Understanding The Environment of the Pier — Why do fish do what they do?

Ken Jones

Staff member
I need to revise the following and would appreciate any thoughts you may have on how to improve it. Thanks in advance.

The Environment of the Pier & The Ten Analects (Rules)

The Type of Pier

Understanding the environment of the pier is the most overlooked aspect of pier fishing, and the most critical. The pier fisherman is at the mercy of the pier. One cannot simply move down the beach like a surf fisherman or move to a new rock like a rock fisherman. Nor can a boat, kayak or tube be utilized to follow a school of fish or to locate a new school. The pier fisherman’s domain is the area underneath and around the pier. Because of this, the angler who wishes to be successful must know as much about the pier itself as possible and understand both the techniques and the bait and tackle which are specific for piers.

Luckily, most piers themselves attract fish. Pilings are covered with barnacles and mussels, crabs and tube worms, hydroids, anemones and sea spiders—a plethora of sometimes strange-looking creatures that represent food for the fish that the anglers seek. In addition, the water under a pier is often calm, sheltered by the various pilings, and it’s frequently full of food dropped from above. The mélange attracts small fish and these attract bigger fish. Fish, of any size, attract fishermen.

The first rule to remember in the “Pier Fishing Analects,” the most basic rules for pier fishing, is that fishing close to a pier (rather than engaging in a casting contest) usually provides the best results.

If in doubt, ask yourself the following question: why do so many boat anglers try to fish structure areas like piers? Because they realize fish are attracted to structure because of the food and protection offered by that structure.

But do not stop there! Ask yourself and then determine the answers to the following questions:

• What is the base under the pier, is it a sandy beach pier or is it located over mud or rock?

• If it is sand, are there rocks nearby or scattered under the pier?

• Were any artificial reefs constructed around the pier—and if so, where are they located?

• Is the pier short, offering only an inshore surf area fishery, or is it long, offering access to deeper water and more pelagic species?

Answering these questions will give you a clue as to what type of fish can be expected on a particular pier and if that is the pier you wish to visit. Generally, sandy-shore areas offer a smaller variety of fish but often times larger schools of these fish, especially schools of the smaller perch. Rocky areas offer a greater variety of species, and often larger fish, but these tend to be non-schooling fish or fish found in smaller schools.

The second rule is that sandy areas, especially where there are also some rocks or reefs nearby, offer a better chance of catching fish. Rocky areas offer a better chance of catching large fish. Piers that are long and poke out into fairly deep water often offer access to pelagic species (which can mean both quantity and quality) and the largest resident species.

Of course, there are exceptions. In southern California some of the largest pier fish are the sandy-area, shallow-water surfperch (barred) and croakers (corbina and spotfin croaker). An important point to remember is that natural food is different in sandy and rocky areas and the angler must match his bait to the natural food found in the area he’s fishing. Match the hatch (as they say in trout circles) and you stand a better chance of catching the species inhabiting the environment.

Water Temperature

Most years the letters to the Pier Fishing in California Message Board are fairly predictable, especially those concerning the fishing—good and bad—taking place at the piers. They’re cyclical, reflecting the nature of pier fishing in our state. Winter and cold weather can bring a drop-off in success along with a general depression among the pier rats. Then summertime returns with its better weather, warmer water, and ameliorated conditions for the fish. Soon the pier rats are happily catching fish and grinning from ear to ear. Unfortunately, the wintertime letters are sometimes almost manic-depressive in nature with pier rats throwing up their hands and questioning if the fish will EVER return. It's as though incubi had cast an evil spell on the fishing—and the mood of the pier rats.

Most of this agony can be avoided. One way is to live to be as old as I am; it gives you enough years of experience to make comparisons. You soon realize some seasons are good and some are bad, just as some years are good and some are bad. You can also continue to study the ways of fish and their environment. You may not be able to change the conditions but you can at least understand what is happening.

This means, in part, understanding the water world in which fish live. Water temperature is critical! In fact, scientists say water temperature is the single most important factor affecting the behavior of fish. Water temperature largely defines the nature of California saltwater fishing, and the various sea currents that flow along California's coast help determine the water’s temperature (see the highlighted California Currents—The Angler-Scientist). Certain species are common to the warmer waters south of Point Conception while other species are indigenous to the colder waters north of the point.

However, water temperatures change. There are annual changes due to global conditions, and sometimes abnormal situations such as the El Niño (“The Christ Child”) which brings warmer water to California. During moderate/strong El Niño years (1957-58, 1965-66, 1972-73, 1976-77, 1982-83, 1987-88, 1991-92, 1997-98, 2002-03, 2015-16) central and northern California areas see warm-water fish being caught that are more normal to San Diego and Los Angeles. Los Angeles and San Diego will generally see some species that are common to Baja, California.

There are currently several hypotheses as to why El Niño events might affect coastal organisms along the Pacific Northwest. One hypothesis is that El Niño conditions, by affecting the timing and effectiveness of upwelling, result in a diminished supply of nutrients to surface waters. Fewer nutrients adversely affect phytoplankton growth, which, in turn, means that there is less food for small animals (known as zooplankton) that feed on phytoplankton. During the El Niño event of 1982 to 1983, the average spring and summer density of zooplankton off Newport, Oregon, decreased by 70 percent. This effect can reverberate up the food web, threatening the survival of juvenile salmon that eat the zooplankton.

El Niño conditions can also reduce the movement of water away from the coast. Juvenile salmon, too small to swim against the currents, rely on the offshore transport of water to whisk them away from the coast. In El Niño years, juvenile salmon may get trapped near the shore and fall prey to seabirds and other coastal predators.

