Public Pier — No Fishing License Required
A quote from a Golden Gate National Recreation Area brochure perhaps best sums up the diversity offered by this magnificent area: “Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a park that begins where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco Bay. Here at the Golden Gate, the park surrounds the narrow entrance to the city’s harbor offering a spectacular blend of natural beauty, historic features, and urban development. To the north and south of the Golden Gate, GGNRA follows the Pacific shoreline creating a vast coastal preserve.” If anything, the quote understates the beauty and feeling of the area. For those looking for more than just a fishing pier, it would be hard to overlook this area.
Nestled just inland from the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point, the Civil War fort that sits under the south end of the bridge, this pier offers one of the most beautiful views of the bridge itself as well as the hills that form the entrance to the Left Coast’s most famous bay. In addition, a veritable armada of boats and ships is usually on display, everything from small Boston Whalers, ferries, and sightseeing boats, to huge ocean liners and football-field-length cargo ships. Controversial, but almost a daily sighting, are the even longer oil ships that traverse the watery highway to their moorings at Richmond or the more inland Carquinez Strait. Equally impressive is the view toward the City, one of the world’s favorite tourist destinations. Luckily for the anglers, the pier offers generally decent fishing and crabbing. The only problem is the camera-touting tourists who sometimes outnumber the fishermen and tend to fill up the limited parking spaces near the pier, especially on the weekends. In addition, as the amateur photographers vie for the most photogenic spot on the pier to capture their once-in-a-lifetime photos, they may be in the very spot a fisherman wants to fish. But it’s a truly minor and good-natured inconvenience.
Environment. This old wharf (called the Torpedo Wharf by some) sits on its mostly wooden pilings over a sandy bottom. However, because of its location near the bay entrance, and because of debris that has built up over the years under the pier, offerings include more than just sandy-shore species of fish. Here you might catch almost any type of fish that enters the bay.
However, most commonly caught are the normal species for this area—several varieties of perch, jacksmelt and topsmelt, flatfish such as sand sole, sanddabs and starry flounder, smaller rockfish, kingfish (white croaker), and the sharays—sharks, rays and skates. The prize fish are the big three of the Bay Area—striped bass, California halibut, and king salmon.
This pier also offers excellent crabbing for both red crabs and rock crabs. You will also often bring up Dungeness crabs, but remember that it is illegal to keep these crabs in San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay.
Occasionally you may also encounter fish that are unusual for the area as seen in the catch of American shad in both 2006 and 2007, good runs of Pacific mackerel in 2009, and the catch of a Pacific bonito in 2016.
Strong winds are common most days and often, strong currents accompany them. For the wind, the best advice is to bring a warm jacket. For the currents, you simply have to plan out how you are going to fish. As example, it may be almost impossible at times to keep your line down under the pier, the prime habitat if you’re after perch. Or, if you cast out away from the pier for bottom fish such as flounder, it may be almost impossible to hold on the bottom without a fairly heavy sinker. So, make sure you have the tackle to offset any problems from the wind or current.
Fishing Tips. The best time to fish this pier is in the winter and spring. Mid-to-late winter can produce decent catches of flounder (although there seem to be less and less each year); similar times will also see blackperch, striped seaperch (usually called rainbow perch), rainbow seaperch, pileperch and rubberlip seaperch.
For flounder, fish on the bottom using a sliding sinker rigging baited with pile worms, grass shrimp, ghost shrimp, or anchovies.
For perch, attach a couple of size 6 hooks directly to your line or use a high/low leader baited with pile worms, grass shrimp or ghost shrimp. If bait doesn’t work, try plastic grubs (although expect to lose a few to the debris on the bottom). Pier rats report that 2” pumpkinseed Power Bait grubs dipped in shrimp/salt Smelly Jelly will sometimes get the perch when all else fails (and this combination was also reported to attract a few halibut when the flatfish were present). Small Kastmasters, 1/12 or 1/8 oz. jigged next to the pilings have also proven deadly to the larger perch. Best colors on the Kastmasters are chrome, chrome with blue, or chrome with green.
