Last modified: October 18, 2018

Fishing Piers Southern California

Santa Monica Pier

<*}}}}}}}}}>< In 2013 the pier was named one of the top ten piers in the nation by Coastal Living Magazine. It commented: “Southern California leads the country in cool piers. Most started as cargo/passenger terminals. The coastline provides few close-to-shore anchorages, so shippers built their own. From its start in 1916, the Santa Monica Pier has never bothered with practicality. It’s all about fun: an arcade, an amusement park, an aquarium, shops, restaurants, and a 1922-vintage carousel.” Other California piers making the list were Crystal Pier in San Diego, the Santa Cruz Wharf, and Pier 7 in San Francisco. Non-California piers were: Chelsea Piers, New York, New York, Morey’s Piers, Wildwoods, New Jersey, Ocean City Pier, Ocean City, Maryland, Cocoa Beach Pier, Cocoa Beach, Florida, The Pier, St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Bell Street Pier, Seattle, Washington. My list might have been a little different but it’s still quite an honor to be named one of the top ten piers in the nation.

<*}}}}}}}}}>< — Most piers, sooner or later, will have a super run of fish that will be forever etched in the minds of local anglers. Santa Monica, because of its location and size has had several of these. The most famous took place back in 1957 (some sources say 1959) when the waters around the pier were invaded by schools of marauding white seabass. They were in the deep waters of the pier, the mid-pier areas and even the surf. More important, they seemed to hit almost any bait or lure (although the regulars, who would snag a sardine and lower it to the water using a live bait leader, had the best success). Early morning and evening were the best times but fish hit all day. One single afternoon saw 200 of the fifteen to forty-two pound fish landed, and the run lasted for nearly two weeks. To put it mildly, Santa Monica Pier was humming, and jammed with anglers seeking the prize fish.

That same El Niño year saw barracuda swarm into local waters. Pier fishermen and surf casters had an easy time limiting out on the normally deeper-water fish. The local tackle shop also had a run, a run on every type of lure that might attract the toothy invaders. Legend has it that one exasperated angler, unable to buy a lure, made his own out of a beer can opener and had to give away his over-the-limit fish. As in the case of the white seabass, the pier was jammed and the tackle shop owner was whistling a happy ($) tune.

A louvar (Luxarus imperialis) was also seen in those warm waters. The fish, an uncommon mesopelagic species usually seen out in deeper waters, was taken in the surf in October 1959.

The warm-water El Niño year of 1997 saw several unusual fish landed at the pier but the most improbable was a 25-pound beak-nosed king salmon that had apparently lost its way from its normal cold-water home. It seems the fish would have moved farther north for colder water instead of heading into the increasingly warm waters to the south.

That year also saw several triggerfish caught at the pier but it isn’t clear that their presence was due to the El Niño conditions. Quite a few of the triggerfish, an exotic species that is more common to the warm waters of Baja, have been taken from the pier (even in non-El Niño years) and it’s speculated that there is a local population that has settled into the rocky remains of the jetty that sits out from the pier. The triggerfish are probably finescale triggerfish (Balistes polylepis), and only a few dozen have ever even been reported from California. This pier, and the Redondo piers, may be the best places to chance a catch of the seldom-seen fish.

Rare and unusual fish do show up even in non-El Niño years. One of most unusual catches was two kelp greenling that were taken from the pier on March 19, 1953. The bait that was used was mussels and it was the first recorded record of the fish south of Point Conception.

Another long-ways-from-home fish was a two-foot-long American shad taken in August of 2006. More common to streams in the Sacramento Valley, the fish was identified by the aquarium under the pier.

A somewhat perplexing story about the pier was told to me by “D,” one of the main men at the pier’s bait shop. The story concerned the occasional instances of red tide at the pier. This particular time (I think it was in ’98 or ’99) the red tide lasted almost three months and, of course, really put a crimp in the fishing. What was interesting was the good fishing immediately following the red tide. Seems “D” had a commercial license at the time and he would fish when he wasn’t working at the shop. He had great success after the red tide—culminating in a one-day catch of 208 opaleye perch and sargo. Putting the ethics of catching so many fish aside for the moment (it was, after all, a commercial catch), it challenges some assumptions about red tide. If local organisms had been killed during the red tide, why would the fish return with such a vengeance? What food was available to attract them back to the pier in such numbers? Did the red tide not affect the mussels and other creatures on the pilings?

