Last modified: November 27, 2018

Fishing Piers Southern California

Imperial Beach Pier

If our piers have a guardian angel it is the California Wildlife Conservation Board. The board was created to “administer capital outlays for wildlife conservation and related public recreation” and is now in its seventh decade of working with local cities and counties to fund construction of piers, and, more recently, coordinate their restoration.

Ken Jones, whose book “Pier Fishing in California” and website ( are the definitive guides to the California structures, notes, “In the 1960s this group helped build or renovate 16 piers in the state. And in the 1980s, after the 1983 El Niño storms hit, they worked on 18.”

Jones, who loves to fish, specifically off piers, has been a self-described “pier rat” since 1962. (He says a true pier rat “leaves the pier cleaner” than when he arrived and helps unhook birds that get snarled up in man’s detritus.)

His favorites among all that he sampled (and he has sampled all of them): “Ventura Pier, with a beautiful sunset and those islands in the background, can be great.” And “The ‘B’ Street Pier in Crescent City—that is something.”

Momentarily less pier rat and more uncrowned poet laureate of California’s piers, Jones explains their primal allure. “For me, out there at night, so still except for waves splashing against the pilings, maybe some moonlight on the water…It’s simply a special moment and place to be in the world.”

I found Jones’ special moments and places aplenty during my own wanderings. (The highlights of each pier I visited can be found at They were, I realized, a sort of low-cost spa treatment.

They’re also a window into nature—bird and marine life and California’s life. As you meander out on a pier, you see, for a moment, a small portrait, each, by itself, interesting. But together, they paint a picture of a state where the riches are sometimes more psychic than sensational. Staring out to sea, listening to the waves, hearing the cry of a gull, I felt complete.

Christopher Smith, Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2012

<*}}}}}}}}}>< —  An interesting article from the early days of the pier.

Lee Chilson’s South Bay Scene

There is absolutely nothing like a sunny winter afternoon on the new fishing pier at Imperial Beach. The skies are clear, the wind is fresh and the water is ice blue. Screeching birds swoop down over the rolling water in search of food. Strollers move up and down the long expanse of the pier, looking into each bucket along the way to see what mysteries of the deep have been snatched from the water by fishermen.

Small boys  form a line at the concession stand, are waited on, then scurry back to their waiting poles and munch potato chips or candy bars, patiently waiting for The Big One to take the bait.

A teenage girl steps up to the bait counter and orders “a bagful of barnacles,” but the young attendant just laughs and hands her what he knew her fisherman-father wanted: A bagful of clams.

The sun glistens on the water as the big waves thunder in under the pier and crash to the beach. A lone surfer, his board pointed to sea, wisely changes his mind, turns about and rides a wave back to the beach. “It’s too rough for surfing today,” one of the young experts says.

An older couple takes turns squinting through one of the two dime-deposit scopes and there are “ohs” and “ahs” as they scan the Coronado Islands, Point Loma and the San Diego skyline in the clear, bright sunlight.

Cars nearly fill the parking lot at the approach to the pier and an occasional fisherman hurries back to his car to drop more coins in the meter, lest he get a ticket for over-parking. Because the meters, like the rolling waves, never cease. They’re in operation 24 hours a day, every day.

On days like this the pier attracts fishing buffs of every age group. They come in pairs, threesomes and in family groups. Old men sit on the big benches, half asleep in the warm sun, their fishing poles beside them and the lines hanging limp into the deep water below. They look almost as if they were hoping the fish overlook their hooks and go bother someone else.

The grandmother-type is seated at a bench on the other side of the pier. She is alone, except for her big bag of lunch and a tackle box loaded with hooks, sinkers, lures and all the gear. She chats with everyone that passes by and you get the feeling she’s more there for the company than for the fishing.

A young man, obviously proud of his catch, is cleaning four medium size ocean perch at one of the sinks provided along the pier. He’s in no hurry to clean his fish and he stops his work as sightseers stop by to look at his four beauties.

A young mother hurries along the pier in a vain attempt to keep up to her young son. Then, on the way back, she has to pry him from each one of the convenient water fountains that line one side of the 1,200-foot long pier. And, as she nears the last one you hear her say to no one in particular, “I don’t know why they had to put so darn many of those things along the pier.”

The small family—man, wife, two youngsters and a baby in a stroller—make their way toward another bench. The little one is content with a bottle—at least temporarily. The father baits two lines, hands a pole to his wife and they settle down on the bench to fish as the two kids romp down the pier in search of adventure.

It’s cooling off now. The wind is stronger across the vastness of the Pacific and the sun is dipping lower in the  sky. Heavy jackets are zipped up, hoods are pulled over heads and tied. Those less hardy reel in their lines, put away their gear and head for the parking lot and home. But the real fishermen stay.

