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 most 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 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.
The pier is 1,140 feet long and fronts directly on Sharp Park State Beach, a beach that can see strong winds and huge punishing waves. The bottom is primarily sand, and there is some 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 to be over. Although there are still some exceptional seasons, most years see far fewer fish (although the regulars with the proper knowledge and technique can still rack up some impressive numbers).
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; one weekend alone, July 8-9, 1995, saw over a thousand salmon 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 almost all the regulars agree 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 – which is about 850% of the 2-fish limit. For many reasons, this is a fish-rich area of water. 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.
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 will yield striped bass. Here, use one of the above mentioned baits or a bait such as anchovy or sardine. 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 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; fish an area away from other anglers 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.
From the mid-pier area out to the end, try a high/low set up for white croaker, Pacific tomcod, sand sole, starry flounder, Pacific and speckled sanddabs, and white seaperch. Different species will hit at various times of the year, but all of these will hit on small strips of anchovy or pile worms. Fishing on the bottom with the same bait, but using a sliding live bait leader, may yield large sand sole that are often mistaken for halibut. The same rigging, baited with a live anchovy, shinerperch or smelt, will yield a few California halibut. The halibut are not really common, but more and more anglers are fishing for them during the summer months and fish to 32 pounds have been landed. Most of these are landed in this mid-pier area.
King salmon are usually present from June until November, although late June to late July is probably 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 and right corners. Almost without exception, the salmon will be caught on modified sliding leaders that use a frozen anchovy and a float to keep the bait suspended a short distance under the top of the water (although 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 fairly common and a 38-pounder has been verified; stories tell of fish weighing over 40 pounds.
Finally, using your light pole, you can catch a tremendous number of the smaller surfperch. Included in the perch numbers will be walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, spotfin surfperch and, at times, the perch-like Pacific butterfish (Pacific pompano). You can use a commercial rigging like a Lucky Joe/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.
If you use a Lucky Lura leader you often don’t need any bait on your line, a simple up and down jigging motion will often 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 baby salmon about the size of herring. After catching (and releasing) about a dozen of the small fish, I decided to quit using 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 an adult size, so don’t complicate their lives any more than necessary.
The warm water year of 1992 saw several species of fish landed which are more common to southern piers. The most notable was probably a 41 1/4 pound white seabass caught in July – although barracuda also generated interest.
The Rev. Herschell Harkins Memorial Pier (aka the Pacifica Pier) was built in 1973 and designed in part to serve as a support structure for sewage pipes which stretch from the shoreline out to 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 – and yes, reopened again before the main summer run of fish. Most agreed that it was safe enough to open but all agreed it was in need of repair. The repairs were finally started that October and the pier was declared “fixed” a few months later. Today, the pier appears in good shape although it definitely shows the results of the heavy use it receives.
Open 24 hours a day.
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 seemingly not enough on some summer days.
Handicapped parking. The surface of the pier is concrete with a ramp leading to the south side of the pier. Not posted for handicapped.
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.
City of Pacifica.