Public Pier — No Fishing License Required
Piers are one of the most romantic spots on earth! If you don’t believe me, tag along on a visit to Balboa Pier on almost any summer night. By 10 P.M., darkness has enveloped the pier. But while most fishermen have returned home, life continues on the pier. A slight breeze ruffles the flags, fires burn along the beach, and couples continue to stroll, hand in hand, out to the end of the pier where they might just sneak a quick kiss or two. Such behavior is expected. At the end of the pier, the red neon lights of Ruby’s Diner light the sky, calling like a beacon to the lovers of the night.
Unfortunately, I wrote that before the city in all its infinite wisdom decided to close the pier each night at 10 P. M. Today those lovers of the night would have to be onshore looking out at the pier. But, it still might be true, just at an earlier hour.
Nearshore strollers looking up Main Street see another set of lights. The Balboa Pavilion and its famous cupola are bedecked in a Christmas-like celebration of light. It suggests an earlier age, that of the early 1900s, a time when every large pier in California seemed to be built with a nearby pavilion. Pleasure at the beach mandated both a fishing pier and a pavilion.
In Newport that meant the Balboa Pier and its sister attraction, the Scandinavian-looking Balboa Pavilion. Both were built in 1906 and both were designed to attract land buyers (and visitors) to the area. The pavilion (whose original design included boathouse and bath house) would serve as the southern terminus for the famous electric Red Car line of Henry Huntington. Riders, if they were so inclined, could get off the rail cars and proceed directly down Main Street to the pier. If they wished, they could stay at the Balboa Hotel, built in just ten days to coincide with the arrival of the “Red Cars.” Today, while the railroad is history and there is little if any land left to buy, both the pavilion and pier remain historical reminders of that more innocent and magical time.
Although just down the peninsula from the Newport Pier, this area has a very different feeling to it dating perhaps back to those early days. The Newport Pier is primarily an angler’s pier while at Balboa, fishing is at times simply one small part of the life on the pier. Here, there are usually less anglers and the fishing seems less intense. But life is no less intense. Up Main Street are the activities and businesses by the Pavilion. At the foot of the pier sits Peninsula Park with its lawns, palm trees, baseball field, and bandstand where concerts are held during the summer.
Newport Pier sits a short distance to the north of the Balboa Pier
In addition there are the boats. A look to the south reveals the Newport Jetty and the entrance to Newport Bay, one of the West Coast’s major yacht harbors (with an estimated 10,000 boats). Some days there are only a few boats to be seen from the pier, other days will see a virtual flotilla emerging from the bay’s portal: a diverse assemblage of commercial fishing boats, Sportfishing boats, cabin cruisers, sailboats and yachts of almost every size, hue, shape and—cost. Increasingly you may also see a few kayaks, canoes and other cockleshells braving the mighty Pacific. The number of boats can be amazing! Although I’ve never counted them, I would be willing to bet that during holiday weekends there are more boats (ships) in Newport’s navy than there were in King Philip II’s “Invincible Armada” when it sailed against England (I believe his navy was about 130 strong).
Looking south down the coast at dusk
Although fishing may at times be a secondary preoccupation at the pier, that’s O.K. It gives the fishermen who are present more room to fish. Surprisingly, the fishing can be quite good. In fact, although I hate to admit it, the fishing can be just as good (or better) as that at the nearby Newport Pier, the pier where I first began to fish.
Environment and the Fish. Like its sister pier that sits just down the beach, Balboa is fairly close to the Newport Submarine Canyon. But though the beach itself, Balboa Beach, seems even more sharply inclined here than at the Newport Pier, the water is not quite as deep. Still, it is deep enough that you will occasionally see deep-water fish. On a visit to the pier in 1990 I watched in amazement as a long, ribbon-shaped fish swam among the pilings out at the end of the pier. The fish refused to accept my bait even though it had been blessed and a few prayers had been said. I’m not sure what the fish was, perhaps a ribbonfish (Desmodema polysticta) or perhaps, more likely, a king-of-the-salmon (Trachipterus altivelis), since it seemed at least eight feet long. Whatever the fish, it provided 20 minutes of entertainment—and eventually frustration. The dual proximity to both a deep-water canyon and the nearby Newport Bay almost guarantees an interesting mix of fish.
Several unusual fish have been reported by Snookie, our web site reporter who primarily fishes the shallower inshore to mid-pier area (and I probably could have called this the “The Snookie Pier”). Included in the ’97-’99 El Niño years were her catch of a midling thread herring (Opisthonema medirastre, normally found from Redondo Beach to Peru), a 2 1/2-pound tripletail (Lobotes pacificus, normally found from Petacalco Bay, Mexico to Panama), and a 4-pound baby giant (black) sea bass, a species hopefully making a comeback now that it’s protected. She also caught a large, 2-pound female rock wrasse and a small fish that she couldn’t identify even though she has several identification books. (Scientific papers now indicate that the ’97 midling thread herring may instead have been a deepbody thread herring Opistlzonemu libertute.) She caught a Cortex bonefish (Albula gilberti) in the surf area (on bloodworms) in February of ’99 and saw several Pacific cutlassfish (Trichiurus nitens, normally found from San Pedro to Paita, Peru in deep water).
