A fish that is occasionally encountered is giant (black) sea bass, which love to live amidst kelp forests. The first PFIC report of a blackie at the pier was in August of 1997, a 9-pound baby that was caught and quickly released back into the water. Since then the number of the giant sea bass that are hooked and released seems to multiply each year. The increase in numbers is a good thing; it’s just hoped that those that are hooked are released safely back into the water.
The far left corner of the pier (called “Spyglass Point” by some anglers and “Shark Alley” by others) is the home of the “sharkers” who have their heavy rods and reels and often are camped out at night in groups (since the nocturnal hours are the best by far). Their goals are large sharays (sharks and rays)—shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), big mama bat rays, soupfin sharks, 7-gill sharks, mako sharks, thresher sharks and any other big shark that wants to join in the fun. One such was a 7-foot-long blue shark landed in August of 2010.
The shovelnose are favorites and many in the 20-30 pound range have been caught. Surprisingly, one angler disagreed on the shovelnose, he said he likes a right side of the end corner-cast, as far out as he can cast, at a 45 degree angle. He said he had caught several shovelnose exceeding 30 pounds in weight. Either end spot should be good. Best bait for the shovelnose (as well as the most of the other sharks) is a bloody piece of mackerel, or a live mackerel or sardine (if available).
In May 2018 a soupfin shark nearly 7-feet long and estimated at 100 pounds was taken. Two large fish were caught at the left end in 2006—in May a nearly 8-foot-long, 112-pound 7-gill shark was caught at the end by Omar Garcia, while September of ’06 saw a 120-pound 7-gill landed. May of 2008 saw the capture of a 7-gill estimated to be 10 to 10 ½ feet long (no weight). The only problem is that 7-gills are only supposed to reach about 9 feet in length. Perhaps it was a 6-gill (they’ve been reported to 15 feet in length)? Several more 6-foot and longer 7-gills were taken in December of 2009 while 60 and 80 pound 7-gills were taken in April 2012. A large 7-gill caught in 2016 made the news on local TV stations. It scared people due to its size and teeth but 7-gills aren’t dangerous (unless you’re careless around the mouth of a still living 7-gill).
Most of the sharkers use a heavy rod and reel (usually a conventional reel) and a Carolina-type rigging for the big sharks and rays. Most use heavy line, at least 50-pound test, and heavy 60-80 pound leaders; some use a wire leader. Baits can be whole fish or squid for the shovelnose and bat rays or even larger baits like salmon or bonito heads for the larger seven gills.
Thresher sharks are different. They are surface feeders that like to come up to a school of fish (like mackerel), swat a fish and then come back and eat it. Most anglers fishing for threshers try to catch some live bait, preferably mackerel or a large sardine, and then use a “slider rig.” The line is cast out using a heavy enough sinker to hold bottom. A short 3-4 foot, or longer 5-6 foot leader (opinions vary) with 100+ pound line, and containing a strong snap-swivel at one end, some type of float several feet up from the hook, and large and strong 4/0-7/0 hooks (i.e., Super Mutu hooks) baited with the live bait is then slid down the line into the water. If a thresher swats and then engulfs the bait the fight is on.
Big bat rays, and all the big ones are mama bat rays, probably provide the strongest, most taxing fights among the sharays. Several bat rays near or exceeding 100 pounds in weight have been caught while a huge bat ray, a fish that most felt had to weight at least 200 pounds was lost by an angler in August of 1998. Anglers said the wings appeared to be 8-foot across but even though it was gaffed with two separate treble-hook-gaffs, the anglers couldn’t get the mammoth fish up onto the pier and eventually it was lost. Almost without exception, most of the bat rays hit on a whole squid. A 160-pound bat ray was hooked and landed in May of ’09.
In July 2007 a very large butterfly ray was caught, a fish estimated at 100 pounds but that’s a fisherman’s guesstimate. The females of the species do grow to about five feet wide (the males to two feet) but it’s doubtful if the poundage was that high. They are, by the way, delicious. I caught one at the pier in 1991, put the wings on ice for a couple of days before I headed home, and then finished filleting it at home. I put it in a little acidulated water overnight in the refrigerator and fried it up the next day. Delicioso!
I’ve also heard reports, although they’re unverified, of an angler catching a diamond stingray (Dasyatis dispterura) that was nearly 5-foot in length and 100 pounds in weight.
A tip from the sharkers is that they say many of the large fish seem to have been taken around the evening setting of the sun. I wouldn’t be surprised since that’s when the crepuscular (twilight loving) mackerel often begin to make an appearance and they represent food for the larger sharks.
• The Piling areas — The realm of perch and other rock frequenting species.
The pilings present an additional environment. Many have a substantial growth of mussels and barnacles on them and they attract all sorts of small creatures, especially small crabs and shrimp. A variety of fish feed on those creatures, the most common being pileperch, rubberlip seaperch, blackperch, opaleye, halfmoon, sargo, kelp bass (aka calico bass), barred sand bass, and even an occasional spotted bay bass. The pilings also offer the best chance to hook a rockfish, usually the colorful treefish or more somber brown rockfish. Down towards the bottom of the pilings is also the best area for cabezon.
