Pier Fishing in California

Resources :: California Fishing Piers

Gaviota Pier

Back in 1769, soldiers of the Portola Expedition shot a seagull at this windy spot and then named their campsite “La Gaviota” (Spanish for seagull). Today, there is still a lot of wind, a lot of sea gulls, many, many campsites and this popular small pier.
A mid-summer visit in 1990 was one of my most interesting sojourns to this pier. Like most anglers, I had started fishing in an area just outside the breakers and was hoping for a halibut (yes, I was fishing for the halibut). I had two poles and the heavier one was my halibut pole. The light pole was my potpourri pole; it was baited with small hooks and small baits. I had caught nothing on my heavier outfit. I had caught a small kelp rockfish and an under-sized kelp bass on the light pole. Since nothing much seemed to be biting in the areas I was fishing, I decided to move out to the mid-pier area.

It was obvious why no one was fishing this area. Mid-pier to the end of the pier the water was virtually covered with kelp. In fact, it looked like a pier had been plopped down in the middle of a kelp forest. I decided to try my light outfit among the leaves and stalks of the giant kelp and hoped that if I hooked a large fish I would be able to keep it out of the kelp. Soon, I had a hard hit and after a short struggle, I hauled in a giant kelpfish nearly 20 inches long (they grow to 24 inches). It was the only kelpfish I was to catch that trip. Unfortunately, I had used the last of the mussel bait and was unable to get the fish to strike any other bait.

But the fish were there. A small school of tiny pinhead anchovies lazily swam around the kelp; whenever they neared a leaf a kelpfish would dart out and attack the school. Some of the kelpfish were bright red, some purple, some a bright green. Watching closely I could see the fish dart in and out, then retreat quickly to the protection of the kelp. I could also see bright red crabs on the stalks and every so often a larger perch or bass would dash in among the kelpfish. I’m convinced that if I would have had proper bait—fresh mussels, bloodworms, or small crabs, I could have caught a good “mess” of fish. Unfortunately, I had neither proper bait nor the time to get any, I had to move on.


The pier is the last of the warm-water southern California piers and is part of Gaviota State Park. Approximately 15 miles away sits Point Conception (called by early day sailors the Cape Horn of the Pacific due to the treacherous northwest gales that sweep around the headland), the traditional dividing line between the warm water south and the cold water north. In addition, the coastline begins a north-south orientation instead of the east-west direction common for much of southern California’s coastal areas. The pier itself faces due south, is edged on the west by rocky bluffs and has a small sandy-beach surf area just to the east. Some years will see a dense growth of kelp surrounding much of the pier; other years will see little kelp.

The surf area produces good catches of barred surfperch, rays and sharks. Just outside the surf area, where water is free of kelp, is the spot most often fished for halibut and quite a few are landed every year. In the same area, but especially around kelp and the pilings, anglers will land small rockfish, bass, seaperch and an occasional sculpin (scorpionfish). The far end yields more pelagics: mackerel, bonito and jacksmelt. The deeper water is also better for the bigger sharks.

Fishing Tips

Inshore, the surf area will produce barred surfperch for anglers using sand crabs, pile worms or bloodworms, fresh mussels or clams. The same area and baits will also yield some black seaperch, rubberlip seaperch, kelp rockfish, grass rockfish, brown rockfish, and a few kelp bass. Although the bottom is sandy, the kelp works to attract rock-frequenting species. The same fish, as well as pileperch, can be caught around the pilings themselves by using a high/low leader and size 6 or 4 hooks baited with mussel. Snag lines will also work here, but the most common fish will be shinerperch, kelp seaperch, small walleye surfperch, and jacksmelt.

Just outside the surf area is the spot for halibut. Although most anglers will use a whole or cut anchovy on the bottom, live bait (small smelt, tom cod or shinerperch) is more productive. Another technique is to troll your bait along the bottom if the pier isn’t too crowded. Simply keep your line taut and walk along the edge of the pier. The halibut like to lie near the pier, especially in the depressions between the pilings. Of course be careful not to tangle your line in the pilings, and also be ever alert for the soft mouthing of a halibut. Generally they like to take the bait and move it around a bit in their mouth before they really strike. Be prepared! The same technique can be used quite effectively with a Scrounger-type lure.

