Pier Fishing in California

Resources :: California Fishing Piers

Huntington Beach Pier

Surf City, that’s what some locals like to call Huntington Beach. It’s appropriate given the steady stream of surfers to the local waters and sun-bathers to the local beaches. The pier itself serves as the focal point for these beachfront activities. Surfing competitions, band concerts, professional volleyball tournaments, you name it, the pier is home to these and many more activities. It’s also home to the thousands of anglers who visit the pier each month, many on a daily basis.

That fact seems kind of funny today because this was a pier that I used to ignore. Newport regulars, myself included, were prejudiced. “Good” anglers fished the deep waters of Newport Pier for bonito; “others” were content to fish Huntington Beach for tom cod. It wasn’t that the pier wasn’t nice, it simply offered the wrong kind of fish. Unfortunately, it took years for me to discover the simple fact that there were far more fish than just tom cod at Huntington Beach. In fact, the pier yielded a lot of bonito and large sharks and in many ways fishing was as good or better than that at Newport. But back in the early sixties, I never made the effort to traverse the few miles which separated the two piers, even when nothing was being caught at Newport. Looking back, I wonder what I missed by making that decision.

Environment

This is a huge pier, 1,830 feet long, and offers considerable fishing space. To the north and south of the pier are wide sandy beaches. Offshore is the region known as the Huntington Flats, a sandy-bottom area known for both sand bass and halibut. Inshore, the bottom is primarily sand. There aren’t many rocky areas nearby and the water is not as deep as at the piers on the Newport Peninsula. However, this is one of the piers near an artificial quarry rock reef. Although noted for sandy-shore species, pelagics do show up, primarily Pacific mackerel and bonito. Pilings are heavily encrusted with fish attracting mussels and barnacles.

Inshore, anglers commonly catch barred surfperch, corbina, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, sargo, stingrays, thornbacks and guitarfish. Further out on the pier, anglers fish for California halibut, sole (and I caught a nice sized fantail sole here one day), turbot, sanddab, butterfish, tomcod (white croaker), herring (queenfish), sand bass, jacksmelt, sculpin (California scorpionfish), mackerel, bonito, bat ray and larger sharks. Down around the pilings, fishermen try for pileperch, rubberlip seaperch, kelp and sand bass, halfmoon and a few opaleye. For years the pier was noted for its steady and dependable catch of tomcod (white croaker). That may have changed! Trips to the pier over the past few years have seen fewer and fewer white croaker.

The human environment here includes surfers and this is one pier where there are occasional conflicts. Surfers are not to interfere with angling and generally are not supposed to shoot the pier (surf between the pilings). But it happens. One day (at the old pier) I witnessed several surfers surfing through the pilings and one angler repeatedly being forced to move his line. After shouting at the surfers, and receiving only a one-finger reply, the angler decided to retaliate. He tied a sinker weighing at least five or six ounces directly on to the end of his line. The next time the surfers headed in toward the pilings our noble but impetuous and emotional fisherman aimed and let the sinker fly. Luckily, for both he and one surfer, he missed. But he didn’t miss by much—less than a foot. By this time, calmer heads prevailed and Macho Man realized the danger of his action. He moved. Don’t try such an act or allow a buddy to try it. Such actions produce only losers, no winners.

Fishing Tips

Several varieties of croaker lead the hit parade here. The inshore area and midsection area of the pier can yield spotfin croaker, black croaker, corbina, and yellowfin croaker. This area is also good for the croaker-like sargo. All will fall for mussels (especially fresh mussels), bloodworms, ghost shrimp, and pieces of market shrimp or razor clams fished on the bottom. Most anglers simply use a high/low leader and size 4 or 2 hooks but many also use a modified sliding bait leader. For this leader, buy an egg sinker which has a hole through the middle. Run your line through the hole and then attach a swivel to the end of the line (which prevents the sinker from sliding down onto your leader). Next attach a 3-4 foot leader which has a size 6-4 hook at the end. This leader will work good for these larger croaker and has the advantage of also being a good halibut rigging.

Best croaker action (especially for yellowfins) is during the late summer months, but the same location, baits and riggings will yield barred surfperch during the winter months. If you’re after barred surfperch or corbina, you might also want to invest some time and catch yourself some sand crabs down near the water’s edge; they’re a superior bait for those two species. Some years will also see runs of zebraperch (Hermosilla azurea) being caught in the shallow-water areas; try frozen peas or corn for these vegetarians.

