Public Pier — No Fishing License Required
It’s nothin’ fancy, but it will do
Sun is rising, day is new
Birds are singing a sinful tune
It’s nothin’ fancy, but it will do
It’s nothin’ fancy, roll out the folding chairs
Leave your worries over there
The lines in the water, there’s one for you
It’s nothin’ fancy, but it will do
I’ve been coming round here since 1962
and the boys are real friendly, and the ladies are too
Fishing’s slowed down, but the water’s still blue
It’s nothin’ fancy, but it will do
It’s nothin’ fancy, it’ll do.
Nothin’ Fancy—Gary Shiebler — The World’s Greatest Fishing Band
Every angler has his or her favorite spot and mine, until recently, was this old pier. It isn’t the longest of piers, fanciest pier, or even the prettiest. It no longer has either of the two bait and tackle shops that once graced McFadden Place nor the bait shop out at the end that carried live anchovies. And, many times, finding a parking space can be almost impossible. It doesn’t even rank among the top piers in my record book. Even worse for a true “pier rat,” it’s no longer an old wooden pier; it’s been modernized and spruced up; it now has a concrete surface instead of the wooden planks preferred by old fogy anglers like myself.
However, this is where I first became a regular on a pier, where I learned the basics of pier fishing, and where I developed a love of the piers. It’s also where I began a lifelong appreciation of the different fish to be caught on piers. Most important, it’s where I became a “pier rat,” a term I use with eternal affection. Newport rates 100% on the nostalgia meter for me and I’m a sappy kind of guy when it comes to the “good old days.”
Like the song above, I’ve been coming to the (Newport) pier since 1962, the year my folks moved to Costa Mesa. My home was only a few miles from the pier, and it was a fairly short ride on my heavy, but trusty, old red Schwinn Corvette bike. I would get up at 4 A.M., grab some bait out of the freezer, tie down my bait bucket and tackle box, hang onto my rod, and take off on what was often a somewhat eerie, quiet journey through the fog.
I’d bike down the street past Newport Harbor High School, then zip down the steep cliff to the Pacific Coast Highway. If traffic was light (and it usually was at that time in the morning), I’d make a quick cut across the road, then pedal down the peninsula to the pier.
After locking my bike, I would hurry out to the far end of the pier and Mecca—the coveted northwest corner. Sometimes someone else would already have that spot—but generally it was one of the regulars. If so, it was only fair. I would often be soaked from the morning dew but I really didn’t care; it was simply a price one paid to catch some fish.
I did catch fish but it took some time before I became proficient. My first few trips saw an occasional small halibut or more often a sculpin (scorpionfish). It wasn’t until my seventh trip that I caught a decent-size fish, a barracuda, and it wasn’t until the tenth trip that I caught as many as ten fish. However, I soon began to get the hang of it and started to catch a variety of fish: bonito, mackerel, jack mackerel, queenfish, jacksmelt, perch and hake. I was finally becoming an angler and a “pier rat.”
At last, on an early September morning, I had my first “big day.” I had arrived, as usual, at the crack of dawn, and was fishing just down from the northwest corner. I was using squid for bait and had experienced very little early success. However, around 5:30 A.M., I had a strike and pulled in an ebony-colored fish—a type I had never caught before. The next cast yielded two more of these strange colored fish and I continued to catch fish, nearly every cast, for the next two hours. Strangely, only two other anglers were having similar success. Most anglers were fishless. Later, I found out the fish were sablefish, a deep-water fish more common to northern waters.
Upon cleaning the fish, I also found the reason for my success. The fish were stuffed with squid that were schooling in the waters near to the pier. Anglers who were using squid for bait, and there were only a few, were catching the fish. I caught 47 sablefish that day, but it was only a start. I continued to catch fish: large jacksmelt, Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel—77 fish in all. And, quite appropriately, I also caught a small squid. It was, mirabile dictu, one of the best days I ever had at the pier even though the fishing probably would have been considered poor for most of my fellow anglers that day. You just never know what is going to happen at Newport.
