Last modified: October 26, 2018

Central California Fishing Piers

Pismo Beach Pier

Public Pier — No Fishing License Required

This pier, together with the other piers along this stretch of coast, provides both recreational fishing and a relief from the summer heat for those who come over from the hot Central Valley (and the summertime influx of Valley residents has earned this region the nickname “Redneck Riviera” or “Bakersfield’s Riviera” — take your pick. Some in Pismo  Beach claim their beach is THE Central Valley’s beach but I think most residents of Pismo Beach itself, and the home towns of the other CenCal  piers—Avila, Morro Bay, Cayucos and San Simeon, might disagree.

The Boardwalk along the beach

Still there is some truth in regard to the visitors from the Valley and it reminds me of the old Johnny Horton song— “When it’s springtime in Alaska it’s forty below.” The new verse would say “when it’s summertime in Fresno it’s a hundred degrees or more.” The good thing is that if you head over to Pismo Beach and decide to bop into the Splash Café for some clam chowder you never know which friend from Fresno you’ll run  into.

This has been the case since the late 1800s. In 1881 a wharf was built on this site and then, in 1895, a dance pavilion was built near the foot of the pier. During the summer a “Tent City” would spring up as tourists flocked to the beach and the hotels became over crowded. The result, both then and now, is that Pismo Beach and other central coast piers are often crowded June through August, and are fairly quiet the rest of the year—a fact that local anglers didn’t seem to mind in the past.

An empty pier during reconstruction — 2017

But, that may be changing. The  summertime parking by the pier, that could be truly gnarly at times. is now almost impossible and simply finding a place to park anywhere downtown can be a challenge. On summertime weekends it’s more than a challenge. It will be interesting to see how the city responds to the increased number of people that flood their fair city.

Pismo’s pier, with an estimated million and a half visitors per year, is the most heavily fished and second most productive of the central coast piers. However, fishing can be somewhat unpredictable. It all depends on the rich influx of microscopic plankton and baitfish that accompany the upwelled waters along this beautiful stretch of coast, a mix that can vary year to year depending upon the springtime winds and changes in ocean currents. Rich water means food and larger fish but if the planktonic food is absent the schools will also be absent. Hapless anglers are at the mercy of these waters and the fish that show up to partake of the offerings.  Luckily most years the upwelling takes place and a variety of schooling species does show up.

The main example used to be the baby bocaccio that would invade the shallow waters around the piers each summer. Although they didn’t emulate Capistrano’s swallows and show up the same day each year, they would usually be present by July. In response, people would flock to the piers to catch the “snapper” by the bucketful (even though the limit was 15). Today the bocaccio are less common, in fact the limit is now two, and some years they even fail to make an appearance. Luckily the jacksmelt, Pacific mackerel and Spanish mackerel (jack mackerel) are still present and Pacific sardine, a fish that was rarely seen for decades, has joined them. Hopefully the bocaccio will also return.

Whatever the pelagic species, when the schools are present anglers will fill their buckets. When the big schools are gone anglers must rely on the more year-round, resident species and often that means just a fish or two per trip.

Environment. Today’s Pismo Beach Pier is 1,370-foot-long (some sources say 1,250 feet) and 32-feet-wide with the surface 25-feet above the water; it also has several cantilevered fishing decks that make it easier to fish down around the pilings. At the same time the pier seems to face straight on to the waves and generally the first half of the pier sees water that is subject to heavy wave action. That’s good for perch fishing but not so good for some of the other species—or keeping the rigging in one spot.

The pier is built over one of the finest sand beaches in the state and one of the luxuries of visiting Pismo is a good long walk along the beach at sunup or sundown. People will be strolling, joggers will be jogging, lovers will be… holding hands, and the seabirds, as always, will be looking for food.

On shore, depending upon the season, godwits with their straight bills, and curlews with their curved bills, will be foraging in the sand for aquatic worms and small molluscs (until disturbed by those walking into their area).

