Although the Cabrillo Pier has received considerable vandalism and damage over the years, it seems to once again be a pleasant and reliable pier to visit. The pier was built in 1969 and anglers can almost always expect to catch some mackerel, a few tom cod (white croaker) or maybe even a halibut or two. If they fish the far end of the pier, along the inside waters adjacent to the breakwater, they might even catch a rock frequenting species. It is also an interesting area to visit for the family. It offers a fairly unique fishery environment and offers non-anglers in the family a tree-shaded park with picnic tables and playground equipment, a beach area, a small store, and a marine museum which has many interesting exhibits.
It also has, like most piers, its regulars. One day I was quietly fishing on this pier when I ran across one of these regulars (a.k.a. experts or pier rats) who make pier fishing so special. I had caught a few white croaker and queenfish, and a halibut which was, like most halibut today, a few inches short of being legal size. But on the deck, so to speak, were also some mackerel. I hadn’t hooked any of the macs but a few more successful anglers had caught fish that were truly impressive. They were among the largest mackerel I had ever seen caught from a pier. Many were equal to or larger than a typical bonito.
About that time, an elderly angler strolled out and asked if I minded if he fished next to me. As usual, I had no objection, and soon he was setting up his fairly heavy-sized tackle. His terminal tackle was unique. He used two leaders, each of which was about eight-foot-long and contained what I would guess was a no. 2 hook. His line was attached to one eye of a triple swivel and a leader was attached to each other eye of the swivel. Above the swivel he attached a large Styrofoam float. He baited each hook with a large piece of mackerel and proceeded to cast out the entire rigging. He soon started to hook the extra-large mackerel and about that time I decided to give the mackerel a chance.
I proceed to catch six mackerel using my light outfit, a single hook, and a float. My neighbor caught at least a couple of dozen fish, sometimes two at a time, and then he stopped. He said he only caught as many fish as he could use and that he had requests from his neighbors for these fish. We talked for awhile and it turned out he was a retired commercial fishermen who had fished with his Portuguese friends in his younger days. He now limited his fishing to the pier. He knew that some would view his techniques as non-sporting but said none of his fish were wasted, nor did he return injured fish to the water as did some of the less knowledgeable anglers. He said he fished the pier most days and generally caught fish, although few of the large fish that were caught twenty years ago. But once in a while the larger mackerel or bonito moved in and, when they did, he knew how to catch them.
It was time for me to leave and as I made the drive back to Long Beach through the Terminal Island area I reflected on his views. Although there is a lot of room for anglers who preach the sportsmanship of light tackle and returning all fish to the water, I think there is also a place for fisherman like this, a man who was basically fishing for food and using what he caught productively. My only criticism would be on his judgment for using these fish as food since the Department of Fish & Game has warned against eating fish caught in this area (although mackerel are generally considered safe to eat).
The pier sits low near the water and extends out 1,200 feet into San Pedro Harbor; it is just inside and parallel to the north end of the Los Angeles breakwater. The bottom here is primarily sand and, although there is really not a typical surf, most of the normal bay and surf species can be caught. In addition, an artificial reef was constructed in 1973 when 84 automobile tires were scattered around the pilings as additional attractants for the fish. The pilings and reef do attract some rock-frequenting species but the most common fish are still two of the smaller croakers: white croaker (in part because these fish are the most pollution-tolerant species) and queenfish. Halibut, a few small turbot, sand bass, and sculpin (scorpionfish) comprise most of the rest of the bottom action. Small pompano (Pacific butterfish) are a mid-water species that is most common in the fall. Surface action generally sees both Pacific mackerel (this is one of the more reliable piers for mackerel) and Spanish mackerel (jack mackerel), jacksmelt and topsmelt, and, at times, bonito. Most months will see a live bait barge located just out from the pier, a barge which attracts both mackerel and halibut.
The west side of the pier sits within casting distance of the inner side of the breakwater (although only the end part of the pier presents water that is fishable). Although shallower than it was in the ‘80s, it is possible to catch kelp bass, sculpin (scorpionfish), cabezon, small kelp rockfish, sargo, and seaperch—black, white, and rubberlip. Along with these will be an occasional opaleye or halfmoon. Although I haven’t personally seen too many sharks or rays, I’m told by the regulars that some good sized shovelnose guitarfish have been taken, as well as leopard sharks, gray smoothhounds, thornback rays and a round stingrays.
