Public Pier — No Fishing License Required
Small though it may be, this pier has long held special affection for me for a number of reasons. Most prominent is the fact that it was the pier where my initial introduction to ocean fishing took place and where I would catch my first ocean fish. The experience would provide an entryway into a sport that to this day helps define my life.
My family moved to Pacific Beach in the “I Like Ike” era of the ‘50s, 1957 to be exact. We lived in a small house that was located just a few yards off of Garnet Avenue and at the ocean end of Garnet Avenue sat Crystal Pier. My mom liked the ocean and so a few days after our arrival we rode the bus down to the end of our street. The bus stopped at the corner of Mission Boulevard and from there you walked a short half block to the arched blue and white entrance of Crystal Pier. The pier seemed old but had a fresh coat of paint and you could feel the timbers sway as the waves pushed their way ashore on the fairly short pier. We didn’t fish that day; instead, we just watched the waves, the swimmers, sunbathers, sea gulls—and fishermen. Eventually we left and walked over to the Oscar’s Drive-In, a restaurant on the corner of Mission and Garnet. They had great milk shakes and burgers and we sampled both.
Of course the discovery of that pier meant a return visit—to fish, was necessary. It was a long walk from our house to the pier but it seemed like a much shorter journey on my flashy, red and shiny chrome Schwinn Jaguar bike. It was a gift from my dad and would be my main means of transportation for many years. I don’t know how long the trip took but anticipation seemed to lessen the distance (although it seemed far longer coming home).
Garnet Avenue was different then—not quite as crowded, absent the shopping centers of today, and the traffic was actually tolerable. I headed out, tooled past Brown’s Military Academy (wondering what life was like in that starchy school), zipped past the bowling alley where my dad sometimes worked, checked out Oscar’s, and then arrived at the pier. It cost money to fish the pier, twenty-five cents I believe, and you had to go into the motel office to pay your money. Soon they would open the gate and you could head out to the end.
I was a newbie on that first visit, basically clueless as to what I was doing, but somehow I managed to catch a fish that day. It wasn’t much of a fish, in contrast to the fish I had read about in magazines, and the fish was caught on a hand-line, not one of the beautiful rods and reels you saw in the magazines. But the rig worked! My mom had given me an inexpensive set-up that consisted of heavy, green Dacron line wound around a wooden contraption that looked like four Popsicle sticks stuck together. To the end of the line I attached a long-shanked Mustad hook and a small sinker, both items I had discovered in the garage next to the house. You had two choices as far as casting, unwind the line and then toss it out, or slowly unwrap the line and drop it straight down. The former was more fun but it seemed like most of the bites were down around the pilings (a lesson I remembered).
It took me a few hours but I finally managed to catch a fish using a small piece of shrimp. Then, as soon as I caught the fish, I stopped fishing and headed home to show the prize.
But before I had even gone a block I made a short detour. A quickly drying fish, held up by a pudgy young angler, was proudly paraded through the nearby Oscar’s Restaurant. I’m sure that all those lucky patrons munchin’ on their 44-cent double-deck burgers and slurpin’ up their 25-cent creamy shakes were impressed.
It may have seemed exciting to me at the time but, as said, I hardly had a clue. But emotion and logic come from different worlds; I was proud of that fish. To this day I have a picture of the fish but cannot tell what kind of fish it was (although it looks like a flatfish). I do know we ate it for dinner that night after my mom cleaned it.
My family left San Diego soon after that inaugural trip to the pier and it wasn’t until seven years later, in April of 1964 that I would return to the pier. By the time of my return I was a far different and more accomplished angler. I had spent many a day learning the basics at the Newport Pier. Now I just needed more time on the piers.
It’s not every day that you see a flock of helicopters above the pier
Unfortunately, our new home was inland in sun-baked Santee, just a little too far from the ocean for my trusty Schwinn bike, the bike that had served me so well on my earlier visit. No problemo! I was in high school and soon I had a big-time, $1.00-an-hour-job at Jack in the Box. Greedy capitalist that I was, even then, I saved my hard-earned money looking for the perfect investment. That investment came in the form of a light blue ’55 Ford that I purchased for the princely sum of $100. It came equipped with white sidewall tires and a great big Ahoooooga horn. I now had some wheels and the American freedom of the road beckoned (especially since gas was 18 cents a gallon and included green stamps, blue chip stamps and/or a free glass when you filled up).
Transportation meant that I was able to fish whenever I wasn’t working or going to school and during the next five years I would be a regular visitor to all of the area’s piers. Crystal would prove to be my most productive San Diego pier: it yielded the highest number of fish per hour as well as good numbers of big fish, especially halibut and shovelnose guitarfish.
Environment. The pier’s location is at the end of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach (“PB” to locals) and sits on the long, sandy shoreline that parallels Ocean Boulevard and stretches from Mission Beach up to the rocky Tourmaline Beach and Surfing Park.
Crystal Pier itself is fairly short, being only 872 feet long, but is unique given the cottages available on the pier, the only pier on the West Coast to offer lodging over the ocean. Inshore the pier is wide to accommodate the cabins and cars but once past the cabins the pier narrows to only a 20-foot width before expanding again to a 100-foot width at the end.
The pilings are old and heavily covered with mussels and during the summer months there may be heavy growths of kelp around the outer end of the pier. Fishing can be excellent but there’s little doubt it’s a sandy-shore pier. There are neither rocks nor reef to attract rocky shore species of fish but the beach itself seems one of the best to fish for the various sandy-shore species.
The pilings looking from the shore end of the pier — picture courtesy of my son Mike
In addition, its proximity to the fish-rich waters of Mission Bay (just down the beach) and La Jolla kelp beds (just up the coast) probably have some influence as to the fish that show up at the pier.
Lastly, the South La Jolla State Marine Reserve (established in 2012) starts just six blocks north of the pier at Diamond Street. It runs along the shoreline north to Palomar Avenue and extends three miles out into the Pacific. It prohibits the take of all marine species.
The reserve connects, at its ocean end, to the South La Jolla State Marine Conservation Area, an area that permits the take of many species. Together they present a 7.51 square mile protected area that should provide increased numbers of resident fish. Since fish are rarely able to read boundary lines, there seems little doubt some of those fish should wander over to Crystal Pier and help the fishing.
Walleye Surfperch taken in 2010 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Though small compared to most oceanfront piers, Crystal is, in my opinion, one of the best piers for several species of fish: barred surfperch, walleye surfperch, shovelnose guitarfish and (at times) California halibut. It has also shown during the past two decades that it is the number one pier in the state for yellowtail, especially during El Niño warm-water years.
A plus is that the human environment is also generally pleasant here, with a nice mix of resident species (San Diegans) and seasonal visitors (tourista Americanus).
Perhaps surprisingly to some—given its small size, the fact that it’s old fashioned and showing its age, and can be at time one of the worst piers in terms of convenience (parking can be nightmarish), it still gets my nostalgic vote for one of my favorite piers in the state.
