Sentimental Journey — the Aliso Pier

Ken Jones

Staff member
A story by my friend Dompfa Ben — Sentimental journey — Aliso Pier — dompfa ben (Ben Acker)


The Aliso Pier

I’ve always been one to stay up late. Mom eventually stopped scolding me for being up past my bedtime, when she would discover me reading in the living room at 2:00 A.M. or sitting quietly on the porch in the middle of the night, listening intently to the subtle sounds of the neighborhood and the not-too-distant 210 freeway. Time I got to spend alone with the deafening silence, devoid of the clamor raised by my five younger brothers, was highly valued, and it helped me appreciate the noise, and the laughter, and the arguments that surround siblings.

I took a few moments to enjoy some quiet tonight (it's still early by my standards, but what the heck) and my thoughts drifted to my favorite pier of all time: Aliso Pier. It was shorter and higher than many other piers we fished as kids, but it was a special place for us. Some of my most fond memories of fishing with my dad and brothers were enjoyed at Aliso. And of course, the working power outlet on every light pole afforded us the opportunity to experiment with using shop-lights to attract baitfish, utilize heaters to keep us warm on chilly South Laguna nights, and even play Super Mario Bros. while we waited for sculpin to bite.
Also was where we first “discovered” that you don't need an 8-foot rod with 30-lb. test to catch 1-lb. sculpin--you could use a trout rod and it would be more fun. It was where I first learned that zebra perch existed, though to this day, I've never seen them referenced in any fish identification book. Aliso was where I caught my first halibut, and where I learned how to make bait with a Sabiki--including big walleye perch that would school under the pier. The kelp beds off the end held calicos, sand bass, blue perch, and sheephead. The diamond shaped end of the pier had a spot along the inside rail that would almost always yield sculpin after sculpin, fishing straight down along the piling with a hunk of squid. In all my years of fishing, I can't remember a more reliably productive spot to fish. Five feet either way along the rail would remain untouched...but right there—guaranteed fish. We hardly winced when we'd unknowingly get poked by a sculpin, and our hands would swell up and hurt for a while. I guess we figured getting poked by fish spines hurts for a bit...but it was nothing that a 7-Eleven hot chocolate and a bag of popcorn couldn't fix.

I caught my first lobster on the rocks north of Aliso when I was around 11 years old. It was a short, snagged accidentally and released just as accidentally. I had never realized we had lobsters in SoCal until then. It wasn't for a few more years that I even considered targeting them from piers with hoop nets.
Aliso was well known for its powerful shore break and its questionably toxic creek. It seems both led to the demise of the pier, and the concrete and steel structure was demolished in the late 90's, after being damaged by the ocean. Purists and residents seem to like the unobstructed view of the beach as it is without the pier now, and engineers furthered their cause by stating the area is too turbulent to build a pier that isn't made of wood.
So it seems, that Aliso pier will live only in my memories, and then, only when I get a little quiet time to myself. I truly miss the place, as much as I miss family and friends that have moved on, too.

Recently, my dad and I drove that old route from Newport to San Clemente Pier. It was bittersweet, remembering all of the different places we'd stop along the way at different times--for bait, fried chicken, cheap tacos, warm drinks, or a bag of ice to keep our catch fresh. On this particular trip, Dad went in to the same old 7-Eleven while I filled up my gas tank (a role reversal that didn't go unnoticed by me--ten years previous, I made the run inside while Dad filled up HIS van). Dad came out, half-laughing, that the same old fellow that ran the store when we were kids is still there. The gentleman actually remembered my dad, the guy with the six boys who would come in all hours of the night, in the dead of winter, smelling a bit of bait, laying out cash to buy half a dozen hot chocolates, and generally looking happier and prouder than any Dad on earth.

He still is. Aliso pier is gone, but Dad's still fishing with his boys. We're all just drinking coffee now, instead of hot chocolate.