Public Pier — No Fishing License Required
“Surf City, U.S.A,” that’s what the town and locals like to call Huntington Beach (and the city went to court battling Santa Cruz for the use of the name). It’s appropriate given the steady stream of surfers to the local waters and sunbathers to the local beaches. The pier itself serves as the focal point for these beachfront activities. Surfing competitions, band concerts, professional volleyball tournaments, you name it, the pier is home to these and many more activities. It’s also home to the thousands of anglers who visit the pier each month, many on a daily basis.
That fact seems kind of funny today because this was a pier that I used to ignore. Newport regulars, myself included, were prejudiced. “Good” anglers fished the deep waters of Newport Pier for bonito; “others” were content to fish Huntington Beach for tomcod (white croaker). It wasn’t that the pier wasn’t nice; it simply offered the wrong kind of fish. Unfortunately, it took years for me to discover the simple fact that there were far more fish than just tomcod at Huntington Beach. In fact, the pier yielded a lot of bonito and large sharks and in many ways fishing was as good or better than that at Newport. But back in the early sixties, I never made the effort to traverse the few miles that separated the two piers, even when nothing was being caught at Newport. Looking back, I wonder what I missed by making that decision.
Environment. This is a huge pier, 1,856 feet long, and the area offers an eclectic southern California mix of fishing and non-fishing sights. Located smack dab at the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and Main Street, there always seem to be a mix of tanned SoCal yuppie crews—complete with expensive cars, or hot rodders displaying their ‘50s and ‘60s vehicles (especially when the sun sets in the west). Cruising PCH in your car is a tradition.
On the street corners and entrance to the pier stand orange, green, or purple-haired (and) tattooed girls. They’re competing with Caribbean-types with birds on their shoulders, skateboarding dogs and skate rats. It’s reminiscent of Venice to the north although the surfer dudes and dudettes provide a distinctive flavor for the area.
The tourists with their thousand and one languages and dialects increasingly bring in a new element to the scene although their impact is usually transitory. Then again, there are always the un-card-carrying, proletariat pier fishermen, the pier rats (or perhaps prole rats), making the trek out to the pier to test the waters. Our heroes.
There is considerable water and fishing space to test. The pier sits on the Huntington City Beach while to the south is located Huntington State Beach, to the north is Bolsa Chica State Beach. The beaches run for more than eight miles and are some of the widest in southern California. Offshore is the region known as the Huntington Flats, a sandy-bottom area known for sand bass and halibut. Inshore, the bottom is also primarily sand. There aren’t many rocky areas nearby and the water is not as deep as at the piers on the Newport Peninsula. However, this is one of the piers near an artificial quarry rock reef.
Unfortunately the pilings, once heavily encrusted with fish attracting mussels and barnacles, are now often bare due to city efforts to keep the pilings clean, lean and mean (for storms).
Looking east toward Newport and the Newport Pier
Any discussion of the environment has to include surfers. As said, the city proclaims itself “Surf City, U.S.A.” There are many onshore reminders (businesses at the foot of the pier) and there are generally surfers in the surf area from dawn to dusk.
Unfortunately, conflict between anglers and surfers almost seems predestined. One of the very best areas on the pier to fish is the inshore area from the surfline out to about the lifeguard building. This is the home of shallow-water corbina, large spotfin croaker, smaller yellowfin croaker, and barred surfperch. All are coveted species both for pier anglers and surf anglers.
This shallow water area is also coveted by surfers and often they are what’s called SWAs (Surfers With Attitudes). Rules stipulate that surfers must stay a certain distance from the pier, rules that should help prevent surfer-angler conflicts. Rules also say that surfers are not supposed to “shoot the pier” (surf between the pilings) but here the rules seem to just be suggestions and “shooting the pier” is almost a rite of passage.
In part the conflict is due to city decisions. When the pier was rebuilt in the early ’90s, the space between inshore pilings was lengthened to provide more room to “shoot the pier,” even though such actions are supposedly illegal. Some would argue that the city itself was inviting surfers to ignore and break the rules.
One day (at the old pier) I witnessed several surfers surfing through the pilings and one angler repeatedly being forced to move his line. After shouting at the surfers, and receiving only a one-finger reply, the angler decided to retaliate. He tied a sinker weighing at least five or six ounces directly on to the end of his line. The next time the surfers headed in toward the pilings our noble but impetuous and emotional fisherman aimed and let the sinker fly. Luckily, for both he and one surfer, he missed. But he didn’t miss by much—less than a foot. By this time, calmer heads prevailed and Macho Man realized the danger of his action. He moved. Don’t try such knuckleheaded acts or allow a buddy to try it. Such actions only produce losers, no winners. However, also don’t be afraid to complain to the lifeguards on the pier since they are supposed to keep the surfers away from the pier. Unfortunately, most of the lifeguards are also surfers and sometimes it seems like complaints are simply falling on deaf ears.
The Fish and Fishing Tips. The pier itself is large and presents somewhat distinct fishing zones. (1) The inshore area preferred by several species of croaker as well as barred surfperch and several small sharks and rays. (2) The mid-pier area that sees an overlap of inshore and deep-water species as well as its own species. (3) The end is where most pelagic species will be caught, everything from sardine, jacksmelt and mackerel to, at times, bonito and barracuda. This area is also the best for the larger sharks and rays. (4) The piling area, basically from mid-pier to the end, which at times seem to be a world onto itself. Although the newbies to saltwater pier fishing seem to automatically head to the end, the regulars know which species they are after and head to the area that provides their desired fish.