In addition, changes in the direction of coastal currents and in water temperatures can directly determine the types of fish found off the Pacific Northwest. During the El Niño of 1982 to 1983, fish that normally inhabit tropical and subtropical waters migrated northwards, following warmer waters. For example, two warmer-water species, the Pacific and jack mackerel, were unusually abundant off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. These voracious predators consume the same types of food as salmon and may have diminished the supply of phytoplankton and zooplankton; in addition these fish may have snacked on juvenile salmon. El Niño, (Oregon Sea Grant), Sandy Ridlington, Editor, 1997

Balancing off the El Niño, warm-water conditions, is its cold-water cousin La Niña (“The Girl”) aka El Viejo (“the Old One”) that brings unusually cold surface waters and intensified winds. Conditions can often swing between the two conditions as seen in the moderate/strong La Niña years 1955-56, 1963-64, 1966, 1970-71, 1973-74, 1975-76, 1988-89, 1998-99, 1999-00, 2007-08, 2010-11, 2011-12). Following the super-hot El Niño years of 1997-98 there occurred a La Niña in late 1998 and ‘99 that saw waters along the coast drop down to a low of 46 degrees in some areas. Talk about a contrast!

The result was a much later season and a return to the cold-water conditions more common to California. No longer were the exotic species being caught to the north but the upwelling along the coast was improved as well as the survival rate of various species of fish. Even the growth of kelp increased with the return of the needed cooler waters.

Although the positive effects from El Niño conditions seem to influence pier fishing along much of the California coast, at least north to San Francisco, the negative effects from La Niña seem primarily to affect the areas north of Point Conception (in my opinion). As example, although there was a slight decrease in the catch at southern California piers in 1999, there was a dramatic decrease along much of the central coast including San Francisco Bay.

Since 1800, there have been approximately 48 El Niño events, with a mean frequency of one event every 4.1 years. Although El Nino events occur frequently, they are difficult to predict and highly variable in intensity. Some El Nino events are relatively weak whereas others may affect the entire Pacific Basin. Particularly strong El Nino events occurred during 1957-1958, 1982-1983, and the strongest El Nino on record occurred in 1997-1998. —Satie Airame Steven Gaines and Chris Caldow, Ecological Linkages: Marine and Estuarine Ecosystems of Central and Northern California, NOAA, November 2003

There are also normal seasonal variations in water temperature, and some species enter or leave our California waters accordingly. Finally, there are daily variations depending on weather conditions. Shallow water areas tend to both warm and cool at a quicker rate. Deeper water maintains a more constant temperature. During abnormally hot weather, fish may migrate into deeper areas where the water is cooler. During a cold spell it can be just the opposite; fish may move into shallow water during the middle of the day because it is warmer. Thus, if you are fishing a pier during the middle of a hot, sunny, summer day you might want to first try the areas of the pier with deeper water. At dusk, as the water begins to cool, inshore fish will move back to their preferred habitat and you should seek them in the shallower waters.

“Off Southern California, upwelling, which brings close to shore deep water that is low in temperature and oxygen and high in salinity, causes dramatic changes in the distribution patterns of inshore the fishes. Seasonal changes less dramatic than upwelling also have a profound effect on the soft-bottomed fish fauna.—Peter B. Moyle and Joseph J. Cech, Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology

Remember too that in some ways fish are like humans. A quick change in weather conditions will often put fish “off their feed” for a couple of days; they will not seem to bite as well and there is little the angler can do. Why this happens is unclear but scientists now know that fish are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. In fact, some fish can detect changes as little as 1/50 of a degree Fahrenheit in temperature, sensitivity unmatched by any warm-blooded animals. And, since fish are cold-blooded creatures, their metabolism slows down with a drop in water temperature. A change in water temperature does not always mean a decrease in the quality of fishing but often times that is the result—at least for a few days.

Unlike humans who are warm blooded and maintain a constant 98.6 degree body temperature, fish are cold blooded and their bodies adjust to match the water they are in. As a result, their metabolism can change drastically depending upon the temperature of the water. Typically when a fish experiences a decrease in water temperature (especially if less than it is used to), it will become lethargic, eat less and move around less. If the water shows a drastic drop in temperature, the fish may almost cease to eat altogether. Although every fish is different, some preferring warm water, and some cold water, the change to their preferred water temperature is one key to their behavior. It also explains why warmer weather (and water temperatures) often sees an increase in fish activity and fishing success.

Temperature is also one of the main signals for fish to spawn. A prime example is barred surfperch, which in southern California typically spawn during the winter months. In some areas, concentrations of the fish show up ready to spawn in December. In other areas, it may be a few weeks or a few months later. Water temperature is the critical factor, and a variance of only a few degrees signals the start, stop, or restart of spawning behavior. Up north, in Mendocino County, you can generally count on May 1 as being the time local estuaries become populated by swarms of striped seaperch. If water temperature warms earlier, the spawning may begin in April. If water is a little colder, the spawn may start several weeks late. Since times of spawning are one of the best times to fish, due to the concentrations of the fish, water temperature records should also be kept and used as guidelines once ideal temperatures are established.

A clue to one of the great mysteries of marine life—the migrations of fish—may be found in the behavior of one of the clam’s near relatives, the mussel. The bay mussel, a black-shelled mollusk which clamps itself firmly to rocks or pilings, is a species distinct from those outside the Gate, and its spawn forms one of the most important food sources for the bay’s fish. In the spring, influenced by unknown forces-possibly changes in the bay's salinity or temperature-it throws out vast quantities of cells called gametes, which combine to form the mussel larvae. Biologists speculate that this great seasonal larva production of the mussels may determine in some degree the migrations of the fish which depend upon on it for food.—Harold Gilliam, San Francisco Bay, 1957

California Currents—The Angler-Scientist

Two questions about California's saltwater fishing have always interested me: why are different fish found along different parts of the coast and why do different times of the year show such differences in fishing success—or lack of success? The answer to the first question is fairly easy, the second demands a more complex explanation.

For geography and species association the primary answer is water temperature. California’s warm-water species, fish like yellowtail, barracuda and corbina, are rarely found in the colder waters found north of Point Conception. Cold-water species like salmon are rarely found in the warmer waters south of the point (although the overlapping of northern and southern species does sometimes occur, for two quite different reasons).

