Public Pier — No Fishing License Required
Students of history should remember that Friday, November 22, 1963 was the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For those who were alive during those days, the weekend that followed was a haunting melodrama still vivid more than thirty-five years later. At Imperial Beach, people’s emotions were torn. Saturday was the official opening day for the new pier and festivities were planned — but it is hard to be festive when the nation is in mourning.
Nevertheless, the pier did open and people quickly began to catch fish. Within two weeks, anglers had landed a 20-pound halibut, five-pound bonito, 4 3/4-pound sculpin (scorpionfish) and a six-foot-long leopard shark. Build it and they will come; that saying could apply to this pier. When fishing is good, they (the anglers) will come. Unfortunately, depending on one’s viewpoint, the success of a few fishermen resulted in unbelievable crowds during those first few weeks. As many as 3,000 anglers lined the rails, shoulder to shoulder. A tram operation scheduled for the pier even had to change its plans because of the crowding on the pier.
Stories about the pier appeared regularly in the local papers and a young angler named Ken Jones, recently transplanted from Newport Beach and the Newport Pier, began to visit and fish the pier. Action, although generally good, was rarely great. Better fishing seemed to exist north at Crystal Pier or in the bay at Shelter Island. Nevertheless, it became one of the piers I would visit during my high school and college days.
Environment. This is the southern-most pier in California (and the city proudly proclaims that it is the “Most Southwesterly City in the U.S.”). It is within walking distance of the Mexican border and displays, on most days, a beautiful view of the Coronado Islands (Islas Coronados), the four, fish-rich Mexican islands that sit just off to the southwest.
Unfortunately, the proximity to Mexico also leads to a fairly frequent, at least once a year, condition that tends to put a real damper on activities along the beach, including fishing. That phenomenon is sewage spills into the ocean from the Tijuana River. Sometimes a million or more gallons of untreated sewage flows into the Pacific just down-shore from Imperial Beach. When it happens, the “no swimming” signs inevitably go up and the anglers on the pier ask themselves if they really want to eat the fish from the water. Good question! Efforts have been made to improve the situation but to date the spills seem to continue.
The pier is located on a long sandy beach, has short finger jetties to the north, and extends out 1,491 feet into water that is nearly 20 feet deep. Several fish attractants exist under and around the pier. Pilings have a heavy growth of mussels and an artificial, half-moon shaped, rock reef was constructed near the end of the pier in 1964. Later, after a barge accidentally spilled a large load of boulders, an additional, although unplanned, reef was added to the mix. For the most part the fish found here are the normal SoCal, sandy-shore species. However, the reefs, and the deeper, calmer waters found at the far end of the pier do attract some additional fish.
The Fish and Fishing Tips. For the most part the species are typical SoCal, sandy-beach, long-pier species. Best fishing here is behind the surf line (or in it) and about half way out where the pier begins an upward slope. The surf area itself is one of the better places to take both barred surfperch and California corbina. Just past the surf is tops for yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, and sargo; some years will also see some bonefish taken in this area.
On most any day you’ll see the knowledgeable “regulars” fishing the inshore area; newcomers seem to head automatically out to the end. The best bait for the barred surfperch is live sand crabs, but bloodworms, ghost shrimp, and fresh mussels will work for all the fish. Winter and early spring are the best times for the barred surfperch while mid-summer to fall are the best times for the croaker. Nighttime, during an incoming tide, is almost always best for the larger croaker, especially a high tide that measures five feet or greater. At night you might also see a few black croaker.
The shoreline looking south; it’s a short distance to Tijuana and the Mexican border.
Sharays too are common in the inshore to mid-pier area. Sharks include leopard sharks and gray smoothhounds as well as a not-a-real-shark, the shovelnose shark (guitarfish). Rays include the small thornback rays, round stingrays, butterfly stingrays (a few) and bat rays.
A fish starting to make an appearance at the pier is shortfin corvina. The Baja species that has shown up in South San Diego Bay waters over the past decade was rarely ever taken outside the bay until recently. However, grunion that showed up on the beach in July ’09 were followed by corvina. Quite a few big shortfins were recorded including one that was reported at nearly ten pounds; largest to be weighed was 6 ½ pounds. Most fish were caught on small spoons, MegaBaits or plastics like Fish Traps. Some were also taken on fresh mussels. Since then every year seems to see some corvina taken from the pier, especially when the grunion are running and most are caught in the inshore waters.
