Pier Fishing in California

Resources :: California Fishing Piers

Stearns Wharf/Santa Barbara

What’s with these travel writers anyway? Santa Barbara seems to get more than its fair share of articles in newspaper and travel magazines but I’ve rarely seen such diversity of description, as well as hyperbole, about any other town. One writer wrote about the “faux funk look” of the town and remarked that “the stud through Santa Barbara’s navel is clearly a clip-on.” Huh? Turns out that the writer was giving a compliment, the town “is just a little too clean cut to be funky and a little too big to be considered a trendy enclave.” Another waxed poetic – “It was a day when the sky of rich cerulean blue was quietly melting into a clear aqua sea, when the silhouettes of Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and San Miguel islands arched like great leaping dolphins on the shimmering horizons.”

It’s all academic to me. When I think of Santa Barbara I think of Stearns Wharf, the wharf which dates to 1872. It is one of the last of California’s original large working wharfs, essential facilities which served not only as ports but as focal points for entire towns. Later, with the advent of railroads and automobiles, the wharfs became less important. Eventually, some of the old wharfs were replaced by pleasure piers, and still later many were succeeded by fishing piers. Only a few of these big old wharfs remain: Redondo Beach, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Each is a large multi-use facility that caters to a wide range of interests. Stearns is the home of fine restaurants, fresh fish markets, ecology groups, a museum/aquarium (the Sea Center), Gypsy palmistry and an estimated 1.6 million visitors a year. Fishermen and fishing don’t always get the most attention but they still provides a lot of the life and excitement on the pier.


Today’s 1,950-foot-long wharf sits in a partially enclosed harbor with the infamous breakwater off to the northwest (infamous because it has necessitated a constant and costly yearly dredging to keep the harbor open). The bottom is mostly sand and mud, pilings are well covered with mussels, and by mid-summer there is usually enough seaweed and kelp in the water to keep anglers alert to tangles. Because it is partially harbored, the pier tends to have only moderate wave action and most of the time an angler can fish with a fairly light line and weight.

Although in a harbor, oceanfront species - halibut, mackerel, jacksmelt, white croaker (ronkie), sand bass, kelp bass (calico bass), scorpionfish (sculpin), various perch, bat rays and shovelnose guitarfish (sand sharks) dominate the catch. There also can be good variety; one three hour trip by myself on a mid-June evening produced ten different species of fish. Included were several types of perch, two types of croaker, sand bass, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, sanddabs and even a scorpionfish. The scorpionfish was the most strange. I had caught a small queenfish and decided to use it for live bait. A few minutes later I had a strike and pulled in a scorpionfish which was barely bigger than the queenfish. What he/she was doing attacking the queenfish was unclear since the queenfish would hardly have fit down the sculpin’s mouth.

One interesting local enigma is the unusual name used for white croaker. Generally in southern California a white croaker is called a tom cod (not to be confused with the true tom cod of northern waters). In central California and the San Francisco Bay region the fish is called a kingfish (not to confused with the kingfish of the southern and Gulf states). But oh no, Santa Barbara has to be different; in this area the fish has traditionally gone by the alias “Roncador” or “Ronkie.” Although the latter sounds like something out of Star Wars, many Santa Barbarans (Barbarians? - just kidding) continue to use the name. To be fair, many people in southern California used to call the little croaker a Pasadena trout and no doubt it was a put down on both the fish and on Pasadena. I doubt if anyone would be offended by calling it a “Ronkie.”

Fishing Tips

Most fishing takes place out toward the end of the pier. Best bets in this section are to try anchovy or squid on the bottom for halibut, bass and rays; try fresh mussels around the pilings for perch; or try spoons, feathers, size 4 Lucky Lura outfits, or strips of squid for mackerel. For the halibut, use a high/low leader baited with cut anchovy, a whole anchovy attached to a sliding sinker rigging, or a small live bait - smelt, shinerperch, very small jack mackerel or sardine - which has been caught by jigging. A high/low leader baited with cut anchovy works well for the bass as do scampi lures. For large bat rays, use heavy tackle and squid for bait and be prepared; several bat rays weighing over 100 pounds have been landed here. If you want to try for large pileperch, blackperch, or rubberlip perch, use mussels or bloodworms and fish right under the pier and around the pilings - using as light a line and small a hook as you feel comfortable with. Kids can try the fish well out near the end of the pier. The small, rectangular spot will often yield an unending number of small perch, primarily shiners, even when other areas are seeing few fish.

