Last modified: September 12, 2018

Fishing Piers Southern California

Stearns Wharf — Santa Barbara

A relatively small shovel nose shark (guitarfish)

When the schools of larger mackerel move into the wharf area you may want to try something different than a bait rig. The bait rigs will work but sooner or later you’ll get three or more on a line and wind up with a tangled mess that either (1) means taking too much time to unravel the line or (2) cannot be untangled meaning the loss of a $3-4 rig. Better is simply to attach a couple size 4-2 hooks to the line, bait each with a strip of squid or piece of mackerel, cast out and begin a slow retrieve. If the macs are around they will find your bait. If the macs are skittish you may need to tie a single hook to the end of the line, attach a small split shot sinker a couple of feet up the line, and bait with a strip of squid or a piece of mackerel. Sometimes, when the macs are hanging mid-depth, you might also want to try a float; set it so the hooks and bait are 6-8 feet under the surface of the water. At night you can attach a glow stick near your bait and this will also improve your chances on the macs.

Small spoons will also work for the mackerel and in late fall the macs may be joined by barracuda (especially at night). When the ‘cuda are around a Kastmaster or Krocodile often proves deadly.

Although not as common as in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and rarely ever seen in the numbers common in those years, bonito have also begun to occasionally make a showing. For the bonito try a Cast-a-Bubble with a feather, shiny spoons like Kastmasters and Krocodiles, Snapper Zappers or MegaBaits. The boneheads will also fall for a lively sardine if they’re available.

As always you can also just cast out a baited high/low or Carolina rig and sit and wait. Cut bait most typically yields white croaker, thornback rays, small sharks and a variety of small perch and flatfish.

You may also want to try the fish well out near the end of the pier (and I almost always give it a try). The small, rectangular spot will often yield an unending number of small perch, primarily shiners, even when other areas are seeing few fish (and the shiners are good bait for halibut). Do though be careful of what you keep! Young, undersized kelp bass are very common here, as are a number of different juvenile rockfish (including kelp rockfish, grass rockfish, and olive rockfish—Johnny bass). While you can legally keep the young rockfish, you cannot keep the small kelp bass.

Although a monkeyface eel (prickleback) was taken on a squid-tipped Sabiki in May 2013, don’t expect to head out to the wharf on a monkeyface expedition, they are considered rare south of Point Conception. Be sure that you know how to identify the different species.

As mentioned, the inshore area is almost impossible to fish although a small area is available near the Sea Center. Water here is typically shallow and will yield some barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker, shovelnose guitarfish, thornback rays and a few white croaker and walleye surfperch. Try sand crabs, bloodworms, or fresh mussels if you want the larger perch, croakers and corbina. Try squid or bloody pieces of mackerel if you want sharks or rays and for some reason quite a few small bat rays are taken from the pier (as well as some really big ones). I don’t know why but local anglers often call the small baby bat rays monkeyface rays (and you should always return them to the water).

This area will also yield up halibut, especially when the grunion are doing their spawning routine. However, I have also been told it can be a mixed story at times when the grunion are present. Sometimes schools of dolphins will also follow the grunion into the shallow, inshore waters and unfortunately when they do, they put a damper on the fishing for croakers, corbina and barred surfperch.

Nevertheless this is still probably the best area for the flatties unless the local authorities are doing their (fairly regular) dredging operations. When dredging is taking place it disturbs and muddies up the inshore water and the baitfish and the halibut seem to be pushed further out into the deeper waters around the wharf.

I’ve also seen some large pileperch and rubberlip seaperch lurking near the pilings, especially where the wye section connects to the main part of the pier. As usual, these species are hard to hook. One local technique is to attach half of a mussel shell to the line with a paper clip. A couple of size 12 hooks on dropper lines are then inserted into the meat of the mussel. When the large perch suck up the meat they get hooked.

It looks like lizardfish were the catch of the day

In April of 2002 I had the chance to fish the wye section (behind the Sea Center and out of the wind) for a couple of evening hours with PierHead and Sinker, two of the esteemed PFIC Message Board regulars. Using some fresh mussels on size 6 hooks, I managed to land a couple of buttermouth perch (blackperch), a splittail perch (white seaperch), and something that I would have expected if I was fishing in San Francisco Bay—a bullhead (staghorn sculpin). All of the perch were taken when fishing directly under the pier and right up against the pilings; the sculpin hit my lone cast out to the deeper waters.