The Huntington Beach Pier sits to the west
Environment. At first glance, the Newport Pier doesn’t seem too different from most other California piers. The foot of the pier sits on a sandy beach—Newport Beach, which is one of the beaches that stretch down the Balboa Peninsula. The narrow peninsula itself heads southeast past the Balboa Pier before ending at the west jetty for Newport Bay.
On the other side of the narrow peninsula is Newport Bay and its islands—Lido Island and Balboa Island. The fish-rich waters of Newport Bay are a major fishing area in their own right (mainly bass, croakers and halibut) and are a major nursery ground for several types of fish.
Looking east toward the Balboa Pier
As for the onshore environment, there is a reason why Newport is sometimes called zooport. Twenty-five years ago the city estimated more than 5,000 people visited the pier on an average summer day and I don’t think that number has gone down. One result: parking at McFadden Plaza at the foot of the pier can be almost impossible on weekends, holidays, and almost any summer day.
Sitting as it does straight down the highway from hot inland cities, Newport is seen as a “cool” beach town when the thermometer is hitting the high marks inland. And then there’s the sailing and the fishing! Newport is famous for its sailing craft and boats of every size and description call Newport home. Fishermen have a choice: deep-sea fishing on boats from Davey’s Locker and the Newport Landing, fishing in the bay for a plethora of species, or pier fishing from the Newport Pier and Balboa Pier.
Another attraction for newcomers to this old pier is the iconic dory fishing fleet that sits on the sandy beach just north of the pier. It was founded by Portuguese fishermen in 1891 and is the last remaining fleet of its type in the nation. Today it’s a historic site and though there have been changes over the years, i.e., the dorymen use outboard motors today instead of rowing, and though ethnicities have changed, the daily routine is still much like it was more than 125 years ago.
The boats head out each morning around 4 a.m. to the deep-water beds, drop their lines into water several hundred feet deep, and hopefully catch some fish. Once the fish are pulled up from the depths it’s a full bore, hair blowing in the wind trip back to the pier and beach. The boats are pulled up on the sand and then they sell their fish, fresh from the sea, along “Rock Cod Lane.” Most of the fish are bottom-hugging rockfish (called rockcod)—the variety including thorneyhead, bocaccio, chilipepper, and other deep-water, reddish-colored rockfish. They also generally have two of my favorite fish—sculpin (actually scorpionfish) and sablefish also known as sea trout, black cod or butterfish (for their rich, oily, butter-like flavor). The sculpin can be cooked several ways while the sablefish (rare to most fish markets) are one of the best fish you can find if you like smoked fish.
It’s a hard life for the fisherman, long hours, sometimes back braking work, and a constant struggle against changing weather conditions and the federal and state regulations that can seem to change as fast as the weather. But, it’s also a way of life few would give up. The dory fleet adds to the environment of the pier and, when pier anglers are unsuccessful, provides a ready market for fish to take home (although you often have to get there fairly early in the morning before the fish are gone). Their fleet’s motto is “Our fish is the freshest fish on Earth” and they might be right excepting for those fish freshly pulled in next door at the pier by the pier rats.
However, the Newport Pier isn’t like most of its fellow piers. It’s fairly unique due to the deep-water Newport Submarine Canyon. The pier itself is fairly short at 1,032 feet, and the water at the end is only about 30 feet deep, but from the end of the pier it’s a fairly short distance to the lip of that undersea canyon and a fairly quick drop-off into water several hundred feet deep.
The close proximity doesn’t affect most of the regular inshore species but can produce large numbers of some of the pelagic species that prefer a little deeper water. And, at times, especially at night, a few deep-water fish may make the journey up from the depths of the canyon into the waters of the pier.
Deepwater Sablefish caught by the dory fleet
As for the normal fish attracting features that are found at most piers, it’s fairly typical. Inshore is found a sandy shore and sandy shore species. Mid-pier sees a mix of the shallow water and deeper water species. The end sees the deeper water species.
The pilings themselves generally have little kelp but are heavily encrusted with barnacles and mussel. The oxygenated water around the pilings attracts some fish, the pilings themselves provide protection for some species, and the various creatures found on the pilings provide food for a number of species.