<*}}}}}}}}}>< An interesting story concerns what is almost undoubtedly the largest California halibut ever landed on a pier in the Golden State—if the weight was accurate. In March of 2001 it was reported that an angler had landed a 58-pound, 11-ounce, 4 1/2-foot-long halibut at this pier. The fish was brought up to the pier and then taken down to a fish market to be weighed. Amazingly no pictures were taken, nor were certificates filled out to enter the fish into the record book. Even more amazing was the fact that the angler returned to the pier the next day and hooked and landed a 25-pound halibut (which was photographed). Either fish would qualify as a lifetime best for most California pier fishermen. And, not to end the story there, an additional 3-4 fish in the 20-25-pound range were landed during the next three days. Why so many large halibut were there at the pier during that short time span is anyone’s guess. The entire story was the subject of an intense debate on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board for several days (with most refusing to believe that the reported weight was accurate). John, one of the owners of the bait shop on the pier reported the story to me and said it was the largest halibut he had seen in his 45 years at the pier (and he saw the length measured). Since John is a very accurate reporter to the PFIC site I stuck with the story.

As a follow-up to the above, I received a note in 2008 from Bill Beebe, the long-time angling writer for the Los Angeles Times. “I interviewed the guy who caught it [the halibut] and wrote a column about it. He was a man in his ‘20s who used to ride a bus everyday from his L.A. home to fish the pier. His tackle was, jokingly, almost as old as the pier. I don’t remember the reel or rod, but he used 20-pound monofilament line of God knows vintage to which he tied a couple of packaged snelled bait hooks. He used dead anchovies for bait. He fought that fish for 45 minutes, most of the time as it swam in circles at times bumping the pier pilings. It was too big to fit in the biggest drop net supplied by the tackle shop on the pier. It finally was taken by a rope gaff and hauled onto the pier. He took the halibut to the fish market, located next to the parking lot, and tried to peddle it to the owner. But the owner was so afraid that the fish had caused so much ruckus he feared a warden would get wind of it and cite him. So the fisherman cut it up and took most of it home on the bus. I don’t recall what he did with the rest of it.”

<*}}}}}}}}}>< An educational place to take the kids sits under the pier. The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, formerly the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, is housed on the beach under the carousel. It’s operated by Heal The Bay and is open Tuesday through Sunday most of the year. It contains wall displays, inter-active touch tanks, tide pools, shark tanks, and many types of jellyfish.

<*}}}}}}}}}>< Although the fishing dominates the end of the pier, the inshore and mid-pier areas are dominated by a whole different type of entertainment. Mid-pier sees a return to the Amusement Pier day’s of the early 1900s (although updated technology has been used with some of the rides). Pacific Park dominates the view. Included in the park are a fairly-tame roller coaster—the West Coaster, the Pacific Plunge, bumper cars, several kid’s rides and even, at times, a live circus show. A nine-story-high, solar-powered Ferris wheel—the Pacific Wheel—used to anchor the park but was sold off and shipped East in 2008. Nearby is the famous 1916 carousel built by Charles I.D. Looff (seen in several movies, including The Sting). Close too is the Playland Arcade that has over 200 attractions, from Skeeball to a pelican kiddie ride and three-passenger merry-go-round.

In the summer, the city provides a free concert series every Thursday night (Twilight Dance Series) with some pretty decent bands. It’s nice on a summer Thursday night—fishing, watching the bright lights, and listening to the music. Tuesday nights in September sees a different entertainment—free movies—during the Santa Monica Drive-In at the Pier program (see for ticket information). Oh, and don’t forget the cotton candy and saltwater taffy. Not too shabby!

<*}}}}}}}}}>< Even a pier has to have a little culture, right? So check out the following poem by Bridget O’Mara (Angel’s Flight, Vol. 7.2 (1982).

The old carrousel

Looks forlorn

In the early morning gray-lavender light.

Fishermen cast lines out

And wait.

Ancient men in torn sweaters

Look out with sun and age-faded eyes over the ocean

That perhaps once belonged to them.

The morning peace is over

Men with gull-like voices

Shout at each other

As they carry tubs

To the seafood restaurants.

Two young boys in leather jackets

Carry a gigantic radio

The spell is broken.

