Last modified: November 27, 2018

Fishing Piers Southern California

Ocean Beach Pier — San Diego

The sun setting behind the clouds create radiant rays of light that burst outwards like the cover of a religious pamphlet. These are the kinds of scenes that can be used to justify the existence of God, the kind of beauty that can be described as holy, sacred.

—Janice Lee, ENTROPY, The Poetics of Spaces: Ocean Beach Pier, June 26, 2014

The left corner is considered the “primo” spot for several species including sharks and sheephead

Fishing Tips. At the far end of the pier, in the deepest water, are found some of the biggest fish. Several pelagic species—bonito, barracuda and yellowtail—like the combination of deep water and kelp, while several bottom species—kelp bass, sand bass, sheephead, and sculpin (scorpionfish) seem primarily attracted by the kelp.

The bonito will be abundant some years and be absent other years. In the ‘60s they were almost too numerous and people would complain that they were crowding out the “better” fish. Then, when they did a disappearing act for many years, people lamented the loss of these great game fish. In the ‘90s, and into the new century, there have been good years and bad years. Strangely, several of the last few years have seen runs of micro-bonito, small fish that were uncommon in the past. They’re supposed to spawn off of Baja and no one, including scientists that I talked to, seemed to know why baby bonito were showing up at SoCal piers. But, we’ll take them! When the medium to large-sized bonito show up, the best rigging seems to be a feather trailed behind a Cast-A-Bubble (or golf ball) or a jig such as a MegaBait, Crippled Herring or Buzz Bomb. Micro-sized bonito are young ‘uns and perhaps not as sharp, they will hit bait rigs, often several at a time. But why, since you’re are limited to five small bonito, use a bait rig? One cast might yield your limit.

Bonito caught by Mike Donahue

The barracuda also like the end area but will be found all the way down the pier to the bait shop area. They show up almost every year and are most common in the fall and at night. Nevertheless there can sometimes be great daytime action depending upon how the schools of bait are hanging around the pier. Bets results on the barracuda seem to be with gold or silver-colored spoons like a Krocodile but other artificials are also used with MegaBaits and Rebel Fast Tracks leading the way,

Yellowtail are the trophy fish although most pier fisherman will never land one. However, they do show up most years, generally between July-October, and their appearance can quickly galvanize the pier rats into a state of apoplexy. Pier rats are soon tossing out whatever metal creations happen to be found in their tackle boxes, hoping to lure the ‘tails into their coveted section of water. The yellows for their part usually show just enough ‘tail to entice and tease the excited anglers. Then they disappear. Still it is fun while it lasts and adequate numbers are caught most years to keep the hope alive. Several methods are time proven: (1) Live bait, a still lively jack mackerel or Pacific mackerel (small) that you’ve caught with a bait rig. Use a sliding leader or a leader with a float. (2) A leadhead jig that has a strip of mackerel 1 1/2 inches long by 1/2 inch wide attached to the hook. (3) Artificial lures such as Crippled Anchovies, MegaBaits, Rebel Fast Tracks and Buzz Bombs.

Salema are common out toward the end

Pacific mackerel are common from the end almost into the shallows. If you’re after the macs, the most common rigging is a single size 4 or 2 hook baited with a strip of squid or a piece of mackerel. A few feet above the hook is a small split-shot sinker. Many people also use bait rig leaders (Sabiki and Lucky Lura being most common). The bait rig is also good if Spanish mackerel (jack mackerel) show up. I’ve heard reports, but never seen pictures, of a few bullet mackerel (Auxis rachei) being landed at the pier during warm water years. As for myself, I usually just use a high/low rig with size 4 hooks and a torpedo sinker. Two macs at a time quickly fills the bait cooler and I don’t feel like spending the time untangling a bait rig or, even worse, having a $3-4 rig tangled into a Gordian knot that requires an Alexander-like slice through the mess with a sword, ahh bait knife.  That $3-4 might buy one gallon of gas, enough to get to the next pier.

Most of the biggest sharks and rays are also caught at the end. Best bait is squid or a bloody piece of mackerel fished on the bottom; be sure to use fairly strong (30+) test line and tackle. Shovelnose guitarfish, bat rays, and some of the bigger sharks (like threshers) are common. As is true at almost every pier, the nighttime hours are the best if you’re seeking these denizens of the deep.

