Although the history of California’s coastline includes many piers that are today just traces of history, few lasted as long, or saw as many challenges and changes, as the pier at Point Mugu.
It is also less known than some piers even though it was a very popular pier. The reason is that for more than fifty years it was part of the Naval Air Station at Pt. Mugu. As to be expected, access was limited to military personnel and their dependents. Apparently it was an excellent pier for many species including deep-water fish from time to time but unfortunately the winter storms of 1993 not only destroyed the pier but also hammered and rearranged the entire beach area. Today both pier and beach are gone but the Pt. Mugu Lagoon bears witness to an area that once was a favored source of recreation.
Sinker, (Tm Durham), one of the original leaders on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board, fondly remembers the pier: “The (Pt. Mugu) pier was located on the Naval Air Station, Pt. Mugu—U.S. Navy Base. It was actually the second pier built on the base. The first was destroyed during an early storm but they chose not to rebuild that one as they put in a jet engine test facility in that area. They did build another one though, which is what I am familiar with.
This pier is listed in my biography as my father and I spent many, many hours and days there. When I returned from New York, I went to fish that pier only to find that the last bad El Nino not only took it out but also the Officers Club, the Beach Cabins and the Beach Motel. They used to have beaches on either side of the pier (one for enlisted and one for officers). The Officers Beach no longer exists as the natural lagoon has overtaken the large beach area. I used to fish the entrance to the lagoon for sharks with great success and the pier saw absolutely incredible fishing.
From my Biography, under Favorite Pier: ‘this pier was incredible—halibut, croaker, bonito, smelt, queenfish, bass, rockfish, perch, sharks, rays, crabs, lobsters—you name it, this pier has pretty well seen it. This pier is where I learned the most about fishing, technique, presentation, knots, fish identification, proper and safe handling of fish (for myself and them), how to clean a fish, how to keep my area clean and safe—all this from my FATHER. We spent countless days and nights on that pier where he taught me what I now know and shared the secrets of life, listened to my problems and helped me make them better…’
I am not sure why this pier produced such a wide variety of fish species but it did include many warmer water species and unfortunately a lot of bullheads. I do know there is a deep submarine channel out there and maybe that brought in some fish. We also got lots of halibut and I caught my first squid on that pier. I loved watching them spit at you when you got them out of the water; Î also caught my first octopus there.
They now have a memorial for the Alaskan Air Liner that went down off the Mugu Coast. The lagoon, being one of the last natural lagoons in Southern California, is completely restricted and has also now become a refuge for sea lions and the such.”
Tim’s story was the genesis behind my research into the pier but as I did my research it was evident that the pier’s history was inseparably connected to another story, that of the “Fish Camp” at Point Mugu, a camp that existed in the lagoon long before the Navy took over the area. In fact, it was the people at that camp that built the original pier.
Apparently the camp was initially built by a group of hunters and fishermen who leased the land from the Pacific Steamship Company. The sportsmen, never a large group, could go duck hunting and use the harbor for fishing boats.
It was a private club that allowed its members both pleasure and privacy. Eventually it was called the “Has Been” Club and, according to George Bellah, an early member, “When we went to the camp, there we were, and no one to bother us. Play cards and have a good time was the rule. No one could come over the slough as the boat was kept on the other side and the current in the slough was too strong to swim.”
Somewhat later, around 1912, the camp was sold to Frank Kubota, a Japanese immigrant to America and it became a site for Japanese commercial fishermen who experienced excellent fishing in the nearby waters. Then, in the 1920s, Mr. Kubota built the pier and established the Fish Camp, which at first seemed to mainly cater to fellow Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) but eventually was opened to the general public. The camp had tents, then wooden cabins, a Japanese-style communal bath, a tackle store, and concrete bait tanks near the entrance to the short pier. In time there would be Sportfishing boats and a fishing barge.
