I should have been there (but I wasn’t). The date was July 2, 1966, the official opening day for the Ocean Beach Pier. Included in the 7,000 people who crowded the pier that day were local politicians, city officials (including Mayor Curran), and the main man, California’s governor, Edmund G. Brown who was scheduled to make the first cast from the pier. The San Diego Union reported the next day that Brown borrowed an angler’s rod, fished for five minutes, failed to catch a fish, and returned the rod. The angler decided to move! Just a short distance away, a large white cabin cruiser circled slowly around the front of the pier. On the side of the boat was a large banner reading “Reagan for governor” (and Reagan would defeat Brown that November). It must have been a sight!
The first fish reported caught that day was an 8-inch sunfish (but since sunfish are freshwater fish, it was probably a perch of some type); next in line was a gray shark and then a crab. Not very impressive but a start.
When it opened, this pier promised to be one of the premier piers in the entire state. It was long, providing nearly a mile of railing space, had full facilities, and it jutted out into the Point Loma kelp beds, one of the finest fishing areas in southern California. Anglers had visions of not only the smaller pier species but also larger game fish like barracuda, yellowtail (generally 5-10 pound firecracker size), white seabass and perhaps even a few giant black sea bass. Alas, it still remains just a promise. The fishing here is much like that of the first day, fair to good but generally unexceptional.
At 1,971 feet the Ocean Beach Pier is supposed to be the longest concrete pier in the world. It also has a T-shape at the end extending 360 feet to the south end and 193 feet to the north end. The far end extends into the Point Loma kelp bed and is blanketed by kelp much of the year. This can attract some kelp resident species but can also cause a lot of tangles, usually at the most inopportune time—such as when you have a large fish attached to the end of your line. At this far end, where the water is 25 feet deep, the most common species are kelp bass, sand bass, several variety of perch, bonito, mackerel, scorpionfish, halibut and, quite often, California lobster. Occasionally a black sea bass (giant sea bass) will also pass through this area. In August of 1997, a 9-pound baby black was caught and quickly released back into the water. Who knows, mama and papa blackie also might be around.
Midway out, on both sides of the bait shop, is the best area for the smaller white croaker, queenfish, jacksmelt, walleye surfperch, barracuda, mackerel and white seabass (usually the small, illegal, juvenile fish called sea trout). This area also seems to yield the majority of halibut (spring to summer), guitarfish and bat rays; it was in this area that I once caught a nearly 4-foot-wide California butterfly ray (Gymnura marmorata). Another day I got an uncommon, just barely 6-inch-long deepbody anchovy (Anchoa compressa) that hit a bait rig intended for mackerel. I believe there is a reef on the north side of the pier in this area and that probably explains why a majority of the fish are taken on that side.
Inshore, the foot of the pier is built over a rocky cliff area and, although shallow, its location presents exposure to many of the rocky shore species. Here, if tidal conditions are right, high tide with small breakers, anglers can often catch rubberlip seaperch, blackperch, halfmoon, opaleye, bass and less common pier species such as senorita and blacksmith. Anglers fishing at night might also latch onto a moray eel. This shallow area is also a good area for lobster.
The pier receives a lot of angling pressure (more than 500,000 visitor-days of use per year) but, because of the length of the pier with more than a mile of railing space, it rarely feels crowded. Regulars used to include such characters as Halibut Harry, Bonito Man, Buffalo Kid and Big Mama, but the cast and names change with the times.
Something that doesn’t seem to change are the antics of the sea gulls. Never leave your bait unattended because they will quickly swoop down and grab anchovies or similar baits. Best to cut a piece of bait and then put it back into a cooler.
A final important consideration regarding the environment is the behavior on the pier. One visitor to my web site reported that a popular California fishing guide mentioned that it was unsafe to visit this pier at night due to unruly thugs. This was news to me! Although I had spent many a long night on the pier back in the ‘60s, recent trips had rarely extended beyond 10 p.m. In checking with the local “experts” it is fairly apparent that there were some problems in the mid-’90s due to transients using the pier at night for their motel lodgings. However, tactics changed. The police now use bicycles to patrol the pier (thus not tipping off their arrival), and 24-hour parking has been set up adjacent to the pier which seems to cut down the number of people on the pier at night. Also, and this was a big factor, no alcohol is allowed on the beach or on the pier. Thus it is generally safe to visit the pier at night.
