Best bait for most of the legal sharks is a large, bloody piece of mackerel while the threshers prefer a live mackerel on a sliding leader.
One of the larger sharays is shovelnose guitarfish usually simply called shovelnose sharks. Most that are caught are around the three foot size but occasionally fish approaching five feet in length will be caught.
Shovelnose shark (guitarfish) taken in 2015
Generally the largest of the sharays will be big bat rays that are affectionately called “mud marlin” by the pier rat community. Most years can see bat rays being landed that exceed 80 pounds in weight; some years will see fish over the 100-pound mark (and they are always the old mama fish). One that weighed an estimated 150 pounds was taken in April of 2001 and another, guesstimated to weigh over 200 pounds, was caught in April of 2006. March of 2010 may have seen the greatest number of big fish when over a dozen bat rays exceeding a hundred pounds were taken (along with a plethora of small rays). The bat rays prefer squid for their meals although anglers sometimes try a potpourri of baits (including stuffing a squid with anchovies or other fish). Do remember that if you’re seeking out the big critters to bring a net and someone to help you with the net. It’s reported to be 32 feet up from the low water mark to the pier surface.
A somewhat special environment is found around the pilings, generally the pilings found mid-pier to the end. Certain fish stay close to and feed on the mussels, crabs, shrimp, and other food that lives on the pilings. Circling around the pilings, and usually near the top of the water are large pileperch. Down near the bottom or often a couple of feet from the bottom will be blackperch (aka buttermouth perch) and rubberlip seaperch. If you’re lucky you might even encounter a cabezon, which almost always hangs near the bottom of the pilings, often under mussels on the piling. Near the pilings, but generally found mid-pier more than toward the end are some opaleye and halfmoon. Both of the latter are good fighters and the opaleye in particular can reach pretty decent size.
When fishing around the pilings, try mussels, bloodworms, or ghost shrimp; use a bait holder-type hook for the bloodworms and mussels, a Kahle-type hook for the ghost shrimp. Oldsters would sometimes take a small clump of mussels, wrap a line with several small hooks in the mussels, and drop the whole clump down toward the mussel-encrusted pilings. The result can be some big perch. In addition, small sidewinder crabs make excellent bait for all of these fish; hook them under the rear part of their shell with a size 6 or 4 hook. A check of the inshore pilings under the pier can sometimes yield up some of these small crabs for bait.
Given the size of the pier, and the number of anglers, it’s not too surprising that some unusual fish may also show up at the pier.
A favorite Central California species but uncommon to Southern California piers is striped bass. Nevertheless, a 27” striped bass was taken in July ‘00 and another 37” striper taken in November 2015. A fish also common to the north but rarely seen at SoCal piers is grass rockfish but one was caught in April of 2015.
Striped bass taken in 2015 (Picture courtesy of the Oceanside Pier Bait Shop)
Although not really rare, basketweave cusk-eels (Ophidion scrippsae) are an infrequent catch from piers yet scientific records list at least two of the cusk-eels as being taken from the pier—in 1947 and 1966—and I’m pretty sure there have been more.
Bonefish (Cortez bonefish, Albula gilbert) have made occasional appearances. A 13-inch bonefish were taken in February of ‘01 and another was caught in August 2007. An earlier report from 1963 showed an even greater catch of the elusive bonefish:
John E. Fitch, research director of the DFG Marine Resources Operations on Terminal Island (reports) fishermen have been catching from one to a half-dozen bonefish daily off the Oceanside Pier. Either there has been a successful hatch in our waters in recent years or these fish have wandered north with a tongue of warm water in late September and October. —Donnell Culpepper, Fishin’ Around, Long Beach Press-Telegram, November 13, 1963
A fairly rare species taken at the pier was a deep-water lancetfish. Even more rare was a Pacific tripletail (Lobotes pacificus) caught in early October 2014. Typically found in the Sea of Cortez, and along the Pacific coast of Baja California south of Guerrero Negro, only a few of the fish have ever been taken in California waters. As evidence of the warm waters in 2014, another tripletail was taken in San Diego Bay in August of the same year.
