In the summer of 1963 I moved from Costa Mesa to San Diego. The first place I fished was the Shelter Island Pier and I thought I had entered nirvana (or at least the angler’s equivalent of paradise). My first visit produced more than a dozen fish including barracuda, bonito and halibut. My next two trips were similar but also included kelp bass and sand bass. Here I was, fishing on a pier, and catching most of the southern California “gamefish” every visit. Today, looking back at my records, I realize that those first three visits were among the best of my many visits to the pier – they were exceptional but really didn’t reflect an accurate picture of the pier. It is a good fishing pier but not “paradise.” I’m still looking for that pier!
Shelter Island is one of the most popular spots on San Diego Bay. Motels, restaurants, and marinas share most of the island; shoreline grassy areas, a public boat launch and the pier share the rest. The pier itself is new. The original Shelter Island Pier was condemned in 1990 (which is surprising since it was constructed in 1956 and really wasn’t too old). A new pier was built and it was opened in the summer of 1991. The new pier is almost identical with the previous pier except that there is less growth on the new pilings. Surprisingly small for the number of fish caught, the pier extends out only about 200 feet from shore but has a T-shaped end which is nearly 500 feet in width. The bottom here is mostly a mixture of mud and sand with some eelgrass and a few rocks. High tide usually seems the best time to fish but really any time can be productive. Tides can also at times produce a strong enough current to require a fairly heavy sinker - at least if you intend to cast out away from the pier. Most commonly caught fish are Pacific mackerel, yellowfin croaker, kelp and sand bass, herring (queenfish), tom cod (white croaker), jacksmelt, blackperch, opaleye, sculpin (scorpionfish), halibut, turbot, bonito, sand shark (gray smoothhound shark), shovelnose shark (guitarfish), bat ray and (some years) lizardfish.
Most fishermen at Shelter Island use the live anchovies which are available at the pier bait shop. Casting straight out from the pier, at almost any spot, and fishing on the bottom, using a live bait leader or a high/low leader, can yield bass, halibut or sharks. Fishing in the same locations, but using a high/low leader and ghost shrimp, bloodworms, clams, or fresh mussels, will often yield spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, sargo, sand bass and a few black croaker, especially during the summer to fall months. It is my experience that more bass, halibut and large croaker are caught on the left end to middle of the pier while more sharks and rays are taken on the right end of the pier. Like most piers, the best times for sharks and rays are at night. Bat rays exceeding 125 pounds in size have been landed here as have some fairly large shovelnose guitarfish and leopard sharks. Unusual catches at the pier have included angel sharks, thresher sharks, several large butterfly rays, and a rare banded guitarfish (which is usually found from Mexico to Panama). The latter was reported to weigh 24 pounds but looked much smaller in the pictures.
Fairly close around the pier seems to be the best area to fish if mackerel show up. The most common method is to simply tie a size 4 or 2 hook to the end of a line, weight it with split-shot or a small twist-on sinker, cast it out and keep it near the top of the water – much like you would on a boat. If bonito show up, use live bait on a slider rig, or try a feather trailing behind a cast-a-bubble. Barracuda also occasionally put on a show, most often at night, and the key for them is to use a live bait or a small lure like a Kastmaster. However, make sure you keep only legal-size fish. For queenfish and white croaker, fish near the pilings but do not use a whole anchovy – use a strip of anchovy about two inches long.
During the winter and spring months blackperch and opaleye will also inhabit the area under the pier, especially near the tackle shop. Use a couple of small size 6 or 8 hooks and bait up will fresh mussels or ghost shrimp. Opaleye connoisseurs will also at time try frozen peas for these large perch-like fish.
You may see a few needlefish swim around the pier and you may want to catch them. Be cautioned, the process can be exasperating. They like live bait best (such as a lively small smelt fished under a bobber) but are very hard to hook. Sometimes you can watch what they are doing but even so will be unable to hook them. But they can be fun.
