Last modified: November 12, 2018

Central California Fishing Piers

Monterey Coast Guard Pier aka Coast Guard Jetty

Public Pier — No Fishing License Required

John Steinbeck called it “the hour of the pearl.” It’s “the gray time,” he wrote in Cannery Row, “after the light has come and before the sun has risen—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself. No automobiles are running then. The streets are silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries.”

Today Monterey has grown, tourists have discovered its charm, and the quiet times have lessened, no matter what hour of the day. Nevertheless, there are still places and times along the watered shoreline of this town when man seems to take a back seat to nature and the only sounds are those waves and the splash they make. This spot would be an exception; it’s rarely quiet even during “the hour of the pearl.”

Look, there’s a sea lion on that rock!

The reason is the large colony of sea lions (as many as 1,500 some years) that inhabit the jetty also known as the Coast Guard Pier. There are just a few too many of the cagey animals and their sleep habits are just a little too erratic. The cute and cuddly (not!) pinnipeds primarily lounge on the outer half of the jetty (where Homo sapiens are restricted) but the ill-mannered beasts consider all of the local waters their realm.

They’re kind of like that bad neighbor down the street whose fourteen kids are coming and going all hours of the day and night, and who usually do so accompanied by the screeching of tires and/or the sounds of their motor bikes. And of course don’t forget the weird looking dudes and dudettes who accompany them (where’d they come from?).

Sea lion aka sea dog

Think your neighbors are noisy? Try living next to a family of 1,500 sea lions! There’s a reason why they’re called sea dogs and their “barking” at times can seem endless (although one report on the pier said that the “gulls call, seals bark, and sea lions bellow”). I heard a little girl ask her mother one day, “why do the seals fart all the time?” Her mother replied, “honey, they’re sea lions and they aren’t farting, they are barking.”

Some people are thrilled and excited by their antics; those who have been around them for a while may have a slightly different opinion. For some, especially those anglers who have had the pleasure of loosing a freshly hooked fish to a sea lion, there can be a real dislike both for the animals (they’re just fur bags in the parlance of these haters) and the government that seems to give them special protection. Such is life today in the new and improved century.

Anglers share their space with the sea lions

Environment. The name “Coast Guard Pier” is actually somewhat of a misnomer since the “pier” is basically a concrete walkway/roadway built over a jetty/breakwater; it also has a cement wall that is approximately 30-inches high. Until a few years ago anglers could fish from that concrete wall. It made it easier to spot the holes and crevices in the rocks  and allowed an angler to actually get down to the water if he or she had hooked a large fish.  Then they installed a fence which took away a place to sit as well as the aforementioned advantages.  For maximum success today it’s important to copy a couple of the local tricks.

Ted Harada, a regular at the pier, brings a kitchen ladder (that provides a better view) and a long-handled net that he MacGyvered to reach down to the water — and it works.

Sea lions, sea otters, anglers, divers, and kayakers use one side of the jetty, while Coast Guard boats are tethered to the inshore side. As such, an angler is not confronted with the normal attributes of a pier, i.e., pilings with mussels and water around and under the pier. However, the jetty and its rocky environment often produces fish for anglers when Wharf #2 is dead; it also can produce an interesting variety and sometimes quality of fish rare to its nearby cousin pier.

At the shore end of the jetty is the small San Carlos Beach. The jetty extends out from that beach and adjacent to the walkway onto the jetty is a large parking lot. Although the beach is primarily used by divers heading out into the bay, it is also where local angler Matthew Michie caught a 1 lb. 8 oz. blackperch that was, for a while, the state record. That record is now held by a 2 lbs. 9 oz. fish caught in nearby Pacific Grove.

The water itself, Breakwater Cove, is generally fairly calm and shallow although the bottom slopes rapidly away from the shoreline. Water depth is estimated to be 30-40 deep within 40 yards of the beach. The sandy bottom that sits out from the rocks is covered with sand dollars, sea pens, tube-dwelling anemones, nudibranch, and a few sandy shore fish—primarily flatfish and rays. To the west is a kelp-covered reef.

San Carlos Beach

The jetty/breakwater itself is largely made up of large rocks and the water around the rocks, and the crevices and cracks in those rocks, are populated with fish and invertebrates. Low tide will reveal sea stars in a multitude of colors, barnacles, a few sponges, and many, many crabs of assorted size. Mostly unseen are the creatures that cover the rocks underwater—green anemones, strawberry anemones, nudibranch of many colors (including the large rainbow nudibranch), and other creatures of fish attracting and fish attacking ability. Among the critters are quite a few octopi although the nocturnal hours, when anglers are absent, are when they like to come out and play.

The backside or inner harbor side  of the Coast Guard Pier

Oh, and did I mention that there are a few sea lions on the jetty? Most will be on that restricted outer portion of the jetty but there always seem to be a few loitering on the rocks next to where people are fishing; perhaps they want a slightly less noisy environment or are offended by the stench that also exists out at the end? Often there will be a mom with small pups crowded on a rock, sometimes there’s a huge grandpa sea lion taking a whole rock for himself. All will be “Kodak moments” as tourists with cameras are able to get up close and personal with the seemingly docile pinnipeds. The sea lions are joined by a variety of other tenants including harbor seals and a variety of birds (herring gulls, pelicans, and Brandt’s cormorants among others). Also very common are sea otters; rare is the day when you don’t see at least a few of the little guys and gals floating around on top of the water.

Usually Giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, is found just out from the rocks with the amount varying depending upon time of year and storm activity. Often you can find holes that are clear of kelp between the rocks and kelp, while during outgoing tides you may have a narrow channel of water between the rocks and fronds of kelp. With an inflowing tide the kelp may extend almost into the rocks. During storms and heavy seas fishing can be almost impossible.

The main impediment/nuisance/irritation to anglers (not counting the sea lions) are divers and kayakers. Most divers enter the water from the beach and many then proceed to swim parallel to the jetty on their way out to deeper water. There can, at times, be conflicts and some divers can be bothersome, rude and unfriendly. The divers, for the most part, are just worried about being hooked (the average is one diver hooked every 19 days) and that might tend to make some people a little nervous and irritable. I’m sure the divers would say anglers are the main impediment/nuisance/irritation. There does not seem to be an easy solution since both groups want to use the area for recreation (and some divers tried to have anglers banned from the jetty when marine protected areas were established for the Central Coast in 2007). Just be careful if you see a diver near your line.

One of the PFIC regulars offered up his advice on avoiding the divers: “la mosca” said to simply avoid morning hours and the weekends. It’s not a bad suggestion since the late afternoon hours seems to see the fewest number of divers and dusk can often be the best time to fish the jetty. (I say this cautiously because I’ve also been told that some divers like to dive the jetty area at night where they can be spotted underwater by their use of glow sticks. Given that anglers only have access to the pier until sundown, the diver’s nocturnal excursions should not be a problem,)

Divers aka knuckleheads who should know better!

The kayakers on the other hand are generally vacationing neophytes out in a rental kayak for the first time. Some of them seem to have no clue as they paddle into the kelp close to shore and sometimes right over the lines of shore-bound anglers. More seasoned kayakers typically swing out away from the rocks. An  exception is kayak groups being guided by a “wildlife expert.” Often a group of kayakers, six to twelve, will nuzzle in right at the edge of the kelp so that the “expert” can point out the sea lions, otters and other creatures. Sometimes these “leaders” also seem to have no clue.

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