If I’ve ever felt like I was in a movie, it was at this pier. Picture if you will an early April morning in San Clemente, the kind of morning that helps travel writers wax poetic and draw commissions from travel agencies. I had arrived at the parking lot about 5:15 a.m., headed down the incline to the pier, and stopped just past the breaker area where an overhead light on the pier afforded illumination for the darkness before the dawn. It was cool but not cold, there was little if any breeze, and the prospects were high for a beautiful day. By 5:30, I had a mussel-covered hook in the water and less than thirty seconds later I had my first fish, a small yellowfin croaker. Yes, prospects looked very good for the day.
However, the second cast failed to yield a quick bite and I began to relax. It was then that I noticed a stillness on the pier—and the sea gulls. I was surrounded by sea gulls, an assemblage of three to four hundred motionless gulls seemingly devoid of sound. And, they all seemed to be intently watching me and the bait sitting next to me near the railing. I felt as though I was in the movie The Birds and was waiting for the inevitable attack. Of course it never came. The birds dispersed with the coming of light and the arrival of more people to the pier. But it was a strange, strange feeling.
I first fished this pier in the late 1960s and frankly didn’t do very well. However, in visits during the 1980s and 1990s, I have had consistently good results. I have also witnessed above-average fishing for several species, including spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, corbina and sharks. Today, I would rate the San Clemente Municipal Pier good for inshore species and sharks and at least average for pelagics.
Luckily, this is another pier saved from the destruction of the 1983 storms. Much of the end was lost in those storms but the pier has been rebuilt and even improved. Today, there is a bait and tackle shop out toward the end of the pier, restrooms on the pier, and a fine restaurant sits on the inshore entrance to the pier. At times you may feel that you are in somewhat of a fish bowl as the tourists and restaurant patrons walk out on the pier to check out the action, but the pier is in excellent and clean condition.
The pier itself is located down near the end of Del Mar Street and it’s difficult to find if you don’t know where to look (so do follow the signs). Upstreet from the pier is a large parking lot. There are small grassy areas, a fine beach, and a small area populated with shops and restaurants. The area has somewhat of a Mediterranean feeling to it, and on a warm summer night has one of the classier ambiance’s of any pier area I have visited. One final interesting note: railroad tracks run adjacent to the front of the pier, and several times a day the Los Angeles-San Diego train rumbles by and sometimes stops to let off passengers. All in all, this is an interesting area.
This is a stretch of coast known for excellent surf fishing and for offshore kelp beds (although they have been diminished in the past thirty years). To the north is fish-rich Dana Point and to the south is the warm-water area around the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. The pier itself is located over a sand beach and the pier’s pilings (it was built in 1928) are heavily covered with mussels. In addition, a Wildlife Conservation Board reef was constructed out near the end of the pier. Inshore wave action is typically mild, and out toward the end of the pier the water depth, although moderate, is certainly sufficient for most pelagic species. Inshore, anglers should expect to see corbina, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, a few sargo, barred surfperch, guitarfish, various rays, and small sharks. The mid-pier area will yield all of these (but in a lesser number) and, in addition, offer white croaker, queenfish, halibut, sand bass, silver and walleye surfperch, sculpin (California scorpionfish), salema and jacksmelt. The far end of the 1,296-foot-long pier will see all of these but also yield up more bonito, mackerel, jack mackerel, barracuda and, in some years, even a few small yellowtail.
The end section is also preferred by the “shark specialists” who at times will have their heavy outfits neatly lined up against and nearly covering the outer railings. One afternoon, I witnessed the capture of two nearly 5-foot-long shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), several smaller smoothhound sharks, small rays, and a medium sized bat ray. Another, truly huge, bat ray fought an angler for over an hour, up and down the south side of the pier, before breaking free as the angler’s friends desperately tried to gaff it with their treble hook gaff. All of this in the space of two hours time.