Inshore. Barred surfperch are numerically the number one caught fish in the inshore, intertidal or littoral zone,area. They are joined by several varieties of the family Sciaenidae (croakers) which seem to actually lead the hit parade due perhaps to their size. In the shallowest waters are found corbina, once simply called surf fish and a favorite species for many anglers.
From just past the surf area out to about the lifeguard tower are found large spotfin croaker, probably the favorite croaker after corbina. Huntington Beach is noted for large spotfins with most years seeing fish in the 5-6 pound range and occasionally fish up to 8 pounds in size. Smaller yellowfin croaker hit throughout the day (and night) while black croaker make occasional showings, but almost always after dark. This area is also good for the croaker-like sargo, a fish that resembles croaker and is caught on the same bait and with the same riggings.
All of these will fall for mussels (especially fresh mussels), ghost shrimp, bloodworms, lugworms, and pieces of market shrimp or razor clams fished on the bottom. If you’re specifically after barred surfperch or corbina, you might also want to invest some time and catch yourself some sand crabs down near the water’s edge; they’re the superior bait for those two species.
The most common rigging for these is simply a high/low with size 6 or 4 hooks utilizing a pyramid sinker just heavy enough to hold bottom. Some anglers also like to use a Carolina-type sliding bait leader. For this leader, buy an egg sinker that has a hole through the middle. Run your line through the hole and through a small bead (usually red) and then attach a swivel to the end of the line (which prevents the sinker from sliding down onto your leader). Next attach a 3-4 foot leader that has a size 6-4 hook at the end. This leader works well for the larger croaker—spotfins up to around 6-pounds in size and yellowfins to about 2 pounds in size (although larger fish can be found here. A 28-inch yellowfin was reported in March 2015 which, if accurate, would have been a new state record). The sliding rig aka fish finder rig also has the advantage of being a good halibut rig.
Most years will see these croakers joined by a few of their croaker cousins—white seabass. Usually the white seabass will show up in the spring although a large run of white seabass took place at the pier in October 2006. Most of the time the white seabass will be the smaller, illegal-size juvenile fish that are called seatrout but at times the bigger fish will show up (including a nice-sized fish in May 2016). Unfortunately, the name sometimes confuses newbie anglers who think they may keep the “seatrout” even if they know the size requirement for white seabass. Know the rules AND learn how to identify the fish.
A large spotfin croaker (but unusual picture)
As mentioned, the barred surfperch can be taken on the same baits and rigs used for the croaker. However, the perch are also caught on artificial lures. Small root beer or motor-color grubs or Berkeley Gulp (4-6 inch size) seem to catch the most fish and have the most loyal following of anglers.
Best croaker action, for both spotfin and yellowfin is during the mid-summer to fall months, with late July often being the peak period. Spotfins seem to hit year-round while yellowfins are much more scarce during the winter months. Surfperch predominate in the winter months.
Some years will also see runs of zebraperch (Hermosilla azurea) being caught in the shallow-water or mid-pier areas; try frozen peas or corn for these vegetarians. It’s hard to get them to bite so unfortunately most are taken on snag lines much like those used for mullet. It’s legal but doesn’t seem too sporting. Some of the zebraperch by the way are an impressive 3-4 pounds in size.
These inner waters also see a fair share of sharays—small round stingrays, thornback rays (good ‘ol throw-em-backs), some shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), gray smoothhound sharks, and (generally in the spring) small leopard sharks. As usual, the best bait for the rays and sharks seems to be squid or a bloody piece of mackerel (although live mackerel and other small live fish are good bait for the bigger sharks).
Typical-sized thornback ray
Although the larger sharks are more common out at the end, an unusual run of thresher sharks did take place in the inshore surf area in September 1998—approximately 40 fish being spotted. The threshers would come up and slap baits with their tails, some were snagged, and four of the 30-80 pound fish were eventually landed.
Mid-Pier. A wide variety of fish are caught in the middle of the pier, almost all of the aforementioned shallow-water species (excepting corbina), some of the deep-water species, and some species most common to the moderate depths in this area.
Over the years one of the most common and dependable mid-pier fish has been tomcod (white croaker), a fish much despised by some and a fish given a plethora of names — tomcod (southern California), roncador (Ventura and Santa Barbara area), kingfish (central and northern California), sewer trout, tommy and brownie. It even seemed to somehow gain some (for probably less than flattering reasons) names connected with cities—Pasadena trout, Glendale trout, Santa Ana corbina. Oh the woes of being a tomcod! To make it worse, their numbers seem to be going down. Trips to this pier and others have seen fewer and fewer, as well as smaller and smaller, tommies and, for the first time, in 1998, a 10-fish limit was applied. Most tomcod are caught on high/lows with number 6-2 hooks, and cut anchovy or other fish such as mackerel. Although the old cast and wait procedure can work for a few fish, it’s better to keep the bait in motion. The tommies will often strike as the bait is settling down into the water and then a slow retrieve will entice the fish to hit. Signs normally warn against eating white croaker but the good news is that small tommies are excellent halibut bait (called brown bait).