New friends, conversations, and interesting stories are bonuses when I visit California’s piers. One such story was provided by an angler sharing the rail at the Elephant Rock Pier in Tiburon, up in San Francisco Bay. He had grown up in Santa Monica and related how, as a teenager, he would go out at night to the Santa Monica Pier to go fishing. According to him, there were a number of Chinese fishermen who made a regular habit of snagging crabs with large treble hooks. Not much of a story there except that they evidently kept a fire going under a large pot filled with seawater. As they caught a crab it went into the pot and an ongoing communal sort of crab feast was the result. He said he would sneak a bottle of wine from his parent’s larder and he and the Chinamen (his words) would fish and feast (a.k.a. party) most of the night. This was supposed to have occurred back in the ‘60s. Today you would probably need to bring some crusty sourdough bread, the proper cheese, and a good Cabernet if you wanted to do it right (although Zinfandel seems more appropriate for a pier)!
When this pier, like many, was damaged by the 1983 storms, its future was debated, debated, and finally debated some more. Much of the pier was destroyed and it took years of meetings, studies and disagreements before an agreement and a major $30,000,000 renovation was started. On April 5,1990, one phase of the work was finished and a reconstructed Municipal Pier celebrated its rebirth. Today, the end of the pier has special sections designed for anglers and it is one of the most attractive piers in the state. Of course, the Santa Monica pier is one of California’s most famous piers. It has been the scene of numerous movies and has a long and interesting history.
The pier (really two piers) is huge, extending nearly 2,000 feet seaward from the pier’s picturesque entrance on Ocean Avenue – although only about half of this is over the water. Anglers can fish from the main surfaces of the Municipal Pier and the Newcomb Pier or fish from the thoughtfully planned, multi-leveled sections of the Municipal Pier. These sections jut down in several areas and offer anglers closer access to the water as well as providing an easier way to fish close to the pilings. Instead of being 25-30 feet from the water as is common at most large oceanfront piers, anglers here can be within 10-12 feet of the water (in some spots).
Because of the businesses in the mid-pier area, fishing is somewhat restricted in the surf area, but spaces are available, primarily at the south side of the parking area. It’s not too quiet, since you’re in the shadow of the new Pacific Park rides, but if you’re seeking quietude you probably wouldn’t have come to this pier anyway (it gets an estimated 3 million visitors a year). The pier fronts on Santa Monica Bay and is wide open to the ocean, although the breakwater is to be rebuilt and will be located approximately 550 feet from the end of the pie. The bottom is primarily sand and mud but there are old pilings and rocks under the pier, rocky areas off to the right side of the pier, and pilings that are heavily encrusted with fish attracting mussels.
Because of the length of the pier, water is moderately deep in most areas. The most common fish around the pier are probably Pacific mackerel and white croaker but mixed in with these are the other normal southern California varieties: queenfish, surfperch, seaperch, salema, sculpin, croakers, halibut, bonito, guitarfish, thornbacks, and sharks. Unfortunately, because of pollution in this vast metropolitan area, the Department of Fish & Game recommends against eating an excess of fish from the area.
I have fished the pier many times at different spots and had similar results so I’m really not sure where the best “hot spot” is. Action does seem slightly better at the end, and on the north side of the pier, but that is only conjecture.To a large extent, the “hot spot” will depend upon the species of fish you are seeking. Mackerel and other pelagic species are most common at the end, croakers and barred surfperch are common inshore, and most other species might be caught almost anywhere off the pier.
Halibut continue to be the prize fish for most of the local anglers and each year a few large halibut as well as many small halibut will be caught . Most locals (and they normally know best) use live brown bait (small queenfish, white croaker, or smelt) which they’ve snagged with Lucky Lura type bait leaders. They fish the bait straight down in the areas between the pilings. Quite a few halibut in the 22-37” range are hooked with these live baits (and I have a picture of one 40-inch fish). A few regulars also “drag” for the halibut. They put a long-shanked hook into a headless anchovy and then drag it along the bottom. If crowded, they cast out and retrieve slowly. If it isn’t too crowded, they walk the bait along the edge of the pier - always alert for the soft mouthing of the halibut. The same trolling method also works well with scampis and sometimes the lures will produce the biggest halibut. One of the best spots for halibut, although mostly smaller sized fish, is off the upper deck of the pier on the south side, just before the lower deck begins (and you should fish close to the pier with live bait).
At the same time, I must admit that at Santa Monica I have had my best halibut results while fishing cut anchovies on the bottom with a high/low leader. I use only the last half of the anchovy and cut the fish diagonally from the bottom to the top of the fish. Although this runs contrary to normal halibut methods, I have caught several halibut here using a high/low rigging and it presents an alternative approach. However, you will also hook more of the smaller species using a high/low leader and if you specifically seek halibut you should try the live bait or trolling methods first. When talking of halibut, mention should be made of the good deeds of the men who run the pier bait and tackle shop. They’ve been involved in halibut tagging for several years and have tagged hundreds of the fish in hopes of providing data important to restoring this important fishery. Whenever a “short” is spotted, they run out and quickly attach a tag before returning the fish to the water. Bravo!
More common than halibut are white croaker (tom cod), queenfish (herring), sardines, walleye surfperch, salema, sargo, scorpionfish (sculpin), kelp bass (calico bass), sand bass, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel (Spanish mackerel), and bonito (on live bait or bubbles with a feather). Occasionally, barracuda, white seabass or even yellowtail will show up - most often out at the end of the pier in deeper water. The most common method used for the mackerel is to fish a light line with little or no weight and a single hook baited with a strip of squid or mackerel. This light tackle fishing works best on the areas nearest to the water so get down by the water.