Point Mugu Live Bait Barge Company
Have now secured a large suitable Barge for fishing at Point Mugu fish camp. The regular charges for this days sport is $1.00. This will entitle you to the privilege of crossing the bridge and passage to and from the Barge. Tents for rent. —Frank K. Kubota, Manager —Oxnard Daily Courier, July 10, 1924
The 1920s was a time noted for huge giant (black) sea bass, particularly for those caught from California’s fishing barges, but a great many were also taken from piers including the one at Point Mugu.
While fishing off the Point Mugu pier this morning Frank Kabota, proprietor of the Point Mugu Fish camp, caught a 500-pound Jew fish. This is one of the biggest fish habituating the waters at the fish camp and it took Kabota over a half an hour to land it. The fish measures over seven feet in length and has a large body. Frank has placed the prize catch on display and will show it to the many visitors at the camp tomorrow.
Fishing is reported exceptionally good at Point Mugu fish camp today. Larger fish are chasing the smaller fellows to the shore and with every breaker hundreds of fish may be seen trying to get away from the bigger fish. Barracuda, halibut and mackerel are running and the sport is great, says Kabota. —Oxnard Daily Courier, June 19, 1925
Surf fishing, pier fishing, barge fishing, and even live bait Sportfishing boats would soon be available at the camp.
The Point Mugu Fish Camp has secured a large Live Bait Fishing Boat. The Star Light. And are now ready to take passengers on trips to the Anacapa, Santa Cruz or other points of interest to Sportsman or Fishermen. Will charter for private parties. Fishermen are now bringing in Jew Fish, Halibut, Rock Cod, White Fish, Bass and other varieties freely the last few days. Also good fishing on the barges outside.—Oxnard Daily Courier, June 5, 1929
By the ‘30s, the camp had become a favorite place to escape for many in Los Angeles. Apparently that included many movie executives from Hollywood who visited the camp to hunt waterfowl, fish, and enjoy some privacy. There were occasional problems. In 1930 a visiting fisherman stepped back to allow a car to pass on the bridge into the camp and fell into the water. His body was never recovered.
Then, again in 1930, the Sportfishing boat Star Light had to be rescued off of Anacapa Island. The boat had developed engine trouble, the Japanese pilot didn’t know how to fix the engine, and he had trouble contacting other boats due to his lack of English. The boat drifted for nine hours before another Sportfishing boat, the Mary Ann noticed the boat and towed the Star Light and its passengers to a landing place at the island. The next day the Mary Ann and another boat returned to the island and brought the 34 passengers back to the Fish Camp. But fishing remained good and the camp and pier grew.
Five hundred feet is being added to the dock at the Point Mugu fish camp, according to George Bellah. Piers are being sunk today. —Oxnard Daily Courier, March 26, 1935
Number of Large Fish Taken at Mugu Camp
Quality more than made up for quantity at Point Mugu Fish Camp the past few days. The number of small halibut caught has somewhat decreased, but the quantity of large fish taken from the water has increased considerably. Yesterday one 28 ½ pounder, one 23 pounder and a half dozen 18 and 20 pounders, while dozens or more 15 pounders were landed from the pier. Sunday, the large crowd was present with fishing somewhat slow in the forenoon, while the afternoon more than made up for the slack period earlier in the day. Frank Kabota, the manager states the pier is crowded on Sundays and suggests that those who can should take advantage of weekdays when fishing is more comfortable and chance of landing large ones better. —Oxnard Daily Courier, July 10, 1935
Fishermen Break Pt. Mugu Camp Record
Fishermen from Santa Paula and Venture broke the halibut record at Point Mugu this week for season and gave local anglers something “big” to aim for. Harvey Schuyler, 139 Oak Street, Santa Paula, last Sunday landed a 53-pound halibut from the barge, the largest so far for 1935. The halibut measured 56 inches in length and 22 inches in width. W. J. Stuart, 222 ½ Vince Street, Ventura, on the same day, topped the previous pier record of 31 pounds by taking a 33 pounder. However, Los Angeles anglers seem to favor the big ones, as Ray Darsie, Griffith Park Golf course, on July 30, landed from the barge a 400-pound jewfish. This makes more than a dozen large jewfish landed this season from the barge, practically all by Los Angeles fishermen. During the past week halibut fishing slowed up somewhat in quantity but on average were larger. Sunday crowds continue to fill the pier, while there is elbowroom for those who are able to do so, throughout the weekdays. —Oxnard Daily Courier, August 3, 1935
In 1936 Kubota sold the camp to W. C. Welton and E. J. Steckel who announced they would make many improvements and initially things seemed fine. But never forget Mother Nature! January 1937 saw a huge winter storm strike the camp, a storm that washed out 200 feet of the 500-foot-long pier and inflicted damage throughout the camp. The new owners, who had promised to rebuild the pier, said the storm had simply saved them the trouble of tearing the old one down. Work started immediately on restoring the pier, fixing the road and bridge, building additional cabins, and developing an auto trailer camp.
