Last modified: October 4, 2018

Central California Fishing Piers

Santa Cruz Wharf

Public Pier — No Fishing License Required

When I first sat down to write about this pier, I almost didn’t know where to start.  Should I talk about the pier itself, the municipal wharf built in 1913, the wharf which is the longest of the five wharves built here since 1853, and a wharf which is still one of the largest piers on the coast, measuring 2,745 feet in length?

Should I talk about the beach and the beach area that used to be known as the Coney Island of the west—with its boardwalk, casino, and famous Giant Dipper, one of the last wooden roller coasters on the West Coast?

Should I talk about the crowds on the pier, an estimated 3-4 million people a year (which, if my mathematical calculations are correct translates into about 10,000 people a day)?

Or, should I just concentrate on the fishing which, because of the size of the pier, can be great at one spot on the pier and, at the same time, terrible just a short distance away?

Environment and Fish. More than a half-mile in length, the pier offers several different types of marine environments including the shallow water, sandy bottom found inshore, to the fairly deep water, sand and mud bottom out at the end. The one constant, and it seems a healthy one, is the pilings. Most show a good growth of fish-attracting organisms on them. Included are several types of mussels (blue mussels, black mussels, horse mussels, horse mussels, razor mussels) and barnacles (gooseneck barnacles, leaf barnacles, acorn barnacles, volcano barnacles, stripped barnacles, thatched barnacles). Joining the mussels and barnacles are sea anemones, sponges (red and yellow), tunicates, crabs, and shrimp. Added in the mix are a plethora of different sea stars in all shapes and color.

The different environments produce different fish. Inshore, just out from the sandy “Main Beach,” an angler can fish most of the year for barred and calico surfperch, and most days will yield at least a few fish. Once in a while, an angler will also hook onto a skate, flounder, or small shark, usually a leopard shark. In addition, a few old-timers (who usually know the most about the piers) will bring a few fresh mussels or worms and fish around the pilings themselves, just outside the breaker area. Their goals are primarily rubberlip, rainbow, and white seaperch as well as blackperch.

Midway out, the pier widens to accommodate restaurants, fish markets, tourist shops and bait and tackle shop; all work hard to keep the wharf’s visitors happy. The east side of the pier is reserved for fishing, launching skiff rentals, and boarding the Stagnaro Sportfishing boats which operate out of the pier.

This area is heavily fished, has a sandy bottom, and yields mostly kingfish (white croaker), walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, white seaperch, sanddabs, small sole and far too many shinerperch, although the small fish also attract the halibut to this shallower area.

The area at the end is different once again even though the bottom is still sand and mud. Various types of debris have built up under and around the pier over the years resulting in what in essence is an artificial reef. Here catches of rocky-shore species are common.

The end area

In addition, several holes are located in the middle of the pier; these are fishing wells that allow an angler to fish straight down among the pilings (an excellent idea which more piers should copy). Of course the noise around these wells can be deafening, a cacophonous mix instigated by barking sea dogs down below and raucous sea gulls up above. A few sea lions always seem to be sleeping on the crossbeams between the pilings or swimming in and out of the area; sea gulls will be sitting wherever they feel it’s safe (especially if they see food, and it doesn’t matter if it’s sea food). It’s undoubtedly one of the favorite spots for tourists to experience the call of the sea but the hubbub can grow a little tiresome for those anglers fishing the wells for just one more fish.

Fishing wells

Sea lions loiter on the crossbeams of the pilings

Eat, sleep and bark

Surprisingly, the fishing in these wells can still be excellent. In fact, most of the rockfish I have caught on this pier have been caught while fishing in these wells. It also seems to be the best spot to catch large, legal size lingcod (normally during the fall or winter months). Around the outer end, an angler can still catch a few rocky-shore species, but sandy-bottom species will predominate. When pelagic species are around, like mackerel and salmon, the end is generally the best area to fish.


One problem here can be infestations of smaller fish, as well as non-fish. Several times over the years I have had to switch to larger hooks and stop using pile worms as bait. Why? Because the shinerperch were so thick that it was nigh impossible to keep them from stripping the bait intended for more desirable species. This was true in both winter and summer visits although generally only in the mid-pier areas.

A different problem arose during visits to the pier in August of 1988. When fishing from the far right end of the pier, the bottom seemed to be covered with small speckled sanddab and small red octopus. I was fishing on the bottom using a high/low leader setup. Every cast yielded two sanddab, two octopus, or one of each. Other parts of the pier saw few of either species but at that particular spot it was almost impossible to keep the small critters off the hooks. I finally switched to bigger hooks, which solved the sanddab problem but didn’t affect the octopus; they simply latched on to whatever came their way. Fortunately, I did get some revenge, as octopus is tasty when sliced up and deep-fried with a little batter. In addition, I kept a few as shark bait that proved effective when fishing in San Francisco Bay. Almost identical sanddab/octopus combinations showed up in visits during November of 2003 and July of 2007 and I imagine it’s a common occurrence.

A small speckled sanddsab

Another problem can be the Pelecanus occidentalis, the brown pelicans that so delight the tourists. Like their relatives down in Santa Barbara (as well as other piers up and down the coast), they can be very aggressive at times, hanging just a few feet away from anglers and quickly trying to snatch fish as they are unhooked from lines. Be careful, you might lose a fish or suffer a slight wound from the nip of a pelican’s beak. At the same time, careless anglers who do not watch their lines can also injure the big birds. When that happens it creates even bigger problems. This pier, as well as Capitola and Seacliff, was closed to fishing for several days in August of 2008 due to the number of pelicans being accidentally hooked by anglers.

There are several fish cleaning sinks on the wharf  

City pursuing pelican-protection plan

SANTA CRUZ—When the California brown pelicans and anglers begin competing for anchovies and sardines at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf next fall, the city will have a new plan to protect the birds.

On the heels of an autumn that saw unprecedented numbers of birds injured off the wharf, the Santa Cruz City Council took the first step of a pelican protection plan Tuesday night. In a 7-0 vote, council members gave preliminary approval to a law that will enable the city to close the pier to fishing as needed to protect the birds. But the plan stresses education and includes trained volunteers, who will walk the pier to inform fishermen about how fishing gear can harm the state and federally endangered birds.

What was left for later is a decision on spending $17,500 for signs that detail the dangers of birds getting snared by lines and explain how to respond should that occur and $1,000 for new trash lids and rescue equipment to be stored at the wharf. Council members said they supported posting the signs, but wanted to wait until after the mid-year review of the city’s budget before committing the funds. Parks director Jim Lang said most of the birds were entangled by accident and that educating the public about the problem was key to combating it.

Pelican conservationists were obviously pleased with the action. “This program is needed up and down the coast,” said Jack Ellwanger of the Pelican Network. “Santa Cruz stepped forward.”

Council members emphasized they were not wholly closing the pier to fishing, though that could happen temporarily during times when pelican activity is high. Still, some fishermen said they were concerned about being able to continue fishing there. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s handled,” said David Maruska of Santa Cruz.

Last fall, some 162 birds were rescued and sent to the International Bird Center and about 40 of those died, said center spokeswoman Karen Benzel. She said it cost the center about $200 per bird to rehabilitate them. Supporters said hundreds more tangled birds could not be rescued from the water.

Each fall sees an influx of anchovies and sardines off the wharf. That lures fishermen who like to catch the tiny fish for bait and brown pelicans that like to dine on them. The hooks alone are dangerous, but so are the fishing lines. When the birds get entangled, a frustrated angler may just cut the line. The bird flies off with it still attached and it can get tangled again somewhere else.

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