Students of history should remember that Friday, November 22, 1963 was the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For those who were alive during those days, the weekend that followed was a haunting melodrama still vivid more than thirty-five years later. At Imperial Beach, people’s emotions were torn. Saturday was the official opening day for the new pier and festivities were planned—but it is hard to be festive when the nation is in mourning.
Nevertheless, the pier did open and people quickly began to catch fish. Within two weeks, anglers had landed a 20 pound halibut, five pound bonito, 4 3/4 pound sculpin (scorpionfish) and a six-foot-long leopard shark. Build it and they will come; that saying could apply to this pier. When fishing is good, they (the anglers) will come. Unfortunately, depending on one’s viewpoint, the success of a few fishermen resulted in unbelievable crowds during those first few weeks. As many as 3,000 anglers lined the rails, shoulder to shoulder. A tram operation scheduled for the pier even had to change its plans because of the crowding on the pier.
Stories about the pier appeared regularly in the local papers and a young angler named Ken Jones, recently transplanted from Newport Beach and the Newport Pier, began to visit and fish the pier. Action, although generally good, was rarely great. Better fishing seemed to exist north at Crystal Pier or in the bay at Shelter Island. Nevertheless, it became one of the piers I would visit during my high school and college days.
This is the southernmost pier in California (and the city proclaims that it is the “Most Southwesterly City in the U.S.”). It is within walking distance of the Mexican border and displays on most days a beautiful view of the Los Coronados Islands just off to the southwest.
The pier is located on a long sandy beach, has short finger jetties to the north, and extends out 1,491 feet into water that is nearly 20 feet deep. Several fish attractants exist under and around the pier. Pilings have a heavy growth of mussels and an artificial, half-moon shaped, rock reef was constructed near the end of the pier in 1964. Later, after a barge accidentally spilled a large load of boulders, an additional, although unplanned, reef was added to the mix. Fish here are the normal southern California sandy-shore species but mixed in are species attracted by the reefs and the deeper and calmer water found at the far end of the pier.
Inshore, there are barred surfperch, California corbina, yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, thornbacks, stingrays, guitarfish and an occasional halibut. Midway out will find more white croaker, queenfish, walleye surfperch, jacksmelt, halibut, sand sharks (gray smoothhound sharks) and guitarfish. The far end may yield all of these but will also see a scattering of more pelagic species such as bonito, mackerel, small barracuda, and even an occasional yellowtail or white seabass. Deeper water also seems to be best for the larger sharks and bat rays. Fishing down around the pilings can often yield a fat pileperch or rubberlip seaperch.
At times, this can be a fairly good pier for halibut and, at the right time of the year, it sometimes yields good catches of sand bass which spawn in the sandy flats south of the town.
Best fishing here is behind the surf line (or in it) and about half way out where the pier begins an upward slope. This surf area is one of the better places to take both barred surfperch and California corbina; it also yields a lot of yellowfin and spotfin croaker. On most any day you’ll see the knowledgeable “regulars” fishing the inshore area; newcomers seem to head automatically out to the end. The best bait is live sand crabs or fresh mussels but ghost shrimp and bloodworms can also be productive. Winter and early spring are the best times for the barred surfperch, while summer and fall are the best times for the croakers. Nighttime, during an incoming tide, is almost always best for all of the large croakers, especially a high tide of five feet or greater.
The second best area is halfway out on the pier and primarily yields the smaller queenfish (called herring), white croaker (called tom cod) and jacksmelt. The water here can harbor huge concentrations of fish and almost every day will see whole families catching (or snagging) the small fish. The best rig for these fish is a multi-hook rigging (your own or a Lucky Lura type) but a single, size 8 or 6 hook on the end of a slightly weighted line, baited with a small strip of anchovy or squid, will often yield larger queenfish and walleye surfperch. Anglers jigging with small crappie jigs (generally white or yellow) also show impressive bags of medium to large size queenfish. This mid-pier area is also one of the best areas for halibut with most of the flatties hitting from the late spring until the early autumn months. Best baits are live baits and a small queenfish, white croaker, or smelt, just might light up the eyes of a hungry fish.