Son-in-Law Dave, Grandson Adam, and a yellowfin croaker taken in 2009
Kids just wanna have fun! Grandson & granddaughters
The Fish. The number of different types of fish here doesn’t seem as high as some piers (although one PFIC member said he had seen 46 different species); however, the concentrations of some species are very high. Fish here at the tide line include corbina, barred surfperch, spotfin and yellowfin croaker, round stingrays, guitarfish and thornback rays. Halfway out there are all of these but also more walleye surfperch, queenfish, white croaker, halibut and smoothhound sharks. The end area will see these plus Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, jacksmelt, bat rays, small to medium size white seabass, bonito (some years), and an occasional yellowtail.
22-inch kelp bass taken by Angel Hernandez in 2015
Increasingly, in the last few years, more and more bass—kelp bass, barred sand bass, and even spotted sand bass have been caught.
Spotted Sand (Bay) Bass (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
The same is true with giant (black) sea bass, most of them youngsters in the 20-50 pound class. A number of the illegal big bass have been hooked, caught, and released during the new millennium and the numbers seem to increase each year.
Sargo caught by Angel Hernandez in 2010
Sargo are another fish that used to be rarely seen at the pier but now seem to be fairly common. Although most of these species can be caught almost any time of the year, summer is by far the best time, especially for halibut, spotfin croaker, corbina, mackerel, bonito, big sharks, and rays. Winter often yields fewer but larger halibut; early spring yields the largest barred surfperch
Grandson Adam with his first sargo
Summertime, surprisingly, is also a prime time to catch illegal (because of the season) spiny lobster. They’re commonly caught but remember that if one of the bugs grabs your bait (and hangs on) throw them back, failure to do so could result in a very stiff fine.
Unusual catches at the pier have included a 10-pound striped bass and a 55-pound broomtail grouper (Mycteroperca xenarcha). Steve Carson, the esteemed angler and fishing writer, sent me a note that said during the 1983 El Niño a paloma pompano, aka palometa in Mexico (Trachinotus paitensis), and a gafftopsail pompano (Trachinotus rhodopus) were confirmed catches at the pier.
Brown rockfish taken in 2010 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
January of 2010 saw a 14-inch brown rockfish taken from the pier, an unusual catch of a fish more commonly seen in bays and rocky areas. Going way back in time, a 29.5-inch long louvar, Luvarus imperalis, was recorded from Pacific Beach in December of 1944 but it isn’t clear if it was taken from the pier.
Cabezon caught in 2014 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
One of the most unusual catches was that of a banded guitarfish, Zapteryx exasperate, in August of 2011. Not only was the fish an unusual species itself but the manner of catch was unusual. James Barrick, owner of the pier’s tackle shop netted the fish for the startled angler. When he went to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth, he discovered that the angler’s 2/0 hook was in the eye of a larger 6/0 shark hook, and it was the larger hook that was actually embedded in the mouth of the fish. After extracting the hooks, the fish was lowered back down into the water using the net.
Shortfin corvina taken by Angel Hernandez in 2015
A once rare species that has begun to show up at the pier are shortfin corvina. Perhaps reflecting their increasing numbers in San Diego Bay, shortfin first showed up at the pier when two small specimens were taken in August of ’08. Then, during the grunion runs in July of ’09, more shortfin made an appearance and most were good-sized fish. Only problem was that some mistook the fish for undersized white seabass and called the DF&G who, much to their surprise, announced after checking that they were legal shortfin corvina.
28-inch shortfin corvina taken by Kara in 2015 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Shortfin corvina caught by Angel Hernandez on a live queenfish
More of the fish were reported in August of 2011 with about 26” being the maximum size and then the numbers exploded in 2015, a warm-water year that saw many of the fang-toothed fish (nick-named vampire corvina) caught during the summer months. Most were caught by the regulars who knew what they were doing and one of the keys was live bait with smelt, small perch and queenfish all considered excellent bait.
Yellowtail caught by Angel Hernandez in 2015
The number of yellowtail caught at the pier, and the size of some of the fish, has easily earned Crystal the title of “Yellow Capital” among California’s piers. A few yellowtail are caught every year, usually in August and September, while warm water years will see both the number of fish increase as well as bigger fish showing up.
48.5 pound yellowtail taken by Tony Troncale in 2012
Among the good-sized fish taken at the pier: a 55-pound yellowtail by Montre Somsukcharean in September 2006, a 48.5-pound fish by Tony Troncale in August 2012, a 46-pounder by Thomas Shinsato in August 2015, a 42-pound yellow in October 2004, a 36-pounder in August 2016, a 35-pound fish in August 2012, a 34-pounder by Hallman in August 2012, and a 34-pound fish by Angel Hernandez in August 2016
40-Pound yellowtail taken by Angel Hernandez in 2017
Crustaceans. The pier has never been considered a great pier for crustaceans either lobsters or crabs although a fair number of lobsters are pulled up on angler’s lines throughout the year. In part, that’s because of the difficulty in using a hoop net from the pier. The way the pier deck extends out past the railing, and the small distance between each of the mussel-covered pilings, makes it difficult to both drop and retrieve hoop nets.
However, one day I was talking to Vincent at the pier’s bait shop and he mentioned “Robbie the Robster,” a lobster that kept grabbing angler’s baits. He/she had been hauled up to the pier several times and then returned to the water since a lobster taken on a fishing line is illegal. Don’t know if the hungry bug is still there.
Homo Sapiens. The human environment is also generally pleasant here, with a nice mix of resident species (San Diegans) and seasonal visitors (tourista Americanus).
Halibut caught by Tony Truncate (professional golfer) in 2010
Fishing Tips. Best fishing here is generally halfway out on the pier on the left (south) side. Fish with two rods. Use the larger rod for various bass and for the sharays, especially shovelnose guitarfish. Use a high/low rigging with size 2 to 2/0 hooks baited with anchovies, ghost shrimp or bloodworms for the bass. Use the same rigging but with anchovies, cut mackerel, ghost shrimp or squid for the shovelnose. The bass, both kelp (calico) bass and barred sand bass will also hit on soft plastic lures, i.e.. Big Hammers.
A halibut taken in 2010 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Use a live bait leader, i.e., Carolina-rig, for the halibut. Use live bait (small queenfish(herring) , white croake (tomcod), surfperch, or smelt) for the halibut and I’ve always had my best success on halibut casting out from the left/south side of the pier. Unfortunately it’s hard here to fish down between the pilings or to “troll” the bait like you can do at some piers. If you can’t get live bait use cut anchovies, sardines or squid with a high-low rigging.
A halibut taken in 2015 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
On the second, smaller rod, use a high-low leader, size 6 hooks, and a sinker just heavy enough to hold bottom. For yellowfin croaker or barred surfperch use bloodworms, ghost shrimp or mussels. For queenfish, walleye surfperch or white croaker, use small strips of anchovy; cast out and reel in slowly for best results. For many of the fish, a multi-hook bait-rig (Sabiki or Lucky Lura) can be deadly! Use size 4 or 2 hooks for the mackerel, size 6 or 8 hooks for the queenfish, walleye surfperch or jacksmelt. The water down around the pilings will also yield a few of the larger rubberlip or pileperch as well as a few opaleye (I saw a LARGE 4-pound opaleye caught on one visit).