During the winter and spring, try around the pilings or fish under the pier (it’s possible because of the way the lower level platforms on the pier are designed) with bloodworms, fresh mussels, or small sidewinder crabs you’ve grabbed off the pilings. The result might be a few hefty pileperch, rubberlip seaperch or black seaperch. Smaller walleye surfperch are also fairly common, especially during the summer. Walleyes can be caught on small pieces of anchovy fished middepth from the mid-section of the pier to the end. Increasingly, anglers are also using artificials for the walleye. Lucky Lura leaders with size 8 or 6 hooks can be deadly and will also catch queenfish and other small fish. A few truly knowledgeable anglers also use crappie jigs. 1/64 ounce size jigs with mini skirts in chartreuse, hot pink, white, clear or root beer colors seem to do the trick. Remember, when using the jigs, a slow retrieve works best.
Inshore, use mussels, bloodworms, soft shelled sand crabs or ghost shrimp for barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker and an occasional spotfin croaker or corbina. Corbina up to six pounds are caught, mostly while using light tackle (6-8 pound line), size 4-2 hooks, and soft shelled sand crabs - the bigger the better. A trick used by some locals for the larger barred surfperch (up to 3 pounds) is to use a fresh mussel still in its shells. The shell is opened, attached to the line with a paper clip, and then three size 8 hooks are put into the soft meat and the rind. This same rigging can be used on the larger pileperch, rubberlip perch and black seaperch (buttermouths) further out on the pier. Finally, several anglers have begun to use soft plastic grubs in the surf for barred surfperch. Motor oil and root beer seem to be the colors of choice when using the grubs.
A number of opaleye, zebra perch and sargo are also caught. The opaleye (up to 4 pounds) and zebra perch prefer green moss but will also hit on frozen peas and fresh mussel. The sargo prefer soft shell sand crabs and fresh mussel. Most of these are caught in the mid-pier section of the pier out to the end, most are caught down around the pilings, and all seem to prefer the evening hours.
Quite a few sharks and rays are also caught on the pier, in fact it is a pretty sizable fishery in the evening hours. Most are caught out at the end of the pier but mid-pier to the end, on the south side, will see rods lined up for the sharks. Typical tackle is a sliding live bait leader with 6/0 to 8/0 hooks and 120-pound steel leader. The line is cast out and then a live Pacific or Spanish mackerel is slid down to the water to await the sharks. This was a common technique using live anchovies back in the ‘60s but a technique rarely seen on piers today. Species of sharks include soupfin, leopard shark (to 50 pounds), gray smoothhound sharks, horn sharks, a few thresher sharks (to 85 pounds) and even blue sharks. I’ve heard stories of hammerheads and bonito shark (shortfin mako) but I want to see the pictures. Recent catches (1996) included a sevengill shark weighing an estimated 185 pounds and a soupfin shark weighing an estimated 90 pounds. Together with the sharks will be a number of rays; because of the large baits and hooks these will primarily be shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) and bat rays. On the wall of the pier bait and tackle shop is a picture of a 230-pound sevengill shark landed in June of 1995 - however, it was not landed on the pier.
Most piers, sooner or later, will have a super run of fish that will be forever etched in the minds of local anglers. Santa Monica, because of its location and size has had several of these. The most famous took place back in 1957 (some sources say 1959) when the waters around the pier were invaded by schools of marauding white seabass. They were in the deep waters of the pier, the mid-pier areas and even the surf. More important, they seemed to hit almost any bait or lure (although the regulars, who would snag a sardine and lower it to the water using a live bait leader, had the best success). Early morning and evening were the best times but fish hit all day. One single afternoon saw 200 of the fifteen to forty-two pound fish landed, and the run lasted for nearly two weeks. To put it mildly, Santa Monica Pier was humming - and jammed with anglers seeking the prize fish.
That same El Nino year saw barracuda swarm into local waters. Pier fishermen and surf casters had an easy time limiting out on the normally deeper-water fish. The local tackle shop also had a run, a run on every type of lure that might attract the toothy invaders. Legend has it that one exasperated angler, unable to buy a lure, made his own out of a beer can opener and had to give away his over-the-limit fish. As in the case of the white seabass, the pier was jammed and the tackle shop owner was whistling a happy ($) tune.
Be sure to stop and say hi to the guys at the bait and tackle shop out by the end of the pier. John, Mannie and Bob are some of the most knowledgeable anglers around and will show you how to catch some fish. Buy some bait, buy some tackle, and listen to their advice! By the way, not only do they serve up some good advice and help tag halibut, they also have sponsored several fishing derby’s over the years, the most recent of which was the Father’s Day Fishing Derby in June. Well done!
Open 24 hours a day.
There are lights, benches, fish-cleaning facilities and restrooms on the pier. Multi-level balconies allow anglers to fish closer to the water and they were designed to be wheelchair accessible. The bait and tackle shop is near the end of the pier. There are several snack shops and restaurants in the mid-pier section of the pier and the Mariasol Mexican food restaurant out toward the end. There is parking on the pier in a lot – the cost is $7 a day. There is metered parking on streets above the pier.
Handicapped parking but non-handicapped restrooms. The pier surface is cement and the rail height is 41 inches. Posted for handicapped.
From I-405 take Santa Monica Blvd. west to Ocean Ave. Turn left, and go to Colorado Ave., and turn right onto the pier.
City of Santa Monica.