Down around the pilings, or in the depressions between the pilings, are areas that can yield some of the largest perch. Both pileperch and rubberlip seaperch will fall to fresh mussels or bloodworms fished on small, size 6-8 hooks. Try different depths, but most of the perch are usually caught a few feet beneath the surface of the water. Watch your leader closely to prevent it from being washed into the pilings and their leader-grabbing mussels.
Although some sharks are caught at the pier, the number isn’t large and neither are most of the sharks. But that doesn’t stop the stories. One day my son Mike and I were calmly catching fish at this pier when a stranger walked up and asked if we minded sharing the area. Of course we didn’t, and it turned out to be a wise decision. We were enthralled as we listened to some of the most interesting stories we had heard in a long, long time. The stories involved tuna boats, helicopter jobs (and crashes) in Africa, spies, insurance fraud and similar far ranging subjects. The veracity of the stories was unclear but the forceful and flamboyant nature of the storyteller was never in doubt. He said he lived nearby and was out on the pier to catch a tiger shark. “You know” he said, “a number of huge sharks have been caught off of this pier.” To catch them he came equipped with a truly heavy marlin pole, a huge Penn reel, and a wire leader equipped with, I would guess, about a 16-0 hook. He stuck a whole mackerel on the hook, tried to cast it out (not too successfully), sat down on the lawn chair he had brought, opened a beer, and then regaled us with his stories. After an hour, and no bites, he bid adieu! Large sharks can be caught here, most often blues or threshers, but you only need medium to heavy tackle, not the monster tackle he possessed.
Another time, Mike and myself were fishing out toward the end the pier and catching far too many mackerel. In fact, we became somewhat bored given the ease with which we were catching fish. We finally decided to move to the shallower waters to see if we could catch some croakers or perch.
Just inshore from the restroom area stood a small ‘lady’ catching queenfish. She would cast out her leader, a multi-hook affair, let it bump the bottom, give a couple of jerks, and pull in a fish on nearly every cast. We fished next to her for ten minutes without a fish. Finally, this famous expert/author wandered over to her to see what she was using. She said she had the right jigs! The leaders were homemade and she sold them for $2 each. Unwilling to be further embarrassed, two of the leaders were purchased.
Author and son tied on the leaders and soon both were catching the queenfish; although the first fish caught was a small bonito that had the unfortunate audacity to strike the leader. Each leader had a number of green-colored flies with size 4 gold-colored hooks. I’ve used similar multi-hook leaders, and seen others use similar leaders, but I had never seen any leader work quite as well as those which this little ‘lady’ made.
This is also the only ocean pier where I’ve seen anglers using bow and arrows to fish. The anglers (if you can call them anglers) primarily shoot halibut, corbina, guitarfish, and large mullet in the inshore surf area. There has been some opposition to this practice from surfers and the authorities threaten to stop these enthusiasts but so far it still seems to be legal. By the way, the surfers are not supposed to be anywhere near the pier. However, they claim that currents make it hard for them to stay away from the pier.
A curfew is enforced in the area from 10 p.m. till 5 a.m.
Restrooms, fish-cleaning stations, benches, and night lighting. Some free parking is available on adjacent streets. A parking lot is situated nearly at the foot of the pier; cost is $2 for all day except after 5 p.m. when there is a charge of only $1.
Several handicapped parking spaces are found near the front of the pier as are the restrooms which offer handicapped facilities. The surface is wood planking and the railings are 41 inches high.
From I-5 take the Palm Ave. (Hwy. 75) exit and follow it to where Palm Ave. and Hwy. 75 divide. Follow Palm Ave. to Seacoast Dr., turn left and it will take you right to the pier.
San Diego Unified Port District.