A lot of small round stingrays, thornback rays, shovelnose guitarfish, gray smoothhound sharks and leopard sharks are also taken in the shallower water, from the surf zone out to the mid-pier region. As usual, the best bait for the rays and sharks seems to be squid or a bloody piece of mackerel (although live mackerel and other small live fish are good bait for the bigger sharks). Although the larger sharks are more common out at the end, an unusual run of thresher sharks took place in the inshore surf area in September 1998—approximately 40 fish being spotted. The threshers would come up and slap baits with their tails, some were snagged, and four of the 30-80 pound fish were eventually landed.

A wide variety of fish are caught from the middle of the pier to the end. One of the most common has always been tom cod (white croaker), although, as mentioned, the numbers seem to be going down and for the first time, in 1998, a 10-fish limit was applied. Most tommies are caught on cut anchovy or small strips of anchovy and often they will strike as the bait is settling down into the water. A slow retrieve will also often entice the fish to hit. Herring (queenfish) are another common little croaker and will hit on strips of anchovy or be caught on Lucky Lura-type bait rigs. Salema will hit almost any bait as long as you’re fishing with small hooks and at mid-depth levels (in fact they’re often just under the topsmelt and jacksmelt). Topsmelt and jacksmelt are usually caught on multi-hook bait rigs fished near the top of the water. The topsmelt can be snagged with size 10-12 unbaited rigs, the larger jacksmelt prefer size 8 hooks sweetened with a small piece of bait. The topsmelt are almost always at or near the top of the water, the jacksmelt will sometimes go down a few feet in the water.

Halibut and good-sized shovelnose guitarfish are both common in the mid-pier area. The halibut prefer a live bait fished on the bottom—a small smelt, mackerel or shinerperch (if that is all that is available). If live bait isn’t available, use frozen or salted anchovies. The shovelnose are less discriminating (although they also like live bait). They will often hit on anchovies or pieces of squid. Sand bass, and sometimes there are good runs of these fish, are generally caught on anchovies fished at mid-depth levels. Do remember the grunion runs! Halibut will often follow the grunion into the shallow waters and provide some hot fishing if you can time it right.

From the mid-pier area, but especially at the end, is the home of most of the pelagics. The most common riggings used here are probably bait rigs. Mackerel will often attack a size 4 or 2 Lucky Lura leader baited with small pieces of mackerel. Keep the leader just under the surface of the water or cast it out and slowly retrieve it; either method should result in fish. If the mackerel are in a light biting mode, switch from the bait rig to a single hook on your line with a split-shot or twist-on sinker a few feet up the line. This rigging is a little harder to use here than at piers close to the water but works fine if the wind and current aren’t too strong. Bonito will often show up and when they do try a bonito feather trailing behind a cast-bubble. Summertime to fall should also see some barracuda, especially at night. The best rigging for the barracuda is usually a 1 1/2- 2 1/2 ounce silver or gold colored spoon.

Nights will also see anglers trying for sharks and rays, especially the larger leopard sharks (to 4-5 feet in length), thresher sharks (to 6-8 feet in length), and bat rays. Most seem to be taken out toward the end of the pier and (in my visits) most often at the northwest corner. Since many rays exceeding 100 pounds in size (including a 123-pounder by Robert Gerber in March of ‘99), and threshers to at least 80 pounds have been taken here, remember to bring strong ropes and gaffs with you to the pier. The bat rays, by the way, can make some fairly interesting runs at piers sometimes. A big run occurred in April of ‘99 when a number of the batties were caught. One angler alone, Greg Taite, caught 12 bat rays over 50 pounds in one five hour period, two of which weighed about one hundred pounds each. A few days later he returned and in a short time hooked and landed a bat ray estimated to weigh 125 pounds. He used 40/50 pound test line, a 5/0 hook, and the same bait for all—squid.

