From "The Family"— Poor Fishing

Ken Jones

Staff member
Poor Fishing

The anglers at the pier were not in a good mood. They had questions but no answers, at least no answers that all could agree upon, and their mood had changed from concern to anger.

For nearly a month the fishing at the pier had been exceptional, far greater than anything the long time regulars had ever seen. The pier seemed surrounded by a vast shoal of small sardines and anchovies and those fish, known as food to larger fish, had attracted a great mix of fish as well other denizens of the sea.

Out at the end, large, good-size mackerel were at the pier every morning and every night. Buckets over flowed with mackerel and the railings of the pier were covered with the blood and slime of the all too voracious fish. As for the anglers, they tried to keep their lines from tangling but all too often when they brought up their multi-hook Sabiki rigs they would have 3-4-5 mackerel and the entire rig would be tangled in a mess that would never be usable again.

Accompanying the mackerel were the larger bonito, some approaching an impressive 7-8 in pounds. Their visits to the pier were shorter than the mackerel but they too preferred the early morning hours of dawn and the late afternoon hours of dusk. When a bonito “boil” would be seen anglers would grab their bonito rods and reels, riggings already set up with bonito balls and lure, and try to attract the boneheads. If stirred into action, the fishing could be frenetic and the “Mr. Bojangles” fish would soon be dancing a tune on the pier. The only problem was trying to keep the anglers from not going over the limit of the powerful fish. Some followed the rules; some did not.

But there were more; white seabass, barracuda and yellowtail were being caught on a regular basis and anglers, both the regulars and the newbies, had never seen anything like it.

Mid-pier it was a somewhat different story. It was hard to admit but there were often simply too many fish. Even in normal times the waters under the mid-pier section would be filled with large schools of queenfish usually called herring. In response, there was a large garrison of Filipino anglers who fished the pier almost every day for the herring. They would fish for several hours enjoying the weather, sharing the latest gossip, and comparing their catches until they filled their buckets and had enough fish for family and friends. Now the buckets were being filled with fish within a hour. Yes they had their fish for food but what about the time with their friends, the social aspect that could be as important as the fish? For whatever reason, few seemed willing to simply put their tackle away and just sit and visit.

Not to be left out of the action were the halibut anglers like those in the Family. They had caught legal-size fish daily and released far more than ever seen before.

Although most anglers didn’t see the fish, there were also reports of huge sharks and rays being caught at night: hundred-pound bat rays, five-foot-long shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), six-foot-long leopard and soupfin sharks, and even a few seven-foot-long and larger sevengill sharks. Unfortunately, an increasingly large number of large but illegal great whites were also making an appearance, an always-annoying occurrence given the task of local anglers to safely release them. The large sharays were out in force!

Finally, more and more giant (black) sea bass were also showing up, ready to eat not only the smaller sardines but the larger fish as well. They too were illegal and once again the regulars would make huge efforts to safely release the protected species.

Only the surf area and its fish seemed to be showing normal fishing and as a consequence some of its regulars had moved farther out on the pier. Left behind were the poachers who snagged fish, any fish legal or illegal, with their heavy rods and big treble hooks. Fish and Wildlife didn't seem to want to want to police them given the confusing and largely unenforceable rules on multi-hook, snag lines.

For the tourists, they were treated almost daily to an amazing scene of carnage when thousand of sea birds would converge near the pier, large and inelegant pelicans, screeching sea gulls, and the smaller but just as hungry cormorants and terns.

Joining the birds would be large numbers of pinnipeds, sea lions moving in unison in large groups called rafts. Each of the giant rafts, numbering twenty to thirty sea lions, would be headed straight into the waters near the pier. Their actions were reminiscent of dolphins as they would dive and emerge, dive and emerge, all at a breakneck pace and all in unison almost as though they were an army. There were several such rafts with the total number of sea lions often exceeding a hundred but the number of birds far dwarfed even that number.

Surprisingly missing were the dolphins themselves and the whales that often visit such buffet gatherings in the sea. It didn’t matter that some species were missing, the ones that were present provided carnage on a scale rarely seen by most people. Sometimes the scene was played once a day, sometimes several times, but it had been ongoing for nearly a month and gave evidence of how many fish must be in the pier’s waters. It also showed how rough Mother Nature can be and affirmed that nature itself generally favors the strong over the weak, the large over the small.

The family had witnessed the scene several times and for Jasper, as a student of history, it reminded him of the stories of 18th century battles with thousands of soldiers marching in orderly fashion into battle against their adversary. Here it was a little less orderly only because the brown pelicans and sea gulls broke rank and showed individuality in action. The sea lions would attack the shoal of sardines from below, the birds from above. The pelicans would make their cannon ball dives into the water emerging with a mouthful of fish. The sea lions would grab a fish and sometimes toss it into the air only to be enraged when a gull would grab it in front of their snout. The terns and cormorants played at the periphery of action but still were well filled.