The concession stand does a brisk upturn in hot chocolate and coffee as the sun drops all the way into the sea and a light fog rolls in to add a chill to the evening air. It gets darker, but fishermen—small boys, old men, the grandmother types and teenagers—stay. Then the row of vapor lamps sputter on along the north edge of the pier and along the T at the end. The lights cast new shadows and turn blue jeans to purple and ruddy faces into an eerie bluish color.

It’s damp now and rain threatens. An occasional drop or two falls and more fishermen round up their gear, reel in their lines and head for the warmth of their automobiles. But the next morning the skies will be clear again. The wind will be fresh and cool and the water will be ice blue. The sun will be back again and so will the screeching birds. And just as sure as the sun, the wind and the sea, the fishermen—all ages, all kinds—will be back too.

Chula Vista Star-News, February 20, 1964

History Note. Prior to the Twentieth Century, this area was called South San Diego. Then, in 1908, the South San Diego Investment Company was formed. R.R. Morrison filed plans to subdivide the area and George Chaffey bought several parcels. His plan was to create a beach resort and retreat for those trying to escape the summertime heat in Imperial Valley, hence Imperial Beach. His plan was successful and the area became one of the many thriving resorts along California’s shores.


To stimulate real estate sales, the investment company organized the South San Diego and Imperial Railway Company in December of 1908. Passengers would sail on a ferry down from San Diego to a landing in the marsh where they would transfer onto a gas-powered car to take them to “beautiful Imperial Beach.”

In 1909 a boardwalk was built, as was a 500-foot-long pier at the foot of Date Street. The Imperial Beach Improvement Association built both and the two became the centers of beachfront activity. In 1912 the ferry ceased operation but direct electric inter-urban train service began from San Diego to Imperial Beach—an event that affected the pier.

Passengers would ride the San Diego and South Eastern Railway to Otay Junction, today’s Main Street in Chula Vista, where they would transfer to the Mexico and San Diego Railway to finish their journey to Imperial Beach.

To power the electric cars, six wave motors, designed by Charles E. Edward, were built on a dogleg extension at the end of the pier, and, so, for a period of time, the pier was called the Edwards’ Wave Motor Pier. Excess electricity from the motors was sold to subscribers.

Pier with wave motor machines that helped supply electricity to the area

Eventually these wave machines lost favor but the pier continued to be used for recreational fishing until 1941 when the pier was damaged by winter storms. In 1948 storms finally washed the pier away for good and then, in 1953, the boardwalk suffered a similar fate.

Ten years later, in 1963, the new Imperial Beach Pier was built, a 1,200 foot-long-pier that was longer and much more extensive than the original.

In addition to the pier fishing, one of the attractions was the sportfishing landing that operated from the wide, T-shaped end of the pier. Half-day fishing trips to the rich waters of the Coronado Islands were soon offered on the 45’ Sea Scout and the 50’ R-Zee. It was less expensive, as well as a much shorter trip, than those offered by the landings found in San Diego Bay.

An ad from the Chula Vista Star News on May 21, 1964

Eventually the 65’ City of Imperial Beach additional was added to the fleet.

Date: April 3, 2007; From: Kathie Morgan, Fish Sniffer Magazine; To: Ken Jones; Subject: Imperial Beach Pier Fishing

Whether the R-Zee was first or the Sea Scout, or maybe both at once, they were already running off the pier while Zachman was having the City of IB built. I remember it was the first time I ever heard of a concrete hull. Twin 671 GMCs, if I remember right, and NO WHEEL, just a little lever to push this way or that.

Dick owned all three boats, and I caught my first ever yellowtail off the Sea Scout, operated by someone other than R Zachman. Dick seemed to prefer the R-Zee until the City was built. I never saw such a captain for going fishing, never. A morning half day trip might get back after dark. I remember one day we chased tuna down to Isla Todos Santos, on the half-day trip, finally connecting off Punta Salsipuedes on the way back.

Another memorable day was white seabass fishing with a boatful of jockeys from Del Mar, who caught over 100. I couldn’t BUY a bite. I deadheaded or worked the galley there for several years. Dick would moor the boat offshore the pier and he and the crew would get into a little boat and leave me out there alone all night. It saved me the cost of a motel room.

Another story regarding the partyboats, and their catch at the pier, comes from Tony Peña the noted authority and author on Baja fishing. .

“The late Joe Zarolla, a waterfront character of renown, revealed a pet lure in the sixties called a “vivif” which was a funny French version of today’s plastic tails with a broad paddle similar to a porpoise.  After the laughter settled down Zarolla proceeded to catch a limit of yellows to 29 pounds on a June 28, 1968, half-day run on a party boat that operated from the Imperial Beach pier.  Zarolla helped pad the boat’s catch of 123 yellows that morning because he led infuriated, hard charging yellows bent on killing his gyrating surface lure within reach of baited hooks.”

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