Pier Fishing in California

Resources :: California Fishing Piers

Santa Cruz Wharf

When you discuss this pier, you almost don’t know where to start. Do you talk about the beach and the beach area which used to be known as the Coney Island of the west - with its boardwalk, casino, and famous Giant Dipper, one of the last wooden roller coasters on the West Coast? Do you talk about the pier itself, the municipal wharf built in 1913, the wharf which is the longest of the five wharfs built here since 1853, and a wharf which is still one of the largest piers on the coast - measuring 2,745 feet in length? Do you talk about the crowds on the pier - an estimated 3-4 million people a year (which translates into about 10,000 people a day)? Or do you talk about the fishing which, because of the size of the pier, can be great at one spot on the pier and, at the same time, be terrible just a short distance away. Since this is a site about fishing, let’s discuss it.


More than a half mile in length, the pier offers several different types of fishing. Inshore, along the beach, an angler can fish most of the year for barred and calico surfperch, and most days will yield a few fish. Once in a while, an angler will also hook onto a skate, flounder, or small shark - usually a leopard shark. In addition, a few old-timers (who usually know the most about the piers) will bring a few mussels or worms and fish around the pilings themselves, just outside the breaker area. Their goals are primarily rubberlip, rainbow, and white seaperch as well as blackperch.

Midway out on the pier, the pier widens to accommodate restaurants, fish markets, tourist shops and two bait and tackle shops. The east side of the pier is reserved for fishing, launching skiff rentals, and boarding the Stagnaro sportfishing boats which operate from the pier. This area is heavily fished, has a sandy bottom, and yields mostly kingfish (white croaker), walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, white seaperch, sanddabs, small sole and far, far too many shinerperch.

The area at the end is different once again; although the bottom is still sand, various debris has built up under and around the pier. This has formed an artificial reef and, as a result, catches of rocky-shore species are common. In addition, several holes are located in the middle of the pier; these are fishing wells which allow an angler to fish straight down among the pilings (an excellent idea which more piers should copy). Of course, the noise around these wells can be deafening. Sea lions always seem to be sleeping on the crossbeams between the pilings or swimming in and out of the area. Surprisingly, the fishing in these wells can still be excellent. In fact, almost all of the rockfish I have caught on this pier have been caught while fishing in these wells. The wells are also the best spots to catch large, legal size lingcod (normally during the fall or winter months). Around the outer end, an angler can still catch a few rocky-shore species, but sandy-bottom species will predominate. When pelagic species are around, like mackerel and salmon, the end is generally the best area to fish.

One problem here can be infestations of smaller fish - as well as non-fish. Several times over the years I have had to switch to larger hooks and stop using pile worms as bait. Why? Because the shinerperch were so thick that they would virtually hook themselves on every cast. This was true in both winter and summer visits, although generally only in the mid-pier areas.

A different problem arose during visits to the pier in August of 1988. When fishing from the far right end of the pier, the bottom seemed to be covered with small speckled sanddab and small red octopus. I was fishing on the bottom using a high/low leader. Literally every cast yielded two sanddab, two octopus, or one of each. Other parts of the pier saw few of either species but at that particular spot it was almost impossible to keep the small critters off your hook. I finally switched to bigger hooks which solved the sanddab problem but didn’t affect the octopus; they simply latched on to whatever came their way. Fortunately, I did get some revenge as octopus are tasty when sliced up and deep-fried with a little batter. In addition, I kept a few of the octopus for shark bait which proved effective when fishing in San Francisco Bay.

Fishing Tips

An advantage at this pier is that you can pick what type of fish you want to seek - and you have variety from which to choose. A disadvantage is that fishing is rarely great unless you happen to arrive when a school is in the area. It is a huge pier and gets tremendous fishing pressure year-round.

If fishing during the spring, April through June, try inshore from the breaker area out to the lifeguard station. Most springs will see perch coming into the shallow waters to spawn and sometimes tremendous catches can be made. Try pile worms or fresh mussels on a size 6 or 8 hook and fish under the pier, next to the pilings, for barred surfperch, rubberlip, rainbow, white, black and even a few striped seaperch. In addition, a few pileperch may join in the fun. Since the barred surfperch, rubberlip seaperch, and pileperch are the largest members of the perch family, anglers can often get some real quality along with the quantity. Locals will often use small plastic grubs with a sliding rig to coax these big perch. During the same time, but usually just a little bit further out on the pier, large schools of walleye and silver surfperch may be available to interested anglers. Fish for these smaller perch mid depth using a multi-hook rigging sweetened with small pieces of anchovy or shrimp.

Much of the year will see the inshore area, especially the area just past the breakers, yield barred and calico surfperch. Most anglers use pile worms or mussels for bait and a high/low leader set up using size 4 or 6 hooks (although ghost shrimp can be a GREAT bait). You generally will not catch a lot of barred or calico surfperch, but the ones you will catch are often nice sized fish. Again, locals often prefer to use artificial lures and these often catch a majority of the big fish. Favorites include root beer and motor oil colored grubs and the camo or pumpkin seed Berkley Power sand worms cut in 2-inch strips.

Finally, you may want to try at night in the nearshore or mid-pier area for sharks, skates and rays. Here the best bait will be squid, and a medium-sized piece, not the whole squid, is the ticket. The period from 10 p.m. to midnight seems best, but I have never really seen that many sharks caught off this pier.