Of course when the action was near the pier most of the fishing stopped. The Family and most anglers did not want to accidentally hook a bird or pinniped. The water would be dimpled with fish and the air filled with raucous sound. Most amazing would be the picture in the water when the sardines moved next to the pier. Huge bait balls, twenty to thirty feet across and filled with thousands of fish, would begin to darken the water twisting and turning in unison to avoid the pursuing lions. Some would leap out of the water, most wouldn’t, but all fled instinctively in terror from their pursuer. In time the attack would be over and though one would think the number of fish at the pier would be savaged and reduced, each day seemed to see anew a huge number of fish.

Until this day! When the morning fishermen arrived at the pier, anglers with very high expectations, they found that the fish were absent. The morning crew had failed to catch a single mackerel. Nor had a single bonito been caught as the hour-approached noon. It was the same with the herring anglers. No fish. Not to be left out of the non-action, the Family also quickly noticed that their halibut action was dead; the fishing had changed.

Initially there had been disappointment among the pier’s anglers but the disappointment had disappeared. It had seemed to morph into a somewhat berserk, rattled, almost unhinged state of distress. All due to a simple fact, the fish had quit biting and there were now more anglers on the pier than fish.

In time a group gathered toward the end of the pier to discuss the situation. What had happened? Included were some resident experts, some who felt they were experts, and a large group that had little knowledge but many opinions.

Long time regular Willie ventured that it might be due to the moon. Everyone knew that fish responded differently to phases of the moon and some fish feed during a full moon and feed less during the day. The only problem some one quickly said was that there wasn’t a full moon and anyway the fish had been here during several changes to the moon.

Jouji, “The Mackerel Man,” said how about the tides; maybe they are especially bad today? Someone said check the tides that are listed at the bait shop. They did and all were pretty much normal.

Keith, a relative newcomer wondered if the large group of junior lifeguards making their swim around the pier that morning had hurt the fishing? Someone said yes they don’t help things; they just scare away the fish. But Wilma interjected a simple statement, “a different group has been making the swim each of the past four weeks and it never affected the fishing before.” That ended that.

Someone sheepishly mentioned the number of boats that were venturing close to the pier to see all the fish. Perhaps the noise had affected the fish? But again, the boats had been coming close for weeks with no apparent affect to the fishing.

Patrick, the pier’s most noted perch fisherman, wondered if it was the condition of the water. Perhaps red tide had moved into the pier’s water? Or perhaps there was an oil leak from a boat? Again the idea was shot down although some time was spent checking the actual condition of the water (which wasn’t clean but was as clean as normal).

Big Donny said, “it might be those Santa Ana devil winds we’ve been having. They bring in the dust from the desert and they’re known to cause people to act strange and get migraine headaches. Perhaps it’s the same with the fish, the devil winds affected them.” No one outright disputed his theory but Sweet Mary said, “You know those winds have been gushing for over a week. Why did things just change this morning? Plus, I don’t think fish get migraines.”

Finally Alvin, a student of the sport spoke up, “the biggest thing affecting most fish is a drop in the water temperature, and even a drop of a couple of degrees can cause fish to stop biting.” He was right but after checking with the water temperature chart at the bait shop, and dropping a thermometer down into the water, it turned out the water temperature hadn’t changed.

None of the Family that was listening had cared to chip in with an opinion. However, Martha did not share their reticence and now ventured one of her long time opinions, one that had proved accurate many times. She said, “fish can somehow feel changes in the earth and whenever an earthquake, especially a big earthquake is on its way they start acting strange and sometimes quit biting. I keep records and it happened during the Tehachapi, Sylmar, Whittier and 1989 San Francisco earthquakes as well as many smaller earthquakes. I can’t prove this is the cause of today’s poor fishing but if an earthquake hits in the next couple of days we will know I was right.” A few people chuckled but given Martha’s reputation on the pier no one challenged her conclusion. Only time would tell if she was right.

The group finally reached a no decision; there just wasn’t any definitive proof for one idea or another. Perhaps the fish had just moved on? They weren’t happy but at least they had calmed down and many if not most headed home. But hope springs eternal; most would soon return to the pier hoping for improved fishing and some fish.

A few days later there was a medium-size earthquake just north of Los Angeles and just after that the fishing returned to normal. The super fishing was apparently over but so too was the terrible fishing that had lasted for a few days and caused such distress. Some days were good, some days were bad; things were back to normal.