Extensive Work At Point Mugu Fish Camp
From present indications the new proprietors expect to have everything in tip-top shape by the time halibut begin to run, possibly in five or six weeks. The new pier will be as large or possibly larger than the old pier; also another advantage to fishermen’s liking, the new pier will be built with a “T” shape instead of the previous “Y” shape affair. —Oxnard Daily Courier, March 8, 1937
By April 1937 the pier had been finished and by May they had the barge ready to go along with a new Sportfishing boat the Falcon. In addition to the Falcon their fleet would include the Spray, a boat that figures prominently in the history of Southern California Sportfishing.
Then, in September 1939, a new storm struck the area. Called a hurricane at the time, but in truth a tropical chubasco, it had already moved up the coast from Baja damaging and destroying piers from San Diego to Los Angeles. It now reached Ventura County and claimed a new victim—the Point Mugu Pier. That loss paled in comparison to the human loss from the storm.
On September 25, 1939, newspapers carried the headlines — Recover Body From “Spray” Disaster; 24 Killed, Two Survivors When Fishing Vessel Overturns. A southeasterly gale struck the coast while the Spray was attempting to return from a trip to Anacapa Island. About three-fourth of a mile west of the camp, and only 75 yards off shore, a huge comber washed over the deck and swept the pilot house holding 24 people into the sea. Only two people survived and it was the largest loss of life to a boat in California’s Sportfishing industry. [Some sources say 23 bodies were lost; some say 29] In addition, the storm washed out the pier, sent cabins into the slough, ripped out the tent cottages, and flooded all the buildings at the camp.
Back to the drawing board! Within weeks plans were addressed to build a new pier.
Apply For New Pt. Mugu Fishing Pier — Thursday Final Day For Objections — New Pier will Be 361 Feet Long; 20 Feet Above Low Tide
Indicating that the pier at Point Mugu Fish Camp will be replaced, notice was received this morning that the Long Bay corporation of Los Angeles has filed with the War Department for a permit “construct a wooden pleasure pier on the shore of the Pacific ocean approximately one half mile west of the entrance to Mugu lagoon in Ventura County, California. The pier is to replace, on the same location, a pier of similar size which was entirely destroyed by the storm of September 24… The pier will have a deck elevation of 20 feet above mean low water and will extend approximately 361 feet seaward of the mean high tide line… Objections based on other than navigation interests cannot be considered, said Edwin C. Kelton, Lt. Col. Corps of Engineers, district engineer, today. —Oxnard Daily Courier, October 17, 1939
The [Oxnard] district boasts the Southlands leading fishing center—Point Mugu Fish Camp—which is the haven for surf, pier and deep sea fishing. Almost daily, parties of fishermen leave the piers at the harbor and at Point Mugu. The channel between here and the islands long has been the favorite winters for fisherman. —Oxnard Press-Courier, Oxnard, California, July 2, 1940
Once again repairs were quickly made to the camp and by July 1940, the new 361-foot-long pier was finished, a new “all-electric” restaurant was built, and things seemed to return to normal. Several movies would even be filmed on the site.