As to angling success and time of the year? In California, saltwater fishing tends to start improving during the late spring and peaks in the late fall. Why? One answer is again water temperature, at least for southern California. Summer waters are warmer and see an influx of fish from Mexican waters. For pier anglers this means more pelagic species like bonito and barracuda. Another reason is that the summer water is much richer with food and where there is more food there are more fish. That sounds simple. But why is there more food (plankton) in these waters spring through fall? What are the conditions that create this situation? California's marine waters are primarily influenced by two factors—the offshore currents and the prevailing wind patterns—and these provide the answers to the puzzle.

To the north, along the northern and central California coast, water temperature is influenced by the California Current and the California Undercurrent. The California Current is a strong southward flowing current that has already passed though the cold-water areas of Alaska, Washington and Oregon. This cold-water current warms as it flows south (paralleling the north-south orientation which is common to most of California’s coast)—but it is still primarily a cold-water current. The slightly warmer undercurrent flows northward, inshore of and beneath the California Current.

• General water temperatures: Oregon Border to San Francisco

Winter: 46 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit​

Summer: 52 to 58 degrees Fahrenheit​

• General water temperatures: San Francisco to Point Conception

Winter: 48 to 53 degrees Fahrenheit​

Summer: 52 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit​

At Point Conception, the coastline begins an east-west orientation while the California Current continues its southward flow. As a result, the cold water is now carried out, away from the coast into deeper waters. A different, northward flowing, warmer-water current, called the Southern California Countercurrent, hugs the coast and becomes dominant, especially in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel, the waters most commonly used by Southern California's recreational fishermen.

• General water temperatures: Point Conception to Mexican Border

Winter: 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit​

Summer: 64 to 74 degrees Fahrenheit​

These currents are the primary influences on water temperature and explain why different species are found in different areas. In essence, the California angler is faced with water that is cool (or cold) north of Point Conception and water that is warmer south of the Point.

Pier waters in the south, being inshore (and influenced by the Southern California Countercurrent) typically have somewhat warm water reflecting the cold-north, warm-south conditions. As a result, Southern California piers rarely yield up northern species to its anglers. However, the deeper, offshore waters in southern California (especially where influenced by the California Current) will be colder and more approximate that of northern areas. This is why deeper waters in southern California will sometimes yield cold-water fish common to shallower waters north of Point Conception, fish such as lingcod.

As a general rule, California’s cold-water species are found where water temperatures do not exceed 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time. Warm-water species do tolerate warmer temperatures and (for some reason) are better able to endure considerable periods of cold water. Thus at times warm-water species will be found in cold-water areas (such as finding garibaldi and kelp bass in Monterey Bay) while it is rare to find cold-water species in southern California (again, except for the deeper and colder-water areas.)

But water temperatures are not the only answer to the question of why fishing is better during certain months. The conditions resulting from the water currents, and differences in water temperature, are modified by an additional process called upwelling.

Upwelling like that seen in California, is fairly unique, being limited to four temperate areas of the world, the so-called eastern boundary regions (California, the west coast of South Africa, the Canary Island region, and the Peru-Chile coast). This condition is caused by California’s seasonal wind patterns and explains why ocean waters are sometimes rich with food while at other times they may be nearly barren. Generally starting about March, northwesterly winds and the earth’s rotation cause surface waters to be driven away from the shore and to be replaced by cold, rich water pulled up from the deep continental shelf. This upwelling is common along most of California’s coast and is especially prevalent north of Point Conception in areas where there are headlands or where there is a sheer coast.

The water rising from the depths brings with it decayed organic material that has sunk to the ocean’s floor (and which has not been utilized by plants since few plants exist in the dark deep-water areas). This nutrient-rich water (which contains phosphates, nitrates, and silicates as well as other nutrients) reaches the well-lighted surface areas and stimulates a tremendous growth of tiny plants, algae called phytoplankton. As summer nears, this plant growth blooms and waters can be darkened by billions and billions of emerging plants. Winter storms are now over, sunlight lasts longer, and surface waters are warmed. These changes also create ideal conditions and food for the second important planktonic organisms, small animal organisms called zooplankton (tiny jellyfish, shrimp-like krill, copepods, and larvae of many species including fish).

This synergistic explosion of vegetable and animal organisms creates a rich and nurturing bouillabaisse of food that gives sustenance to small fish such as anchovies, herring and sardines (as well as large organisms like whales). These small fish attract the larger fish. Along with the growth of the smaller plants (phytoplankton), larger algae in the form of kelp also grow during these nutrient rich-sunlight rich months. This kelp, which can be dense around some piers by late summer, provides additional food and shelter for fish.

An additional factor, most evident in southern California, is that this upwelled water is not only cold but also low in oxygen and high in salts. As a result, there is a change in fish distribution; fish are more concentrated in inshore areas (top to bottom) and upper level offshore areas. A number of species that spend part of the year in deeper offshore waters move into inshore waters—like that around piers. Offshore, there are concentrations of bait and pelagic species.

Generally around September California's northwesterly winds begin to subside, cold upwelled water begins to sink, and phytoplankton and zooplankton populations begin to decrease. At the same time, surface water temperatures now reach their highest levels and southern California anglers may see their top fishing for the warm-water pelagic species. This condition, called the oceanic period, lasts till about the end of October when water temperatures begin to cool.

In winter, southwesterly winds dominate along California's coast. One result is a northward flowing surface current which begins north of Point Conception and flows along the coast inshore of the California Current. This current is called the Davidson Current and represents the surface manifestation of the California Countercurrent (which normally flows under the California Current). This means that in winter there can actually be more warm water flowing north than in the summer. However, there is much less sunlight and little upwelling during the late fall to spring months. Correspondingly there is less phytoplankton and zooplankton, the tiny organisms that are so important for the growth of fish populations.