E-Mail Notes

Date: November 25, 1999
To: Pier Fishing in California Message Board
From: Quik2
Subject: Shark attack at Huntington Beach Pier!!!! 11/24/99

Lots of Sharks at Huntington Pier. Lots of bites, lots of action. We caught over 12 fish, got over 20 bites and two broke our lines really fast. My roommate started the day catching a 2.5 ft mako shark, then I hooked on to a 2.5 ft gray smoothhound. 30 seconds after my hit, my roommate hooked on to a 3 ft smoothhound. All were huge, from 7-15-lbs at least (we had no measuring scale). Anyway, had about 8 thornback rays, really big ones too. Also caught a kingfish, and one bullhead. One shark hit my pole and my reel went zee zee zee. Then I tried to set the hook and snap, I heard 20-lb test snap in 2 sec. I didn’t even flip my switch to on yet on my Sealine reel. I think it chewed through the line… then my roommate also lost his line too. It was a great night, lots of big sharks swimming around. I did a really stupid thing because there was a hook stuck down in the mako shark’s throat and we were using live bait hooks. So, I tried to get it out, with my roommate holding the jaw and it’s mouth, but I accidentally hit my thumb on his mouth and got a … (censored) thumb bleed. For 15 minutes it was like dripping out. Had no Band Aid so I just put a napkin on it and tied it with a 40-lb test fishing line. I had it like that for 20 minutes before I ran into Ruby’s and asked them for a Band Aid because it wouldn’t stop bleeding. Luckily they had one. I felt pretty stupid, cause the teeth don’t look sharp. They looked like teeth on thornback rays. Plus, I’ve never caught such a big shark. Most of the ones I caught at Berkeley Pier in the S.F. Bay Area are mostly 1 ft. and they don’t have much teeth. But this one tore me up. Anyway, it was a great night; all we used was squid. We never got to sit down for more than 10 minutes except the last 30 minutes. We fished 9-12 p.m. Pretty good night!

To: Quik
From: Snookie

Dear Quik,

Sounds like you had a great time. As to a mako shark, look up a picture of one. If yours was a mako, it was a newborn baby, and even at that makos usually don’t wander that close to shore here, even to have their young. It is certainly of interest if your shark was a mako. That means there is a big mama around.

Hope your next trip is as fun as the last one.

Snookie

To: Snookie
From: Quik

Went Friday and Saturday night! Lots of sand sharks or what the DFG website called a spiny dogfish. Up to 4’ and over 20lbs. Between me and my roomate we lost over 6 sharks over 3’ in 3 nights because we didn’t bring our crab net. So Sunday we brought our net. We caught one that was 3.5’ and over 15-lbs—didn’t have a scale. A 36,” a 35,” and some others that we didn’t measure. Got it all on camera though. We had over 20 bites last night from 7:30 pm-12pm. Landed around 8 fish; 6 sharks and 2 thornback rays. Snookie that first one we caught was definetly a mako, all others that follow were sand sharks. People who helped us pull the line to land the fish on to the pier also ID it as a mako; too bad we didn’t bring our camera. It was a baby though, only 2’ long, about 8-lbs I assume; cut my thumb trying to get da hook out. Damn thing still stings as I am typing. People left and right of us also landed sharks. Lots of People there last night, probably more people tonight. I think this will be our last night until my roomate gets done with finals plus there are way too many people now. For the past three weeks no one ever fished the end where Ruby’s is. Now that we started catching sharks there at tons of people, especially kids trying to catch a shark. One kid cast over all four of our poles which gets us pretty upset. We have lots of fillet white meat in da fridge which will last us at least 2 weeks, we kept three of the biggest we caught and tossed almost all back; gave 2 away. I’ve never seen so many sharks caught on a pier in my life, at least not in the 3’ range. I often caught 1-2’ sharks at Berkeley Pier but those 3’ and beyonds are rare for me so that got me and my roomate excited. Too bad they don’t fight too hard, they mostly jerk left and right trying to free themselves, instead of a tug of war fight. Oh well. I hope you guys go our and see it for yourselves, got between 7 pm-12 pm and use big chunks of squid. It’s almost guaranteed you will get sharks. It was pretty fun catching three 3’ sharks on my 6’ trout pole, and a Daiwa Jupiter reel. hehehehe seems like I am catching a whale on it. lucky we had a net. We now call it the little trout pole that could. BTW are there a size limit on these sharks or any sharks, except leopard sharks? BTW keep your catches away from sight, lots of pi…. off people these three nights talking about how sad it is for those sharks, and how crude we fishermans are. Hehehe, luckily for us last night we gave ours away or tossed them back. The guys to the left and right of us received some really nasty comments from people walking around the pier. I wonder if they also felt sorry for the chicken and that cow they ate for dinner or maybe that Thanksgiving turkey. Hummm there’s something they could think about.