Further out on the pier, areas in the water are sometimes covered with kelp. When this happens, it takes care and patience to fish the spots between the fronds of kelp. Use a small size 6-8 hook, mussels or seaworms for bait, and fish right around the kelp. Seaperch, kelp bass, opaleye, halfmoon, and more exotic species like kelpfish and senorita will often bite.

The far end will often yield mackerel and sometimes bonito, most often on artificial lures, feathers, spoons or multi-hook bait rigs like a Lucky Joe/Lucky Lura/Sabinki Rigs. Kelp bass can also be taken on lures and surprisingly some years will see quite a few lizardfish hitting the artificials. I have experienced some absolutely unbelievable catches of mackerel off the far right corner but almost anywhere at the end can be good when the macs are running (as well as jack mackerel and sardines).

Lastly, more and more families staying in the campground are becoming nighttime shark anglers. They will fish to the early hours of the morning and then simply walk the short distance to their tents or campers when ready for bed. The pier has turned out to be a better-than-average producer of sharks and rays. Included are such species as round sting rays, thornback rays, bat rays, guitarfish (shovelnose shark), leopard sharks, thresher sharks, spiny dogfish, angel sharks and horn sharks.

This nighttime angling is often a special treat. Entire families will be out on the end of the pier. A few lanterns may be present (although there are some lights on the pier), and there will inevitably be a radio playing. (Hopefully, it will be playing some reasonable music or be tuned to a ballgame). Off in the distance will be the lights from the offshore oil wells and circling around the pier will be the birds that gave the area its name. Every so often an angler will hook a shark or ray; those present run to the railing, shine their flashlights down into the dark water, and then shriek out an identity as the fish comes into view. If in luck, the angler will be able to land the fish and then the story of “Jaws” and comparisons with past “monsters” begin. (Shark fishing, by the way, isn’t new here. An old newspaper story, dated September, 1876, reports a shark being shot near Gaviota that measured over 10 feet in length. More recently there were reports of a large great white shark, estimated at nine feet in length, that was chasing schools of bait fish—mackerel and jacksmelt—around the pier. No one hooked the giant fish but several gave it a try. Hard to say how they would have landed it if they hooked it.).

History Note

In 1874, a 1,000-foot-long wharf was built on this site for Colonel William Hollister and the Dibblee brothers (who had also loaned money and influence for the construction of Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara). Their pier reached water which was 25 feet deep at the end of the wharf and it was considered one of the safest local shipping ports. Because of its safety record, the Gaviota Landing became a weekly destination for the coastal San Francisco steamers. The area around the wharf also became an important area with early records recording a considerable business, primarily in livestock, wool, farm produce and lumber. That wharf was destroyed by a storm in 1912. Of interest are early records (1883) which report that “a peculiarity of this wharf, or rather this location, is a strong off-shore wind, a cold blast always coming down the pass; consequently no vessel is thrown against the shore.” Yes, it was windy even then.

The current pier was originally built as a crash boat pier by the Navy in 1943. Records show that it was 420-foot-long but newspaper accounts, dated 1953, reported a proposal to lengthen it by 210 feet so that it would reach out into deeper water. It was evidently remodeled in 1953 and repaired again in 1987. Damage to the pier and parking lot from the El Nino storms in the winter of 1998 necessitated closing the park for a period of time. When it finally was reopened, only the front half of the pier was available to anglers. The pier did not open to its full length until May of 2000. Today the pier is owned and operated by the state and the listed length is 529 feet.



Day use is 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Campers can fish all night.


The pier has a few lights, fish-cleaning facilities, and a boat launch. Just down the hill from the pier are restrooms, parking, a general store which has both snacks and bait and tackle, and the campground. The pier is in Gaviota State Park; the day-use fee is $5.

Handicapped Facilities

Handicapped parking and restrooms. The pier surface is wood and the rail height is 42 inches. Posted for handicapped.

How To Get There

From Highway 101 simply take the Gaviota State Park turnoff.


California Department of Parks and Recreation.