Pier Fishing in California

Resources :: California Fishing Piers

Morro Bay Pier

Imagine that you are on a small pier in Morro Bay during a mid-August night. It was foggy and cold just 20 minutes ago, but now the fog has lifted and it has turned into shirtsleeve weather-at 9 o’clock at night. It is starting to get dark, but the Coast Guard ship anchored next to the dock has its lights turned on and they illuminate the water. Strangely, the water appears red, as red as blood. Red tide? No, not likely! It is actually thousands of small bocaccio which seem to literally cover the surface of the water. Dropping a small jig into their mass produces a fish on every cast-but soon you grow tired of that. So you drop a leader down to the bottom, when you can get through the bocaccio. Now, every cast produces a small, under-sized lingcod. They are evidently as thick as the bocaccio up above. It would seem like an angler’s paradise except that the fish are too small and there simply isn’t any challenge. You finally tie on a heavier sinker, put bigger hooks on your leader, and cast out from the pier to the less productive water away from the pier. It’s a tough decision, but someone has to make it. It still seems hard to believe, but that is a realistic portrayal of one of my visits to the North T-pier in Morro Bay.
North T-Pier and South T-Pier

Named for their shape, both of these piers are near the west end of the Embarcadero. The environment and fishing are nearly identical.

Environment

Both T-piers are working piers which offer space to both recreational and commercial anglers. Most recreational fishing, however, takes place on the North T-pier, even though parts of the pier are off limits to anglers. The North T-Pier extends out 180 feet into the bay and then has a 400-foot-wide end. The South T-Pier is a little longer at 256 feet, but has a similar 400-foot-wide end. Water around both piers ranges in depth from shallow at shoreline areas to fairly deep when casting out from the outermost edge.

Both piers experience heavy tidal activity and currents which can limit your ability to fish. At times, when the current is very strong, you may want to fish straight down, adjacent to the pier pilings; the alternative would be to use a heavier sinker than is normally recommended. Sometimes the strong current is combined with heavy amounts of grass torn free from the bay bottom. When such a condition exists it is nearly impossible to fish. Every time you drop your line down into the water it will be quickly covered by the eel grass floating in the water. On such days, move over to Cayucos. Luckily, most of the time the water around the piers is more conducive to fishing.

A good variety of fish can be caught. Most common are perch, jacksmelt, and small rockfish. Perch species include walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, blackperch, rubberlip seaperch, calico surfperch, and shinerperch The most common rockfish will be kelp rockfish (grass bass), gopher rockfish (grass bass), brown rockfish (bolina), blue rockfish, and bocaccio (remember their limit), although I’ve also caught some small, juvenile vermilion and copper rockfish during the summer months. Joining in the fun on the bottom will be a few small cabezon and lingcod. During the summer and fall, there will be occasional flurries of action as schools of Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel and sardines move through the area. Casting out from the end can yield all of these species, but that area is often more productive for a variety of bottom species, fish such as turbot, sole, flounder, halibut, sharks and rays. Non-fish species you may encounter include rock crabs and spider crabs as well as an occasional octopus, especially if fishing down around the pilings.

Fishing Tips

When fishing the stems, the areas leading out to the end, the best set-up seems to be a light outfit, hooks size 6 or 8. These are baited with worms, small pieces of shrimp or mussel. Fish mid-depth or near the top for walleye and silver surfperch; fish near the bottom for blackperch, rubberlip seaperch, rockfish and flatfish. A snag-line, Lucky Lura-type bait rigging or a small jig, is often most productive if schools of sardines, jacksmelt, Pacific mackerel, or jack mackerel show up.

Fishing the bottom, off of the end, seems most productive with either a sliding bait rig or a high/low leader. Use a size 4 or 2 hook and use anchovy, clam, ghost shrimp or seaworms for bait. Spring will yield the larger perch and perhaps a few halibut; summer and fall yield the smaller perch, small to medium sized rockfish, jacksmelt, pelagic species like sardines and mackerel, and a few halibut, sharks and rays. Winter and spring will yield the greatest number of starry flounder, some pileperch, jacksmelt and a few rockfish.

Although I’ve never seen too many “shark” fishermen on the pier at night, these bay waters are considered excellent for leopard sharks, brown smoothhound sharks, and bat rays (and the pier is reputed to be a hot spot for big rays). A bloody piece of mackerel seems best for the sharks while the bat rays prefer squid. A 95-pound skate (I assume it was a big skate) was caught at the pier Christmas week of ‘99.

Author’s Note

Although tidal conditions can sometimes make this pier unfishable, the waters around this pier can also offer almost unbelievable action (as seen in the story of the bocaccio and lingcod already listed). One such occurrence happened in July of 1994 during my annual summer trip along the coast. My initial stops, at San Simeon and Cayucos, were dismal. However, a young boy at Cayucos mentioned that anglers were catching sardines at the Morro Bay Wharf so I decided to head over and check out the action.

When I arrived, the wharf was jammed with anglers, but they were having a hard time fishing. The current was extremely strong and the main catch on the angler’s multi-hook riggings was seaweed. I decided to have some lunch and then see if the conditions had improved.

Less than an hour later I was back at the wharf. The current had slackened and adrenalized anglers were now hauling in fish. Looking down into the water revealed an amazing sight. A vast school of fish-Pacific sardines, jack mackerel, and Pacific mackerel, seemed to clog the narrow channel that sits between the pier and shore. Anglers would cast out, begin to retrieve their line, and watch their poles begin to jerk as the fish hit. Sometimes a single fish was hooked, sometimes it was two or three. Almost always a string of fish would follow the leader to the surface. Most exciting however were the fairly huge sea lions and the somewhat smaller harbor seals that also seemed to clog the waterway. They would emerge out of the depths and never fail to startle a few of the younger anglers. And, likely as not, a fish or two would be grasped in the seal’s mouth.