For the perch, I’ve had best success fishing the inner side of the L-shaped pier—just where the pier branches to the right. At that point there are three series of old pilings. The water between those pilings and the pier is often very productive. Fish straight down or let the current carry your line under the pier. Another good spot is near shore on both sides of the pier. The shallow waters will often produce some nice-sized perch including white seaperch and pileperch. Be sure to remember that the recreational fishery for surfperch (excepting shinerperch) is closed inside San Francisco and San Pablo bays from April 1 to July 31.
Summer produces mainly kingfish, jacksmelt, walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, Pacific sardines (some years), sand sole, brown smoothhound sharks, leopard sharks, bat rays and big skates. For the kingfish (white croaker), fish on the bottom with pile worms or cut anchovy and be prepared to hook them as the cast is settling to the bottom. For jacksmelt, fish on the top with pile worms, small hooks and a bobber or float. For walleye, silvers, and tomcod, fish mid-depth with worms or strips of anchovy. But remember—no summertime perch can be caught until August 1.
For sand sole try on the bottom with a high/low leader or a sliding bait leader and use size 4 hooks baited with pile worms, shrimp, or strips of anchovy. For sharks and rays use heavier tackle and anchovies, mackerel, squid, or ghost shrimp for bait. A lot of immature rockfish and cabezon are also caught while fishing under the pier using pile worms or shrimp but almost all are too small to keep. A common problem throughout the summer can be keeping the bullheads (staghorn sculpin) off your hook.
Some years will also see good runs of Pacific herring (winter) and/or Pacific sardines (summer). The best bet for these are the multi-hook bait rigs—Sabiki, Lucky Lura, etc. At the end of the rigging use a torpedo sinker or a heavy spoon (and Krocodile spoons from 2-3 ounces in weight work well). However, because of the restricted 3-hook rule in the bay, to legally use a bait rig you need to cut off some of the hooks. Some winters (especially those that have a lot of rainfall) will also see good runs of Pacific sanddabs. These can be caught, usually two at a time on high/low rigs baited with pile worms, small pieces of anchovies or shrimp.
Most years will also see some striped bass and halibut caught at the pier, usually from June till August. The best bait for either of these is a live shiner or smelt fished near the bottom. If live bait is unavailable, try frozen anchovies, sardines, or pile worms. You can also try artificials. Jonah, at Hi’s Tackle in South San Francisco, was one of the reporters for the PFIC Message Board (as well as an expert). He recommended using1/2-3/4 oz. white, green and white, or chartreuse colored Hair Raisers. He also recommended chartreuse or shad colored Storm Swim Baits. Since stripers and halibut exceeding 40 inches in length have been reported, make sure you have a good net to bring them up onto the pier.
Salmon also occasionally enter the catch and typically you’ll see people fishing for them from June until the fall months. Most seem to be caught as they pass through the bay in September and October. Best bait and rigging are anchovies fished a few feet under a bobber.
This is also one of the best piers in the bay to catch rock crabs; in fact, there seem to be as many people crabbing as fishing on many days. However, remember to release any Dungeness crabs you may pull up. As mentioned, it is verboten (forbidden) to keep any Dungeness taken in San Francisco Bay. A tip on crabbing from Hippo Lau, another expert reporter from Hi’s Tackle, showed up in the September 2002 PFIC Monthly Report: “there are lots of BIG rock crabs showing up at the pier and Hippo recommends using albacore guts if you have a friend who’s fishing for the longfins. He says to take the guts and put them in a one-pound coffee can and then pour them into a Ziploc plastic bag and freeze the guts. When you’re ready to go fishing the amount in the bag will be just right for one of the bait cages in the crab traps. Hippo says the albacore guts are GREAT BAIT.”
A final creature that seems fairly common is octopus. Most of the creatures are caught down around the pilings and whenever they’re brought up they’re sure to elicit comments from interested onlookers. They’re a little gnarly but are also pretty tasty!!