For most of the California coast, fishing will be best when there is a good population of plankton (or food) in the water and when fish are attracted and concentrated by this food. As shown, the plankton populations (both phytoplankton and zooplankton) begin to improve as upwelling begins in March, peak around September, and show a serious decline by November. Piers generally see their best fishing in the late summer to fall months and see, especially at southern California piers, a continued success till October or even November for the warm-water loving pelagic species. Schools of bonito, barracuda, and mackerel follow the schools of plankton-seeking anchovies, sardines, and other small fish.


The salinity level of the water is also very important when discussing saltwater and brackish water species. Most fish have a relatively low tolerance level for different degrees of salinity and their bodies become stressed if the salt levels in the water change (if the water becomes either too salty or not salty enough). These fish will tend to move and stay in water most approximating that of the open ocean. Some fish, the anadromous species, have systems that are adaptable to the change. As tides move in and out, the salinity levels can change and fish will follow these changes.

Some bays in southern California that have little or no freshwater inflow from streams, or that receive little runoff from rain, may show a fairly constant degree of salinity year-round. Nevertheless, when there is a heavy rain there may be a definite drop off in fishing success in some areas as the fish move toward saltier ocean waters. Most bays in the northern part of the state have streams or rivers entering the bays and also receive considerable amounts or rain. Northern bays (even San Francisco Bay) can turn into lacustrine-like, freshwater lakes during the winter and spring depending upon the amount of rain received. These bays tend to see more frequent changes in fish populations and to see more anadromous species on a regular, seasonal basis.

Most open coast areas show less variation in salinity levels than bays. Still, coastal areas can be greatly impacted by storms, especially if there is a stream or a river in the area. It is common in northern California to see a brown discoloring of the ocean at the mouths of most streams during the winter rainy seasons. When this happens, most of the fish move into deeper waters.

Some bays themselves show considerable variation in salinity levels. Areas near the bay entrance can approximate ocean levels of salinity while some upper bay areas (like those in Newport Bay) may have quiet, shallow-water regions that are likely to show greater evaporation and higher salinity levels.

In the ocean waters outside the Golden Gate the average salinity level is approximately 3.4 per cent. Move into the Gate and the figure drops to about 3.1 per cent. Move northeast through San Pablo Bay into the Carquinez Strait and the salinity level drops to 1.5 per cent due to the freshwater flows from the inland rivers. Head the opposite way in the Bay, down to the shallow-water areas of the South Bay, and you'll find salinity levels approximating those near the Golden Gate 3.1 per cent. Of course the South Bay sees high evaporation and little freshwater entering that region, at least during the dry months of the year.

As already noted, lower salinity levels and more brackish water will exist in areas where freshwater streams enter the bay. There can even be different levels in one area since fresh water is less dense than salt water and tends to float on top. At times, the main channel in San Pablo Bay (in the San Francisco Bay area) will be like two separate rivers: a freshwater river in the waters at the top and a saltwater river in the water at the bottom. When fishing from bay piers, realize that piers at the upper ends of bays, or in areas where freshwater flows into the bay, will tend to have fewer species of fish present. At the same time, in some areas, this may mean you are exposed to more anadromous species. For example, in the upper reaches of San Pablo Bay, up towards the Carquinez Straits, an angler will see far fewer varieties of fish than in the main part of San Francisco Bay. However, there is a better than average chance of catching starry flounder, striped bass, sturgeon and salmon during certain times of the year. The starry flounder move into low salinity areas to spawn; the striped bass, sturgeon and salmon move through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before entering into the freshwater Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems to spawn.

Pier fishermen in San Francisco note when these fish will be in San Pablo Bay, the Carquinez Strait, or Suisun Bay, and they will visit the piers in those sections during those times. Later, as the fish have returned to the saltier parts of the bay, anglers concentrate on piers in those areas. Again, follow the fish.

Oxygen Levels

Humans take in oxygen directly from the air they breath. Fish take in oxygen from the water that passes through their gills. Just as the quality of the air we breath can vary (see, if you can, L.A.), water can also vary in its quality and oxygen content. Humans feel more comfortable in certain “high air quality” situations; fish are far more common, and more active, in well-oxygenated water. Understanding this can lead to further inferences in regards to the age-old angler’s question of where to fish.

As a rule, shallow-water areas absorb and contain more oxygen in a confined area than deep-water areas; rough water caused by wind or waves is more highly oxygenated than calm water; and cooler water has a higher ability to absorb oxygen than warm water. Basic biology also tells us that during the day, plants in the water give off oxygen while fish give off carbon dioxide. Thus areas with rich plant life are generally also well oxygenated.

What does this mean to the pier angler? Partly it helps us understand why piers are such good fishing areas. To start, pilings attract plants (like kelp), as well as animals, and these plants help oxygenate the water. Next, water breaks up as it hits the pilings and becomes more oxygenated. Third, most piers are already located in fairly shallow, oxygen-rich water. Lastly, water temperatures found around California piers are generally temperate and well within good quality oxygen levels.

Can this help explain why the midday hours are often less productive, especially out toward the end of the longer piers? Midday, when surface temperatures are at their highest, is often when fewer fish are seen at the top. Bottom fish, and surf fish, continue to hit, but sometimes few pelagics will be caught. This seems especially true on windless days when there is hardly a ripple to the surface of the water. Often, after a small wind come up, fishing seems to improve. Is it because the fish have returned to the now better-oxygenated levels of the water? I’m not sure! But oxygen levels may help explain why fishing for species like bonito and mackerel is often best at dawn and dusk.

In addition, where you see a pier with little growth on the pilings, a natural question is the quality of the water and the oxygen content. Well-oxygenated water should contain plants and animals. If none are readily apparent, the water quality may be poor. A third rule is to always look at the pilings. If there is no discernible growth of mussels or barnacles on the pilings, there is less likelihood of good fishing (an exception would be on piers and pilings found in bays that get a sizeable influx of freshwater. Most pilings in Humboldt Bay have little growth on them and it’s the same on piers/pilings found in Carquinez Strait and Suisun Bay).