Soupfin shark (Picture courtesy Wicked Homies Fishing Club)

A reputed hot spot for the shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) is the left branch at the very end of the pier (called “Spyglass Point” by some anglers and “Shark Alley” by others). One angler reported that a right side corner-cast, as far out as he could cast at a 45 degree angle, often produced large shovelnose sharks with many exceeding 30 pounds in size. In May of 2006 a nearly 8-foot-long, 112-pound 7-gill shark was caught by Omar Garcia in the area. In September of the same year Inez Chavarin landed a 7-foot-long, 100+pound thresher shark. May of 2008 saw the capture of a 7-gill estimated to be 10-10 ½ feet long. 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 up 7-gills were taken in December of 2009 and they seem to have become a yearly catch. A large 7-gill caught in 2016 made the news on local TV stations — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRTWQ0yk2WY.

Bat ray (But please do not hold a bat ray like this, hold it by the mouth)

A 160-pound bat ray was taken in May of ’09 while a 7-foot-long blue shark was landed in August of 2010. And a tip—several of the large fish seem to have been taken around the evening setting of the sun, a time that often coincides with the appearance of the mackerel.

The left end corner also seems to have been the most frequent spot for catching sheephead and many of the buck-toothed critters have been taken including a 15-pound fish in October ’09. Best bait for them seems to be either live ghost shrimp or pieces of market shrimp.  In 2006 a legal-sized salmon was also taken in this area.

Sheephead taken by Jose in 2017 (Picture courtesy Wicked Homies Fishing Club)

Sand bass, calico bass (kelp bass), sculpin (scorpionfish) and halibut are possibilities while fishing on the bottom or at mid-depth levels out at the end of the pier. I also received a report of a 4-foot-long moray eel taken from this area in May of ’99 together with a large reddish-colored fish that remains unidentified. An occasional grass rockfish, kelp rockfish, olive rockfish (Johnny bass) or cabezon will also enter the catch. In May of 2007 several giant squid were hooked from the pier but alas none of the anglers was using line strong enough to reign in the beasts.

Kelp Bass (Picture courtesy Wicked Homies Fishing Club)

When fishing midway out on the pier, your best bet for the larger species is once again live bait. Halibut will often lay in the depressions between the pilings while eyeing the schools of small queenfish and walleye surfperch up above (and a 38-pound flattie was landed in August of 1998, a 44-inch halibut in September 2006). Catch the queenfish (herring) and walleyes with multi-hook bait rig leaders (size 6 or 8), or make your own snag line (tie 3-4 small hooks directly to your line, about four inches apart). Fish the snag line unbaited, or sweeten it with a small strip of anchovy (or a very small live pinhead anchovy or smelt).

Haley’s first shovelnose shark (guitarfish)

A lot of shovelnose guitarfish and bat rays will also be hanging out in these waters feeding on the queenfish (and a 57-pound shovelnose was reported in July of ’99). Don’t be afraid to try artificial lures if the pier isn’t too crowded (I saw a picture of a 30-inch halibut taken on light tackle by an angler using a pearl-colored Fish Trap lure).

Some years will also see fairly good runs of sargo in this area; try a high/low rigging baited with pieces of shrimp, ghost shrimp, bloodworms or fresh mussels.

Queenfish

Quite often you will find both sides of the pier loaded with anglers in this area, especially both sides of the bait shop and restaurant. Many are whole families fishing for small herring (queenfish) and they will fill buckets with the small but tasty fish. There is not a limit on the fish and it’s a good thing for them because at times they will have hundreds of fish.

A short way out on the pier, just past the breaker area, and where the pier surface ends its descent and begins to level off, is a large, green colored wire cage. This area, primarily on the north side, seems to yield a lot of leopard sharks, some of which have been pretty decent in size (including a 57-inch, 36-pound leopard in September 1997). Fish on the bottom using squid, mackerel or similar strong flavored (and smelling) bait. Don’t be surprised if you also see a few shovelnose guitarfish, thornback rays, round stingrays and bat rays in this area.

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