Two sea chubs, family Kyphosidae, are found at the pier. The first is opaleye and they are the favorite fish for many anglers.
Here you will often see really big schools of really big opaleye. They’ll swim out from underneath the landing dock, spend a few minutes at the front of the pier, and then swim back under another dock simply to emerge a few minutes later. Tourists on the pier will ooh and awe and ask what those big fish are.
Opaleye caught by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)
The opaleye are hard to hook, in fact harder to hook than those out at the Mole. Perhaps it is the crystal-clear water and lack of kelp but they are typically very line shy and hook shy. Most anglers use frozen peas as bait and small hooks (down to size 12-14) fished under a float. Given the water depth you do not need a leader as long as those at the Mole but typically the opaleye will be at mid-water depths. I typically use a high/low rigging and have caught opaleye on frozen peas, fresh mussels, pile worms, bloodworms, ghost shrimp and pieces of market shrimp but true opaleye aficionados typically use peas or green moss. With the exception of the frozen peas and market shrimp that you can buy at local stores, bait will need to be brought from the mainland.
Another opaleye caught by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)
The second sea chub is halfmoon, sometimes called the Catalina blue perch. They will be in the same mid-depth regions as the opaleye and can be caught on the same hook under a float approach or a high/low rigging with size 6 hooks. They will take all of the above baits but sometimes will also take small strips of squid. The squid will stay on your hook much better than the other baits but will get far fewer bites; in fact, the fish often just ignore the squid even though the cephalopods are a main bait used by tourists (due to availability).
Two damselfish, family Pomacentridae, are also found at the pier. The first is the beautiful golden and scarlet-hued garibaldi, lovely to watch but illegal to keep. They are almost always found down around the pilings and of course venture out into all the waters around the pier. They almost inevitably join the opaleye, halfmoon, and blacksmith in investigating baits found at mid-water depth, and almost inevitably will also grab bait and be hooked. There isn’t much you can do but make sure you handle them gently and return them as gently to the water as possible.
Adult garibaldi (top) and a young garibaldi showing its blue spots (bottom)
The second damselfish is the blacksmith, one more fish found in the mid-depth region that will often swarm the hooks along with the halfmoon, opaleye, bass and senorita. Like the halfmoon, can be caught on any of the above baits and the same tackle. They are typically smaller in size but another pretty little fish.
The wrasses, family Labridae, are well represented at the pier with three family members. All are interesting fish for a number of reasons: (1) their coloring; (2) the fact they sleep at night; and (3) the fact that two of them, the sheephead and rock wrasse, are also protogynous hermaphrodites, big words that simply means they change their sex as they age, beginning as females and becoming males; the verdict is still out on the señorita.
Rock wrasse are one of my favorite light tackle fish at the pier and the small fish (up to about a half-pound in size) put up a surprisingly rugged little fight. They have small mouths and like to rest on the bottom. I’ve found that casting out a high/low leader with two size 8 or 6 hooks above a small torpedo sinker can be deadly. Bait the hooks with pieces of worm and start a retrieve as soon as the rig hits the bottom. Reel in slowly and the wrasse will follow the rig all the way to the pier. They may strike as the bait is moving along the bottom or hit just as the bait starts to be pulled up; in either case once you develop the feel you’ll be able to know when to strike and pull in the fish. The rock wrasse love lug worms, pile worms, bloodworms and, to a lesser extent, small pieces of market shrimp As mentioned, you will not be able to catch them at night since they will be asleep.
Rock wrasses — male (with stripe) and female
The second wrasse, generally smaller in size, are the dreaded señorita. Dreaded? Señorita are the peskiest bait stealers you’ll encounter and love to strip worms and other soft baits from the small hooks you’re using. But, you need small hooks if you’re seeking these bottom species. The señorita tend to grab the bait in the mid-depth range but they may grab it anywhere from the bottom to the top and it doesn’t seem to matter what you are using for bait, they will find it and attack it.
Señorita — sometimes called cigar fish due to their shape
The third wrasse found at the pier, sheephead, is the largest and one of the favorite fish caught by pier anglers.
A sheephead about ready to undergo the change from female to male. They change color and they develop a hump on their head as they grow larger.
The head of a young sheephead
The sheephead can range from mere youngsters up to fish several pounds in size and I’ve caught as many and as big sheephead at the pier as out at the Mole in deeper water.
Sheephead caught by Ken Jones
A high/low leader with size 4-2 hooks is the most common rigging and the favorite bait is ghost shrimp followed by market shrimp (although I have caught them on almost every bait listed above). The largest sheephead I caught at the pier followed a fairly long cast out on the left side of the pier but I’ve caught them under the pier, in the waters between the pier and landing float, and under floats on both sides of the pier. They move around. Do remember they must be 12-inches in length to keep. As with the other wrasses, they are not caught at night because they are asleep on the ocean floor.
A small sheephead caught by Pierhead (Boyd Grant)
Joining in the fun, typically if fishing on the bottom, will be some other fish such as sculpin (California scorpionfish) and ocean whitefish while an occasional perch may also show, usually a black seaperch. Mid-water depths will often see jacksmelt and jack mackerel while Pacific mackerel and bonito make an occasional appearance.
Blackperch are occasionally caught
A tried and true tradition at Catalina is chumming for fish and several options work well on the pier. One is to use bread or pizza dough. Dampen the bread, break it into small pieces, and form small balls before dropping the chum into the water. Usually it will only be a few moments before smelt will appear. Generally the kinetic excitement of the smelt will act as an attractant for the other species and you will soon have a variety of fish in your spot. A second option is to simply throw some frozen peas into the water. Lastly, small pieces of fish or bait always attract other fish.
GDude (James Liu) and a variety of fish
Larger species are, of course, a possibility. Your best bet in seeking larger fish might be to try a live smelt which you have caught with a small hook (or net). Kelp bass especially like live smelt, and experts say that early morning and late evening hours can produce some of the largest, keeper-size kelp bass. If you’re lucky, a yellowtail, white seabass or halibut might even decide to swim by while your smelt is dancing its sexy little dance. You never know!
• Inshore — Because of the various buildings and floats there isn’t much open space to fish on the inner half of the pier. Nevertheless, a few anglers will find a spot and try the shallower water and it is here that you will have your best chance for a halibut. Instead of bait use a lure, generally a swim bait like a Big Hammer, and cast out with a slow retrieve. Do watch out for cables that can stretch along the bottom of the bay
• Fishing at Night — Nighttime fishing is a special attraction at the pier although it is a story with a mixed story. The beauty and personality of Avalon is enhanced after dark with the hills aglow and the multi-colored lights from homes and businesses reflected on the ocean waters.
As for the fishing, it sees some changes. Several of the bottom species encountered during the day—rock wrasse, senorita, sheephead and blacksmith—just to name a few, are diurnal species that sleep or are fairly dormant at night. You will not see them.
Thus concentrate on the bass and the species that often do show up at night—Pacific mackerel (a crepuscular species that likes to bite best at sunup and sundown but also will bite well into the night), jack mackerel, California scorpionfish aka sculpin (a nocturnal or nighttime species), and sharks and bat rays (nocturnal species).
Big bass will come out from under the pier’s protection at night and bait (anchovies and cut mackerel) as well as artificials will catch them in quantity although perhaps somewhat less numbers than during the day. Scorpionfish will also hit anchovies but prefer a nice strip of squid and are common at night.