a hundred pounds in weight are hooked each year so have a net and a friend along to help you land the large fish.
For jacksmelt, try a series of size 8 or 6 hooks attached two to four feet above a light sinker, then placed two to four feet under a float. Use small pieces of pile worm or shrimp for bait, just enough to cover the hook. Schools of jacksmelt typically will stay in one area for a few minutes then leave, only to return a short time later. Therefore many people fish with two outfits, one on the bottom and a second rigged for the jacksmelt -- and they will not cast out the "smelt" outfit until they see a neighbor catch a jacksmelt. Other times the big smelt will "hang" just away from the pier and you'll see fish being caught every few minutes throughout the day. Some anglers will also try for the tasty and good fighting smelt by using small artificial lures -- primarily small spoons and spinners. Favorites include such spinners as Mepps in sizes No. O to No. 2, and Roostertails in sizes No. 1 to No. 3. Best spoons appear to be small (under 1/2 ounce) Daredevils, Little Cleos and Wobbelrites.
For the youngsters, there are almost always shinerperch and staghorn sculpin present and both are easy to catch. Finally, a youngster can try the area around the shoreline rocks using a small sinker and one or two small size 8 hooks baited with pile worm. The youngsters may lose a lot of tackle but there are usually a lot of small fish close in, or right under, the rocks. Primary species will be brown rockfish, grass rockfish, kelp rockfish, juvenile black rockfish, and lesser amounts of rock-frequenting species like cabezon, buffalo sculpin, striped kelpfish and kelp greenling.
One day I received a note from Jeff Green. He reported the following: "The other night I was fishing on the Berkeley Pier and a slightly drunk gentleman asked me, "do you really eat the stuff you catch out of this polluted bay." I had not had a bite in a while but I sure had a sucker on the line for a practical joke. I told him sure, I have been eating fish out of the bay several times a week for years, some with tumors, some without. I then went into great detail describing how a tumor was nothing more than a bonus filet that grows on the side of a fish. His amazement and the perplexed look on his face became more pronounced. He even looked somewhat disgusted. I then told him that as a result of this diet I had developed a tumor last summer. He was shocked. After this I told him that I had the tumor removed from my stomach and used it as bait with which I caught some of the largest fish ever off of the pier. He walked away shaking his head and swearing in amazement."
Date: April 15, 1999
Tuesday looked like the day for the first halibut of the year at the Berkeley Pier. Just a bit of a cool breeze from the South at seven o'clock and leaden skies as I stopped half way out to the end to offer my crab net to a couple of young men trying to coax a twenty inch striper into a bucket under the pier. Mission accomplished to profound thanks and so, to the end of the pier to hang anchovies under a couple of bobbers while I dropped a bit of pile worm on a no. 8 hook for shiner perch. High tide in three hours, at which point the water should clear up a bit. There was currently about a foot of visibility. Not too good. The sky brightened and the first shiner perch came aboard to get a nice two-aught bait hook in its nose. Measured the water depth again. Twelve feet deep. So the squirrely little Ms. Halibut Food swam eleven and a half feet under the bobber to mosey about the bottom offering herself to big bad Mr. Butt. Just before the tide changed I caught three more little perch about thirty to fifty feet north of the pier. Funny thing; up until last year most shiner perch would be caught right under the pier or more often than naught, between five to ten feet out from the South side. Last year the little buggers changed their modus. A nice Korean gentleman who had been fishing cut anchovies began pulling in some really pretty one to two pound kingfish. He was explaining the vagaries of cooking the ubiquitous croaker when I noticed that my little "shiner perch pole" was bent nearly double and in the process of going over the side. A five minute tussle ensued, garnering oohs and ahs from a gaggle of German tourists, before a leopard shark, probably about thirty inches, surfaced to show his handsome face before doing a back flip with a double twist to snap off the four pound leader. Completely unconvinced to cast anchovy chunks and maybe start liking kingfish, I squinted even harder at the two bobbers on an almost flat bay. It was one o'clock when the breeze began to freshen from the West and I entrusted my rods to the care of my croaker loving accomplice and strolled down the pier to question the four or five other souls who seemed to be targeting halibut. Not so much as a tale of a nibble from any of them. Everyone concurred that there had been a few butts caught in the last couple of weeks, but that today, glorious sunshine notwithstanding, was not the day. By two the wind was really starting to howl as I broke camp for the mile-long walk off the pier. No sign of a halibut this day but quite a few shinerperch around. A few folks had caught kingfish, small flounder and a couple of big barred perch. I saw one jacksmelt chasing my worm retrieve but only one person was fishing for them and his face was as forlorn as his bucket was empty. I stopped in at the Berkeley Marina Bait Shop and chatted for a bit with manager Bob Nakaji who said that indeed, a few butts had been bagged on the pier but the real action was just waiting to break. "Any day now."