The fish were as thickly packed in the water as (simile time) sardines in a can and the stem of the pier reminded one of the opening day at an urban trout pond; too many anglers and not enough space. It was a savage scene, as humans and seals contested for the fish. Nevertheless, I joined the mob and less than two hours of fishing produced 125 fish (although most were returned to the water). For some it was fantabulous fun; as to myself, I left somewhat embarrassed.

Three weeks later I was once again on Highway 101, this time heading north. I had just finished my most productive trip ever to the southern California piers, I was a little fished out (although that almost seems an oxymoron), and I was anxious to get home. But out of curiosity, I decided to swing over from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay. People were still catching fish! I decided to fish for one hour to get some fresh bait to take home. That one hour produced 81 fish and a new feeling of guilt as I repacked my rod and reel. I don’t know how long the fish were present that summer, or how many fish were caught, but the numbers seem scary when discussing the normal decrease in fish along the coast.

However, I guess that guilt had passed by the time I noticed a post on the PFIC Message Board telling of similar fishing at the bay in August of 2002. An angler reported that the sardines and jacksmelt were packing the bay and that she had caught nearly 200 fish. Being nearly a hundred degrees in The Valley, I headed down to Morro Bay for some cool weather and, hopefully, hot fishing, reminiscent of the 1994 trip. Turned out to be right on both counts. Arrived in town at fifteen to five, immediately enjoyed the chill from the fog, and was on the pier at five. Not as crowded as the previous trip but the fish were there- vast schools of jacksmelt and sardines. In the waters near the shore a huge school of jacksmelt (horse smelt size fish 12-16” in length) were tempting the anglers. In the open water near the edge of the pier the school of fish was mixed, both jacksmelt and sardines. Cast out a Sabiki bait rig, let it settle briefly, then pull it in-strong pull, slack, strong pull, slack, and sardines would generally hit. One, two or three fish at a time. Cast closer to the pier, let the line sink a little deeper, and then pull in slowly with a jiggle or two and the result was a jacksmelt, perhaps two, or even three at a time. Just over two hours fishing produced 152 fish-103 sardines, 48 jacksmelt and a little cabezon who bit a bottom hook.

Later that same night I returned after a visit to Cayucos. Arriving at the well lit corner by the Coast Guard boat, I was immediately intrigued by the sight. Eel grass had piled up near the pilings and the boat but in the middle of the grass was an open water circle of space approximately 30 feet in diameter. Near the top of the water were small bait fish packed fairly tight and herded by what appeared to be 6-8 inch bocaccio. The bocaccio would dart up from the depth every so often and make sure the school of bait fish kept in a circular swimming pattern. Every few minutes, the school of jacksmelt, thousands of fish, would sweep through the area deeper down in the water, probably about ten feet or so under the surface. The school would turn as one and move on to reappear a few minutes later. I decided to cast my light line (rigged with two small hooks and pile worms) toward the weeds and let it drift under the weeds closer to the pilings. The result for an hour’s fishing time: 3 kelp rockfish, 2 vermilion rockfish, a lone gopher rockfish, a single brown rockfish and several shinerperch and jacksmelt. Nature at its best! And although it was cool, it was warmer at 11 p.m. than at 5 p.m.

A final, short visit took place the next afternoon after fishing at Avila and Pismo Beach. This time I used the two hook and pile worm approach and pulled in 25 large jacksmelt in an hour’s time (and all were released). Less fish but all big, horse smelt, tackle bustin’ fish (slight exaggeration there). However, by the second day the temperature at the bay was as hot as the fishing so I couldn’t avoid the heat. Headed back to Lodi with a small chest of sardines and an even larger measure of guilt. What was I doing catching so many fish even if most were released back into the water? But it was fun.

Author’s Note 2

Although I knew that alien species were common in the larger California bays that harbor ocean going cargo liners, I didn’t realize they had invaded the smaller bays until a visit here in 1999. I noticed a sign telling of the invasion of Morro Bay waters by two different worrisome species. One is the Tortellini slug (Philine auriforamis), a 2-inch-long sea slug from New Zealand that feeds on small clams and barrel snails in the bay. The other intruder is the European green crab (Carcinus maenas) which is causing havoc along the coast all the way from California to Washington.

Author’s Note 3

The state record barred surfperch is recorded from Morro Bay (although tied with a fish from Oxnard). The fish weighed 4 lb 2 oz and was caught on November 8, 1995.

History Note

Both piers were built in 1942. The North T-Pier was repaired in 1953 and the South T-Pier in 1982 and 1988 (after a fire destroyed much of the pier). The first piers in Morro Bay were built by Franklin Riley who developed the Embarcadero area as well as a wharf for shipping local produce. That first wharf, built in 1870, was joined by a larger wharf in 1873 and a railroad pier shortly thereafter.

Facts

Hours

Open 24 hours a day.

Facilities

Free public parking is available adjacent to both piers. Restrooms, a bait and tackle shop, and restaurants are adjacent to the North T-pier. Fish-cleaning stations are unavailable at either pier.

Handicapped Facilities

North Pier-Handicapped restrooms and quite a bit of free public parking near the pier (but no marked handicapped parking spaces). The pier surface is wood railing with no rail although there is a 7.5 inch high curb. Posted for handicapped. South Pier -No handicapped parking or restrooms. The pier surface is wood planking with no rail but a 7.5 inch curb exists fairly close to the edge. Posted for handicapped.

How To Get There

From Highway 1 turn south onto Main Street, follow it to Morro Bay Boulevard, turn left toward the bay and follow it to Embarcadero, turn right and follow Embarcadero to the end of the public parking which adjoins the piers.

Management

City of Morro Bay.