Water Visibility and Light

How clear the water is and the amount of light can also affect fishing. Water that has some debris in it, or that is a little cloudy, does not seem to hurt fishing. In fact, water that contains some sediment usually offers better angling than crystal clear water. In addition, fresh water flows into bays and the ocean can also bring considerable food, usually in the form of detritus (although this can also mean a lower oxygen level in the water). However, if the water is too muddy it will affect those fish that use sight more than smell for their meal. Heavy debris can also make fishing nearly impossible. Most fishermen have encountered days when they spent more time removing seaweed from their line than they did in fishing, usually reaching the point where they throw up their hands in disgust and go home.

The effects of light itself are harder to define, but my records show clearly that fishing mid-day, when the sun is bright and water is clear, yields the poorest results. This may be due in large part to the fact that fish eyes are different than human eyes. The eyes of many fish lack irises and their eyes do not adjust to changes in light; eyes in other fish may take as long as an hour to adjust. Because of this, many fish are uncomfortable in strong sunlight and move into shady areas (like under a pier) and others are less active even when feeding. Not surprisingly, dawn and dusk, as well as overcast days, are often the best times to fish.

Another explanation for the mid-day doldrums relates to food and safety. Fish are primarily motivated by one thing, their own survival, and for most this means they are both predator and prey. To do this requires that they look for meals while avoiding becoming a meal themselves. In regards to safety, many fish are less active during the mid-day, sunny, clear-water hours when they may be more easily spotted by bigger fish. As for food, plankton in the ocean tends to move upward at night and downward during the middle of the day. Since plankton attract the smaller baitfish, and these attract larger fish, it seems reasonable that early morning and early evening hours will see more active fish. At the same time, it should be admitted that planktonic effects are somewhat less important in the shallow waters found around most piers than in deeper water areas.

I like to fish between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. and between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. These hours are usually the optimum hours when you will have your best success. Early arrival may also yield that highly coveted “hot spot” on the pier, while an evening arrival can often avoid the overcrowding found during the mid-day (tourist) hours. A fourth rule is to fish the early morning or early evening hours if possible. Of course, there are many days when the tide or current is wrong or other commitments impact the hours you can fish. If so, simply go, as they say, with the flow; knowledgeable anglers will catch fish throughout the day.

Fish Biology 101—Eyesight and Smell

An interesting and relevant fact when it comes to fish and angling concerns fish eyes. Put simply, most fish cannot focus their eyes (due to the shape of the eyes themselves). The result is a fish world in which nearly all fish are nearsighted. Correspondingly, most fish cannot really identify an object until they are fairly close to it. (Even when a fish comes to a lure from a distance they may be reacting more out of curiosity or changes in the water rather than attacking the lure. Of course when they get close to the lure they can see it, and if the angler’s presentation is correct, they may attack it.) However, since water often has poor visibility to begin with, eyesight is not as important to fish as their other senses in locating food (their prey). Instead, most fish tend to use their sense of smell to hone in or track where the food is, use their eyesight to pinpoint the location of the food, and then use their sight together with taste to determine the desirability of the food.

Of course, not all fish rely on smell as much as others just as the eyesight of fish can vary. As a general rule, fish that use sight to locate their food primarily feed during the day. Fish that use smell to locate their food feed primarily at night. Of interest, fish anatomists have found that fish that have two nostrils on each side of their snout have excellent odor perception; those with only one nostril cannot perceive smells as efficiently. So what? Well, species that dwell on the bottom, where light levels are low, tend to have two nostrils and typically feed by smelling out their food. Natural bait would be best for these species and when I say natural bait I mean bait that is in good condition and does not have an off smell to it.

In addition, almost all fish have excellent night, or low-light vision (approximately 6-7 times more sensitive to light than humans). When the ability to seek out food by smell is combined with some ability to see during the hours of darkness it is easy to understand why many fish bite better at night. Croakers, rays and sturgeon are just a few of the fish noted for biting best at night and striped bass fisherman can certainly attest to the fact that nights are often the best time for Mr. Linesides.

Sharks of course are probably the best illustration of night feeders that rely on their osmic senses to locate prey. Studies have shown that in some sharks two-thirds of their brain is used in the mechanics necessary to achieve an exceptional ability to smell. Most sharks and rays also have something called a tapetum lucidum located behind their eyes, a device whose purpose is to reflect light back through the eye, thus allowing the cornea two chances to use available light. However, even with this interesting device (which enhances vision in the dark or murky waters), most, but not all, sharks have very poor eyesight. It isn't needed.

Fish Biology 102—Their Sense of Taste

If fish use smell to locate their food, they just as decidedly use taste to decide if it acceptable. What is unique, at least compared to humans, is the fact that fish have a variety of taste buds, not only on their tongue or mouth, but also externally on their lips and snout and, in some fish, also on areas like their fins. Some fish (including catfish and many croakers) also have barbels that externally are used to judge the food. What this all means is that many times a fish will reject a bait even before it begins to mouth it. In such a situation, the poor pier fisherman may be sitting there with little or no chance of hooking the fish. Live bait looks, smells, and can taste good to a fish even before it swallows it and the multitude of sensations is one reason why live bait is preferable in many situations. Dead bait may, or may not, look good, smell good, or taste good to the fish. With the exception of some scavengers who don’t seem to care (indeed some fish, i.e., sturgeon, will eat almost anything), fresh bait is almost always preferred as a bait. If frozen, has it been handled correctly (kept frozen) and not allowed to thaw which can allow bacteria to give it an “off” smell?

Again, and this is important for pier rats, many of the species that are prized from piers in California—croakers, sharks, striped bass, etc., are bottom species that like to feed at night, or at least in the early morning and late evening hours, and they typically have the best sense of touch. So, the fifth rule is to always use high quality fresh or frozen bait if you are going to use bait. As for lures, it makes a good argument for adding one of the fish attractants to the lure—both to give it a more natural odor and to mask whatever human odors may be on the lure.