Date: April 18, 1999
It was a rosy fingered dawn and I caught my first shinerperch on the way out to the end of the Berkeley Pier. The party boats putt-putted on toward the Gate as I reeled in the second and last bait fish I would need this day. While feisty little perch with hooks through their noses swam around under bouncing bobbers, efforts to get relief help were hammered by leopard sharks and sting rays who seemed to delight in running off with worm bits and then breaking the hooks or leaders when I had the audacity to put the graphite to 'em. About seven-thirty I was finally had company at that end of the pier by three guys from Richmond toting a jerry-made five gallon bucket filled with a quarter scoop of anchovies "How long do you think those will live?" I almost smirked. "I duuno", replied Dino Cuccia, "but it sure beats trying to catch those damn shiner perch. Ten minutes later Dino's rod tip went straight toward Tibet, and it wasn't long before a 29-inch, ten-pound striped bass was experiencing labored breathing on the cement. Turned out most of the anchovies were still living at one o'clock when I left. A bit later at the Berkeley Marina Bait Shop I asked Brian Collier about the amazing endurance of his anchovies. "It's the potato chips," said Brian. "What?" "Yeah, old chips, bread crumbs, whatever. We grind it up and feed our 'chovies every other day. They stay slippery and slimy. You can bounce 'em off the deck and they won't shed a scale. Most of them can bang their noses bloody against the inside of a bucket and still live for hours." I digress. Back to this morning at the pier. The Cuccia party began getting their rods bent one right after the other, but nary a bass or butt. They were in the 'ray hole'. About every ten minutes someone fishing from the North side of the second half of the pier was running toward Berkeley trying to curb their sting ray. Some of these beasties were pretty big, ten to twenty pounds and a lot of folks lost gear under the pier. About noon the shiner perch went blitzoid on the South side toward the top of the tide, but the halibut and bass stayed away. There had been one to four per day butts caught last week. Butt not today.
Caio, Kim Gale
In 1874, a pier was built for a new Berkeley-San Francisco Ferry. Its history, as well as that of its successor, was one of conflict, bad timing and financial problems. The first conflict was with Jacobs and Heywood who felt that the ferry should land at the foot of Delaware Street, the site of their existing wharf. They lost out to the other members of the Berkeley Land and Town Improvement Association (who founded the ferry service). $82,000 was raised by subscription to start the Berkeley Ferry and Railroad Company, to buy a ferry boat, and to build the pier. However, after legal and financial problems arose, the Standard Soap Company (as the underwriter of the project) had to step in and the pier was built.
The ferry opened in October of 1874 on a site much different from today's. The shoreline was beachfront property, primarily sand and mud. It was however, like today, shallow water and the pier had to extend out 1,300 feet into the bay. At the end of the pier a dock was built where the ferry landed.
But events did not work out as planned. Rival railroads competed in taking passengers from Berkeley down to the Oakland Mole and its Central Pacific (later Southern Pacific) ferryslip. Since that ferry provided a faster and more comfortable ferry ride, it spelled doom for the Berkeley Ferry. By 1876, the original Berkeley-San Francisco Ferry service was over, although the pier continued to be used for general commerce into the new century, and was bought by the city of Berkeley in 1907.
In 1923, a new plan was proposed. The Golden Gate Ferry Company would re-establish direct transportation between Berkeley and San Francisco. The site was at University Avenue, the same site as the original ferry pier. A change was that the new ferry would be built for people in cars (and later those on buses). The original pier was torn down, a new three-mile-long wharf was built, and service opened in 1929 with the inaugural voyage of the ferryboat Golden Bear.
Once again, the timing was bad. On November 12, 1936 the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened as the world's longest steel bridge (8 1/4 miles, 43,500 feet --- including four miles over water), an event which doomed the ferries. Soon, the ferry company (which was now jointly owned with Southern Pacific) offered to give Berkeley the pier, and their fifty-year ferry franchise -- for free. Berkeley accepted the offer and now had a municipal fishing pier. Although the city received the pier as a free gift, fishing wasn't free for the anglers, a tourist guide published in 1940 listed the pier and its fee of 5 cents.
Just as quickly, the pier became a Mecca for local anglers (although during the early and mid-'40s, the World War II years, part of the pier was declared off limits). In 1955, Berkeley considered closing down the now somewhat decrepit pier. Protest was loud and clear; a regular occurrence in Bezerkeley. In stepped the California Wildlife Conservation Board which offered to fund half of the money needed to renovate the pier. 1959 saw 2,000 feet of the pier refurbished; an additional 1,000 feet were finished in 1962. The resulting pier was the first in what is now a long list of recreational fishing piers built or renovated in partnership with local cities and counties and the Wildlife Conservation Board.