To: Quik
From: Snookie

Dear Quik,

Glad to hear it was a Mako. Interesting! As to size limits, the leopard is the only one so far with a size limit. Keep watching though as DFG is still thinking about more size limits on some other sharks such as the mako.

Keep up the fun fishing.

Snookie


Author’s Note 1

When it was decided to rebuild the pier in the early 1990s, the question came up as to what to do with the old material. Why not use the concrete to construct an artificial reef in this relatively rock-free stretch of coast? Plans were made to do just that but they couldn’t be carried out. Once the cutting of the structure began, it was determined by the Fish & Game that the concrete was simply too old to be used for a reef—it turned into powder as it was cut.

Unfortunately, after spending several million dollars to rebuild the pier, the pier has serious deficiencies. Very frustrating are the railings that are made of anodized aluminum. They look nice but are very slippery and do not provide an adequate support for fishing rods. Most poles simply slide down the railing and wind up falling to the deck. One solution is to bring a couple of pieces of rope or a couple of towels. Tie them to the railing and place your poles between them. Another, even more frustrating mistake is lack of bait cutting boards. There are really no places to cut your bait other than the fish cleaning stations. Since it is against the law to cut your bait directly on the deck (and you risk a very real $600 fine), the bait shop offers pieces of cardboard to put under your bait. Often these pieces of cardboard seem to wind up in the water. What to do? I generally fish right next to a cleaning station and cut my bait there. Obviously that is an impractical solution for most anglers. Next best thought is to bring along some newspaper upon which you can cut your bait, and do put the paper in the trash can when you leave. There are also very few benches! I hate to say this, but I wonder if the needs of the fishermen were considered as important as the pier looking nice for the tourists.

One thing the city has done right is sponsor a yearly “Huck Finn Fishing Derby.” The kid’s fishing contest normally has three divisions, age 7 and under, 8-11, and 12-15, with many prizes awarded for the biggest fish and best dressed young anglers. It’s a program that others cities should copy.

Author’s Note 2

Two state record fish are recorded from Huntington Beach: (1) A 181lb 0 oz bat ray taken on July 24, 1978 and a 5 lb 8 oz mackerel jack taken on September 1, 1988.

History Note

The history of Huntington Beach exemplifies what happened to many seaside areas in California in the 1800s and early 1900s. Much of the local area was originally part of the “Nietos Grant” given to Manuel Nieto by the Spanish government. In 1834, part of the land was split off as Las Bolsas (the pockets of bays), and later, in 1843, a new split created Bolsa Chica (the little pocket).

In the 1850s, after the creation of California, much of the local land was acquired by Abel Stearns, a trader in Los Angeles. In 1894, a drought caused Stearns to turn over part of his land to a trust and eventually part of it was purchased by Col. Robert J. Northam.

In 1900, the area was visited by the person who was probably most important to the founding of the city. His name was Pililip A. Stanton, the founder of Seal Beach, and later Speaker of the California Legislature. He visited the local beach (then called Shell Beach because of the numerous bean clams that dotted the beach) together with S.H. Finley, a Santa Ana engineer. According to the popular legend, Stanton expressed his belief that the climate and beach rivaled the East Coast’s famous Atlantic City. “Let’s build a city here and call it Pacific City,” Stanton said. Finley agreed and soon the West Coast Land and Water Company was formed. It purchased 1,500 acres of land, began to lay out streets, built a pavilion on the ocean front, and by August the first lots of Pacific City were ready for sale.

“Build it and they will come” did not prove true—sales were slow! Company directors soon became convinced that transportation was needed to their “Wonderland by the Sea.” Stanton sold his shares in 1902 and his fellow investors began to court a partnership with Henry Huntington, the owner of the Pacific Electric Company and its electric powered “Red Cars.” In exchange for extending his inter-urban electric railway, Huntington was offered stock in a new company at an unbelievable 17 cents a share, free right-of-way along the ocean front, one-twelfth of all subdivided lots, and one-fifth interest in all ocean front bluff property. Nevertheless, Huntington was still reluctant until told the company and city would be named after him. In May of 1903, the Huntington Beach Company was incorporated; it purchased all the holdings of the West Coast Land and Water Company, and an additional 1,400 acres. Pacific City now became Huntington Beach. When the “Red Cars” finally arrived in Huntington Beach, on July 4, 1904, there was a huge celebration with more than 50,000 people and land sales began to boom. The boom began to fizzle by 1905 and by 1909 Huntington withdrew his support. However, the city grew and the Pacific Electric continued to run its railway line until 1961.