The second best area is the mid-pier area about halfway out on the pier. All of the aforementioned fish may show up but a couple of additional species predominate. The water here can harbor huge concentrations of queenfish (called herring) and walleye surfperch and almost every day will see whole families catching (or snagging) the small fish. Both the queenfish and walleye like to school mid-depth, usually about half way to the bottom (drop your rig to the bottom, pull up a couple of feet, and continue checking every couple of feet until you find the school). The most common rig for these fish is a multi-hook rigging (your own or a Sabiki/Lucky Lura-type bait rig) but a single, size 8 or 6 hook, on the end of a slightly weighted line, baited with a small strip of anchovy or squid, will often yield the larger queenfish and walleye surfperch. In addition, anglers jigging with small crappie jigs (generally white or yellow) often show impressive bags of medium to large size queenfish. I’ve also noticed that the schools of fish in this mid-pier area are generally on the north side of the pier, the same as at Ocean Beach and Oceanside. Another species is also common here, white croaker (called tomcod). It’s caught on the bottom and when schools are present numbers will be high. A variety of pelagics will also start to show in the mid-pier waters (see below).
The mid-pier area is (surprise, surprise) also one of the best areas for halibut with most of the flatties hitting from the late spring until the early autumn months. Halibut are “ambush predators” that like to lie on the bottom, eyes upward, and when they see a fish come swimming above they dash upward and grab the unsuspecting fish. As a consequence the best technique for halibut is a live bait and in this case any of the small fish in the mid-pier area— small queenfish, white croaker, and smelt (aka prey or food for the halibut) seem best suited to light up the eyes of a hungry hallie. The other technique is using lures that simulate live bait. Motionless bait sitting on the bottom rarely attract the halibut.
This mid-pier area also seems to be the main locale of the dreaded lizardfish, the skinny little fish that, when present, can seem to cover the bottom. The toothy fish, anywhere from six inches to 18 inches long (a big one) will hit almost any bait including bait that seems too big for their mouth. They sometimes can actually be difficult to keep off a hook. Although they’re considered inedible by most people, some of the locals do eat them. Others use them as halibut bait (and an angler using lizardfish as bait won a “big money” halibut derby in Santa Monica Bay. The good news is that they are a fish seen in cycles, often showing up for a year or two then disappearing for many years.
A fish that is caught from the mid-pier area out to the end, and often caught down around the pilings, is barred sand bass. The fish are known for spawning in the sandy flats south of Imperial Beach and when they do large numbers are caught by the Sportfishing boats. Given that many pass by the pier on the way to those spawning grounds, it’s easy to see why so many also get caught at the pier.
Two other species caught from both the mid-pier area to the end are white seabass and bonito. Both are favorites! Springtime may see a few white seabass but usually they will be the younger fish that are generally called sea trout (although a huge white seabass was taken in 2014 at the end). Bonito will show up some years, typically warm-water years, and when they do big numbers can be caught. Unfortunately, the smaller, younger bonito are not too discriminating and can be caught at times on bait rigs, Sabiki’s and others, and they are often caught three to four at a time. A couple of drops will yield the five fish limit for the smaller bonito (which has an overall ten fish limit) but way too many anglers just keep catching them one after another. Some big fines could be given out by the CA Fish and Wildlife wardens but rarely are they around to ticket the anglers.
Small leopard shark
Luckily the larger bonito are a little harder to catch. Most of them fall to either live bait, i.e, anchovies, or a lure such as the long-time favorite bonito feather trailing a Cast-a Bubble or more recent lures like MegaBaits. The big bonito give one of the hardest fights, pound for pound, of any pier fish and when they show up the pier will almost always be crowded with anglers.
Two other pelagic species can enter the mix at times—barracuda and yellowtail. Both tend to show up August through September or October when the water is warm and while the yellowtail typically fall to live bait both can also be caught on lures, i.e, Krocodile and Kastmaster for the barracuda, MegaBait for the yellowtail.
A good-sized Yellowtail
Down around the pilings is the area where you find the largest perch. Pileperch, blackperch (buttermouth perch), and rubberlip perch will fall to bloodworms or fresh mussels fished on small size 6-8 hooks. Try different depths, but most of the pileperch are caught just a couple of feet beneath the surface of the water while the rubberlip and buttermouth will be down on or near the bottom. Watch your leader closely to prevent it from being washed into the pilings and their sharp-edged, leader-grabbing mussels.
Two perch-like species may also make a showing—opaleye and halfmoon. Both will often be found by the piling or between them, usually a few feet underthe surface of the water. The Bible on opaleye says frozen peas are best but I’ve found that both opaleye and halfmoon love ghost shrimp (as well as worms, fresh mussels, and pieces of market shrimp); the halfmoon will also hits strips of squid.
The end section seems best for California scorpionfish (sculpin), a tasty fish but one which must be handled with care due to their poisonous, very painful spines. The fish can be caught with a variety of baits—squid, bloodworms, cut anchovy, market shrimp and ghost shrimp but a strip of squid seems best. Usually the best time for the sculpin is after dark, especially during the winter months.