Tidal information is critical, especially if you're fishing for surf species at oceanfront piers. As a general rule, surf species follow the tide in seeking out food that has become dislodged by the waves pounding on the shoreline. I have always found fishing best during the two hours before and two hours after the high tide. Water flow is also very important, especially in bays. A strong tidal flow will move bait around and, in response, larger game fish will begin to feed and hopefully bite.

A little review of astronomy helps in identifying when high tides and high tidal flow occur. There are two high tides and two low tides each day, and two periods of high tides and tidal movement each month. The tides of greatest height are called spring tides (although they have no relation to the season). These occur each month when the sun and moon are in a line with the earth, at the new moon and the full moon. Tides of maximum range (most difference between the high tide and low tide) are called tropic tides and occur when the moon is over the Tropic of Capricorn or Tropic of Cancer.

Best fishing at California piers, at least piers located in bays and those oceanfront piers that depend primarily on surf species, will generally be when tides are at an above average height (spring tides twice a month) or if there is good water movement (tropic tides), even during lower tides. High tides allow larger fish to move into food-rich areas as the water level is increasing and also forces food (including smaller bait fish) into these areas. Conversely, as the tide ebbs and the flow goes out, various types of food are pulled from shore along with the flow. Often an angler will see good fishing as the tide is moving in, almost no fish during the slack tide at the peak of the high tide, and then see fishing pick back up as the tide begins to recede. Again, the two hours before and after high tides are generally the best time to fish.

If you can only fish once a month, fish during the period around the higher of the two spring tides. As a rule, most high tides higher than five feet will be good in most areas; however, fishing higher than average tides is more important. If an area has average high tides of four feet but has a period of seven-foot high tides, then that is the better time to fish.

You might want to fish several times a week. If so, look for times when there is good water movement before or after a high tide (and tropic tidal times almost always have good variance). All you need is a tide book or even a daily newspaper since most papers now include tide information on the weather page. How to figure water movement? Easy! If the low tide was +1 foot high and the next high tide is +8 feet high then there is 7 feet of moving water, an above average figure. If the low tide was a -1.0 and the high was a +2.5, then the tidal flow is only 3.5, a fairly low figure. Optimal conditions are generally about 3.5 to 6 feet of moving water although there are variations depending upon the fish species and locale. Fish that primarily feed on other fish seem to prefer a higher water movement than fish feeding on more sedentary food, especially in bay environments.

In areas like San Francisco Bay, potluck party-boat skippers have this down to a science. They can predict where stripers and other species will be almost to the minute by computing tidal current and direction past well-known spots. Striped bass in the bay like a swift 4.5 to 6.5 current, which brings anchovies into the bay. Incoming waters sweep the baitfish past Treasure Island and Alcatraz; outgoing tides swing them back past the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Low tides will find them under the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge and high slack tide will find the stripers scattered out around the shallow flats. Skippers move their boats around; they fish Alcatraz during the incoming tide, next go along the flats, then move out to the South Tower as the tide flows out, generally catching fish.

Pier fisherman cannot move around as easily but can make sure they are at the pier during these incoming and outgoing periods of good water movement, the best times to fish for many species.

Different fish of course like different conditions. Perch found in bays tend to prefer somewhat slower water movement, 2.5 to 3.5 feet, either incoming or outgoing (although fishing tends to be better on the incoming tide). Bass (spotted bay bass, barred sand bass and kelp bass) in southern California bays seem to like a moderate 3.5 to 4.5 feet of moving water with the hours around the high tide the optimum time. Striped bass in the north will hit at the top of a moderate incoming tide, one that peaks at five feet or better and has at least three feet of moving water. Sharks, bat rays and skates prefer a moderate incoming tide that peaks out above four feet. Sturgeon love a fast moving tide, halibut prefer moderate tides, and salmon like fairly slow tides. The sixth rule is to keep records, study the tides and currents, and match the catches of your fish with this data. You will soon figure out the peak fishing times and be able to catch more fish in less time; you have increased your efficiency as an angler and probably increased your enjoyment as well.

When considering the tide and current also anticipate the effect on the fish. At many inner bay piers where the water is fairly shallow, fish will hang in the deep pockets around the pilings during the periods of high tide. The fish also tend to hang out under the upcurrent side of the pier waiting for natural food to be washed toward the pier. In such situations, you want to fish on that side of the pier allowing your bait to be washed under the pier. When the tidal currents decrease, the fish will come out and forage more.

Also don't be afraid to fish the shallow water areas. Many inner bay piers are located near mud flats that are almost dry during low tides. However, the flats soak up the heat from the sun during low tide conditions and may see fairly warm-water conditions when the tide moves in. When combined with a bottom area chock full of worms, clams and mussel beds, these flats are often very attractive to fish like flounders and striped bass during cold-weather conditions. On the other hand, if there is a steam running into the mud flat, fishing success may decrease after a cold rain. Why? Because the stream brings the cold water down to the shallow flats and the fish move out to deeper water.

Some pier anglers (those who fish the long, deep-water piers found in southern California) seem less concerned about the tides. Since there is always fairly deep water out at the end, there may always be some fish present. Thus, some piers are not as dependent as others on tidal movement and the fish that follow those tides. However, even at these piers, several varieties of fish will often move into the shallower surf areas during the high tide and that is when the shore end of the pier may yield better results. When fishing on the longer piers, I will often move around the pier depending upon the tide, fishing the far end during the low tide and the shore end as the tide moves in. I have a good shot at the larger perch and croaker found in the tidal area as well as the deeper water species like mackerel and bonito that are found at the end.

Rule number seven is to be mobile, move around the pier. Do not sit in one spot and continue to cast out hour after hour if you're not catching fish. You may be more limited than anglers on the beach, or those in boats, but you should check out different areas of the pier as conditions change. Only some of the larger piers offer multiple environments and opportunities, but all piers, large and small, show fluctuation. One spot may not be producing fish while fifty feet away anglers are hauling them in one after another.