Most important for our story, 1903 saw the construction of a wooden pier, approximately 1,000 feet long, at the end of Main Street. Nearby, on a bluff, set the Huntington Inn. A plunge was built west of the pier and a band stage was built on the beach between the pier and the plunge. The pier was built of untreated lumber and suffered attack from various marine organisms which weakened the structure. Nevertheless, that original pier was to last until 1912 when a storm demolished the middle of the pier.

A $70,000 pier construction bond was soon approved and a new 1,350-foot-long concrete pier was dedicated on June 20-21, 1914. The local Huntington Beach News proudly proclaimed: “Pier Celebration Was Gigantic Success; Twenty Thousand Visitors Entertained; Fifteen Hundred Automobiles Here Sunday.” On the front page were “Three views of the Longest, Highest, and Most Artistically Designed Solid Concrete Pier in the World.” Festivities that day included a concert by the Municipal Band of Long Beach, swimming and diving events, a “surfing” demonstration by legendary board rider George Freeth, a casting tournament by members of the Southern California Rod and Reel Club, and Japanese fencing and sword dances. At 7:30 the lights on the pier were turned on and a carnival band played for a dance and “serpentine battle” out at the end of the pier. A 500-foot extension, together with a restaurant at the end, was added to the concrete pier in 1930.

Like most southern California piers, sportfishing operations, usually in the form of fishing barges, were headquarted on the pier. Here it began in the ‘30s with the Annie M. Rolph and the appropriately named Huntington barge. After World War II and into the 1950s, the pier would have a series of new barges—the Elsie I, Elsie II, Neptune, Swallow and Varga.

The new pier would last more than seventy years. It did however suffer occasional damage. In 1933, an earthquake damaged part of the pier, and in 1939, a tropical hurricane destroyed 300 feet of the far end of the pier. By August of 1940, the pier had been restored to a length of 1821.8 feet. Next came World War II and concern about a Japanese attack. The town and pier were occupied by the army and pier attractions now included machine guns, radar and a radio station.

In 1939, the Pavilion dance hall was built near the left entrance to the pier. It quickly became a local center for the swing and jitterbug of the big band era. In 1941, it was renamed the Pav-A-Lon, a play on the word Avalon. After WWII, it served as a hall for concerts and festivals and then, in 1955, was converted into a skating rink. In 1966 it became The Fisherman restaurant, and still later, in 1976, it became Maxwell’s, a restaurant and center for live jazz. By 1947, there was also a “Fun Zone” adjacent to the pier which included a few rides and a Pier Cafe on the right side of the pier.

The pier itself suffered damage in 1958 when a storm damaged the final 600 feet of the pier, but it was soon repaired. But all good things must come to an end (sounds trite)! The combination of huge El Niño storms in 1983 (which necessitated $1.4 million in repairs), a winter storm in 1988 (which washed away the final 250 feet of pier—including the landmark End Cafe), and simple old age, brought an end to the majestic old pier. A new Huntington Beach Pier reopened in the spring of 1992 after a lengthy closure and expensive ($10.8 million) repair and refurbishing. Included in the new pier was a diamond-shaped end designed to (hopefully) better deflect incoming waves.

But change continues. In 1996, a large Ruby’s Restaurant opened at the end of the pier and became an instant success. Then in 1997, Maxwells was torn down to make way for a new $12-million Pier Plaza and promenade. Maxwells was turned into Duke’s Surf City.

Facts

Hours

The pier is open 5 a.m. till midnight.

Facilities

Lights, restrooms and a fish cleaning station are located on the pier. Parking is available adjacent to the pier for $1.50 an hour and there is some metered parking on nearby streets ($1.00 an hour with a six hour maximum length of time). Ruby’s Surf City Diner is located out at the end of the pier and although somewhat ugly from the outside, it offers good food for a reasonable price—the same as the Ruby’s on the Balboa, Seal Beach and Oceanside piers.

Handicapped Facilities

Handicapped restrooms. The pier surface is cement with a 30-inch rail height. Posted for handicapped.

How To Get There

Highway 1 (Pacific Coast Highway) to Huntington Beach and the pier. It is located at the end of Main Street.

Management

City of Huntington Beach.