A halibut taken in 2017 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Inshore, the quantity will be less, but you can often catch some very nice corbina, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, and barred surfperch; use sand crabs if available, next best baits are ghost shrimp, fresh mussels or bloodworms.
The favorite inshore fish is probably corbina. However, sometimes it seems like you see 20 before you’ll get one to bite. Live sand crabs (which you’ll have to catch yourself) increases your chances for success almost geometrically. Fish the shallowest water possible and this often means you are practically right up against the fence that surrounds the cabins on the pier.
Barred surfperch taken in 2016 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
The number one fish (numerically) taken in the inshore waters is barred surfperch.
Pacific mackerel (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
The far end with slightly deeper water usually yields more of the pelagic species — Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, Pacific sardine, Pacific bonito, Pacific barracuda, and yellowtail. Most people use bait rigs, i.e., Lucky Lura or Sabiki bait rigs for the mackerel and/or sardines if they show up. Most anglers use feathers behind a Cast-a-Bubble for the bonito but an increasing number just use a straight lures — MegaBaits, silver or gold spoons (Krocodile or Kastmaster), and a variety of other hard body lures. If barracuda make a showing the spoons generally are the best lures to catch them.
My fishing buddy Mike Granat and a round stingray
Quite a few sharays are also taken from the pier. Thornback rays (throw-‘em-backs), round stingrays, shovelnose guitarfish, and gray smoothhound sharks are all very common and will hit on almost any bottom bait including sea worms, ghost shrimp, anchovies, cut mackerel and squid.
Bat ray taken in 2015 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Bat rays seem to prefer squid while the large leopard sharks and shovelnose will hit a variety of baits (with live fish seemingly the pièce de résistance). Be sure to bring a net with you, and be sure you know how to use it or have someone with you who can use it (it’s reported to be 28 feet from water to deck during low water). Some truly large guitarfish, bat rays (to 105 pounds), leopard sharks, and halibut have been hooked here, and it feels terrible when one is lost after a spirited fight. Several butterfly rays and diamond stingrays have also been landed here (including a fairly large diamond stingray in September 2008).
Soupfin shark taken in 2017 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Of note was a report in July of 2009 reporting the capture of a 6-foot-long gray smoothhound shark. Most of the smoothhounds landed at the pier are only 2-3 feet in length with an occasional fish reaching four feet. Since the conventional wisdom on the species is that they only reach a little over five feet in length (64.25 inches), the report if accurate would indicate a record fish. However, the fish was not officially weighed nor measured, and some wondered if it might have been a soupfin shark instead of a smoothhound.
A shark (7-gill?) taken in 2015 (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Although uncommon to the pier, a four-foot-long 7-gill shark was taken on a live jacksmelt on February of 2010 and August of that same year saw the capture of a 6-foot-long soupfin. The largest shark that I’ve seen recorded here was a seven-gill that measured nearly 8 feet in length in March of 2012. The fish was estimated at 150+ pounds. Not surprisingly, the shark was taken during a time when several pelagic species—mackerel, sardines and jacksmelt (also known as shark food)—were making the pier their home.
Horn shark caught at night (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Other sharks are caught occasionally—sharks such as horn sharks and swell sharks but they are always an unexpected catch.
45 Pound, 5 ounce yellowtail taken by Thomas Shinsato in 2015
As mentioned, some yellowtail will usually show up every summer into the fall months. If interested in seeking out the large jacks, one key is to use live bait such as a mackerel or jack mackerel. The rig of choice is a sliding leader rig. Cast out a sinker heavy enough to hold bottom, and then slide the live bait down to the water. Use a 3-foot slider with the baitfish at one end and a snap-swivel at the other. It’s a rig I’ve used since the ‘60s and it still works.
38-Pound yellowtail taken by Studman in 2016
A second key is to tire out the fish before you bring it to the pier. Yellowtail are tough and a still fresh fish will often head for the pilings and wrap your line as soon as it nears the pier; play it out and then bring it in. The third key is to have quality tackle that is heavy enough to finish the job started by the first two steps.
In August 2010 a huge school of sardines moved in around the pier. In response yellowtail showed up to munch on the ‘dines. Eight yellowtail were hooked on one day but none were landed. Why? Apparently the latter two tips were not followed. James Barrick who ran the bait and tackle shop and witnessed the yellows said, “In some cases the anglers just didn’t have the right gear while one fish, a fish that would have gone 25 pounds or more, was lost to the pilings while anglers were desperately trying to net and gaff the fish.” Be sure you have the right equipment and know how to use it.
Small yellowtail taken at the pier in 2016
Special Recommendations. Live bait is unavailable at this pier, a pier that is one of the top piers in the state for halibut and guitarfish. Go to a tackle shop, buy a live bait drop net, an aerator and a bucket—and use them. Live bait (anchovies, small smelt, queenfish and small perch) is key for the halibut and guitarfish. Live mackerel and jack mackerel, (usually caught on bait rigs) may lure in a yellowtail or other pelagic during the warm water months.
In addition, bring a fishing license to this pier. There is a seemingly never-ending debate between the City of San Diego and the State of California as to whether or not this pier qualifies as a public pier. As a result wardens often visit the pier and sometimes they have ticketed unsuspecting anglers. Better to be prepared and not risk a fine.
Remember the “Red Moon”? (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
Potpourri — Possibly More Than You Want To Know About The Crystal Pier
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Fish counts done by the California Department of Fish and Game between 2004 and 2009 really do not give a good account of the various species at the pier. Numerically they only show the following 14 species — jacksmelt, walleye surfperch, Pacific mackerel, topsmelt, barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, Pacific bonito, leopard shark, queenfish, white croaker, Pacific sardine, spotfin croaker, white seaperch and pileperch.
In contrast, my personal records show 27 species — walleye surfperch, Pacific mackerel, white croaker, queenfish, yellowfin croaker, shiner perch, barred surfperch, jacksmelt, topsmelt, shovelnose guitarfish, California lizardfish, gray smoothhound shark, thornback ray, California halibut, round stingray, Pacific butterfish, spotfin croaker, sargo, jack mackerel, bat ray, Pacific bonito, white seabass, white seaperch, kelp bass, barred sand bass, spotted sand bass and silver surfperch. Another PFIC member shows 46 species.
No matter the list it’s evident that the majority of fish are either sandy-shore species or pelagic, schooling species
Sargo (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — I have had quite a few really exceptional days at this pier but admit one of my most enjoyable visits was a day in July of 2009. I have had days at the pier where I caught more fish, and days where I caught a larger fish, but this was an unusual day because it yielded up an “author’s ego” moment.