Looking west toward a setting sun over Huntington Beach
The Fish. The California Department of Fish and Game did fish surveys at the pier from 2004-2009 and one fact stood out above all others —the predominance of Pacific mackerel. It was the number one caught fish every year and no other species were even close. Most years see some good numbers of jacksmelt and topsmelt, some years see good counts of Pacific sardines, and warm-water years can see good counts of bonito, but all are far behind the counts for mackerel.
The fact that it is near deep water probably explains the affinity of mackerel for the pier. It’s much the same as at Redondo Beach with its pier and deep-water submarine canyon; the two piers earn the twin sister (or brother) award for mackerel. When the mackerel are running, and that’s often, the end of the pier will be jammed late into the night with mackerel fisherman filling buckets with the mackerel. Blood will be splashed on the deck, railings will be covered with blood, guts and slime (so much for blood, sweat and tears), the water will be filled with glow lights peppering the surface, and whole families will be filling just about every square inch of space at the end section. Of course the number of people, and the mess, helps explain why the pier frequently receives criticism from visitors unused to the blood and guts.
The fact that Newport is a noted mackerel pier isn’t new as seen in this hundred-year-old report:
Fishermen Catching Full Bags Along Coast
Along the South Coast a fine season for the pole fishermen is in prospect. Huge schools of mackerel, kingfish (also called herring), smelt and pompano have already delighted these knights of the rod who fish from piers, while the succulent surf [corbina] has appeared at the usual favorite haunts in satisfactory numbers. The small fish, it is freely predicted, will give great pleasure to those who dangle their line from pier or strand this summer… For mackerel, kingfish, smelt or the like, Newport seems to be the favorite spot. If one avoids the snags on the south side of the pier at the end, one can catch a great variety of small fish from the last named pier. Following is a general summary of fishing at South Coast points: Newport pier: rock bass, kingfish or herring, mackerel, smelt and sculpin generally plentiful; an occasional yellowtail and halibut, and perch may be caught near the piles. Live bait generally procurable on this pier…
—Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1915
As for myself, I have kept records of every fishing trip, and every fish caught, since 1962. My personal records for Newport show a 6.81 fish per hour average and 12.2 points per hour average (a figure that tries to account for quantity vs. quality). Both figures would place Newport at a mid-point range in comparison to other Orange County piers. In regard to fish per hour, Newport trails the piers at Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Seal Beach (with Balboa and the small pier in Dana Harbor ranking lower). As far as points per hour, Newport is third following San Clemente and Huntington Beach. All the other piers are lower. The bottom line: somewhat fewer fish per hour but slightly larger-sized fish than some of the other piers.
To a degree the figures reflects a pier where the availability of pelagic species—mackerel, bonito, jacksmelt and sardines, have a large affect on the number of fish caught and quality. It’s something seen at piers similarly located near deep-water, submarine canyons—Redondo Beach, Port Hueneme, Monterey Wharf #2 and nearby Balboa. All have a tendency to have a hot or cold nature dependent upon the pelagic species.
However, the pier’s story is much more than just the mackerel, or the unusual species that sometimes travel up from the depths of the deep-water canyon. The pier also sits just down the shoreline from the entrance to Newport Bay so inshore, bay dwelling forms will also be seen. Nevertheless, by and large, the species reflect the normal mix of SoCal pelagic species and more resident species like the perch, croakers, flatfish and sharays.
Her first thornback ray
Inshore. Inshore, from the surf area to about a quarter way out on the pier, one can expect to find some barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, and a few corbina. Nighttime hours might also see a few black croaker. Sharays are represented by round stingrays, thornback rays, gray smoothhound sharks, leopard sharks and shovelnose sharks (guitarfish).
A sometimes summertime visitor is mullet that will mull around the pier pilings teasing the anglers up above who are shocked by both their number and size (and often mistaking them for small yellowtail). Eventually the snaggers will get to work snagging the mullies that can be anywhere from the surf area out to mid-pier.