Famed Movie Setting—The Point Mugu Fish Resort not only is well known to fisherman of the Southland, but is well known, too, to the movieland. Above is the area when it was used as the setting for the Philippine Islands during the Spanish-American war. —Oxnard Press-Courier, Oxnard, California, July 2, 1940
However, on December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked, war was declared, and soon after the Navy decided it needed the land for a new base. The “Point Mugu Fish Camp,” one of the best fishing resorts in Southern California, would pass into history.
As for the pier itself, it seemed to almost have a Phoenix-like life being repaired, refurbished and rebuilt time after time. It’s a story common to all oceanfront piers. Nevertheless the storms of the early ‘80s did considerable damage and the 1993 storm was the final blow. The pier is simply gone but not forgotten.
Fish: As far as fish from the pier, the largest I have been able to track down (besides the giant sea bass and halibut mentioned above) was a 41-pound white seabass taken from the pier in August of 1959 by Charles Leonard, a chief aviation machinist’s mate at Point Mugu Naval Air Station. As recorded by the local paper, “Chief Leonard said he lured the ‘big fellow’ with live bait, but withheld the type of bait as his trade secret.”
Another interesting note, sent to my kenjonesfishing.com blog was from Stuart Fanning who said, “1978’ish, a Humboldt squid run covered the entire walking surface of that pier. The most amazing thing ever! There was no room for another fisherman on the rails. I was 10 years old with my family; dad was a CB stationed there.”
Not too far offshore is located the submarine, deep-water canyon usually simply called the Mugu Trench, a canyon that can funnel deep-water fish into the inshore area and perhaps it helps explain both the invasion of the Humboldt squid and the variety of fish taken at the pier.
One notable fish was a louvar (Luvarus imperialis) that was caught on the Point Mugu Beach April 24, 1939. The 13 3/4-pound fish was one of only a handful of louver that has ever been seen in California.
Additional Notes: Eventually the site would be given official designation as a historic site.
POINT MUGU — Where once there were fishermen, now there are warriors.
At the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station north of Malibu, archeologists have spent the last week unearthing the remains of a once-thriving fishing village founded by a Japanese businessman at the turn of the century.
During its heyday in the 1930s, the Mugu Fish Camp just off Pacific Coast Highway was a popular playground for movie executives from Hollywood, who cruised up the coastal highway to hunt waterfowl at Mugu Lagoon, fish off a 200-foot wooden pier and luxuriate in a Japanese-style communal bath. “I think at the time it was like going to Vegas,” said base archaeologist Steve Schwartz, the man who instigated the dig. “If you were a big shot, that’s what you did. And it’s been totally forgotten.”
The fish camp had been forgotten until the brutal winter storms of 1995 broke through a massive sea wall built by the Navy 30 years ago, pummeling the beach-side buildings that had been constructed on top of the site. The military planned to tear down the buildings and remove what remains of the sea wall.
That gave Schwartz an idea. He had seen plenty of photographs of the old fishing village–black and white images of wooden cabins, the tackle store, the concrete bait tanks that lined the entry to the pier. But he wanted to see what lay under the Navy’s former laundry. Armed with a $175,000 Navy grant and the help of a San Diego firm that specializes in historical research and archaeological digs, Schwartz is getting just what he wanted.
“So the first thing we did was find the bait tanks,” Schwartz said with satisfaction, leading a tour of the sandy site, where the concrete foundations of three tanks stand exposed in a neat row, a fourth crumbling into the sand. The bottoms still have traces of the original bluish-gray paint. When the fish camp was booming, sportsmen could pick up tackle and sundries at the little store on the other side of the pier, then mosey over to the tanks to select their bait. A trained seal lived in a fifth tank, now lost to time and the sea.
Schwartz said Japanese businessman Frank Kubota founded the village, building the store, cafe, six wooden cabins and a series of tent cabins along the beach. The date of the construction is uncertain, but Schwartz said the first photographs he has seen of Kubota’s village are from 1912. Kubota also built a bridge across the marshy, wildlife-filled lagoon as an entryway to the camp from the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a toll bridge, costing 25 cents to walk across and a $1 to drive across.