It was a late afternoon visit on a day when the sun was shining bright and the pier was shaking from large waves and strong current (due to a storm in Tahiti). I was fishing with my buddy Mahigeer and within two minutes of arrival discovered that the yellowfin croaker were on a bite. Not just a bite but a REALLY GOOD bite. I was using my high/low rigging with two size 6 hooks and a one-ounce sinker and quickly began pulling in the fish. The fish were good-sized yellowfins about 1 1/2-2 1 /2 pounds each and put up their typical short but spirited battle. As usual, it was catch and release for me, and even though the numbers were rising a couple of people walked by and commented, “not catching anything?” I would reply “oh, a few croakers.” It was enough said. However, Mahigeer is the friendly type and a little more animated when fishing than me. He soon struck up a conversation with an angler having a little less success who asked if we could give him some fish. Thereafter some yellowfin started to go into the bucket. Soon a good-sized sargo joined the crowd in the bucket, and a little while later a spotfin croaker.
People now began to marvel at the fish. “Wow, this guy’s catching fish every two minutes.” “Look, he’s already got another one.” This is unbelievable, how’s he doing it?” “He’s using some secret bait he’s hiding in that cooler.” “Wow, that’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen in all the years I’ve been coming to the pier” (in reference to the spotfin croaker). The comments were done with an admiring, friendly twinkle in their eyes and though I was replying, what could I really say? I was trying to show them how simple it was but a lot of people just aren’t experienced. I was using live ghost shrimp (usually the best bait) and some cut sardines that I had caught up in Morro Bay the previous week; both were producing fish.
Mahigeer, who had brought out a copy of PFIC. 2nd Ed. to give to the pier’s new bait shop owner, finally held up the book and said, “this is why he’s catching the fish. He wrote this book and is the expert.” People now oohed and awed while I stood there a little sheepishly. I guess I could have said, “I’m the Pier Fisherman and I’m supposed to catch fish,” but that seems just a little much. Instead it was the usual: “I’ve been fishing a long time and have learned a few tricks.” But to be honest, I was proud of the catch and proud that I could live up to Mahigeer’s billing. I have fished a long time and I do know how to catch fish. That day I just happened to be showing that fact to a crowd.
I usually fish alone and don’t really mention the book or that I am the author unless I’ve talked to a person for a while and feel it’s appropriate (although I will tell people to check out pierfishing.com). That’s just the way I am. But, as said, that day was an “author’s ego” moment and it’s nice to have them occasionally. The catch by the way for three hours of fishing was 26 good-sized yellowfin croaker, a big sargo, an even larger spotfin croaker, a mid-sized barred surfperch, two large round stingrays and a gray smoothhound shark. It was far from my best day at the pier but as said, good for the ego.
Yellowfin croaker (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — I speak about losing guitarfish from experience. One night during a stay at the pier in 1977, I decided to go shark fishing. Since the pier isn’t open to the public at night, I was the only angler fishing when, at 4 A.M., a huge guitarfish decided to swallow the squid I was using for bait. It was a great fight but unfortunately the fish, which I had hooked on the south side of the pier, had circled around the end of the pier and was on the north side when I finally got it to the surface. I could see a nearly five-foot-long guitarfish in the light from my flashlight but I had a problem since I was alone and my treble hook gaff was sitting next to the bench on the south side of the pier. Because of the wave action I didn’t want to risk trying to maneuver the fish around the end pilings back to the left. I finally decided to back up and try to reach my gaff while keeping the line tight, hoping the fish wouldn’t make a new run. It almost worked except that about the time I reached my gaff a large wave surged against the pier, the line stretched a little too tight, there was an abrupt and resounding snap in the line, and the fish was free. I was sick (to the bone) but soon adopted a Taoist-like attitude: to quote Dylan, perhaps it was a simple twist of fate. It was the proverbial “one that got away,” and it still brings back exciting memories after all these years.
Leopard shark taken from the pier (Picture courtesy of Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle)
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Although Crystal is a small pier sitting in fairly shallow water, more yellowtail have been reported from this pier than any other California pier. And, considering that pilings are heavily encrusted with mussels, it’s somewhat amazing the number of LARGE yellowtail that have been landed.
The first report PFIC received of a large yellowtail from the pier was in October 2004 when a 42-pound fish was reported and the picture posted. Members on the PFIC Message Board did not agree with that weight, most guessing 25-30 pounds; all agreed it was still an amazing catch from a pier.
Yellowtail — 2004
Two years later, in September 2006, two more large fish were caught. The first was a 20-pound fish. The second, landed on September 21, was a really large fish caught by Montre Somsukcharean. Initial reports to PFIC simply said a 40+pound yellowtail had been landed at the pier. Later reports, from people who were actually present and witnessed the weighing of the fish, placed the weight at 55 pounds. Peggi Straker, who took the main picture of the catch, said the fight lasted nearly four hours and both the angler and the fish were worn out at the conclusion of the long battle.
Yellowtail caught in 2006 by Montre Somsukcharean
Next to join in the fun was a fish landed in August 2007, one that weighed nearly 30 pounds. In early September, Billy Burns, our pier reporter, said the water was alive with bonito, mackerel and queenfish and that a couple of yellowtail had been landed. Several other yellowtail were reported “crusin’ the pier.”
In September 2008, a new report said mackerel were abundant at the end of the pier and yellows were seen cruising through the mackerel (but none were hooked). Sounds like a lot of cruising going on!
Many yellowtail were seen in 2010 and, as already mentioned, eight yellowtail were hooked and lost on a single day (August 27) including some estimated to weigh over 25 pounds. The fish continued to be spotted into October.
34-Pound yellowtail landed by Hallman in 2012
Finally, in August 2012, two additional large yellowtails were landed, both being tricked into hitting live mackerel as bait. One, caught by “Hallman” weighed 34 pounds. Another, a really large “mossback” yellowtail was caught by Tony Troncale, a PGA golf instructor and avid fisherman. His fish weighed (on two scales) 48.5 pounds. The battle to land the large fish lasted roughly two and a half hours before the fish was landed by the use of a treble-hook gaff. Another large yellowtail was reported as being caught in mid-September.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — If you’re visiting San Diego and need a place to rest your head I recommend staying at the Crystal Pier Hotel. It’s not the fanciest place you could stay but its unique, populated by a friendly staff, and can provide some night fishing that otherwise you couldn’t enjoy (and their motto “Sleep Over The Ocean” is appropriate). It has however also gotten a little more expensive the last few years after being “discovered” by the travel professionals/writers. Details and rates can be checked out at: www.crystalpier.com.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — In 2013 the pier was named one of the top ten piers in the nation by Coastal Living Magazine. It commented: “Crystal Pier Hotel’s slogan says it all: “Sleep over the ocean.” The hotel consists of 26 pier-top cottages, most of them built in the 1930s. All have been renovated. Each provides a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and, best of all, a patio for looking out over the magnificent Pacific Ocean.” Other California piers making the list were the Santa Monica Pier, the Santa Cruz Wharf, and Pier 7 in San Francisco. Non-California piers were: Chelsea Piers, New York, New York, Morey’s Piers, Wildwoods, New Jersey, Ocean City Pier, Ocean City, Maryland, Cocoa Beach Pier, Cocoa Beach, Florida, The Pier, St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Bell Street Pier, Seattle, Washington. My list might have been a little different but it’s still quite an honor to be named one of the top ten piers in the nation.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — For many years the front door of the Crystal Pier office had a two-sided dog bowl located next to it, one side filled with water and one side filled with doggie snacks. It was in memory of Sinjin a friendly mascot that used to greet visitors to the pier. If you look up to the right of the door you will still see a small plaque the reads: “Sinjin 7/1/91-1/10/06. Loyal companion, known by many, friend to all, faithful pier dog, a true best friend. You are family and will be missed and loved always.” Being a “dog” person myself, I know how they felt—and feel.