If fishing during the summer or fall, check out the mid-pier area. Fish on the bottom using a small piece of anchovy, and the result will often be kingfish (white croaker), white seaperch, Pacific sanddab, speckled sanddab, English sole, sand sole or an occasional starry flounder. In addition, some years will see relatively rare sharpnose seaperch landed, generally July to August. Although this is one of the very few piers where I’ve seen innkeeper worms used as bait, they seem to be a good bait here for starry flounder and sole.

During those years when schools of juvenile bocaccio visit the pier, this mid-pier area generally will be the hot spot for these small fish and yield nonstop action for anglers using a snagline or Lucky Joe/Lucky Lura type multi-hook leaders. The last few years have also seen quite a few Pacific mackerel (as well as jack mackerel and sardines) and these bait leaders are also good for these species. Unfortunately, as the number of mackerel and sardines have risen, so the number of bocaccio has decreased. Only time will tell if it’s a natural up and down cycle for the fish.

For the dyed-in-the-wool halibut fishermen, April through August will yield a few fish with best fishing being from mid-May to mid-June, and the best bait being live shiners, smelt, or small jack mackerel fished on the bottom. However, I’ve also heard of good success on the halibut using Hair Raisers (which are normally used for striped bass). Most years will yield at least a couple of large, impressive sized halibut, some over 30 pounds in weight. King salmon will also generally make a showing with most falling to anglers with the know how of using live bait fished under a float. When the small mackerel are around, they are hard to beat for live bait (and bring a small bucket and aerator with you to keep them alive). Although less common, an occasional striped bass will also be taken (and a surprised angler in 1995 pulled in a 33-pound lineside). Since the pier sits 22 feet above the water, be sure to bring a net if you seek these larger fish. Although the stripers may show up anywhere from the surf line to the end, most of the halibut and salmon are taken in the deeper waters of the pier, mid-pier to the end.

Summer to fall is also the prime time for small rockfish. For blue, brown, gopher, grass, kelp, and black and yellow rockfish, and a possible seaperch - striped, black, rubberlip or white - try fishing in the wells out toward the end of the pier. Use size 6 or 8 hooks, and pile worms, mussels, ghost shrimp or small pieces of market shrimp for bait.

Be cautioned that bigger fish do lurk in these holes. In August of ‘97, I was returning from one of my normal summertime pier fishing trips along the coast when I decided to make a short visit to the pier. This would be the last pier I would visit on the trip, and I had used up most of my bait. So, I rigged up a high /low leader with number 6 hooks and small pieces of fresh mackerel that I had caught in San Diego. Looking down into the last well at the end of the wharf showed a number of large sea lions taking their mid-morning siestas; I hoped they didn’t bother my line. As soon as the sinker hit the bottom I began to feel sharp taps on the bait which is common for perch and small rockfish. Be patient and let them hook themselves, but also be prepared to strike quickly if needed. That’s what happened when there was a strong hit and the tip of the pole pulled south toward China. I immediately began to reel but would only gain a couple of yards of line before the fish would pull it back out. It definitely was not a small rockfish! It took a few minutes of fight, along with worry about the pilings, seaweed, and sea lions, before I got the fish to the top of the water. But it wasn’t one fish, it was a nice sized lingcod on one hook and another fish on the other hook. Since I had left my treble-hook gaff in the truck (dumb, dumb, dumb) I worried just a little bit more as I hand lined the fish up to the pier.

The larger fish was a beautiful blue lingcod that I estimated would weigh five pounds, the other fish was a 14” kelp greenling. Not bad for the first drop of the day but it would also prove to be the best. Another hour’s fishing produced six more fish - gopher, brown and blue rockfish, but no more lings. My experience with lings is that if there are small rockfish or greenling in the area, there will be hungry lingcod around to eat them. Be forewarned. If you want to try specifically for the lings, use a heavier line, bigger hooks, and a strip of greenling or rockcod on your hooks. Even better is to catch one of the small rockfish and use them for live bait. Finally, try artificial lures straight down in the wells – they’ll produce fish. Also, don’t be surprised if you get a mass of onlookers watching your every move. As soon as you catch one fish there will be people who want to see another, and another, and another.

Lastly, fall and winter will usually see a few steelhead landed, most in the 15-20 inch size category, although a few range up to about 8-pounds. Best bait seem to be a worm or cut anchovy fished under a bobber; those who prefer artificials generally use small spoons like Kastmasters.



Open from 5 A.M. to 2 A.M.


The pier has lights, fish cleaning stations, parking on the pier ($1 per hour but no charge from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m.), limited benches, snack bars and restaurants, restrooms, and two bait and tackle shops, one where the pier first widens, and one out near the end.

Handicapped Facilities

Handicapped parking is available (although in many spots you can park right next to where you want to fish) and handicapped restroom facilities are available at several spots on the pier. A 38” railing extends around the wharf and the surface is wood decking. A wooden curb also extends the length of the parking area but it has occasional openings for wheelchair access. Posted for handicapped..

How To Get There

There are many ways to get to the wharf, the way I usually go is to take Ocean Street south from Highway 1, when you get to Laurel Street turn right and follow it to Pacific Street, turn left and follow Pacific to the wharf.


City of Santa Cruz.