Know Your Fish

Ken Jones

Staff member
Know Your Fish

It sounds rather elementary Dr. Watson but one important fact is often overlooked by our brethren anglers, namely, that the more you know about the fish themselves the better your chance to catch them. You should be a student of nature, specifically the nature of California’s inshore fish species. It sounds so simple but it’s true and the inability of many pier anglers to recognize even the most common of fish never fails to amaze me.

I recommend three things to help in your nature study: (1) read up on local fish and be able to identify the various species, (2) visit aquariums whenever possible to study the habits of the fish you are seeking and (3) tie together what you've read here (and in other sources) with what you’ve observed at the aquariums. Of course what would be even better is to be a diver out studying our local waters, but most of us have not taken up that recreation. We’re land based and need to take advantage of the resources available to us.

Reading up on the fish is easy, just start by reading Chapter 18. Hopefully the chapter on the 100 Most Common Pier Fish will answer many of your questions as well as showing you (at least in black and white) what the fish look like. But I bet your appetite will grow! I have many, many books on marine fish and their identification, some fairly technical, some designed for mere mortals. Luckily, there have never been as many books available as today and never as many books with colored pictures/drawings of our fish (although I don’t always agree with some of the colors). Some of my favorites are listed below.

Guide To The Coastal Marine Fishes of California, California Fish Bulletin Number 157, Department of Fish and Game, by Daniel J. Miller and Robert N. Lea. 1972. I spotted this book in the galley of one of Hank Schramm’s Sportfishing boats one day while headed out to the Farallons to catch a few rock cod (OK rockfish). I could hardly put it down and copied down the phone number on the inside so that I could find out where to get it when I returned home. Turned out that it was available in Richmond, only a short distance from my home in Pinole. I immediately drove over and bought two copies. I later picked up several more copies at the bookstore at the Scripps Aquarium in San Diego. It was the main go-to fish identification book that I turned to whenever an unknown fish needed identification. It is still good but has been replaced to a degree by some of the newer and more colorful books listed below.

A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes of North America by William N. Eschmeyer, Earl S. Herald, and Howard Hammann, 1983, The Peterson Field Guide Series. This was my second go-to fish identification book, one that I carried in my pier cart for years. It was nice because it actually included COLOR drawings of the fish albeit sometimes the color drawings interfere with the fish identification (since colors can really vary).

Marine Sportfish Identification, California, Department of Fish and Game, California Sea Grant, United States Department of Commerce, Darren Jew, 1987. This small book is formatted so that it will fit into a tackle box, it has color photographs of 78 species, good fish descriptions, natural history information and fishing tips. It’s an interesting book but only displays the main species, especially boat species.

Every California angler wishing to really learn about California’s fish (and have a chuckle along the way) should read one (or maybe both) of the following. Both were written by PFIC’s unofficial marine biologist Milton Love, our friend at the University of California Santa Barbara’s “Love Lab.” Whenever I have a tough question he is the one I turn to for an answer.

Probably More Than You Want To Know About The Fishes Of The Pacific Coast, A Humorous Guide To Pacific Fishes by Milton Love, 1996. A classic that mixes sound science with an irreverent humor—sort of a Mr. Lucy from the PFIC Message Board. As the title says, there is probably more than you want to know about the fish but there is also never a dull moment. Be ready to stay up most of the night if you’re reading it in bed because it’s hard to put down once you start.

Certainly More Than You Want To Know About The Fishes of The Pacific Coast, A Postmodern Experience by Milton S. Love, 2011. A longer, Biblical-sized, updated tome of his original classic. Great stories, great poems, great history, great insights into the ecology of fish, and simply a wealth of information that you’ll not read anywhere else. The book is big at 650 pages but if you’re really into fish, as I am, you’ll treasure it.

California Finfish and Shellfish Identification Book, A Companion Guide to the California Fishing Passport, California Department of Fish and Game, 2006. An excellent small book that contains the basic information and color pictures on almost all of the main freshwater and saltwater species of fish, saltwater crustaceans, and shellfish to be encountered by California’s anglers. (My only complaint was how they managed to leave out queenfish, numerically one of the main fish caught by southern California pier anglers.) For many years United Pier and Shore Anglers of California (UPSAC), carried on a series of kid’s fishing derbies at various piers along the coast—Oceanside Pier, Avila Pier, Berkeley Pier, Marin Rod & Gun Club Pier, and the Trinidad Pier. When possible we would set up a booth for the Department and we would give out these books to the participants.

A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes, From Alaska To California by Val Kells, Luis Z. Rocha & Larry G. Allen, 2016. The book is up to date and includes the basic information and color drawings on over 700 species. I have two copies, one for my tackle box (just in case I encounter an unknown species), and one for my library. To some degree it has replaced the earlier Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes of North America as the go to book for fish identification.

Of course today there is also the Internet and YouTube. You can easily search out information on most California fish (although YouTube videos often contain incorrect information).

In addition, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has constantly revamped its Internet pages over the years and contains a wealth of information itself. I would recommend the California Department of Fish and Game website and its own Identification Guides:

Aquariums are another source of information and insight. Whenever I take a trip I try to visit the local aquariums and have included visits to some wonderful ones, including those at Chicago, New Orleans and Denmark’s national aquarium in Copenhagen. Although an artificial setting, modern aquariums imitate nature very closely and the fish reveal their basic instincts and characteristics to the viewer. The only problem is that it is sometimes hard to leave. Luckily there are many aquariums in the state open to visitors and although not all offer an equal glimpse into the secrets of Davey's Locker, all should provide insights that can help an angler. Several aquariums are especially good for studying California species. Included would be:

Birch Aquarium at Scripps, La Jolla

Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey

Steinhart Aquarium, San Francisco

Other good though smaller aquariums include the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium at Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro, and the Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco. Several small aquariums are found at nature centers and even on piers: Chula Vista Nature Center, Chula Vista; Round-House Marine Studies Lab on the Manhattan Beach Pier; Heal the Bay Aquarium at the Santa Monica Pier; and the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara. Not to be forgotten is the private Ocean World Aquarium in Crescent City, small but still interesting. Go for an hour, or go for the day, but try to learn from what you are seeing. Are the fish on the bottom, mid-depth or at the top? What are they eating? Are there characteristics that might help you catch them? These and many other questions can be answered during a visit and it’s always fun.

Note — some aquariums are currently closed due to the Corona virus restrictions.

SC McCarty

Well-Known Member
The first book on Ken's list, Miller and Lea, is available for online viewing at CALISPHERE, as well as the rest of the Fish Bulletin series published by the Cal. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. It is also available for viewing or download at, as well as the rest of the series. Many of the Fish Bulletins are dated now, but some are still interesting and informative. I enjoy having Miller and Lea on my computer, and frequently compare it with more recent books. (Note: the blue text are links)

Certainly More Than You Want To Know About The Fishes of The Pacific Coast, A Postmodern Experience, by Milton S. Love, 2011, is also an excellent and hefty book, but the title promises more than it could deliver. I almost always wanted to know more. Ken is mentioned a couple of times in the book.

A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes, From Alaska To California by Val Kells, Luis Z. Rocha & Larry G. Allen, 2016, is a valuable resource. For some fish it shows some color variations and juvenile forms. It seems to me that a lot of the colors are on the pastel side, which I think is a problem with the printer rather than the artwork. There is a photo of the original artwork on an easel, and the colors are much richer than in the book. Also, as a field guide, I think it would have been better to group fish within a family by appearance, rather than listing them alphabetically. This could be very helpful with rockfish and sculpins. Don't let these comments put you off. It is still well worth the money, and I frequently refer to it.