A young giant (black) sea bass
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — An increasing number of giant (black) sea bass are being taken from the pier and though it’s illegal to pursue them or keep them, an occasional fish will be hooked. Whenever possible simply cut the line. If heavy tackle is involved and the rig needs to be removed, bring the fish up to the pier in a net, carefully remove the rigging, and return it back to the sea via the net.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — For many years two of the resident regulars were nurturing ladies who believed in giving “God’s creatures” a helping hand. They would be found most mornings out toward the end of the pier filling small buckets with their fish. Inevitably visitors to the pier would stop and look into the buckets of fish and occasionally someone would question why they needed so many fish. One or two may even have questioned if the ladies were exceeding the limits set for various species. But the ladies were catching the fish for a reason. They took their fish home and pressure-cooked them to soften the bones. Then they took the fish down to the Mission Bay Jetty where they fed the feral cats which had been dumped off by less caring members of our society. Those ladies are now gone but the memory of their good deeds linger on.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Cristal and Pierre — One day in 2009, James Barrick, who ran the pier’s bait and tackle shop, saw a round stingray caught that was “a little chubby and preggy.” He kept her for four days in a small pool at the bait shop and then, on September 29, she gave birth to two babies. Given that young rays are on their own once born, he soon followed the birth by gently lowering the momma ray back down into the water with a net. Meanwhile he named the two baby stingrays Cristal and Pierre (after Crystal Pier) and kept them on display for a period of time while feeding them and allowing them to grow. They became favorites of the visitors to the pier but eventually they too were also lowered down to the water. Who knows what happened to them? Hopefully they grew to maturity and are now somewhere along San Diego’s beaches or in San Diego Bay.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — As an ex-teacher, it’s always a pleasure to see students studying. Thus I was delighted to see a young lady sitting and studying while fishing during a visit to the pier in 2013. She obviously knew how to fish but also was studiously concentrating on her study. I finally asked what she was studying and it turned out she was a student at University of California San Diego, the same school where my son, daughter-in-law, and brother had graduated. She was studying for a biochemistry test while also trying to enjoy the warm October weather. Her name was Annika and when I asked where she had learned to fish she said she had accompanied her father on his trips to the Hermosa Beach Pier. She was a pleasant young lady and when I caught a nice-sized spotfin croaker, I asked her if she ate the fish she caught. She said she did and I offered her the fish for her dinner. I was just starting a ten-day trip to the southland and had no way to keep the fish fresh until returning home. I figured if she were like many college students she would appreciate something different for dinner, especially if it was free. She graciously accepted the fish and I offered her good luck on her exam.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Although this fish wasn’t caught on the pier it was caught on Mission Beach which means it was very close.
Boy Catches Rare Fish, Experts Say
La Jolla, Marine experts say a 7-year-old boy from Santee caught a black barracudina, one of the world’s rarest fish. The only other black barracudina was a smaller one caught in 1960 off the coast of San Clemente Island, according to Dr. Carl Hubbs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Look, Mom,” Richard Baker said a month ago at Mission Beach. “I caught a fish with my hands.” Hibbs said the wiggling relative of the barracuda has since been preserved in formaldehyde. He gave Richard a book about fish in return for the foot-long fish with a long snout and large teetch.
—Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1973
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Some things have changed, some haven’t.
Pacific Beach — Located on the coast four miles south of La Jolla and less than a mile north of Mission Bay. It was founded in 1887 as an educational center and home of the “San Diego College of Letters.” There are no buyer sheds or other special facilities but it has been a receiving point for San Diego [fishery] buyers and pickup trucks. In the past 22 years, landings have been recorded for only four years—1942, 1948, 1949, and 1950. The peak was 1942 with 39,000 pounds. The average has been 10,000 pounds per year. Nearly all of the poundage has been clams. From April through July of 1942 the landings were yellowtail, barracuda, and shark. Sport fishing is chiefly from Crystal Pier.
—W.L. Scofield, California Fishing Ports, Fish Bulletin No. 96, State of California Department of Fish and Game, Marine Fisheries Branch, 1954
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — It’s a totally different pier—and state, but the Crystal Pier in North Carolina is somewhat famous for yielding up that state’s record blue shark. The huge fish weighed 478 lb. 0 oz. and was taken back in 1961 by Bobby Kentrolis. I’m not too sure if a blue shark has ever been taken from San Diego’s Crystal Pier although they’re certainly in the area and many California piers have seen the capture of blue sharks over the years.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — It’s always nice to hear about kid’s fishing derbies.
Crystal Pier Kid’s Classic a big success
Pier fishing is all about adventures and good fish stories, and that’s exactly what the inaugural Crystal Pier Kid’s Classic provided yesterday for about 300 young anglers.
“It’s a beautiful day and a wonderful event for these kids,” said organizer Ron Baker, captain of the Point Loma sportboat, who used a boatload of donations and a $5,000 grant from the San Diego County Fish and Wildlife Advisory Commission to put on the big day. He was assisted by his wife, Deena, captain Tim Green of the Premier and Larry Coffeen. The Lakeside Optimist Club loaned out more than 100 rods and reels.
Morgan Krueger, 5, won the grand prize with a 2-pound, 4-ounce spotfin croaker that she hooked on a Carolina-rigged mussel.
Chris Lee caught and released 11 fish, best total of the day. Ian Tinney took the 8-11 age division with an 11-ounce barred surfperch when a school of surfperch made a mid-morning run at the Uni Goop chum buckets dangling over the side of the pier and in the water. Last week, fishing on his father Ron’s boat, Tinney landed a 23-pound, 7-ounce halibut that, if approved, will be an IGFA small fry world record.
Sam Kaye, 4, took the 7-and-under division with a barred surfperch.
Best fish story went to Ezekial Cruz, 12, whose rod and reel combo was pulled over the side of the pier by a huge bat ray as Cruz was tending to his other rod and trying to catch a barred surfperch. A boater passing by saw the bat ray pulling the rod and fetched the rod out of the water. The boater reeled in the bat ray, released it and then drove over to the pier and returned Cruz’s rod to him by hooking it to a line that was reeled up to the top of the pier.
It was a day when San Diego’s unique pier, with overnight cottages that feature bedrooms with surf breaking underneath the wood planks, was closed to the public. Owner Jim Bostian closed the pier to the public and those staying in the cottages. Including parents, there were more than 400 folks at the event.
Since the late 1990s, Baker successfully and graciously has hosted more than 35 of these kid’s events, holding them on barges, lakes and piers. He said he’ll return to the pier next year if he gets the same sponsorship and grant money.