I remember a visit to the Hermosa Beach Pier when a combined school of Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, and sardines were teasing the anglers. The fish were schooled together and were constantly moving from one area of the pier to another. Each time the school would move, the galumphing group of 20-25 anglers would move with the fish. As soon as the school moved again, and an angler would hook a fish at a new spot, the group of anglers would be running again. It was sort of comical (it had the feel of the old time black and white silent movies) but the people WERE catching fish. That scene was extreme but the idea is right: follow the fish as they move around the pier. Go to the fish instead of waiting for them to come to you.

Solunar Tables

Solunar tables are used by many fishermen and are supposed to predict good fishing. These are based on the sun and the moon and show up frequently in tide books as the best times to fish. Personally, I do not have a lot of faith in them as specific indicators other than when they say that the dawn and dusk are good times to fish. I agree with that. I have always liked to fish early in the morning and in the late afternoon, early evening hours.

There is little doubt that a full moon will see some fish feeding at night. It’s true with many fish, but especially croaker and bass and some of the biggest croaker I’ve caught have been at night. Conversely, many fish do not feed or feed little during nights that are dark. The good news is that the following mornings, especially early morning hours, often see a good “fish bite”—the fish are hungry. Of course, a night with no moon also means higher than average tides.

The eighth rule to remember is that when you have better than average high tides, a good flow of water, and either or both of these occur in the early morning hours—go fishing!

Red Tide

I think it was ‘Ol Casey, although it might have been Yogi, who once said, “hit it where they ain’t.” Much of fishin’ is learning to cast it where they is! Luckily there is usually some type of fish around a pier at all times—with one exception. That exception is the dreaded “red tide.” This nasty little condition develops when tiny (really, really tiny) organisms called dinoflagellates start to multiply at a phenomenal rate (bloom) and saturate the water with their itsy bitsy bodies. Millions of these dinoflagellates, and there are several different types, may exist in a single liter of water. If it is only a half-million to a million per liter of water, the coloring may be brown (or yellowish), if it hits the maximum concentration of 50 million per liter, the water will have a distinctly reddish color.

Imagine a liter bottle containing 50 million little Lenins or Stalins (commies/reds—get it?). If you're non-political, imagine 50 million tiny little red rockfish squeezed into one of those liter-size bottles.

Unfortunately, as the number of these organisms increase they begin to use up the oxygen in the water. At the upper number limits, the dissolved oxygen in the water drops virtually to zero. Initially, as the water quality begins to decrease, the more mobile organisms (like fish) begin to leave the area. Eventually, as the water reaches zero oxygen levels, death results to the creatures still in the area.

Occasionally the result is a massive “die off” of fish. One of the most famous in California occurred in 1964 when an estimated 50 tons of anchovies became trapped in Santa Cruz Harbor during a “red tide” invasion (dinoflagellate counts of Gonyaulax polydera reached 20-35 million per liter). The fish died, the smell was unbearable, and oil from the bodies of the decaying anchovies pitted the hulls of boats in the harbor. Similar die-offs would take place in 1974, 1980, and 1984 each of which required the removal of 1,000 to 2,000 tons of “stinky” fish. Eventually the harbor district installed 30 aerators in the harbor to replenish oxygen levels in the water.

There have been many such occurrences in California, some recorded back to the 1800s. Obviously, conditions such as this are bad for our trusty pier fisherman. Any fish with half an ounce of brain (poor simile) would try to swim away to cleaner water. If it is a small bloom that may be possible, if it is a large bloom (one reported off Mexico extended 170 miles) it may be impossible. So, the angler who casts his line out into the waters of a “red tide” is faced with two possibilities: The first is that there are few fish present—since most have moved to safer areas. The second possibility is that there are no fish in the area—they're dead. In either case the angler would be wise to move on.

Unfortunately, scientists report that the number of “red tides” seems to be increasing, especially in places like the man-made harbors in southern California. Often these enclosed waters exhibit poor circulation and semi-stagnant conditions, which can act as fish traps during blooms. 2003, 2005 and 2011 saw large fish kills at Redondo Harbor that may have been due to red tide (but are unconfirmed). Sometimes fish simply get trapped in harbors and use up the oxygen but red tides are often the cause. In 2020 there wasn’t any doubt when fish began to die off from San Diego to Los Angeles.

My observations, based on many, many pier trips up and down the coast is that the number of Red Tides is indeed increasing. Although I have seen “red tide” conditions at almost every pier in southern California, and at the Avila and Cayucos piers in central California, the pier which seems to see these conditions the most is Belmont Veterans Pier in Long Beach. The pier sits inside the protected breakwater of the Los Angeles Harbor and tends to receive less movement of water than oceanfront piers.

Luckily most of these blooms don’t last too long and most are fairly small. Once the oxygen level reaches zero the plankton themselves begins to die (and the decomposition of the plankton uses up even more oxygen). With the death of the dinoflagellates, the recovery of the water can begin. Sometimes one part of a pier’s water may be covered while another part exhibits no bloom. Sometimes the bloom is mainly on the top of the water while water underneath is freer of the organisms. Sometimes the entire pier is surrounded with “red tide.” If the pier’s water has a reddish appearance, fish will probably be absent. If the water is more of a brownish appearance you may catch fish, but probably not too many. If the bloom is in patches around the pier, and you can’t stop yourself from “giving it a try,” try fishing in the clearer water where fish may still be present. However, the best advice is simply to avoid fishing from a pier that appears to have “red tide” conditions. A ninth rule might be that if a pier is surrounded with red water, pretend it is a stop sign, and go no further.

By the way, dinoflagellates are the same organisms that make it unsafe to eat mussels during certain months of the year in California and lead to prohibitions on the taking of shellfish, generally May 1 to October 31. However, these are a different and more toxic species than those that cause “red tide.” And, just so I don’t flunk the baseball exam, turns out it wasn’t Casey or Yogi who made the statement that opens this section. A Pier Rat informed me that it goes all the way back to “Wee Willie” Keeler. Guess I should stick to fishing.