Sharks, by the way, do not seem to have the following here that some piers do in this area. However a number of large leopard sharks (to 5-feet-long) are normally caught each year from the mid-pier area out to the end. Add in some gray smoothhounds, an infrequent thresher shark, and even less common swell sharks and seven-gill sharks, and you have a nice mixture of sharks.

Also, always be prepared for the unexpected. On a short visit to the pier in July of 1994 I had experienced what can only be described as a poor fishing trip for myself—two small fish, a kelp bass and a jack mackerel. However, an old-timer stood proudly nearby, displaying a 29-inch, 11-pound silver salmon he had caught on the pier that afternoon. His name was Bill Schenk, he was 90 1/2 years young, and he had fished on the wharf nearly every day since 1969. He, of course, was a regular and one who had his own personal pier name, Sitting Bill, since there were four other regulars also with the name of Bill. It was the largest fish “Sitting Bill” had caught on the pier in 25 years. It was also his second salmon after an earlier 3-pounder in 1990. Using light trout-fishing tackle and a heavier than normal 8-pound line (because barracuda had been biting through his line) he had his hands full. However, his friend, Mike Katz, owner of the nearby tackle shop, heard his cries, ran out, and netted the fish. The day was considered a great success for Sitting Bill. Meeting him and getting the chance to talk with him made my visit a success. Another salmon, although not taken by “Sitting Bill,” was a fish taken in October of 2008.

Sitting Bill and his salmon

Unusual occurrences have included a good run of sole that took place in February and March of 1997. For a period of time no one seemed to be sure what the 12-14” fish really were. Some thought they were diamond turbot, some votes went to C-O turbots (Pleuronichthys coenosus), some went to honeyhead turbots (Pleuronichthys verticalis), and some votes were even cast for rock sole (Lepidopsetta billineata) or spotted turbot (Pleuronichthys ritteri). The fish turned out to be fantail sole (Xystreurys liolepis) but just about the time they were identified the run stopped.

In August of 2006 a giant (black) sea bass was caught and returned to the water (as required by law). In April 2016 a small barracuda was caught at the wharf which, according to informed sources, was the first seen in over a decade. Another small barracuda was caught in July of that year. Yellowtail, which once were a fairly common fish during warm-water years, are rarely seen today although a small yellowtail was taken in June of 2016 (a strong warm-water year).

Timing can also be critical. Several different times over the years I’ve heard of the “afternoon mackerel.” After a short run early in the morning, the mackerel would disappear and then, like clockwork, reappear between 3:30-4 p.m. in the afternoon. Evidently, this is most common in the summer months and does not happen every year. However, as a rule, the fishing is best in the morning and in the late afternoon-early evening.

Lastly, be willing to try different methods. In October of 2008 I was visiting Santa Barbara for a conference and knew that for several weeks anglers had been making good catches of both Pacific and Spanish mackerel. Although I would only be in town for a few days, and only able to fish for a few hours, I figured I could join in the fun on the mackerel.

Unfortunately, the winds picked up just a couple of days before I arrived and the mackerel bite turned off. Were the macs still there but not biting, or had the fish moved offshore? No one knew the answer. Nevertheless, I was going to be in town and I would give it a try.

A walk to the end of the wharf showed people continuing to toss out Sabikis for the mackerel (and other baitfish) but they simply were not hooking any fish. And though a few regulars had, somehow, somewhere, scrounged up some live bait, they were sitting somewhat dejectedly talking about how the fish “had” been biting.

Given that I was only going to be in the area for a couple of days I was willing to catch almost anything, it didn’t have to be mackerel or halibut. I simply wanted a little action. Given that I like to fish the piling areas I checked those first and quickly noticed that piling #135 had a much better growth of kelp around it than the other pilings; I would try it first. Using my normal high/low rigging, size 6 hooks, and pile worms for bait, I dropped the rig down into the water. Putting the rig about 8-12 feet down, right next to the piling and its kelp, resulted in almost immediate strikes. Dropping the rig to the bottom, in a small space between four closely spaced pilings, meant a little slower action but somewhat better fish. An hour and forty-five minutes produced 7 kelp bass, 4 senorita, 2 walleye surfperch, 1 white seaperch, and 3 topsmelt. A couple of casts away from the pier followed by a slow retrieve yielded little except for 2 shinerperch and 1 speckled sanddab.