<*}}}}}}}}}>< If you can have a poem about a pier, why not a song? Just a little different!

WHEN VERONICA PLAYS THE HARMONICA — (Tommy Mack / Jimmy Mulcay/Mildred Mulcay)

The Mulcays (vocal: Patricia Koren) — 1948 — Kay Kyser’s Kampus Kowboys (vocal: Gloria Wood) – 1948

You can sail around the world to see the sights — And even see the famous northern lights, —But strange as it may be — I’m sure you will agree — The greatest sight of all is by the sea

When Veronica plays the harmonica —Down on the pier at Santa Monica — When she gives out with Gershwin and Bach — The perch and barracuda come wigglin’ up to the dock — The seals and haddock get aquabatic — When she plays on her chromatic — When she plays boogie woogie, lobsters flippity flop — She even made a submarine blow it’s top — When Veronica plays her harmonica — Down on the pier at Santa Monica

When Veronica plays the harmonica — Down on the pier at Santa Monica — She plays mad jive for hepcat fish — She even plays a tune for a tuna that swims with a swish — A big fat turtle whose name was Myrtle — Shook and shivered till she broke her girdle — The whale that swallowed Jonah yelled across the bay — “’ll open up my mouth and let you go today — To hear Veronica play her hamonica — Down on the pier at Santa Monica”

A flying fish from Avalon flew out of sight — For he was smoking seaweed and was high as a kite — When Veronica raised the thermometer — Down on the pier at Santa Monica

An oyster got so stewed at an oyster spa — He stood right up and holler’d “Eat Me Eight To The Bar” — When Veronica played her harmonica — Down on the pier at Santa Monica

A fish was using Lifebuoy soap, she knew how he felt — She never smelled a smelt that smelt like that smelt smelt — So Veronica took her harmonica — And left the pier at Santa Monica

The Pier Rats Speak

Date: February 13, 2004; To: PFIC Message Board; From: kcruise; Subject: Tips and spots… Santa Monica Pier.

I fished Santa Monica Pier for two years, with a year straight every weekend. Where’s the sweet spots? Here you go.

When you walk out on the pier, the first temptation is to go to the end. Don’t bother. The whole front is a wall of snags from the lobster poachers and they’re lines of treble hooks. If you insist to fish out there, go to the very far left on the top and cast out towards Venice. Also, the winds will get you after awhile.

Some of the best fishing is found right before you get to the bathrooms and Harbor Patrol office. The last bench that sits on a section of pier (finger) goes out on the left (not the lower area) sits above an area with no snags. Sand and grass are it. Either side of that are snags from parts of the old pier, so don’t fish on the bottom if you can avoid it. The right side of the pier also has snags from about 5 feet out to 25 feet. Past that, you run the chance of getting crossed by someone else’s line. On the left, the casting trick is to walk out by the boats, cast out and then walk your rod back to the finger. This will double your casting distance.

If you’re looking for halibut, fish close into the pier. I’ve pulled 30” hallies up around the pilings, and have seen bigger fish caught there as well. Use a 2-3oz slider sinker with a leader and live bait. Frozen anchovies will also work.

Perch can be found all over around the pilings. Use fresh mussels or lug worms. Wylie’s Bait at Topanga Canyon has them, and isn’t far up the road from the pier to get bait and tackle at. In fact, it’s probably one of the better bait shops around.

The trick with the perch is to use a bobber and 4-6′ of line under it. Place a small split shot on the line to get the bait down. Big Sargo are caught right around the area under the restrooms and the restaurant.

One Response

  1. Santa Monica brings back some good memories, especially when I would go with my younger nephew fishing under the restaurant at the end. Always caught something, even if the day sucked for other fishermen. Under the Mariasol, I have caught my fair share of black, walleye, shiner( not common) and rainbow perch alongside sargo, black croaker, sand and calico bass. Have also caught Bonito, mackerel, halibut, turbot, sharks and rays, and the odd eel or octopus and crabs. That pier has a lot depending on the season, though I have had some good luck with Corbina and yellowfin croakers on the north side in front of the arcade facing the breaker waves. Sand crabs and mussels are key. If you fish the middle part of the pier under the pilings on either north or south sides in the spring, one can get some solid sargo action off mussels, bloodworms, or ghost shrimp.

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