Last modified: November 27, 2018

Fishing Piers Southern California

Ocean Beach Pier — San Diego

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 —

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.


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.

Leopard shark (Picture courtesy Wicked Homies Fishing Club)

Inshore, try using either fresh mussels or seaworms making sure to keep your hook small, usually size 6 or 8. If the tide is right, you may be able to hook some rubberlip seaperch, blackperch, halfmoon, opaleye, senorita or blacksmith in this shallow area near the rocks on the south side. For some nice-size opaleye, try using frozen peas that have been allowed to thaw; place just enough peas on the hook to cover the hook. Fishing on the north side of the pier may yield a few barred surfperch but generally action is slower than at piers built over strictly sandy bottoms.

Blackperch aka Buttermouth

Sometimes the big ‘uns are lost. In August of 1998 an angler lost a HUGE bat ray which most of the locals felt had to be in the 200-pound range. They said the wings appeared to be 8-foot across but even though it was hooked with two separate treble-hook-gaffs, the anglers couldn’t get the mammoth fish up onto the pier and eventually it was lost. 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.

Spider (sheep) crab (Picture courtesy Wicked Homies Fishing Club)

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.

Lobsters are common — and make sure to follow the regulations

Special Recommendation. Since it is a long way out to the end of the pier, most regulars have pier carts — constructed carriers on wheels that can hold their rods and reels, tackle box, bait bucket (be sure to bring one here) and any other miscellaneous materials they need.

Special, Special Recommendation. Live bait, especially live anchovies are the best bait by far for most species. But increasingly, as the years go by, less and less live anchovies are available at bait shops. That luckily isn’t the case here; most of the time anchovies and/or sardines are available for bait. However, sometimes that isn’t the case. What should you do? Usually here, and often at Imperial Beach, Embarcadero Marina, and Shelter Island, anglers will be using drop nets to capture live anchovies and smelt. Most of the time these anglers will be glad to share their live bait, if you ask. Many anglers seem hesitant to ask and then watch enviously as others catch the fish, especially those using the live bait. Not only do I feel it is the best approach for fishing, but I feel it helps bridge the communications gap that sometimes seems to exist among our state’s diverse mix of anglers.

Potpourri — Perhaps more than you want to know about the Ocean Beach Pier

<*}}}}}}}}}>< — I found the following description of the pier in the “Lonely Planet” Guide to Los Angeles & Southern California (2005): “The half-mile long Ocean Beach Pier has all the architectural allure of a freeway ramp.” Well sure, it does sort of look like a freeway ramp if you’re standing at the shoreline approach to the pier on Niagara Avenue. But listen, what other freeway ramp provides bass, bonito, barracuda, and an occasional 7-gill shark? I might prefer an old wooden pier but “ya gots to take what you can get.”

<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Fish surveys taken by the Department of Fish and Game from 2004 to 2009 show fairly typical results for a SoCal pier. The species (numerically) — northern anchovy, Pacific mackerel, queenfish, Pacific bonito, topsmelt, Pacific sardine, walleye surfperch, white croaker, yellowfin croaker, jacksmelt, salema, shiner perch, jack mackerel, kelp bass, silver surfperch, yellowtail, white seabass, thornback ray, striped seaperch, black perch, leopard shark, white seaperch, rubberlip seaperch, barred surfperch, California scorpionfish, brown rockfish, spotfin croaker and butterfish. If surveys had been conducted at night there is no doubt additional sharks and rays would be on the list.

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