From what Schwartz has learned, Kubota went to jail for bootlegging at some point in the 1930s, turning over operation of the fish camp to Walter and Marguerite Welton. In 1939, Kubota sold the camp and returned to Japan, taking with him the profits from his business and leaving behind its remnants for archaeologists to find decades later.
In a week of digging, archaeologists have turned up sake bottles, rice bowls, pieces of the hurricane lamps that lighted the camp at night, whiskey bottles and an alarm clock caked with rust and missing its face. On Wednesday, the diggers came upon a real find–the remains of the communal Japanese bath. Brushing away years of accumulated sand, they found pipes for hot and cold water. Schwartz believes the concrete foundation was once capped by a redwood tub. Tired fisherman would lounge in the tub, probably sipping sake or whiskey. “Pretty relaxing after a day of gutting fish,” Schwartz said.
The entire fish camp had to be rebuilt after a storm of hurricane intensity hit the coast in September 1939, killing 28 passengers on a pleasure boat as it attempted to return to the camp from a trip to Anacapa Island.
During World War II, after the devastation from the storm and the rebuilding effort, the Navy took over to build a base. The fish camp’s cafe became a mess hall and the cabins were used for storage. Bit by bit, most of the camp was built over, until only the pier and cabins remained. The pier was damaged by storms in 1988 and capsized last year in the same storms that destroyed all but one of the cabins.
When the dig is completed in another week, the Navy plans to establish a museum in that last cabin, now relocated to a safe spot across the road. The archaeologists are videotaping the dig and photographing everything they find. With the ocean always advancing, Navy officials say there is little point in trying to preserve the unearthed foundations except on film. “They’re not going to last,” Schwartz said. “They’re already beginning to be washed out.” But this time, he said he hopes that the fishing village won’t be forgotten. —Mary F. Pols, Line to the Past, Los Angeles Times. July 26, 1996
Point Mugu to be honored with historic site designation
How times have changed since the Mugu Fish Camp and pier at Point Mugu was a serene recreational destination for Ventura County residents and people from the inland areas of Southern California. To be sure, the drone of propeller-driven airplanes probably prompted a quick look from visitors, but the thunderous roar of supersonic jets was still well beyond their imagination. So, no doubt, was the thought that the area would one day be called a historic site. That designation will come this afternoon.
Built about 1929-30 on a sand spit between the ocean and Mugu Lagoon, the camp offered local fishing from the pier and deep-water fishing from chartered boats. Eventually, the area grew to include tent cabins, small houses, a store and cafe. Movies such as “The Real Glory” with Gary Cooper and “A Yank in the RAF” with Tyrone Power were shot near the lagoon.
And then, on Dec. 7, 1941, America was pulled into World War II. The military cocked its covetous eye at the land and coastal possibilities offered by Mugu and, slowly, everything began to change. By 1942, a military camp was taking shape on some 4,000 acres of beach and tidal marshlands around the lagoon. Army anti-aircraft batteries and Seabees began training there, the Seabees building the first runway, 5,000 feet long, with metal Marsden mats.
Loons, American versions of the German V-1 rockets, were test-fired at the base. A dirt knoll was built on the beach that had a Loon launch pad, catapult and operations building. In 1946, President Truman approved the building of the Naval Air Missile Test Center at Point Mugu. Three years later, the Naval Air Station was established to provide the test center with logistical and operational support. Since then, the base has undergone several organizational overhauls and testing has evolved with developing technology, but the mission has been steadfast: to put the best weapons possible in the Navy’s arsenal. —John Mitchell, The Ventura County Star, November 14, 2003
• At one time many studio artists from Los Angeles would escape to the Fish Camp at Point Mugu for a relaxing weekend. One result was the adoption of Mugu as the name for a famous cartoon character — the nearsighted, Mr. Magoo (same pronunciation but different spelling).