This pier isn’t one of the largest, one of the most modern, or one of the most convenient piers in California, but it is one of the top piers in the state. Why? Because of the number of fish caught and the possibility of good-quality fish. I have fished on every pier listed in my book and on only one other pier have I averaged more fish per trip. Crystal Pier is also one of the best piers for at least four species of fish: barred surfperch, walleye surfperch, shovelnose guitarfish and California halibut. It is also seasonally good for yellowfin croaker, queenfish, white croaker, and gray smoothhound shark (sand shark). Lastly, there are motel rooms available on the pier—the only pier on the California coast to offer such accommodations. I fished Crystal Pier when I was young and today I still make it a point to visit the pier in my annual visits to San Diego.
The pier is located on a long, sandy beach and has neither rocks nor reefs to attract fish; it is simply one of the best beaches to fish for sandy-shore species. Although recently restored and lengthened (to 872 feet), most pilings are old and they’re covered with fish attracting mussels. During the summer months there are also usually heavy growths of kelp around the outer end of the pier.
The number of different types of fish here is not as high as some piers, however, the concentration of some species is very high. Fish found near the tideline include corbina, barred surfperch, spotfin and yellowfin croaker, stingrays, guitarfish and thornback rays. Halfway out you’ll find all of these but also more walleye surfperch, queenfish, white croaker, halibut and smoothhound sharks. The end of the pier will see these plus bonito, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, jacksmelt, bat rays and sometimes small to medium size white sea bass (usually called sea trout). Increasingly (or at least it seems this way to me), in the last few years, more and more bass—kelp bass, barred sand bass, and spotted sand bass—have been caught. Although fish are caught year-round, summer is by far the best time for halibut, spotfin croaker, corbina, mackerel, bonito, and the bigger sharks and rays. Winter often yields fewer but larger halibut; early spring yields the largest barred surfperch.
Summertime, unfortunately, is also a prime time to catch illegal (because of the season) spiny lobster. Often more than a dozen of the feisty creatures will be caught in a day’s time but remember to throw them back—failure to do so could result in a very stiff fine.
The human environment here is also generally pleasant, with a nice mix of resident species (San Diegans) and seasonal visitors (tourista Americanus). For years’ two of the resident regulars were nurturing ladies who believed in giving “God’s creatures” a helping hand. They would be found most mornings out toward the end of the pier filling small buckets with their fish. Inevitably some of the visitors would stop and look into the buckets of fish and occasionally someone would question why they needed so many fish. One or two may even have questioned if the ladies were exceeding the limits set for various species (but they didn’t). The ladies were catching the fish for a reason. They took their fish home and pressure cooked them to soften the bones. They then took the fish down to the Mission Bay Jetty where they fed the feral cats that had been dumped off by less-caring members of our society. Today one lady is gone, but her angling companion continues to visit the pier most mornings. Her tackle is simple, a light pole with a multi-hook rigging—and she still catches fish most of the days. If you see her, stop and say hello. Offer her a word of thanks for her good deeds these many years. If you’re fishing, you might even give her a fish or two.
Best fishing here is generally halfway out on the pier on the left (south) side. Fish with two poles. On the larger pole use a high-low rigging or set up a live bait leader. Live bait is not available at the pier but you can often catch your own, especially small perch and queenfish. Make sure you are using at least
20-pound test line and good strong hooks, size 4 or 2. Use the live bait, or frozen anchovies or squid, for nice sized halibut and guitarfish. On the second and smaller pole, use a high-low leader, size 6 hooks, and a sinker just heavy enough to hold bottom. Anglers desiring yellowfin croaker or barred surfperch should use bloodworms, ghost shrimp or fresh mussels. For queenfish, walleye surfperch, or white croaker, use small strips of anchovy; cast out, be prepared for a strike as soon as the bait settles, and then reel in slowly for best results. For many of the fish, a Lucky Lura type multi-hook leader can be deadly! Use size 6 or 4 hooks for the mackerel, size 6 or 8 hooks for the queenfish, walleye surfperch or jacksmelt—and sometimes you may want to sweeten the hooks with a small strip of anchovy. Inshore, the quantity will be less, but you can often catch some very nice corbina, spotfin croaker, and barred surfperch; use live sand crabs if available, then ghost shrimp, mussels or bloodworms. Watch for depressions that may hold the fish and don’t be afraid to fish in even the shallowest of water; I’ve seen corbina whose backs were practically out of the water.
As mentioned, the far end of the pier will yield some pelagic species, but less than at bigger piers that go out into deeper water, or piers that have live anchovies available for bait. Use Lucky Lura leaders for the mackerel; jigs or feathers behind a cast-a-bubble for the bonito. Try anchovies, bloodworms or scampi-type lures for the bass. Use live bait (small queenfish, shinerperch or walleye surfperch) for the halibut; anchovies, mackerel strips or squid for the larger sharks and rays. Smaller thornback rays, round stingrays and gray smoothhound sharks, all very common, will hit on almost any bottom bait. Be sure to bring a net or a treble-gaff with you, and be sure you know how to use it or have someone with you who can use it. Some truly large guitarfish, bat rays (to 105 pounds), leopard sharks (to about 30 pounds), and halibut can be hooked—and it feels terrible if you lose one of these after a spirited fight.
Unusual catches in the 90s have included a 10-pound striped bass and a 55-pound broomtail grouper.