“I’ll apply again for the grant,” he said. “The money went for all kinds of things like ice, groceries, prizes, lots of stuff. We had a lot of great donations. Randy Jones brought us 800 Padres items. And Luc Ofield at Angler’s Choice sold me a lot of stuff at cost and saved me a lot of traveling.”
—Ed Zieralski, San Diego Union-Tribune, August 17, 2008
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — One of the favorite places for locals to eat, and all you need on is a bathing suit, is Kono’s that sits almost at the front door of the pier. If you’re hungry for a BIG breakfast or lunch it’s the place to go — but don’t be surprised if there is a line of people in front of you.
<*}}}}}}}}}>< — My son Mike used to live about six blocks from the pier. Herein a montage of pictures he has taken.
The Pier Rats Speak
Date: November 24, 1998; To: Pier Fishing In California Message Board; From: JW; Subject: Crystal Pier
In reply to “Could use some surf fishing info posted by Dave McDowell.” Go down to Seaforth Boat rentals on Quivera Road and pick up some blood worms. Then fish off Crystal Pier. I have had good luck there recently fishing with my freshwater tackle. Use a small hook (I think I use #4, just make sure the curve of the hook doesn’t exceed the size of your nail on your index finger). I rig with 6 lb. test with about a 14” to 18” leader and a 1/4 oz. sliding egg sinker. Cast right where the breakers crest and kind of let you line wash into the shore (but not all the way and make sure you don’t tangle into the pier). Fish the south side of the pier, as there are way too many surfers on the other side. We were able to catch 1-2lb perch and I even caught a leopard shark with this set up. My outings were mid-afternoon, but I am sure that early mornings would be most productive. I have also heard that “grocery store shrimp” is supposed to be a hot bait for the surfperch.
Date: July 22, 2000; To: PFIC Message Board; From: reefisher; Subject: Crystal Pier Report
Fished 9am-1pm. Very slow fishing. Had some bites on sand crabs at the surf zone. Fished at the end with grunion, mussel, squid and plastics. Almost lost my big pole with the grunion to a big something. I was attending another pole when someone screamed, “there goes your pole” I managed to grab the pole before going over the side. I fought it for a while but it was just too big to get close to the pier. It fought like a bat ray. The only other thing I caught was a lobster. Fellow pier rats caught several white croaker, 1 sand bass (14 inches, I measured for the fellow) a mack and assorted cartilaginous fish, mostly small shovelnose. Fresh sardines seemed to be the best bait. reefisher.
Date: August 21, 2002; To: PFIC Message Board; From: 2pac; Subject: Crystal Pier
I got back last night from 3 nights at Crystal Pier and the fishing was great. The first night me and my dad used mackerel and caught 6 shovelnose sharks that were from 3 to 4 feet long, 2 thornback rays, 1 sting ray, and 1 small halibut. My mom went for a walk on the beach and saw some squid, so I went down to the beach and picked some up for bait. It ended up being the best bait ever. The next two nights my dad, brother, and his wife and I caught; 10 3-foot shovelnose sharks and one that was 4.5 feet, 2 smoothhound shark that were about 3 feet long, 2 thornback rays, 7 small sting rays, 5 bat rays, 1 croaker. The best fish of the trip was my brother’s horn shark.
Date: August 27, 2002; To: PFIC Message Board; From: 2pac; Subject: Crystal Pier
Went to Crystal Pier today after I got out of school and fishing was great. When I got there the end of the pier was full of people so we fished about half way out using squid. First I caught a 2.5 foot shovelnose, next I hooked up with the biggest shovelnose I have ever seen, but right when it saw the pier it took off and broke my line, The same thing happened to two other shovelnose I had on and broke off. Finally I got one in but it was about 3.5 feet but still put up a very good fight. Some guy had on 40-pound test and a 10 ought hook with a giant mackerel on it and eventually hooked on to a 7-foot shark, which broke of on a very bad gaff job. Right when the guard was going to kick us off the pier I hooked on to a pretty big bat ray, got this one in and took a picture which I will get up as soon as I can. Overall a good day of fishing.
Posted by pesk21
Know what kind of shark the 7-foot shark was? -abe
Posted by 2pac
It was a thresher shark and the tail was amazingly long.
Date: October 27, 2002; To: PFIC Message Board; From: 2pac; Subject: Big white seabass
Went fishing at Crystal Pier with my dad and bro. I had a big piece of mackerel on and it got slammed; I had 50# test on and the fish was taking line out for like 5 min. I eventually got it in 40 min later and we saw a giant white seabass. We first tried the net but the fish was too big, and then we used a gaff but on the first try we gaffed it and got it 5 feet out of the water and then the line snapped and the giant was gone. Five or six people were there and we estimated it to be about 40 to 50 pounds. I will never be able to catch something that big ever again.
Posted by pierhead
Of course you will… the one today was just for practice! Pierhead
Posted by pierangler8787
A tip in case it happens again. When you go to gaff it, put the reel in FREE SPOOL. That way, the only way it won’t be landed is if the gaff tears out of the fish. Congratulations though on your nice catch.
Date: January 14, 2003; To: PFIC Message Board; From: trotsky; Subject: Crystal pier (long)
The best pier to fish for halibut during every season would be Crystal Pier (privately owned, fishing pau as soon as sun sets). [Pau means finished or done in Hawaiian—KJ] Try live anchovies if you don’t mind buying bait or live smelt (3-4” is the best size), which you can hook easily using Damashi. Fish a moderately high tide straight between the pilings (egg sinker, barrel swivel, 2’ leader, and preferably an AH hook brought back from Hawai‘i)–the best, I think, is just beyond the last motel units on the pier. The two inside corners of the “T” at the end is another good spot to try. The middle portion—waste time, I think. Leave the egg sinker above the bottom by about 1/2 the length of your leader, which should be 10-15lb test fluorocarbon. You can also try lures but waste time in my opinion.
Spring is also sometimes good for yellowfin croaker (ono—the meat is firm like ahole without many bones—use bloodworm or mussels about 10-20 ft. feet away from pier from the middle to 3/4 out), barred surfperch (inshore to 3/4), walleye surfperch (middle to end) smelt and queenfish (middle to end), the occasional mackerel (3/4 to end), the infrequent calico bass (sneak a big overhand cast straight out from the end—and watch out for huge kelp paddies) and, of course at this pier, large shovelnose. You might consider trying for this last, as the meat in the tail is ono and the fight is better than most fish you can catch from a pier in San Diego. Pretty good fun even by Hawai‘i standards.
Watch out for the lobsters, which may start to return inshore during this time period (we caught couple big ones in April one year, using a net, of course…).
Watch out for the ubiquitous tourist (harmless, but annoying) and surfer (not harmless, and at times very irritating)—if the latter should shoot the pier, do me a favor and drop a big pile palu (smashed mussels, tomato sardines and bread—whatever) on the head.
