Pier/McFadden Wharf |
Every angler has his or her favorite spot and mine would have to be this old pier. It isn't the longest of piers, nor the prettiest. And many times a parking space can be almost impossible to find. It also doesn't rank among the top piers in my record book. However, this is where I first began to pier fish, where I learned the basics, and where I experienced my first "big day" of fishing. It rates 100% on the nostalgia meter -- and I'm a sappy kind of guy when it comes to the "good old days."
I lived nearby in Costa Mesa, only a few miles from the pier, and a short ride on my heavy, but trusty, old Schwinn bike. I would get up at 4 a.m., grab some bait out of the freezer, tie down my bait bucket and tackle box, hang onto my rod, and take off. I'd bike down the street past Newport Harbor High School, then zip down the steep cliff to the Pacific Coast Highway. If traffic was light (and it usually was at that time in the morning), I'd make a quick cut across the road, then pedal down the peninsula to the pier. After locking my bike, I'd hurry out to the far end of the pier and Mecca -- the coveted northwest corner. Sometimes someone else would already have that spot -- but generally it was one of the regulars. If so, it was only fair. I would often be soaked from the morning fog but I really didn't care; it was simply a price one paid to catch some fish.
I did catch fish but it took some time before I became proficient. My first few trips saw an occasional small halibut or more often a sculpin (scorpionfish). It wasn't until my seventh trip that I caught a decent-size fish, a barracuda, and it wasn't until the tenth trip that I caught as many as ten fish. However, I soon began to get the hang of it and started to catch a variety of fish: bonito, mackerel, jack mackerel, queenfish, jacksmelt, perch and hake. I was finally becoming an angler.
At last, on an early September morning, I had my first "big day." I had arrived, as usual, at the crack of dawn, and was fishing just down from the northwest corner. I was using squid for bait and had experienced very little early success. However, around 5:30 a.m., I had a strike and pulled in an ebony-colored fish -- a type I had never caught before. The next cast yielded two more of these strange colored fish and I continued to catch fish, nearly every cast, for the next two hours. Strangely, only two other anglers were having similar success. Most anglers were fishless. Later, I found out the fish were sablefish, a deep-water fish more common to northern waters. Upon cleaning the fish, I also found the reason for my success. The fish were stuffed with squid that were schooling in the waters near to the pier. Anglers who were using squid for bait, and there were only a few, were catching the fish. I caught 47 sablefish that day, but it was only a start. I continued to catch fish: large jacksmelt, Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel -- 77 fish in all. It was, mirabile dictu, one of the best days I ever had at the pier even though, for most anglers, the fishing probably would have been considered poor. You just never know what is going to happen.
Unusual fish, or at least fish uncommon to most southern California piers, are one of the attractions of this pier. The deep-water Newport Submarine Canyon is located near the end of the pier and within 600 feet of the pier the water is over 100 feet deep. As a result, fish such as Pacific hake, Pacific sanddab, and longfin sanddab are commonly caught; fish like sablefish are an occasional treat. In April of '2000 a spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei) was reportedly caught at the pier, a fish which is common to inshore areas north of Washington but one which is typically found several hundred feet deep in southern California waters. Another unusual catch, reportedly caught in the summer of '99, was an 180-pound black (giant) sea bass. According to a Pier Fishing in California Message Board reporter the fish was hooked on a live smelt, fought for 2 1/2 hours before being landed, and then was returned to the water. In May of '2001 a triggerfish was added to the list of unusual fish.
I have caught nearly 40 species of fish on this pier, everything from shallow-water cusk eels to the aforementioned deep-water sablefish and hake. I've even caught a fish that most guide books say doesn't exist in the area -- a starry flounder. I caught the flounder on July 4, 1962 and it was the only fish I caught that day with the exception of a sculpin (California scorpionfish). Since no one seemed to know what the fish was, I saved it and consulted the various fishing books I had, as well as the guide books at my high school. All carried the descriptions and drawings that matched my fish but most said that the southern limit for the flounder was Santa Barbara. One lone book showed a southern starry flounder whose range was listed as south of Newport. To this day I believe that book was right and that I caught a starry flounder, or southern starry flounder.
Many large spider crabs are landed every year and every few years will see a run of squid. Most of the squid are small. However, while visiting the pier one night in 1976, I saw a tremendous run of giant squid, multi-tentacled creatures that exceeded ten pounds in some cases, and put up a surprisingly good fight. Unfortunately, I didn't have a squid jig, no one would sell me a jig, and the jigs were the only thing working on the squid. I still tried to catch one of the exotic animals by using conventional riggings, but my efforts produced 0 squid, not a one, nada, zilch. But those anglers lucky enough to have the jigs were hauling them in on nearly every cast. The next morning fishermen were selling excess squid and trading for more desirable species of fish, while squid and squid ink seemed to be everywhere. When you fish on the deep-water end of this pier you never know what might latch on to your line.
Another attraction for newcomers to this old pier is the dory fishing fleet which is located on the sandy beach just north of the pier. The fleet began fishing in 1891 and today it is the last remaining fleet of its type. The boats head out early each morning to collect their fish, return, and then sell their fish right next to their boats on the beach -- along Rock Cod Lane. It's a hard life for the fisherman but a life few if any would give up. It adds to the environment of the pier and, when pier anglers are unsuccessful, provides a ready market for fish to take home.
One unfortunate aspect of this pier's environment is the large number of "professional" fishermen, a fairly recent phenomenon. By this I mean the anglers who are out at the pier with 4-5 rods and whose goal is to catch and keep as many fish as possible. Whether it be mackerel or other species, they will often fill bucket after bucket with fish. Do they have professional licenses? I don't know but I doubt it. Some locals suggest the "professionals" outnumber the recreational anglers by three to one and that it is a reason why many locals now head over to the Balboa Pier. Most locals also suggest that it is these "professionals" who have caused the bad reputation for local anglers -- sometimes aggressive conduct and failure to keep the pier clean. Most piers in the state limit the number of rods to two per angler and I don't know why the City of Newport Beach doesn't set the same limit and enforce it.
