Fishing on the Santa Cruz wharves — 1860s-1890s

Ken Jones

Staff member

Mackerel in abundance have made their appearance in the waters of our bay. Fishermen and amateurs are having great sport catching, as they take the hook freely. —Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, August 15, 1862

The mackerel have left. They furnished rare sport while they did stay. At one time the shoal was nearly a mile long, and well defined as a distance by the gulls and pelicans hanging over them. —Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, August 22, 1862

Quite a company of “Johns” are fishing for mackerel in the Bay at Soquel. These fish have partially returned, and bite very well around the wharves at Santa Cruz early in the morning. —Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, September 6, 1862

Mackerel.—There has been lately, large schools of mackerel in our bay, so thick as to make the water appear perfectly alive. There are a number of fishermen busily engaged in catching them, and it is very profitable, as they are consumed here in great quantities. We have several kinds of fish in our harbor, but none of such fine eating qualities as the mackerel. They can be caught readily with a hook and line, but more so with a seine, which is more extensively used. We would advise people to lay in a stock for the winter as they can be salted and kept for years with very little trouble.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, September 19, 1863

Flounder fishing is great sport in the bay. The fish are very plenty, bite as fast as the hook reaches the bottom, and are besides first rate eating. —Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, June 12, 1869


Lovers of the hook and line are having a jolly time in catching smelt out of the Bay. Average luck, 100; poor luck 50; good luck, 200 and rising. Crabs, the size of sardine cans, are caught by the dozen.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, January 29, 1870

Piscatorial.—Our bay, at the present time, is swarming with those finest of fish “Smelt.” So numerous are they that the water presents the appearance of a solid mass of fish. The wharves are daily lined with scored of enthusiastic disciples of Ike Walton, and every kind of contrivance is brought in play to capture the finny beauties. Dip-nets, by which whole basketsfull are captured at a single haul; grapnels of fishhooks, with which the “urchin’ “yanks” out two or three at a time. Then you have true disciples of Walton, who scorn to take advantage of the countless numbers and a re satisfied with a single fish at a haul. All colors, ages and sexes, from the noisy six-year-old, to the gray-haired sire, go home laden with “smelt.” Schools of porpoise play along the shore; sharks, fish-hawks, gulls, and now and then an ungainly pelican, sweeps down on the doomed fish, and making an awkward movement in the mid air he stops, gazes down, plunges, turns a double somersault and disappears beneath the wave, and rises in a moment with his net full. Here is fun for the million. Let every one go, cast his line, and capture his thousands.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, December 17, 1870

Fresh Fish

This is the season for rare and choice fish. Our market is abundantly supplied with pompino, smelt, sea bass, flounders, sole, skate, tomcod, mackerel, herring, barracouta, and all other table fish. Every night myriads are cast ashore by the waves to be devoured at daylight by birds. On the Santa Cruz beach, as also at Soquel and Aptos, fires are built at dark, and as the tide turns to roll in thousands of these fish are stranded or caught in the retiring surf. It is rare sport and very profitable. The mackerel are very large and fat and make a delicious fry. Farmers and others secure them and salt in bins for future use.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, July 13, 1872
Mackerel and Sardines

The annual visit of Horse Mackerel and Sardines, are now in full tide, all along the coast, amateur fishermen may be seen securing these choice and valuable fish. The sardines are dried in the sun, and the mackerel salted away for winter use.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, July 18, 1874

Hundreds of boys and men are still after the smelts with grab-hooks at the wharves.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, December 23, 1876

Off Aptos a large fish, unknown in this section, was caught by J. Keeny and other fishermen, three miles from shore. This monster of the deep rolled himself up in the net, and when landed he was entirely exhausted. Keeny brought the fish to this city and placed it on exhibition in one of Wendte’s buildings. It has a “sand-paper” skin, a tail of unequal divisions, shark-like fins; is about six feet long, and will probably weigh four hundred pounds. The teeth are numerous, long and sharp.—Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel, November 1, 1879


The Santa Cruz Transcript says that Saturday and Sunday the beach between the wharves was crowded with sardines and smelt, and little army of school children caught a great many of them.—Fresno Republican, December 24, 1881

The fishermen, on Sunday last, landed more than one thousand pounds of sea minnows and monsters on the Santa Cruz beach. Everybody in the neighborhood had smelt, and no matter when eaten, they were smelt all the time.Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 20, 1883

Men, women and children line the sides of the railroad wharf each afternoon, and enjoy themselves in fishing for smelt. Tuesday afternoon a young lady, who was leaning too far over the edge of the wharf, very nearly fell into the water, and it was only by the timely help of a gentleman, who caught her by the dress, that she was prevented from taking an unintentional bath.—Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 8, 1888

Hundreds of smelt are daily caught from the wharf by those who have the proper tackle and bait. The best time to catch this species of fish is early in the morning or in the late evening just before sunset, in fair weather. Catgut leaders and small hooks and sinker is the proper tackle, with either mussel worms or liver for bait.—Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 16, 1888


The railroad wharf was crowded yesterday afternoon with men, women and children all engaged in fishing for mackerel. Some made good catches while others did not catch over a dozen each.—Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 23, 1890

Men and women, boys and girls daily line the wharves, fishing with bait and grab hooks, and the driver of a butcher’s delivery wagon says it is hardly worth running a cart at the present time, so light is the demand for meat. If the fishermen of Alameda, San Jose and San Francisco knew what fun the disciples of Isaak Walton are having on our waterfront, on clean, dry, high, safe wharves, they would be here by the car load. The fish caught are smelt, sardines and flounders, and a sea bird whenever the fisherman has a fish to spare. —Santa Cruz Sentinel, February 1, 1891

It is but a few weeks ago that any person could, by dropping into the sea, off from the wharf, a hook and line, without bait, catch one, two and three fine fish at a time. These were sardines or bloaters of a large size. From October to January there were immense shoals of mackerel and smelt—now there are quantities of flounders and codfish.—Santa Cruz Sentinel, March 21, 1891

Amateur Fishermen — How They Spend Their Time In Our Glorious Climate

To the ordinary attractions of these bright and joyous days along our sea-cliffs and beaches is now added the piscine sport afforded by the presence of a school of smelt just off the wharf.
The pier furnishes a fine vantage ground for reaching the little finnny visitors and its numerous holes are utilized as natural ports through which to ply the sport.
Fishermen and women are plentiful and seemingly happy in snaring the little creatures of which it takes many to make a meal. The art consists of impaling a slimy, squirming worm on a hook, casting it into the water and drawing it back again.
The excitement is had in the timid nibbling at the food and ensnaring quivering of the line. The culmination occurs in unhooking the foolish fish which liked worms too well. The resultant dish of fried smelt is the least consideration.
Here may also be found the orthodox “lone fisherman” with the inevitable tufted chin and peaked hat. He is also partially and painfully hard of hearing and is entirely absorbed in his pursuit. He is annoyingly successful with his crude appliances while elaborate tackle and tremendous energy are vainly expended buy his near neighbors.
Below, the tide runs out and the swells roll up and reach their allotted fullness, then break with a splash, some sparkling for a moment with the evanescent tints of the rainbow, others sluggishly melting away into matter, much and mid, while the smelt-fishers continue to cast and draw with all outward complacency.—Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 23, 1892

Santa Cruz, August 19.—There is an unusual run of mackerel in the bay. They are genuine mackerel and this is their first appearance in five years. The wharves were lined with anglers today, who made big catches.—San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 1895