The next day I returned to the same piling although the bait was now a combination of pile worms and fresh mussels cut into worm-like strips. One and a half hours yielded 9 kelp bass, 9 senorita, 2 cabezon and 2 shinerperch. All of the kelp bass were between 8 1/2 inches and 11 inches long; the senorita ranged up 9 inches; both cabezon were about 9 inches in length, and all the fish were released. So, no large fish and nothing to take home to eat but pretty consistent action. What amazed me was that none of the other fishermen were willing to switch techniques or try for other fish. None were willing to try down by the pilings for the bass and perch. Most continued to cast out their Sabikis away from the pier even though their casts were not yielding fish. Personally I’ve always felt that if you’re not getting fish, and you see that someone else is getting fish, check out their methods and give it a try (although I realize some people consider small fish like the bass and perch unworthy of or beneath their attention).

Crustaceans and other Creatures

For many years the wharf has been recognized as an above average place to hoop for sheep crabs aka spider crabs, some of which are fairly massive in size. The numbers are probably to be expected given the size of the wharf and the number of pilings but there has seemed to be a slight decrease during the past decade. The fishery for these is year round, primarily out toward the end of the wharf, and just about any bait in a hoop—chicken, fish heads, etc. will work. Do return the small “spiders” that are taken to the sea since they do not have enough meat to serve any useful purpose.

Mike Katz and a spider crab aka sheep crab

Rock crabs, both red and yellow, are also taken by hoop net at the pier, primarily January thru March and again most baits will work. Just remember that a “tough” bait, one able to withstand the onslaught from the crabs will work best and save a lot of time rebaiting the hoops.

Nights during the spiny lobster season (generally the start of October till mid-March) will also see hoopsters trying to catch the “bugs” although like the spider crabs there seems to have been a drop off during the past couple of decades. They’re still around but legal-size lobsters seem fewer and fewer in number.

Just about all of the crabs and lobsters are good eating as long as you know how to properly clean and cook them.

Often making an unexpected appearance in the wintertime hoop nets along with the crustaceans will be a mollusk — sea snails, also known as whelks. Most often these will be Kellet’s whelk (Kelletia kelletii), one of the largest SoCal whelks and one that reaches about 7-inches in length. Like their more famous Florida cousins, the conches (same Gastropoda class but a different family, whelks = Buccinidae, conchs = Strombidae), the whelks are both good eating and healthy to eat. They’re low in fat, high in vitamins, and, according to South Koreans, an aphrodisiac. Unfortunately most people do not know how to clean and cook them (just check the Internet) and few people keep them, which I imagine is fine with the whelks.

Additional creatures that can make an appearance include a couple of cephalopods, members of the family Octopodidaethe, the grayish-yellow two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides) and the Pacific red octopus (Octopus rubescens). When they are around, they will latch onto baits and typically give a big surprise to the started angler who brings them to the wharf. They too can be delicious eating (and both make great lingcod bait) but again most people simply release them. Given their interesting nature and high intelligence it’s a good thing to do.

The gnarly octopus always elicit interest

Do be sure to follow the correct laws for all of these creatures (and Fish and Wildlife deputies have been known to target crabbers at the wharf). Actually, make sure that you follow all of the various regulations. Although it is true you don’t need a license to fish on a public pier, you do need to follow the rules for size and number of fish and other creatures. Remember that it is every angler’s duty to help restore our fishery!

The Pier Rats Speak

Date: June 27, 1997; To: Ken Jones; From: Mike Katz—Santa Barbara; Subject: She hooked a whale!

4 Responses

  1. Awesome write up! Thanks. We just caught a 36 inch halibut off the pier, 6/25/19. Email me for pics

  2. I used to fish Stearns Wharf all the time when I was a kid back in the late 80s / early 90s. I remember it was usually always really good for mackerel, with bonito and barracuda showing up usually in Sept. and Oct. There were also times when truly monster size halibut would show up and hang around the pier for weeks at a time. Other than that the fishing there for other species wasn’t all that great, and the surf area was pretty lifeless, no doubt due to the little 6 inch waves, just an occasional thornback and a corbina might cruise by every once in a while.

  3. […] Fish available at the pier are the normal southern California species with halibut, mackerel, jacksmelt, white croaker (ronkie), sand bass, kelp bass (calico bass), scorpionfish (sculpin), various perch, bat rays, and shovelnose guitarfish (sand sharks) dominating the catch. via […]

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