As for the Family, they had discussed the issues in far greater depth among themselves. Even with their knowledge and experience there was no definitive reason why the good fishing had stopped so abruptly (although Martha retained her belief in the earthquakes). Each had seen somewhat similar drops to fishing in the past, but none could recall such a quick and total stop. However, all knew that many factors could impact the fishing. They just didn’t have an answer for what had happened.

They did know that they had been blessed with the super fishing, fishing that mirrored similar historic runs at the pier but ones unseen for many decades. They also knew that their good fishing suffered in comparison to that seen in the pier’s “Golden Age” nearly a century in the past.

One of the Family’s members, although now somewhat of a member-emeritus, was Alan, who had become the main historian for California’s piers. He had a treasure trove of materials about the piers and while an active member of the Family had regaled the group with stories about the piers, early piers built as wharves for coastal shipping, piers built by the developers of coastal cities to attract buyers, piers built by newly established cities for residents to use for recreation and subsistence fishing, and lastly piers built in conjunction with California’s Wildlife Conservation Board when it was in its pier building mood.

Part of those stories concerned the phenomenal fishing back during the “Golden Years.” For their local pier that meant the days when the pier would be surrounded by millions of jacksmelt, boats would surround the schools with nets, and horses would drag the nets to the beach. It meant runs of yellowtail when hundreds would be taken from the pier in a single day. It meant huge runs of the large “corn-fed” mackerel some weighing three pounds or more. Mixed in was great fishing for bonito, white seabass, large halibut, “pompano” (a favorite fish of the day), bass, barracuda and others. Most impressive were the number of giant (black) sea bass. So common were they that many anglers fished exclusively from the pier for the “monsters” with special, heavy gear. Given the number of the bass caught weighing from a hundred pounds to upwards of five hundred pounds it was easy to see why heavy gear was needed. Of course the sharays, sharks and rays could also be huge. The largest reported was a huge great white shark estimated to weigh 1,800 pounds.

However, the true “Golden Age” for fishing in the area, a time when this super run of fish would have been considered quite normal, had been nearly a hundred years ago, a time when the population of Los Angeles was only a tenth of today’s population and a time when California’s population was just over two million people versus today’s 39 million. Some of the stories of fish catch in those days were amazing if not unbelievable and more than one member of the Family had wished they had been alive to see that fishing.

Unfortunately, although the human population had gone up dramatically, the fish population had seen a reverse in population and less fish overall meant less fish for the anglers. Mankind and civilization had done more damage to the fisheries in a hundred years than the previous thousands of years.

In the early years, the over fishing by the commercial fleets had devastated the fish. Millions of fish were caught, many used for food or bait, and many simply ground up for fishmeal. Although sardines were the prime example of over fishing it also devastated favorite sport fish like yellowtail and bass. Many species never again were to see the numbers they had seen before civilization reached California’s shore.

Even worse, long term, were the effects from the thousand and one different chemicals and waste products that were flushed into the sea; the ocean being the easiest and most convenient dumping ground for liquid waste. The wastewater had been contaminated and when these products settled into the bottom, the mud and sand became contaminated. Contaminated water and contaminated ocean bottoms meant that creatures living in those areas (worms, clams, ghost shrimp, etc.) also became contaminated. Then, as fish ate those creatures, the fish themselves became contaminated. These and other factors all played a role in the decreasing population of fish.

The Family knew about the super fishing in the past, and how the environmental damage done in the name of progress had changed fish populations and the fishing. It was a numbing story but they also knew about the many efforts under way to improve future conditions. Some of those efforts were directed at helping the fish populations and they were both aware and involved in those efforts. Perhaps some day one would once again see great fishing become the norm instead of what they had only seen for a month. All they could do was hope the fish might return. Meanwhile they were content with their normal fishing and their time together on the pier.

In regard to the insane events of the past month, Jasper suggested that perhaps it was all simply due to the Fish Gods? The Fish Gods must be crazy (or perhaps they had a sense of humor and were simply playing tricks on them all ). They would leave it at that.
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Well-Known Member
Great story!
So has there been a similar run of fish in our lifetime?
I recall times when I was a kid when the fishing seemed unusually good. It's likely some of those memories have been bolstered and patched up with retelling. Still, those times make up the "golden age" of our pier fishing history.
I remember some great runs of giant squid at Newport.. 🙂🦑

Ken Jones

Staff member
The late '50s saw some unusually great fishing on SoCal piers in the Los Angeles area due to warm-water El Niño conditions. Not quite as good but very good was action seen at some piers in response to the strong El Niño conditions in the late '90s.