The best bet is to fish the bay side of the pier on the bottom for small croakers and halibut , or fish the upper portions of the water for mackerel (they’re often down about 5-10 feet). If you want tom cod (white croakers), cut the tail-end half of a small anchovy, and fish it on a high/low leader with no. 6 or 4 hooks. Remember that the tommies like a moving bait and will often strike as the bait is settling to the bottom after the cast. If you don’t get a bite, reel in your line very slowly and be constantly alert for a strike. The same rigging and location can yield other croakers—yellowfin, spotfin and China, but usually those species will hit better on fresh mussels, bloodworms, or ghost shrimp. For the halibut, use a sliding leader and live bait—smelt, brown bait (a small queenfish or white croaker—which you will need to catch), or a little mackerel if they’re around.
Try on the top or subsurface for mackerel and bonito, and since water here is normally calm, you can often simply tie a hook directly on the end of your line and fly-line your bait out to where the fish are hitting—or use a small twist-on sinker for weight. Many anglers like to use a bobber with the small sinkers but it usually isn’t necessary unless you’re trying to fish with two poles at the same time. If you’re fishing at the end, where the water is deeper, you can often drop your bait straight down a few feet under the surface of the water and watch the macs and jacksmelt attack your bait.
Another option is to drop your bait down around the pilings. Although this method does not seem to work as well as back in earlier days (perhaps because there is not as much growth on the pilings, or because kelp is rarely present), you can still occasionally catch a buttermouth perch (blackperch), sand bass or sculpin (scorpionfish).
A final option is to cast toward the breakwater rocks using size 6 or 4 hooks, and fresh mussels, bloodworms or ghost shrimp for bait. Rock frequenting species such as opaleye, buttermouth perch (blackperch), Catalina blue perch (halfmoon), sculpin, kelp bass, sand bass and even an infrequent small sheephead will sometimes reward an angler with a hit. If you are a competent caster and can cast without losing your tackle in the rocks, you might want to try a lure. Try Scampi-type lures for bass, try motor oil colored grubs for perch.
As mentioned, the Cal OEHHA warns that several locally caught fish show high concentrations of DDT and PCB in their flesh. It is recommended that no white croaker caught from the pier be eaten. In addition, it is recommended that anglers limit themselves to only one meal every two weeks of the following species: queenfish, black croaker and surfperch.
When one considers the early history of both San Pedro and the Cabrillo Beach area, one is confronted with the tremendous, largely man-made, ecological changes that have taken place. Prior to the construction of the San Pedro Breakwater, the area out near Point Fermin and today’s Cabrillo Beach was an oceanfront area, unprotected and open to the whims of winter storms and changing channels. The area to the north and east was largely estuarine (a result of the Los Angeles River) with sandbars, mudflats and salt marshes.
As mentioned, the pier was built in 1969 and replaced an older boat pier that had existed near the site for 40 years (and the boat house from that pier became the Cabrillo Beach Museum). The original pier was built during the depression as a government work project and served many years as a base for sportfishing boats and boat rentals. In 1987, the City of Los Angeles agreed to take back the pier from the financially strapped County of Los Angeles. It was a godsend for the pier; shortly thereafter, in 1988, $180,000 was spent to repair and resurface the deck of the pier. In 1995, an additional $1.5 million reconstruction was approved (which turned out to be $1.8 million). In 1997, the structure was strengthened, new railings were installed, the walkway was resurfaced, a new water system together with drinking fountains was installed, and the fish-cleaning stations were reconnected. The old restroom and snack bar area (long locked up) was removed and an extension out from the pier was made in that area.
The park gates are open from 5:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
The pier has only a few facilities—a few benches and fish cleaning sinks but no lights. There are portable restrooms found near the front of the pier.
There is handicapped parking but no restrooms. The pier’s surface is cement and the rail height is 44 inches. Posted for handicapped.
Take the Harbor Freeway (I-110) south; it will turn into Gaffey St. Follow it to 22nd Street and turn left. Follow 22nd St. to Pacific Ave. and turn right. Follow Pacific Ave. to 36th Street and the entrance to Cabrillo Park.
City of Los Angeles, Parks and Recreation Department.