In September of 2003 Snookie caught her second baby giant (black) sea bass at the pier, this time a 10-inch-long youngster. In February of ’05 she caught a sand sole (Psettichthys melanostictus) a northern species normally found from Port Hueneme (or Redondo Beach depending upon the reference book you use) to Alaska. She also managed to catch a 29-inch, 10-pound king salmon while fishing the inshore surf area one day. (Another distaff member of the fishing fraternity, Michelle Flannigan, landed a five-pound king salmon in 2008—on a Sabiki no less, while a 30+inch silver or Coho salmon was reported in October ’09.) In August 2012 Snookie spotted a bluefin tuna she estimated at 35 pounds inshore near the surfline but no one hooked it.
Everything appears ready for the fishing but where’s the “pier rats?”
Several years ago Snookie witnessed the capture of a 12-inch green jack (Caranx caballus, normally found from Santa Cruz Island to Peru) and two sarcastic fringeheads out at the end of the pier, fish common to southern California but fish rarely seen at such oceanfront piers. In April of ’08 a big skate, nearly 6-foot in length was taken out at the end of the pier. The species, although recorded down to Baja, is rarely taken south of Point Conception. A common species, but one that is rarely taken unless snagged, is ocean sunfish and a fish estimated at 50-pounds was taken in May of 2003.
In June 2017 PFIC received reports of a 50-pound white sea bass taken at the pier. It turned out to be a 41-pound fish that was “snagged” by one of the snaggers who unfortunately infest the Balboa and Newport Pier.
Whatever the reasons the pier offers a very interesting and diverse mix of fish. Pilings, by the way, are heavily covered with mussels but rarely is there much kelp or seaweed around the pier.
To be honest though, most of the fish you will see day to day are the same as those seen at other southland piers. The inshore area, along the beach, will produce surfperch, small rays, and an occasional croaker or corbina. Midway out is best for halibut, white croaker, queenfish, sargo, topsmelt and jacksmelt, sardines, sculpin (scorpionfish), shovelnose guitarfish, and a few bass and barracuda (generally late summer to fall). The far end is best for the pelagics—Pacific mackerel and Spanish jacks (jack mackerel), as well as bonito (some years).
Fishing with my friend Boyd Grant (Pierhead)
Most years will also see a few yellowtail swimming through the end area in the fall. Occasionally you’ll also latch onto a few sanddabs if fishing on the bottom. Not necessarily a desirable species, but one that is quite often caught during cold-water years, is California lizardfish. When the lizzies are present they can be an irritating nuisance. The end area is also best for the larger sharks and rays. Tackle and techniques are the same as that at Newport Pier.
The human environment found here is also worth mentioning. As Orange County has grown, so too has its ethnic mix. Significant populations of many different groups are found within a short drive of the pier. The population of anglers on this pier and other Orange County piers reflects this mix. Contrary to the views of some of my fellow anglers, I find this mix interesting. I also find that people are people, some are good-natured, some are not. Two experiences from this pier highlight those feelings.
One incident involved an elderly Japanese gentleman. I was fishing one morning when the mackerel were on one of their patented “mac attacks,” and I was catching more of the greenbacks than I wanted to keep for bait. Did anyone want some of the mackerel? An angler pointed to a thin little man and said, “give them to him, give them to the Chinaman.” I yelled over to ask if he wanted the fish. No response! Then the angler mentioned that the man was deaf. So, with a little bit of speech, and an attempt at sign language, I asked if the man wanted the mackerel. His face lit up and he accepted the fish. “Thank you, thank you” and he gave a courteous bow. After each new fish would come a similar thank you and a bow. My thoughts were simple: it was nice to see someone appreciate such a small gift and secondly, wouldn’t it be nice if our culture taught such simple signs of courtesy. It was also obvious that the man was Japanese and that he wasn’t deaf, he simply tended to keep to himself.
A bonefish caught inshore in 2007; they’re fairly rare at the pier
A second incident involved a group of three Asian teenagers who were having dismal results one morning out on the pier. They had limited tackle and the wrong bait, yet they were working harder to catch fish than any of the other fishermen present. I was doing a little better; I had a couple of bonito, a nice sand bass, two scorpionfish (sculpin) and once again far too many mackerel. The boys finally came over, although somewhat timidly, and asked for some advice. In the next couple of hours I taught them a little about pier fishing and they told me a story I will never forget. A story about how their family escaped from Vietnam and finally made it to the United States. All three of the young men worked, all helped support their family, and all three loved to fish. They were courteous, friendly and respectful, and gave me much more in our short time together than I was able to give them.
A fixture in the pier’s environment for many years has been a special group of “pier rats” that I’ve had the pleasure to get to know. The group is headed by “Snookie,” (correct spelling) who was mentioned above and has become a friend and the reporter for the Pier Fishing in California web site for nearly 20 years. The following newspaper stories are about her and her gang of “pier rats” a gang which, unfortunately, is getting a little smaller over the years.