Another annoying thing about this pier is the amount of opala—limu of various kinds—that sometimes litters the bottom, making it real humbug to fish, especially if the current is pulling strong. [Opala is trash in Hawaiian; Limu is seaweed. KJ]
The other S.D. piers are, I think, a waste of time, that is if you are set on hooking halibut. Crystal Pier can be waste time as well, but get better chance. Good luck, hope you hanapa‘a, Trotsky
Date: July 9, 2003; To: PFIC Message Board; From: SD Fisherman; Subject: Crystal Pier
Fished Crystal from 11-1pm today. Conditions were decent and in the two hours I pulled in a Leopard, Grey Smoothhound, two big Thornbacks, and some Walleyes on the Sabiki. Not exactly what I was looking to catch, but fun anyway. Tried right past the surf line on the south side about halfway out. I know there are YFC and Corbina in that surf line, maybe next time. Didn’t really see anybody else catch anything while I was there.
Oh yeah, forgot about this…While I was fishing a guy came out with a small duffel bag. He pulls a container out (didn’t notice if it was an urn), and dumps ashes? down into the water. I know people do commit loved ones ashes to the sea off piers, and I don’t know if that was the case here, but the ash residue lingered at the top of the water and drifted right into where I was fishing. A little unnerving. Anybody ever have this happen? ~Don aka SDF~
Posted by OB Pier Rat
Nice report Don…I’ve seen quite a few of these happen at OB as a matter of fact, in a couple cases a boat named “Ashes at Sea” came in close to the pier where a group in funeral attire were standing, a person on the boat would release the ashes and then the group on the pier threw a wreath of flowers into the sea, I thought it was pretty cool. In fact I’ve told my wife a few times that if my burial became a hassle just toss my ashes off the left end of the OB pier, my favorite spot…
BTW, Did you catch any more fish there after the ashes floated over? Always looking for tricks to help catch fish. hehehe…
Posted by pescare
I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to do it from shore, but if someone’s last wish was for me to spread their ashes there I’d do it in a heartbeat and just be prepared to pay the price. Ed ps. If you happened to see ashes along the shore just outside of Bodega Bay last January it may have been my uncle Tilio who had a similar wish.
Posted by Ken Jones
Human ashes are not supposed to be released within 1500 feet of the shoreline so technically it was illegal. However that rule is routinely broken.
Date: July 18, 2003; To: PFIC Message Board; From: SD Fishermean; Subject: Crystal Pier
Since getting a nice Yellowfin Croaker a couple of weeks back, I’ve been looking to break out at Crystal with a big day. I walked out on the pier to see what was going on at 10am, and there were a bunch of kids in a field trip group fishing, as well as some others, despite the cold/rainy conditions. One of those anglers was an elderly gentleman, and once I saw him reel in two fattie Sargo on mussel, I was convinced it was worth a try. Overall the fishing was okay. Lots of Walleye on the Sabiki as normal. As I was fishing the Sabiki, I see my other rod (baited with squid on a hi-lo) go bendo big time. I rush over, and proceed with a good battle. It’s a good-sized shovel, at least three feet long. It tried to go under the pier, but I lifted it just enough at the surface to keep it stationary. I started handlining it up the side, but the hook popped out and that was it. Oh well. I ended up getting another shovel, about 18” or so, and that was it for the day. The wind picked up and the conditions became choppier, which killed off the fishing. Looking forward to the next time. ~Don aka SDF
Date: July 17, 2004; To: PFIC Message Board; From: reeffisher; Subject: Crystal Pier Black Sea Bass
Saw my first ever black sea bass caught from a pier yesterday. I and three other fishermen on the pier were kicking ourselves for not having our cameras with us. Mine was in the car; I had all the intentions in the world to bring it out on the pier, but alas the excitement of getting out on the pier got in the way of my diminished memory. When the lucky guy hooked up, we all thought he had a large bat ray. Hardly any runs and a slow hard steady tug. It was taking awhile so I went back to catching the mighty smelt (sarcasm mood on). I totally missed how they got it up on the pier and only saw it as it hit the deck with a big cheer from the gathered crowd. Some say it was 50 plus lbs. to me it looked more like 25-30 lbs. maybe 36-40 inches long. To their credit the fisherman and the folks helping him wasted no time getting it back in the water. BUT NO PICTURE!!! As far as I could tell he was using 30-lb mono on a Shimano Baitrunner (4500 or 6500?) with a quality pole, baited with a whole squid.
Date: June 26, 2009; To: PFIC Message Board; From: raider; Subject: New fish at Crystal pier
Went to Crystal Pier yesterday morning and caught a rock wrasse, which is the 53rd different fish I’ve caught at the pier. And the crazy thing is that I caught it on a Sabiki, along with a lobster, and a small sand bass, all on the same line! I was also able to get about a 3-foot-long shovelnose guitarfish but overall it was another slow day at the pier.
Date: October 24, 2004; To: PFIC Message Board; From: reeffisher; Subject: Crystal Pier Yellowtail — We’re Talking Big
Several weeks ago I heard about a 42 pound yellowtail landed at Crystal Pier. Needless to say I was a little skeptical, but in talking to a couple of regulars and one in particular that took a picture of it, I became a believer. I guess one of the earlier pictures floating around the net was from a cell phone camera. This picture was from a film camera, and today while at the pier the photographer had some copies. He was kind enough to give me one for all of us to enjoy. This year has truly been a great one here in San Diego. Lets hope next year is even better.
Posted by dompfa ben:
Hate to be “that guy”… but that is not a 42 lb. yellowtail, unless that gentleman is like, 6’5”. It goes without saying, however, that it is an amazing and rare catch from any pier!
Posted by: Mel
It might not be exactly 42 lbs but it’s a big fish anyway from a pier. Congrats for him whoever he is. The fish might look smaller because they way he’s holding it makes the fish bend a little.
The modern history of Pacific Beach dates to 1887 when the Pacific Beach Company offered its first lots for sale. The Golden Era magazine said the land just north of False Bay (today’s Mission Bay) was a “magnificent beach, unsurpassed in California and the bay for yachting, fishing and duck-shooting.”
Just a year later, in January 1888, the San Diego College of Letters laid its cornerstone in formal ceremonies. In April the San Diego and Old Town Railway was extended to Pacific Beach. Round trip fare from downtown to the beach was 25 cents and took just 30 minutes one-way. In May the American Driving Park (a racetrack) opened, complete with a grandstand, stables and clubhouse. Wyatt Earp raced his horses there.
Sad times were to come. Depression in 1890 led to the closing of the college, a collapse in land prices, and the exodus of many people. Farming became the norm for a period of time with lemon trees covering the hills and Pacific Beach becoming the “Lemon Capitol of the World,” but that too was short lived.
Stability seemed to return in1904 when the former College of Letters became the Hotel Balboa, people were once more attracted to the area, and land sales began to increase. Slowly more and more homes were built and the area settled into a role as a seaside part of San Diego.
The Hotel Balboa, originally the San Diego College of Letters, would eventually become the San Diego Army-Navy Academy (the West Point of the West). It would then transform itself into Brown Military Academy before moving north to Carlsbad in 1958. Today the site is the home of the Pacific Plaza Shopping Center.