This can be a good pier at times for mackerel, bonito and even barracuda (generally at night). For the smaller mackerel, a Lucky Lura or Lucky Joe rigging can result in several fish at a time. When the mackerel are more wary, tie a single hook to the end of the line, attach a small split shot sinker a couple of feet up the line, and bait with a strip of squid or a piece of mackerel. When large mackerel are around, or bonito are also present, try different lures. Shiny lures will often produce - Kastmasters and Krocodiles - or even lures such as Scampi Coasters. Lately, a 1/2 ounce Snapper Zapper has seemed to be a good producer of fish. Barracuda, when present, will also fall for the artificial lures. Finally, most of the year will see fair fishing for white croaker; simply use a high/low leader baited with a small piece of anchovy.

The inshore area is restricted somewhat by shops but there are still some open spaces. Water here is typically shallow but will yield some barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, corbina, shovelnose guitarfish, thornback rays and a few white croaker and walleye surfperch. Try sand crabs, bloodworms, or fresh mussels if you want the larger perch, croakers and corbina. Try squid or bloody pieces of mackerel if you want sharks or rays.

I’ve also seen some large pileperch and rubberlip seaperch lurking near the pilings, especially where the wye section connects to the main part of the pier. As usual, these species are hard to hook. One local technique is to attach half of a mussel shell to the line with a paper clip. A couple of size 12 hooks on dropper lines are then inserted into the meat of the mussel. When the large perch suck up the meat they get hooked.

Some years will also see quite a few spider crabs caught out toward the end of the pier and some are massive. Do follow the correct laws for crabbing since the game wardens seem to really target the crabbers at this pier. Also make sure that you follow the various laws for the fish species. Although it is true you don’t need a license to fish on the public piers, you do need to follow the rules for size and number of fish. Thus bass must be 12 inches, bonito 24”, barracuda 28”, white seabass 28”, halibut 22”, and salmon 24”. Remember that it is every angler’s duty to help restore our fishery! Always be prepared for the unexpected. On a short visit to the pier in July of 1994, I had experienced what can only be described as a poor fishing trip for myself - two small fish - a kelp bass and a jack mackerel. However, an old-timer stood proudly nearby, displaying a 29-inch, 11-pound silver salmon he had caught on the pier that afternoon. His name was Bill Schenk, he was 90 1/2 years young, and he had fished on the wharf nearly every day since 1969. He, of course, was a regular and one who had his own personal pier name - “Sitting Bill” - since there were four other regulars also with the name of Bill. It was the largest fish “Sitting Bill” had caught on the pier in 25 years. It was also his second salmon after an earlier 3-pounder in 1990. Using light trout-fishing tackle and a heavier-than-normal 8-pound line (because barracuda had been biting through his line) he had his hands full. However, his friend, Mike Katz, owner of the nearby tackle shop, heard his cries, ran out, and netted the fish. The day was a success for “Sitting Bill” and after meeting and talking with him, I deemed my visit also a success.

Special Recommendations

Be sure to stop and say hi to Mike at Mike’s Bait & Tackle out at the end of the wharf. Mike has been at the pier for the past 12 years and probably knows more about the wharf and the fishing on the wharf than anyone else. Check out the picture of Mike and the 15-foot-long, 2,500-pound Great White Shark which hangs above the door to his shop. And, be careful to handle his “feel good” rock with care.



Open 24 hours a day.


Lights, some benches, restrooms, an excellent bait and tackle shop (Mike’s Bait and Tackle), restaurants and snack bars are all located on the wharf. Wharf parking is available at a cost of $ 2 an hour with some validation possible. There is some free 90-minute parking on State Street and there is also a city parking lot which costs $ 1 an hour.

Handicapped Facilities

Handicapped parking and restrooms on the pier. The surface is wood planking and although there are no railings, large pilings (to sit on) have been placed near the edge of most fishing areas. These would restrict handicapped anglers in some areas. There are some sections which have only a short, 6-inch wood curbing and these probably could be used.

How To Get There

From Highway 101 take Castillo St. or State St. west to the beach and follow signs to the pier.


City of Santa Barbara.