Although anglers might want to sample several spots on the pier, this is one pier where I would definitely recommend checking out the inshore area first. Use a high/low leader with number 4 hooks; use bloodworms, fresh mussels, ghost shrimp or sand crabs, and fish just outside the breaker area. Any time of the day may yield a nice yellowfin croaker or barred surfperch but early evening or night seems to yield the largest yellowfin and spotfin croaker—as well as corbina. Target the barred surfperch in the winter and spring, the croakers in the summer and fall.
The midpier to end area offers a number of the smaller southland species: white croaker, queenfish, jacksmelt, butterfish, salema and walleye surfperch. Numbers of each specific species will change with the seasons but there is almost always some type of fish available. All of these can be caught by using size 8-10 Lucky Lura-type leaders, high/low leaders that contain size 6-8 hooks, or simply 2-3 small hooks tied directly onto your line. Fish from the bottom to mid-depth areas of the water and try small pieces of anchovy, mackerel or bloodworms as bait (although many like to use strips of squid). Mixed in with these fish will be a few round stingrays, thornback rays, gray smoothhound sharks and shovelnose guitarfish. Since the sharks and rays tend to be larger, size 2-4 hooks and slightly heavier line may be appropriate. This area will also offer halibut, especially from April or May through the summer months. Fish on the bottom using a sliding leader and live bait (and more and more anglers are using nets to capture live bait and air pumps to keep them alive). Smelt are probably the longest lasting bait but anchovies and small mackerel are the apple of the halibut’s eye.
The end area is best for the pelagic species! Mackerel will hit strips of squid or pieces of mackerel, and bonito will grab feathers trailing a cast-a-bubble or splasher. If barracuda show up, try for the toothy critters with Krocodile, Kastmaster, or similar type spoons. Yellowtail and white seabass prefer a lively anchovy, smelt or small mac. Nighttime (and daytime) will often also see some sharks and rays caught. Probably the favorite sharks for the shark “specialists’ are thresher sharks and the big old bat rays, but more commonly caught will be shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), gray sharks (smoothhounds), and leopard sharks. A lively mackerel slid down the line on a slider is the most common method for the largest sharks (often with a balloon to keep the bait near the top), while whole squid or cut mackerel is employed on the bottom for mid-sized sharks and rays. Since sharks and (many) bat rays have been landed here which exceeded 100 pounds in weight, be sure to bring along sufficient equipment to get the large fish up onto the pier.
An added attraction at the pier is spiny lobster; it seems one of the best piers for the southern California delicacy. If you’re seeking the big crawdads remember that the night hours are the prime time hours.
The town and the pier itself were both developed by Ole Hanson during the land boom days of the “Roarin’ Twenties.” His vision foresaw a “Spanish village by the sea,” where all the houses were white with red tile roofs. His vision seems to have nearly come true.
The pier itself was built in 1928 and apparently was a favorite site to smuggle liquor into the county during prohibition. The hurricane of 1939 destroyed much of the pier including the cafe, tackle shop, and Owl Boat Co. fishing operation out at the end of the pier. It was rebuilt for a measly $40,000. The killer storms of 1983 tore out 400 feet from the end of the pier and 80 feet from the mid-section area, just past the surf area. Repairs in 1985 now cost $1.4 million. When rebuilt, the end section was built 3.5 feet higher, and polyethylene-coated steel piles were used to hopefully better withstand winter storms.
Before the construction of the Dana Point Harbor, sportfishing operations were located at the pier. Apparently the fishing fleet would hire local kids and their wagons to haul the fishermen’s bags down to the end of the pier.
San Clemente itself was named after San Clemente Island. The island was given its name about November 25,1602 by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino. He named it San Clemente in honor of Saint Clement whose feast day is November 23.
Open 4 a.m. till midnight.
Lights, benches, fish-cleaning tables, an excellent bait and tackle shop (stop and say hi to the folks), and the Fisherman’s Restaurant (where I had some excellent broiled yellowtail one evening). A parking lot is just up the street; cost is $.75 an hour and there are 6-10 hour meters.
Handicapped parking and restrooms. The pier surface is cement and planking and the rail height is 43 inches. Posted for handicapped.
From I-5 take any of several exit streets west to El Camino Real, follow it to the center of town, and from there take Del Mar down to the pier.
City of San Clemente