Many anglers, including myself at times, get wrapped up in the world of rods, reels and assorted tackle. Then I remember what I observed during one visit to Shelter Island Pier. On that particular morning, fishing was only fair with a few mackerel and kelp bass filling the buckets. The bait shop was being rebuilt and live bait was unavailable. Then a family of Vietnamese-Americans arrived. They dropped a net over the side and soon they had small smelt and anchovies swimming in their buckets.
For tackle they had simple bamboo rods, about eight feet long, each equipped with a single guide at the tip of the rod. For reels they used spools of line. To cast they swung the rod with their right arm while holding the spool of line with their left hand. Casts were about as good as those by anglers using more expensive tackle. To reel in, they simply wound the line onto the spool – much like a reel does. They quickly began to out fish the other fishermen, at least until a few people began to borrow bait. The key was the right bait; the tackle, as in many pier situations, was not as important. There are times and places where you need the best tackle you can buy. However, pier fishermen can often get by with the simplest of equipment and to me this is one of the beauties of pier fishing. It allows anyone, regardless of financial status, the chance to go fishing.
This, by the way, was the only place where I saw such tackle used until a visit to the Monterey Wharf #2 a few years later. Using a similar rod and stationary spool, a frail looking, elderly Vietnamese-American angler was making tremendous casts out into the bay. Terminal tackle was a multi-hook leader on which he was hooking one to four jack mackerel (Spanish mackerel) nearly every cast – while most fishermen were going fishless.
Shelter Island Pier, like many piers, has a number of dedicated regulars, anglers who are out there every day regardless of the conditions. And they know how to fish. One such regular at this pier is a fellow named Dan Hoar whose specialty seems to be sand bass. In February of 1997 he caught a 12-pound sand bass which is evidently the pier record. Of course Mr. Hoar had been landing limits of sand bass EVERY DAY using ghost shrimp and cut mackerel as bait. WATCH THE REGULARS AND LEARN! By the way, the state record for sand bass is 11 pounds, seven ounces. If properly weighed and certified Mr. Hoar’s fish would have been a state record for the species.
When I was young (quite a long, long time ago) and fished the pier, I used to occasionally try for perch by the inshore rocks. I would usually use a small size 8 hook and occasionally get a decent sized perch. However, I also caught a lot of unusual little fish, none of which was a keeper in ANY sense of the word. Nevertheless, there were a number of little sculpins and blennys that qualified for the “different and strange” category. Most unusual however were the sarcastic fringehead, tiny fish with a Napoleonic complex. I caught several of the fish, none were over 8 inches in length, and every one of them seemed to want to attack my hand with their gargantuan sized mouth. It’s a good thing they don’t reach large size because they would probably terrorize the pier. I can see it now, up high on the light poles, a new set of warning signs: Danger, Vicious Sarcastic Fringehead, Handle With Care.
Be sure to stop by the bait and tackle shop and say hi to Buddy Hakes and his crew. Buddy has run the concessions at the pier for many years and runs an excellent shop. If you’re hungry, you might even want to try one of his “Buddy Dogs” – “six inches of pure heaven” according to his signs and T-shirts.
Shelter Island is a man-made island. Originally this was a submerged shoal located just offshore of the Point Loma Peninsula. When the city began to dredge San Diego Bay in the 30s and 40s, it dumped the excess mud onto the shoal. Eventually an island was created and in 1950 a causeway was built out to the island – which allowed its’ development. Today it is one of the most popular sites in the bay. Another pier, much longer in size, once existed a little distance upshore from this area. It was known as the Roseville Wharf in the late 1880s, and provided the most convenient and reliable transportation between Point Loma and San Diego.
Open from 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Restrooms are at the foot of the pier as is free parking. Fish-cleaning stations and lights are on the pier. A bait and tackle shop, snack bar, and tourist shop are located on the pier.
Although there are parking spaces for the handicapped, restrooms are not equipped for the handicapped. The pier surface is wood planking and the rail height is 42 inches. Posted for handicapped.
Take I-5 or I-8 to Rosecrans (Hwy.209) and go west, turn left at Shelter Island Dr. and follow the road until you see the pier and the entrance to the parking lot.
San Diego Unified Port District.