Night Versus Day

I must confess that as I get older, as contrasted to old, some of my habits have changed. One change is that I am in the arms of Morpheus (sound asleep) about as soon as I hit the bed and pillow in my bedroom, at least most nights. And once asleep, nothing is going to awaken me. However there is a major exception to that routine, although one that seems to occur less and less each passing year. That exception is fishing at night. Many people like to fish at night and I am one of them. There is something almost magical about fishing at night, especially when it is out over the ocean. The sights and sounds give mystery to every movement, and anticipation and wonder every time a fish is hooked. In addition, it is the best time to catch several of the most prized pier species in California.

When I was young and unattached, my buddies and I would often head down to the beach after we got off work at 11 p.m. We would sometimes spend the entire night fishing in Mission Bay or at the Shelter Island, Ocean Beach, or Imperial Beach piers. As a general rule, the fishing in Mission Bay was only fair. However, the fishing on the piers was sometimes excellent, even though the numbers of species seemed limited. Herring (queenfish) and tom cod (white croakers) were some of the main catches at night along with their larger croaker cousins, spotfin and yellowfin croaker. Sharks and rays, several different varieties, were dependable. So too, at times, were small barracuda which would hit spoons under the lights at night, yet seem to ignore the baits of the daytime fishermen.

However, many of the fish we would see during the day would rarely make an appearance and we wondered if they were asleep. Perhaps! One day I ran across the following quote from a book on oceanography: “Some pelagic fishes, such as tuna, that must swim to keep water moving across the gills are presumably active all night long, but other pelagic fishes, such as (true) herring, tend to remain in a quiescent state in the water column (at night). The polarized school of the day becomes unpolarized at night, but the members remain close enough to each other so that the polarized school can re-form as soon as there is enough light. The inactivity of many fish at night is presumably an energy-conserving measure.” So, it appears that some fish do indeed sleep, or at least take a little nap at night.

Fish or no fish, many insomnolent anglers will continue to fish at night where unencumbered by local restrictions (many piers no longer allow anglers to fish throughout the night). Species you are most likely to encounter at night in southern California include the various croaker species, all manner of sharks and rays, bass, sculpin (California scorpionfish), Pacific mackerel and lizardfish. In central California, kingfish (white croaker) will lead the hit parade followed by sharks and rays, an occasional school of jack mackerel or Pacific mackerel, and, when present, small rockfish. In San Francisco Bay, sharks and rays will predominate followed by striped bass, kingfish (white croaker) and occasionally a sturgeon. In the northern part of the state, sharks, rays and skates lead the action.

An added bonus for some nighttime anglers, although primarily restricted to those piers located near deep-water canyons (Newport, Balboa, Redondo Beach, Port Hueneme, Monterey), is that the nocturnal hours offer the best opportunity for seeing deep-water fish. Many mesopelagic species leave the deeper waters that they inhabit during the day, (roughly) between 300 and 3,000 feet deep, to feed near the surface at night. These fish, usually black or silver, and often with large eyes, make this vertical migration in search of zooplankton, which also rise to the surface at night. The most common example of such fish is the Pacific hake (gray with large eyes) and, as to be expected, most of the hake I've caught at Newport Pier were caught during the hours of darkness. Unfortunately, most piers are now closed at night, usually at 10 p.m. or midnight. Darn!

Several visitors to the Pier Fishing in California Message Board have asked about the wisdom of using lights to attract fish at night. I believe it is a two-edged sword! Piers such as Newport Beach and Redondo Beach that have strong lights turned toward the water do often see excellent fishing in the well-lit areas. Plankton are attracted to the light which in turn attracts small bait fish which ultimately attract the larger fish and then the fishermen. However, in such conditions the fish have become accustomed to the lights and their eyes have adjusted to it. Do not assume that you can duplicate the success by simply dropping a lantern down near the water. Initially you may simply scare the fish. A rapid change from darkness to light, coupled with the inability of fish eyes to quickly adjust to the change in light, may actually lead to a decrease initially in your success. However, after the eyes of the fish have adjusted to the light (15-60 minutes) your fishing should improve.

Good Signs and Bad Signs

Often before you go out on a pier you can tell if the signs are good or bad and if they're bad you might want to consider going to another pier.

• Good signs include lots of anglers on the pier and birds in the water.

• Bad signs include no fishermen, no birds, red water and high wind.

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 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. Several recent books give a good start on learning about the local species.

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.

Miller and Lea’s Guide to the Coastal Marine Fishes of California, Second Edition by Milton S Love and Julianne Passarelli, 2020. This is an update of the original classic with up-to-date information on all of the original species as well as over 200 new species. The description of each species includes the common and scientific name, geographical and depth range, size, fin elements, lateral line, gill rakers and vertebrae. It also has a water resistant cover useful for fishing trips.

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. 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​

The Fisherman’s Environment

Another consideration when discussing the pier environment is the environment of the fisherman. Are restrooms on or adjacent to the pier? Is bait available on the pier or does it need to be purchased somewhere else? Does the pier have fish cleaning stations? Are lights available for those wanting to fish at night, or is the pier even open at night? Is there protection from the wind (an important question at many San Francisco Bay Area locations)? How early must you arrive to get a good fishing spot? Is parking available? Is it safe for children? Each of these is a simple question but a major pain if the answer is wrong. Knowing the pier’s environment for the angler should further help prepare you for a successful trip.

The tenth and final rule is that there are no guarantees in fishing. Tides, tidal flow, happy faces in the tide book, water temperature, and a good throw of the dice (or oracle bones) may all indicate that you should go fishing—yet you may fail to catch a fish. Don't worry (be happy) the worst that happened is that you spent a day fishing. However, if you follow these guidelines you should catch more fish and catch them more often.
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