Another detriment to the pier's environment is the number of anglers who snag corbina in the surf area. Equipment is simple: heavy rods and reels and long leaders loaded with really large treble hooks. Add a couple of pieces of cloth to attract the corbina and you're in business. Many evenings will see four or more of the "sportsman" out practicing their craft. Although some argue that it is merely another form of angling I feel that snagging should be illegal for sport fish. And, by the way, if an occasional undersized seatrout (white seabass), small halibut, spotfin croaker or other sport fish is mistakenly snagged they're just out of luck.
Around the far end, a high-low outfit equipped with short leaders and number 4 hooks can be effective. Bait the hooks with small strips of anchovy (no more than an inch long), cast out and retrieve slowly. Often a hungry sanddab, scorpionfish, small rockfish or bass (both kelp bass and barred sand bass) will attack your bait. Some years will also see large numbers of lizardfish caught from the end to the mid-pier area.
Unlike most piers in southern California, Newport has never really been considered a good pier for white croaker (tom cod). Having said that, I must admit that I have had a few days where the tommies wouldn't stay off the line; cases where an angler could literally catch a fish every cast until he or she got tired of the small fish. What is strange is that all of these occurrences took place between late February and early April. This is a little unusual because the standard wisdom on white croaker is that they travel out to deeper water during the winter months and come inshore during the late spring to fall months. Nevertheless, I have never caught more than 5 during a summer or fall visit. If the tommie croakers are around when you visit, the same rigging and bait mentioned above (high/low leader and strips of anchovy for bait) should guarantee success and generally the fish will be found mid-pier to the end. However, begin the retrieve just as the sinker hits bottom and be prepared to strike even as the bait sinks. A shiny sinker will also increase your chances of success.
A snag-line made with number 8 hooks, and baited with tiny pieces of anchovy, will tempt walleye surfperch when fished mid-depth. Silver surfperch will generally be above the walleye, and jacksmelt and topsmelt will be above the silver surfperch. However, the jacksmelt will bite better on small pieces of bloodworm. Although I never caught any sardines here when I was young, I have caught them and seen them on several occasions in the '90s; the usual ways to get the 'dines is with a bait rig. These rigs may also snag a few pompano (California butterfish) or salema but I have seen few of the latter caught at the pier. Of course, the best use of these bait rigs is to catch some live anchovies, small smelt, baby macks, small Spanish mackerel (jack mackerel) or shinerperch. All make good live bait for halibut and at least decent bait for bass, sharks and rays.
To catch the large pileperch, which are often seen grazing on the mussels on the pilings, requires both skill and perseverance. Use fresh mussels, small hooks, and light line, and be able to hold your bait near the pilings without getting it snagged. If you've hid the hook well you might catch a fish! Old-timers would take a clump of mussels (still in their shells), wrap several short leaders around the mussels (while trying to hide the various hooks), and then drop the entire mass of mussels down by the pilings. If everything worked to perfection a pileperch might be foolish enough to grab one of the hooks entangled in the mass of mussels.
Sand crabs, fresh mussels, ghost shrimp, and bloodworms work well for barred surfperch, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, corbina, and an occasional sargo or black croaker when fished near shore. Squid is a good bait to use around the end for scorpionfish (especially at night) and small rockfish, but be sure to not over do it. Use a small strip of squid no more than a half inch by an inch cut in a V-shape.
At night, this can be a good pier to catch both sharks and rays. Although most of these will be of modest size, some are true showstoppers. Included in the list have been a number of fairly large thresher sharks, a 225-pound hammerhead shark, a 246-pound bat ray (see below) and a 176-pound bat ray. The eight-foot-long hammerhead was taken by a 15-year-old angler in 1978. For these bruisers, a heavy rig is required as is a way to get them onto the pier. Come prepared with sufficient equipment (and friends) if you plan to tackle these fish at night.
This is also a good pier from which to catch thornback rays; fish inshore at night using squid for bait and a high-low leader with number 2 hooks. The small rays are fun to catch but release them; they really don't have enough meat on them to keep for eating. Of course, you may also hook onto a large shovelnose shark (guitarfish) or bat ray, so again, be prepared by bringing a treble hook-gaff or net with you. Although my records show that most of the large shovelnose traditionally have been landed in the mid-pier area, a lot of the big fish have been landed out by the northwest corner in recent years. I don't know the reason for the change, I only report it.
Lastly, artificials can be used very effectively here when the pelagics such as bonito and mackerel are running. Bonito feathers used with a splasher or a cast-a-bubble, and several types of spoons and plugs, have been proven to work for the boneheads. Most mackerel are caught on multi-hook riggings but fairly light tackle with a single hook can be more fun. More and more of the regulars are even using artificials for halibut. Most use curlytail jigs on the south side of the mid-pier section, or even closer toward the beach. Early morning hours when it is not too crowded offers the best chance for success and I am told that while the larger jigs work well in the winter and spring, smaller jigs are more successful in the summer and fall months.
(This, by the way, is not the first time the pier was closed. More than a hundred years ago, August 24, 1889, to be exact, the Santa Ana Herald reported that Robert McFadden would be closing the wharf each day from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. He said he was obliged to do it to stop wood thefts on the wharf. The paper was opposed! It said the action "prevents early to late fishing...not considered right... as likely to discourage reader use...it being more pleasant to pursue sport in the cool of the day.")