The bait for all is generally either fresh mussels or seaworms—bloodworms or lugworms. Locals sometimes go to the rocky shoreline south of the pier at low tide to look for small sidewinder crabs; they make great bait, especially for the large pileperch and rubberlip seaperch.
• Crustaceans. With the exception of some big, gnarly-looking spider (sheep) crabs, few crabs are caught at the pier. However, quite a few lobsters are caught at the pier—both legally and illegally. In fact, Ocean Beach is probably the best pier in the San Diego area for the bugs. Legally you can take them during the lobster season (check the latest regulation booklet for dates), they must be a certain size, and they must be taken with a hoop net. Lobsters that grab hold of fishing line are illegal and it doesn’t matter if they are big enough or if it’s in season, they are still illegal. Any lobsters that grab hold of a bait and are brought up to the pier on a fishing line should be returned to the water.
• Exotic or Unusual Species — Given its length and southerly location I would imagine quite a few exotic fish would have been taken at the pier but only a few have been recorded, The most amazing if accurate would be the reports I received from Rosalie at the bait shop in September 2014 who said a number of dorado aka dolphinfish or mahi-mahi (Coryphaena hippurus) had been caught at the pier. This would be only the second report of dorado being taken from a California pier, the other being at the small pier in Oceanside Harbor. Unfortunately I could not verify the catches with pictures.
Another exotic pelagic species, recorded at the pier during the 1997 El Niño warm water year, was bullet mackerel (Auxis rachei). It’s possible frigate mackerel may have also have shown up that year but there were no reports.
Not a rare fish but somewhat exotic for San Diego was a legal-sized salmon taken in May 2006 out toward the end of the pier. That same year, but in August saw a sea turtle, estimated at 50-60 pounds, hooked but lost when it broke the line.
Quick Tips on Where to fish
If a group of anglers is in one area that usually means fish are being caught in that area. Although you do not want to ever crowd into the space of an existing angler or fishing group, you can still fish close by. Most anglers respect and appreciate fellow anglers that are friendly and show some courtesy. Ask if it’s ok to fish in the area and usually most will accommodate the request. Of course if you have a family with multiple people it may be harder to do. Also, never be afraid to ask questions (but do not over do it). Many, many experienced anglers (but not all) enjoy sharing their expertise with newbies. The key to this sharing of information is how you approach the people. Don’t barge in and try to grab a spot or start casting over lines, be humble and willing to listen to advice. (2) I’ve always found fishing by a fish cleaning station to be a productive area (assuming someone is not already there). The discarded pieces of fish being dropped into the water act as a chum to attract other fish. (3) Try to stay out of the wind or at least keep it to your back. It’s a matter of both comfort and it’s difficult to cast into the wind. Unfortunately there are few spots on the pier that are not wide open to the wind. (4) Watch the direction of the currents to make sure they will not carry your line into the pilings. (5) Consider the pilings when setting up. Generally you want to be between the pilings so that when you underhand cast you do not hit or tangle up with a piling. Also look for any piping that can catch your rig during a cast. If you are going to be fishing straight down for piling fish (and not really casting) then it’s OK to set up over a piling.
Newbie Advice and “Skunk Buster” Tips
For new anglers, and especially for young anglers, the beginning emphasis should simply be on catching a few fish. It often doesn’t matter the size or species, the desire is simply for some action and it’s amazing how exciting it can be for a person, young or old, to catch their first fish. Keep it simple!
The easiest way to insure a catch is by using one of the six-hook, Sabiki-type “bait rigs” available at virtually every tackle shop. Simply tie your line to one end of these rigs and attach a (torpedo) sinker at the other end and you’re ready to go.
Use these rigs mid-pier to the end and you will be primarily targeting the smaller schooling species. Small to medium-size fish include Pacific mackerel, queenfish, jacksmelt, surfperch and the larger sardines. Small fish include smaller versions of the above together with topsmelt, small perch, i.e., walleye surfperch, and anchovies. A few other species may also decide to grab a hook, especially when using bait, but these are the main targets.
I preach the “Seven P’s”—Proper Prior Planning Prevents Pi… Poor Performance and here that means buying several packages with different size hooks. A main concern is matching the hook size you’re using with the fish you are trying to catch since different size fish hit best on size appropriate hooks. Thus larger mackerel will best on larger hooks while small sardines may hit better on smaller hooks. For the medium-size fish a size 6 to size 8 or 10 (Sabiki/Japanese size hook) should work best. For the smaller species size 4 or 6 will work. Unfortunately there seems to be variance between manufacturers on these Japanese sizes (that don’t match U.S. hook sizes) making it somewhat difficult for the new angler. The key is smaller hooks for smaller fish.