When anchovies or sardines are in the water, pelicans will be diving, pods of dolphin may show up, and both may be accompanied by rafts of sea lions or seals, all interested in those belly filling baitfish. The sky will be filled with birds and people will scramble to the beach and pier to see the sight.

But while  there was a time when this beach was the best place in the state to dig for Pismo clams, the numbers have decreased dramatically (especially the take of large clams). Like the clams, the number of fish has also decreased. Nevertheless, fishing can still be good.

The top fish for anglers at Pismo (although not #1 in numbers) is barred surfperch, the same fish that is caught south of Point Conception.

Good-sized Barred Surfperch — Picture courtesy Sheldon’s Clam Stand

Most of the other prized inshore southern species, fish such as spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, and corbina, will rarely, if ever, be caught this far north. Instead, the angler fishing the surf area will see the addition of large calico surfperch. Instead of stingrays, the angler is more likely to catch a skate (quite a few big skate are taken here). There are, of course, other species. Around the shallow-end pilings there can seasonally be good fishing for blackperch, striped seaperch, rainbow seaperch and occasionally a pileperch or rubberlip seaperch.

Further out, mid-pier to the end, one will catch barred as well as silver and walleye surfperch. Here, anglers will also catch kingfish (white croaker) but unlike more southern waters, far fewer numbers of queenfish. The far end of the pier seems best for flatfish, although I caught a nice fantail sole practically in the surf during a July visit in ’77. Most-often-caught flatfish are starry flounder but sanddabs, sand sole, and a few halibut are generally caught every year.

Barred Surfperch — Picture courtesy Sheldon’s Clam Stand

Pelagic species are most often jacksmelt (the #1 fish in numbers taken at the pier), Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel, but some years will also see a few barracuda, generally in September or October. Late spring to early summer seems the best time for halibut but mid-summer to fall is the best time to possibly hook a king salmon. Some years will still see schools of small bocaccio and these are usually found mid-to-late summer.

An unusual fish hooked in February of ‘02 was a steelhead trout estimated to weigh about 8 pounds. It was hooked on 6-pound test line with a small rubber grub and fought to the pier where it was lost (broke the line) when they tried to net it from above. Another unusual fish, caught on a Sabiki during August of 2008, was a juvenile sablefish, a fish more commonly encountered in deep water or from piers adjacent to submarine canyons.

Juvenile Sablefish

Interestingly, Fish and Game studies made back in the late ‘50s showed that Pismo was the only pier between this area and Trinidad (far to the north), to show a catch of common mola (Mola mola—the ocean sunfish). In 1958 twenty of the strange shaped beasts were caught from the pier although their ultimate fate isn’t recorded.

Fish and Fishing Tips. Follow the tide. Two hours before and after high tide, fish the surf area for barred and calico surfperch. Use sand crabs for bait if you can get some; if not, use seaworms, fresh mussels or clams. Use a high/low leader; size 4-6 hooks, and a sinker just heavy enough to hold your line behind the first set of breakers from the beach. For the largest perch, copy the regulars. More and more regulars use plastic grubs and they’re most productive right in the surf area or in the holes by the pilings. Although these perch can be caught year-round, the best times seem to be late January through March. Most interesting was the number of large barred surfperch landed in April of 1998. The largest weighed on a scale tipped out just less than 4 pounds; not bad considering that the state record for barred surfperch is 4 pounds, 2 ounces.

Barred Surfperch — Picture courtesy Sheldon’s Clam Stand

If perch are not your quarry, fish out toward the end for flatfish. In the winter and spring, fish on the bottom for starry flounder and an occasional Pacific sanddab. From the spring to the fall, fish for sole and an occasional halibut. The starry flounder and sand sole will hit a high/low leader baited with a strip on anchovy, bloodworm, ghost shrimp or even sometimes a sand crab. The smaller mouthed sanddabs prefer strip bait or worms. For the larger halibut, fish on the bottom using a live bait leader rigged with a small white croaker, smelt or walleye surfperch that are common to the pier. The larger plastic grubs and lures such as Big Hammers and Scroungers will also attract a few halibut.

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