An unusual fish due to its size was a 9-pound kelp (calico) bass caught by a neophyte angler in September of ‘02. He rented a pole, bought some frozen squid, and headed out from the pier’s bait shop. A short time later he came back to the shop with the huge calico. Most anglers will fish a lifetime from a pier and never catch a 9-pounder (in fact, it’s a pretty good calico even from a boat).
A fish that was becoming rare, and was considered endangered just a couple of decades ago, is the giant (black) sea bass, a goliath of the sea that never fails to startle pier fishermen used to the smaller species. The earliest PFIC reports of a giant sea bass capture at Oceanside was a 143-pound fish that was hooked on Memorial Day Weekend in 1997. Three drops of a treble hook gaff were needed to snag the fish and then four people were needed to haul it up onto the pier. These bass are of course illegal and the smart move would have been to simply cut the line when the angler saw what it was. Instead, the determined angler headed up the pier dragging his catch behind him—only to meet a game warden coming down the pier. It was a TRULY DUMB act and the fine is around $2,000.
Then, in the fall of 2002, several were taken during September and October—including one that most of the regulars said would have topped 200 pounds if not released. May of 2003 saw a fish estimated at 150 pounds, a “giant” fish was caught on July 4, 2008, and a fish estimated at 200 pounds was seen in early June 2009. That fish was hooked on heavy line and wound up tangling the line around the pier’s pilings. Eventually the bait shop was able to contact lifeguards who swam out to the fish and cut the line allowing it to swim free (nice job!).
Huge black sea bass hooked in Oceanside
Raul Espinoza may think about Ernest Hemingway’s quote when he’s fishing for huge thresher shark on Oceanside Pier, but he never dreamed he’d catch something much larger. “My big fish must be somewhere,” Hemingway wrote in “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Espinoza hoped his big fish would be a huge mako shark that he has caught and lost three times, but earlier this week he hooked into a monster black sea bass that took him more than three hours to bring in. Because the fish is protected, he also carefully handled it to make sure it revived and returned to the deep.
Espinoza, 36, has been fishing on Oceanside Pier since he was 5 years old. He loves to fish for shark, often during the wee hours, and headed out last Saturday with that in mind…
On this night, he was out to catch mako shark. He used a whole mackerel on 40-pound line and a 50-pound leader. Just before 3 a.m., he started getting a nibble. “I know exactly what time it was because I had just looked at my watch at 2:50 a.m.,” Espinoza said. He expected a shark to be nibbling lightly. “I set the hook and it peeled out and started pulling line. I couldn’t stop it,” he said. He was sure this was the large mako weighing about 450 pounds that he hooked three times before. Each time he lost it. “I was taking my time, because this time I wanted to tire him out and not lose him,” Espinoza said. After stripping about 400 yards of line, he slowed down and Espinoza was able to lock down his drag and start cranking. “I was able to recover a couple hundred yards of line until he started running again. He did this seven times until I got him to the pier at 6 a.m.,” he said.
It was only then he realized he had hooked the protected fish. State law requires they be safely released… Once he realized this was a protected sea bass instead of a shark, it was a different ballgame. “Things changed once I knew I had the bass. It was now survival mode,” Espinoza said. “I had to make sure it survived.”The small crowd of night pier anglers had gathered to watch and was stunned by the size of the fish. They rooted Espinoza on.
The huge fish began pulling under the pier and Espinoza worried he would tangle or break off on the pilings. The fish was exhausted and Espinoza wanted to keep control so he could make sure the fish recovered safely. To do this, he climbed down a ladder to water level, but large swells made it dangerous. “I waited to see if it was OK. Eventually I could see it was revived and ready to go, so I cut the line,” he said. The big fish turned and took off.
At that point, all Espinoza could do was sit down. “I was exhausted, my muscles ached, my shoulder out of place, and it’s taken me five days to recover,” he said. He got lots of high fives and congratulations after the successful release. “No one realized there was a fish that big in the water around here,” he said… After a few minutes, Espinoza baited his hook and was back in the water. He went to work that day and returned that evening. It was hardly an eventful fishing trip, however, only landing an 80- to 90-pound bat ray.