Live bait is unavailable at this pier, a pier which is one of the top piers for halibut and guitarfish in the state. Go to a tackle shop, buy a live bait drop net, and use it. Proper bait will yield fish here! In addition, bring a fishing license to this pier. There is a seemingly never-ending debate between the City of San Diego and the State of California as to whether or not this pier qualifies as a public pier.
I speak about losing guitarfish from experience. One night, during a stay at the pier in the ‘70s, I decided to go shark fishing. Since the pier isn’t open to the public at night, I was the only angler fishing when, at 4:00 a.m., a truly large guitarfish decided to swallow the squid I was using for bait. It was a great fight but unfortunately the fish, which I had hooked on the south side of the pier, had circled around the end of the pier and was on the north side when I finally got it to the surface of the water. I could see a nearly five-foot-long guitarfish in the light from my flashlight but I had a problem since I was alone and my treble hook gaff was sitting next to the bench on the south side of the pier. Because of the wave action I didn’t want to risk trying to maneuver the fish around the end pilings back to the left. I finally decided to back up and try to reach my gaff while keeping the line taunt, hoping the fish wouldn’t make a new run. It almost worked except that about the time I reached my gaff a large wave surged against the pier, the line stretched tight, there was an abrupt and resounding snap in the line, and the fish was free. I was sick (to the bone) but soon adopted a Taoist-like attitude: (to quote Dylan) perhaps it was a simple twist of fate. It was the proverbial “one that got away” and it still brings back exciting memories after all the years.
The idea for the pier originated with Earl Taylor, a Pacific Beach Realtor of the mid-1920s who was trying to sell property in the then sparsely populated (700 residents) area. Although fairly inexpensive (private lots at $400 and commercial lots at $800-$1,000), Taylor felt he needed a gimmick, something like the amusement piers which had attracted land buyers to Venice and Ocean Park near Los Angeles. He approached Earnest Pickering, owner of the Pickering Pier in Ocean Park, and soon had a partner, both financially and with insights regarding a pier.
In September of 1925, the local Pacific Beach Banner reported that Pickering and an associate, Neil Nettleship, were in town discussing the construction of the pier. The Pickering Pleasure Pier appeared to be on its way, construction started, and additional headlines soon proclaimed, “Pacific Beach: Home of the Million Dollar Pier.” The headlines were a little premature because Pickering soon experienced money troubles of his own and had to back out of the project. Construction stopped!
At this point Nettleship stepped in and, together with the Tye Construction Company, gained ownership of the pier. The pier now became the “Crystal Pier” and Nettleship began to issue stock in the Crystal Pier Amusement Company. A dedication took place a few months later, on April 18, 1926. Festivities included airplane stunt flying, a surfboard riding exhibition, and nail-driving competitions for men and women. The crushing of a huge bottle by one of the pier’s pile drivers marked the official christening.
Although dedicated, the pier and its amusements would not be finished until the following summer. On the July 4 weekend of 1927, the 950-foot-long pier opened as the “Crystal Pleasure Pier Ballroom and Joy Zone,” an opening heralded in both the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. The main attraction was the towered ballroom that sat out at the end of the pier. The ballroom was built in a sort of 1920s Aztec architecture and featured a cork-cushioned dance floor and a crystal ball, high up above the dance floor, which gave the pier its name. Other attractions included an amusement midway with the ever present arcade.
The attractions were short lived. From day one the pier rocked in an unsettling manner and visitors to the ballroom complained of queasiness from the rocking and the swaying lights (which prompted Nettleship to run piano wire through lights and wall fixtures). The initial problem was insufficient bracing that caused the pier to sway in all but the mildest surf. Of greater importance was the condition of the piles. The non-creosote pilings were rapidly being destroyed by marine borers. The pier and ballroom were soon condemned.
After extensive suits between the different parties, the U.S. National Bank foreclosed on the pier and Nettleship was out of the picture. Eventually the bank spent $10,000 replacing pilings, built a 500-foot extension and remodeled the pier. On April 19, 1936, almost exactly ten years after the initial dedication, a new and remodeled pier, complete with ten motel cottages and a soda fountain, opened for vacationers. Souvenir postcards from the day mentioned free pier fishing and tackle for rent—for the princely sum of 25 cents. The cards also mentioned a daily and monthly prize for the big fish. The new pier and motel quickly became a favorite for those coming to the beach to escape the heat of the inland areas.
The pier was sold in 1948 and then again in 1949. For much of the fifties the pier seemed to be in a slow decline. Then, in 1961, the pier was refurbished and given its now familiar blue and white colors. Cottages were also restored and redecorated.
Open 7 to 7 (or sunset) for visitors, 24 hours a day for those staying in the pier motel.
Restrooms, one cleaning station, some benches, and limited night lighting. Some bait and tackle is available at the pier office. Parking can be a problem! Metered parking is available on the side street at the foot of the pier if you can find it. This is a popular area for beach go’ers and surfers and they just don’t seem to realize they should leave the parking spaces for the fishermen. Arriving any time after the early morning hours simply means you must look around for a space. Do not park in the nearby parking lots that have posted warnings—they mean it and will not hesitate to have your car towed away.
None. The surface is wood planking and the railing is approximately 40 inches high.
Take I-5 to Garnet Ave. then take Garnet to the foot of the pier.
City of San Diego and Crystal Pier Motel.