At the far end of the pier, in the deepest water, are found some of the biggest fish. This is the best area to catch bonito when they show up and generally is the area where you will encounter yellowtail (the years they make an appearance). If the ‘tails do show up, it is generally between July-October. If trying for bonito, use a bonito feather behind a plastic bubble. Best bait for the yellowtail is a still lively jack mackerel or Pacific mackerel (small) that you’ve caught with a bait rig. A second technique is to try a leadhead jig which has a strip of mackerel 1 1/2 inches long by 1/2 inch wide attached to the hook. A third approach is artificial lures by themselves and anchovy lures, crippled anchovy lures, and Krocodiles get quite a few votes from the locals. Both bonito and yellowtail can also sometimes be caught on live smelt fished with a sliding leader or on a leader with a bobber or float.
If you’re after Pacific mackerel, the most common rigging is a single size 4 or 2 hook baited with a strip of squid or a piece of mackerel. A few feet above the hook is a small splitshot sinker. Next best is a bait rig-type leader (Pescadero, Lucky Lura, and Lucky Joe are three types). The bait rig is also good if Spanish mackerel (jack mackerel) show up. I’ve heard reports, but never seen them, of a few bullet mackerel (Auxis rachei) being landed at the pier during warm water years. The bait rigs are also good when schools of jacksmelt show up. If you are specifically going after perch, use a small strip of anchovy, fresh mussel, or seaworm on a high/low leader with size 6 hooks.
Some of the biggest sharks and rays are also caught in this area. Best bait is squid or a piece of bloody mackerel fished on the bottom; be sure to use fairly strong (30+) test line and tackle. Shovelnose guitarfish, bat rays, and some of the bigger sharks (like threshers) are common. As is true at almost every pier, the night time hours are the best if you’re seeking these denizens of the deep. A reputed hot spot for the shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) is the left branch at the very end of the pier. One angler reported that a right side corner-cast, as far out as you can cast at a 45 degree angle, often produced large shovelnose sharks, many exceeding 30 pounds in size. This is the same spot that produced a number of 2-4 pound sheephead in May of 1998.
Sand bass, calico bass (kelp bass), sculpin (scorpionfish) and halibut are possibilities while fishing on the bottom or at mid-depth levels out at the end of the pier. I also received a report of a 4-foot-long moray eel taken from this area in May of ‘99 together with a large sheephead and a large reddish-colored fish which remains unidentified. One angler (who specializes on seeking out rockfish and sheephead) reported that he has caught flag, olive, calico and tree rockfish from the end of the pier and twice caught starry rockfish, normally a fairly deep-water species. An occasional cabezon will also enter the catch.
When fishing midway out on the pier, your best bet for the larger species is once again live bait. Halibut will often lay in the depressions between the pilings while eyeing the schools of small queenfish and walleye surfperch up above (and a 38-pound flattie was landed in August of 1998). Catch the queenfish (herring) and walleyes with multi-hook bait rig leaders (size 6 or 8), or make your own snag line (tie 3-4 small hooks directly to your line, about four inches apart). Fish the snag line unbaited, or sweeten it with a small strip of anchovy (or a very small live pinhead anchovy or smelt). A lot of shovelnose guitarfish and bat rays will also be hanging out in these waters feeding on the queenfish (and a 57-pound shovelnose was reported in July of ‘99).
Some years will also see fairly good runs of sargo in this area; try a high/low rigging baited with pieces of shrimp, ghost shrimp, bloodworms or fresh mussels. The mid-pier area is also where I have caught most of my barracuda. Most of these are caught at night near the lighted areas and usually are caught on either live bait or a gold or silver spoon like a Kastmaster.
Quite often you will find both sides of the pier loaded with anglers in this area, especially both sides of the bait shop and restaurant. Many are whole families fishing for small herring (queenfish) and they will fill buckets with the small but tasty fish. There is not a limit on the fish and it’s a good thing for them because at times they will have hundreds of fish.