—Ernie Cowan, San Diego Union-Tribune, June 30, 2016
Today there are almost regular reports of anglers hooking the large bass at the pier and occasional stories of knuckleheads who think they should keep them. In response, Fish and Game “sting operations” are run fairly often at the pier so don’t join that group of knuckleheads.
Cephalopods. Another giant, although of a quite different species, is the Humboldt squid and every few years will see a run of the large cephalopods at the pier. One such run, although short lived, took place in May 2007 and resulted in the usual crowds and excited anglers hooking the large (up to around 30 pound) squid.
Humboldt Squid — 2007
A cousin cephalopod, although of a much more diminutive size, are the small octopus that are sometimes encountered while fishing at night from the end section, especially in the winter months.
Crustaceans. Although not really noted as a great pier for spiny lobsters, many bugs are taken every year. If it’s not the normal fall-winter month’s season do not keep them. If it is during the legal season, remember that they can only be taken with hoop nets (not on a rod), must be legal size, and you need a lobster card to keep them. Most of the bugs will be taken at night and some are pretty good-sized.
Lobster taken in 2015
A few crabs, crustacean cousins of the lobsters, may also be landed. Most of these will be the big, gnarly-looking spider (sheep) crabs and though ugly, and not the easiest thing to clean, they are good eating. Occasionally a rock crab, usually a yellow rock crab, may also show up but rarely are they in the numbers or of a size to justify a hoop net expedition for crabs; they’re strictly an incidental catch.
Non-fish. Other creatures are occasionally encountered.One catch that I found interesting was a tropical turtle that was caught by a startled angler on July 4, 2000. The creature was netted, the hook removed, and the big fellow (or girl?) was gently lowered back down to the
There’s truly a plethora of species to be caught at the pier and though most will be the common species, you just never know what you might catch.
Da Birds. Visit almost any pier and you will probably see some birds—pigeons, sea gulls, cormorants and pelicans being most common, while herons and egrets are regulars at several piers.
The pigeons are actually usually tame and not bothersome although they, like all birds, can leave a mess on the pier. Sea gulls are sneaky and a pest. They will patiently sit on the railing until you forget they are there — and then grab any unattended bait or fish. Cormorants do their dirty deeds under water where they swim and grab fish, including hooked fish at times. Pelicans are big and they can be aggressive. They too will grab unattended bait and fish but they also will sometimes try to grab fish (even fairly large fish) still attached to a line, a fact that doesn’t make anglers too happy. The herons and egrets tend to be more cautious and are rarely a nuisance although they also will grab unattended bait and fish left by careless anglers.
Of the mix, the pelicans seem to be the favorite of tourists to the pier. They’re big, kind of awkward, and goofy-looking birds that seem well suited for a Jurassic Park/World movie (fitting since they appeared during the dinosaur era and they resemble the extinct pterosaurs). They have also become the favorite additions for people taking “selfies” on the pier. Of course that innocent-looking pelican, sitting placidly on the railing, will also reach out and bite you if you get too close and seem threatening (and it can be a painful nip).
The Oceanside Pier sees all of these birds but as expected the pelicans are the favorites. Although there were a number of different pelicans over the years, one of the favorites was Charlie, a seemingly staid and gentle bird that most days would be sitting on the trashcan near the bait shop (where he got a LOT of attention). People would line up to get a picture with Charlie. Ed Gonsalves, who owns the bait shop has even been known to toss an anchovy or two at the birds which seemed to keep both the birds and tourists happy.
Ed will never admit he’s soft hearted for the birds but he is. One pelican showed up in the winter of ’18 with a torn pouch (it can be tough dive bombing from a high altitude (40 feet or so) into the sea in pursuit of fish—as pelicans are known to do). The bird, obviously injured, landed next to the bait shop, and then, when people were busy, strolled right into the shop.