The idea for a pier in Pacific Beach originated with Earl Taylor, a local realtor of the mid-1920s who was trying to sell property in the then sparsely populated (700 resident) area. Although land was fairly inexpensive (private lots cost $400, and commercial lots cost $800-$1,000), demand had slowed after the steam railroad discontinued service to downtown San Diego in 1917. Although the train no longer ran down Grand Avenue to the beach, Highway 1 continued to travel west on Garnet and then north on Cass. What businesses there were lined the route and gave the local area its economic focus. But it wasn’t enough. Something was needed to attract more people to the area. Taylor felt he needed a gimmick, something like the amusement piers that had attracted land buyers to Venice and Ocean Park near Los Angeles. He approached Earnest Pickering, owner of the Pickering Pier in Ocean Park, and soon had a partner, both financially and with insights regarding a pier.
In September of 1925 the local Pacific Beach Banner reported that Pickering and an associate, Neil Nettleship, were in town discussing the construction of the pier. The Pickering Pleasure Pier appeared to be on its way, construction started, and additional headlines soon proclaimed, “Pacific Beach: Home of the Million Dollar Pier.” The headlines were a little premature because Pickering soon experienced money troubles of his own and had to back out of the project. Construction stopped!
At this point Nettleship (who had also built a small pier at the turn of the century at the foot of La Mont Street in Mission Bay) stepped in and, together with the Tye Construction Company, gained ownership of the pier. The name was changed to the Crystal Pier and Nettleship began to issue stock in the Crystal Pier Amusement Company.
Crystal Pier — 1925
On April 18, 1926, the pier was dedicated; festivities included airplane stunt flying, a surfboard-riding exhibition, and nail-driving competitions for men and women. The crushing of a huge bottle by one of the pier’s pile drivers marked the official christening.
Although dedicated, the pier and its amusements would not be finished until the following summer (amid fierce competition between the Crystal Pier and the amusement park at Mission Beach). On the July 4 weekend of 1927, the 950-foot-long pier opened as the “Crystal Pleasure Pier Ballroom and Joy Zone,” an opening heralded in both the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. The main attraction was the towered ballroom that sat out at the end of the pier. The ballroom was built in a sort of 1920s Aztec-like architecture and featured a cork-cushioned dance floor and a crystal ball, high up above the dance floor, which gave the pier its name. Other attractions included an amusement midway with the ever-present arcade.
Crystal Pier — 1927
The attractions were short lived. From day one the pier had rocked in an unsettling manner. Visitors to the ballroom complained of queasiness from the rocking and the swaying lights (which prompted Nettleship to run piano wire through lights and wall fixtures). Some questioned the safety of the pier, some merely resented feeling seasick while out on a pier (which seems fairly reasonable). The initial problem was insufficient bracing which caused the pier to sway in all but the mildest surf. Worse, in the long run, was the fact that marine borers were rapidly destroying the improperly treated, non-creosoted pilings. The pier and ballroom were condemned (although the ballroom was dismantled and reconstructed on Mission Beach next to the amusement park) and the pier was shut down.
Nettleship sued the Pan Pacific Construction Company, won a Superior Court decision, saw it reversed by an appeals court, but then saw his case upheld by the State Supreme Court. Other court decisions ruled that the pier beyond the high tide line was public property (so the owners at the beachfront end would need to lease the ocean end of the pier). But Nettleship’s money was gone and the U.S. National Bank foreclosed on the pier. Nettleship was now out of the picture. Eventually the bank spent $10,000 replacing pilings, built a 500-foot extension and remodeled the pier.
Crystal Pier — 1935
On April 19, 1936, almost exactly ten years after the initial dedication, a new and remodeled pier, complete with ten motel cottages and a soda fountain, opened for vacationers. Souvenir postcards from the day mentioned free pier fishing and tackle for rent —for the princely sum of 25 cents. The cards also mentioned a daily and monthly prize for the big fish. The new pier and motel quickly became a favorite for those coming to the beach to escape the heat of the inland areas.
Two years later a deal was nearly struck to lease the entire pier to the city. The Pacific Beach Chamber of Commerce supported the plan and even wanted the pier lengthened and facilities added so that sportfishing boats could use the pier but that lease deal was never signed. Instead, the pier was sold in 1948 and then again in 1949.
California Department of Fish and Game photo from 1949
In January of 1953 new problems arose. Two derelict fishing vessels being towed by a barge broke loose during a heavy storm and slammed into the north side of the pier. The vessels snapped ten pilings and dumped a cottage into the Pacific. Luckily the cottage was unoccupied and the eleven visitors who were staying in other cottages at the time had decided to vacate their dwellings during the 7’5″ tidal conditions. The pier was repaired, then, in December of 1953 the city announced a revised lease with the owners of the pier; a 25-year lease which would be in effect until 1978.
For much of the fifties the pier seemed to be in a slow decline. Then, in 1961 the pier was refurbished and given its now familiar ocean-blue and sky-white colors. Cottages were also restored and redecorated.
A Kid’s Fishing Derby was held at the pier in 1967
The pier in 1977
The infamous pier-damaging storms of 1983 didn’t spare the pier. Fifteen-foot waves destroyed the outer 260-foot section of the pier and questions began anew.
A shortened pier
Who would fix the pier, the city or the operators of the private hotel? And would a remodeled pier retain the front entryway of the pier that had become a Pacific Beach landmark? After considerable debate, and several different proposals by diverse groups, it was agreed that the pier would be renovated, lengthened, and retain its basic appearance—with both sides contributing money. Eventually a new lease was signed, six more cottages were added (somewhat decreasing available space for those who liked to fish the surf area), and all but the last 20-foot length of the pier was restored and “uplifted” (so that it would hopefully be better to withstand a new storm).
The pier was once again safe and open for angling. As mentioned, Crystal is still the only pier along the Pacific coast which has rooms over the water, thus allowing an angler the chance to virtually fish from his or her front porch (or, in this case, patio area).
Christmas at the pier — 2010
Crystal Pier Facts
Hours: Vary by season; generally 7 (or 8) AM. to 7 PM. (or sunset) for visitors in the summer; 8 AM. to 6 PM. in the winter. 24 hours a day for those staying in the pier motel.
Facilities: One cleaning station, some benches, and some night lighting (for those who stay at the pier’s cabins). Bait and tackle is available at the friendly Crystal Pier Bait & Tackle on the pier (generally frozen anchovies and squid).
Parking can be a problem! Metered parking is available on the side street at the foot of the pier if you can find it. This is a popular area for beach go’ers and surfers and they just don’t seem to realize they should leave some parking spaces for the humble pier rats. Arriving any time after the early morning hours simply means you must look around for a space. Do not park in parking lots that have posted warnings; they mean it and will not hesitate to have your car towed away. Kono’s, located near the entrance of the pier, serves up great breakfasts and lunches for a very reasonable price and will provide takeout if you’re on the pier.
Handicapped Facilities: None. The surface is wood planking with a railing 40 inches high.
Location: 32.79583 N. Latitude, 117.2575 W. Longitude
How To Get There: Take I-5 to Garnet Ave., then take Garnet to the foot of the pier.
Management: City of San Diego and Crystal Pier Motel.