A short way out on the pier, just past the breaker area, and where the pier surface ends its descent and begins to level off, is a large, green colored wire cage. This area, primarily on the north side, seems to yield a lot of leopard sharks, some of which have been pretty decent in size (including a 57-inch, 36-pound leopard in September 1997). Fish on the bottom using squid, mackerel or similar strong flavored (and smelling) bait. Don’t be surprised if you also see a few shovelnose guitarfish, thornback rays, round stingrays and (mostly small) bat rays in this area.
Inshore, try using either fresh mussels or seaworms making sure to keep your hook small, usually size 6 or 8. If the tide is right, you may be able to hook some rubberlip seaperch, blackperch, halfmoon, opaleye, senorita or blacksmith in this shallow area near the rocks on the south side. For some nice size opaleye, try using frozen peas which have been allowed to thaw; place just enough peas on the hook to cover the hook. Fishing on the north side of the pier may yield a few barred surfperch but generally action is slower than at piers built over strictly sandy bottoms.
Sometimes the big ‘uns are lost. In August of 1998 an angler lost a HUGE bat ray which most of the locals felt had to be in the 200-pound range. They said the wings appeared to be 8-foot across but even though it was hooked with two separate treble-hook-gaffs, the anglers couldn’t get the mammoth fish up onto the pier and eventually it was lost. I’ve also heard reports, although they’re unverified, of an angler catching a diamond stingray (Dasyatis dispterura) which was nearly 5-foot in length and 100 pounds in weight.
Since it is a long way out to the end of the pier, most regulars have constructed carriers on wheels which can hold their rods and reels, tackle box, bait bucket (be sure to bring one here) and any other miscellaneous materials they need.
Live bait, especially live anchovies are the best bait by far for most species. But increasingly, as the years go by, less and less live anchovies are available at bait shops. That luckily isn’t the case here; most of the time anchovies and/or sardines are available for bait. However, sometimes that isn’t the case. What should you do? Usually here, and often at Imperial Beach, Embarcadero Marina, and Shelter Island, anglers will be using drop nets to capture live anchovies and smelt. Most of the time these anglers will be glad to share their live bait, if you ask. Many anglers seem hesitant to ask and then watch enviously as others catch the fish, especially those using the live bait.
The town of Ocean Beach was laid out and named in 1888. For many years residents of the area clamored for a fishing pier. Their cries were answered when, in 1915, a bridge was built across the mouth of Mission Bay by the Bay Shore Railroad Company. It was 1,500 feet long and extended from the north end of Bacon Street in Ocean Beach to the tip of the sand dunes that we know today as Mission Beach. Its main purpose was transportation, and soon a “Toonerville Trolley” was installed to haul people from the “Wonderland” at the foot of Voltaire across the sand dunes—via the bridge. Anglers, however, also flocked to the bridge, a wooden structure with chest high railings and a sidewalk on each side. Over time, it became known as the “Old Fishing Bridge.” There was a baithouse at the end of the bridge which sold crawfish, minnows, clams and mussels but fishing for the most part appeared to be only fair. Reports indicate that a lot of sharks and stingrays were caught and that spearfishermen liked to spear mullet. The largest catch was undoubtedly a 331-pound sea turtle that was speared one day. The enterprising anglers sold it for $9 or just 3 cents a pound. When the bridge was removed in 1951, local anglers once again began to talk of the need for a pier.
The Ocean Beach Pier was the result. The new pier opened on July 2, 1966 and has held up better than most new piers. Nevertheless, sooner or later storms and/or age will do their damage. Several times the pier has been closed by storms and has needed repairs. In 1991 a $1.9 million dollar repair project was completed and then the pier was closed for a couple of winter months in 1998 due to El Nino generated storms and high tides. After the storms subsided and railing were repaired the pier opened once again.
Open 24 hours a day.
Restrooms, bait and tackle shop, snack shop, fish cleaning stations, benches and lights. There is free 24-hour parking in a small parking lot near the foot of the pier.
Access to the pier is from the public parking lot and then up a number of stairs (which are steep) or by a block-long public ramp. There is posted handicapped parking and restrooms. The surface is concrete and the railing is 42 inches high.
From the north take I-5 to the Sea World Dr. exit and follow it until it turns off to Sunset Cliffs Blvd. From the south take I- 5 to the Nimitz Blvd. exit, then follow that road to Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Follow Sunset Cliffs Blvd. to Newport Ave., turn right and follow the road to the pier parking lot.
City of San Diego, Parks and Recreation Department.