Air view of the Point Arena Cove and Pier (photo Courtesy of Wharf Masters Inn)
On March 26, 1987, Point Arena had a celebration. On that date, a new pier was dedicated at the picturesque cove, located just down the road from the center of town. While state, county and city officials gave their usual speeches and congratulated one another, most locals eyed the blue ribbon which stretched across the front of the pier and gave a sigh of relief; perhaps things could now return to normal. It was important for both the local economy and the social well being of the town.
A pier is important for Point Arena, and it has been for more than a century. In 1866 the first wharf was built to load logs onto coastal schooners. Later, by the 1880s, shipping was needed for industry and commerce; every Wednesday was “steamer day” when local farmers would ship their produce to San Francisco and travelers could embark on the one-day trip south. After a while, commercial fishing became the main activity. Local waters yielded a wide variety of fish and crab. The hub of this commercial activity was the cove. But people who work hard also need to relax so the waterfront area near the end of the narrow valley that led to the cove also became a social center for the town and was busy most nights.
The “old” Point Arena Pier — 1982
A view of some of the boats —1982
All of this came to a screeching halt on the day of January 26, 1983. Three tremendous waves struck the cove, wiped out the pier and an adjoining fish house, and nearly destroyed the small restaurant near the entrance to the pier. For four years after this, commercial fishermen and sportsmen would head south, to Bodega Bay, or north, to Albion and Fort Bragg, to launch their boats. A local pier fisherman named Ken Jones, based in nearby Boonville at the time, was left pierless and would need to journey to more distant venues to satisfy his pier addiction. During this time, the cove and the town would experience an easier and gentler life. But who really wanted it?
The “old” pier after the storm
This was not the first time the pier was destroyed, but it took one of the longest times to rebuild. The pier was a private pier owned by Edward Sudden (since the 1940s), which was, because of the lack of a breakwater and almost annual damage, uninsurable. Although yearly repair and upkeep was possible, a total rebuild just wasn’t affordable. It was decided that if the public wanted a pier, they would have to find a way to fund the pier themselves.
The “new” Point Arena Pier
Although it wasn’t easy, public financing was found. Normally, the local government would fund 50% of the project and the state Wildlife Conservation Board would fund the other half. Here, there simply wasn’t enough local funding to pay for half of the project. Although it was a long and tedious task, local leaders scrounged every available source and finally found the resources. The city came up with $250,000, which was matched by the Wildlife Conservation Board, and then additional money was obtained from the California Conservancy, DBW, and the Economic Development Administration (since the launching of commercial boats would be one of the main uses of the pier). Once funding was arranged, various contracts had to be drawn up, and then the work itself had to be finished. It was, and a sparkling new pier was ready for dedication.
The pier’s office, showers and restrooms
The 330-foot pier, built at a cost of $2.2 million, was a radical change from the former all-wood wharf. Built of concrete and steel, with a surface 25 feet above the water, it embraced the newest pier-building ideas, ideas conceived during the disastrous 1983 storms that smashed into and damaged many of the piers along the coast. Fears that boats would be unable to be launched from the new sling were found to be unwarranted So, too, have been the fears of some pier anglers who scoffed at the idea of bringing fish up from such a distance.
Today the pier is one of the best fishing piers in the state at the right time of the year (the spring) and is, beyond doubt, the best pier to fish if you want to catch rocky-area species like striped seaperch and kelp greenling. It is a good pier to catch cabezon and lingcod, and even offers at times a chance to catch salmon.
Kelp greenling, striped seaperch and cabezon are the three most common fish
Environment. The wharf sits in the Point Arena cove. Point Arena itself juts out to the west (and is, in fact, the closest point in the continental United States to Hawaii). Offshore are some of the world’s deepest waters in the Mendocino Trench, and the underwater Arena Canyon and Navarro Canyon begin directly out from the Point. The cove itself sits southeast of the point and is protected somewhat from northwest winds and storms; water depth is from 20-100 feet deep. The entire cove has a rocky bottom with no sand or gravel, a small stream runs into the ocean to the left of the pier, and there are reefs to the south of the pier.
The inshore rocks to the left (south) of the pier
Fish found here are rocky-area species; they include kelp and rock greenling, cabezon and lingcod, striped, white and calico perch, walleye and silver surfperch, shinerperch, grass, black, blue, and China rockfish, small bocaccio, Pacific tomcod, starry flounder and an occasional salmon. Unusual species include large buffalo sculpin, wolf eels, and an occasional octopus (the harbormaster at the pier reported on a 50-pound octopus). The capture of that creature was quite a feat and included the help of four anglers using a crab net to bring the “big eye” up to the pier). Apparently even a few great white sharks are in the area. In March of 1997 fishermen were startled to see the carcass of a baby great white shark floating in the water by the pier. The four-foot-long creature was grabbed by a couple of interested kids.
A cabezon and a buffalo sculpin
Fishing Tips. The main fishing effort here is for striped seaperch, kelp greenling and rock greenling; both of the latter are usually referred to as seatrout. Bait and tackle is the same for all three, use size 6 hooks with a high-low leader or tie the hooks directly to the line. Best bait is shrimp (small pieces) followed by fresh mussels or pile worms. This same rigging and bait will also attract a variety of rockfish. All of these fish can be caught year round, but perch fishing can be tremendous in the spring when they come into shallow water to spawn. All can be caught anywhere around the pier but inshore to midway out, on the south side, is usually the most productive area. If fishing is slow, cast to the reefs which run parallel to the south side of the pier. The reefs are reachable with a good cast, but also be prepared to lose a lot of tackle.
My foreign exchange daughter Kimiko and a striped seaperch
This is also a good pier for cabezon and there are a least two cabezon holes. The best bait for these is live ghost shrimp (but you’ll have to bring your own). Next best baits are small crabs (which you can catch on the shore), mussels or pieces of shrimp. Many fisherman use abalone guts or squid and a few will be landed on these each year.
A decent-sized cabezon
During the summer months you will often see schools of small fish in the water. These are generally surf smelt (day smelt) but at times there are also a few night smelt, jacksmelt, Pacific herring and even anchovies. These can be caught on multi-hook leaders for live bait or food although it takes quite a few of the smelt to make a meal. You can try live bait for salmon in the fall; every year a few salmon (and steelhead) move into these shallow waters prior to entering local streams. Live bait can also entice the lingcod that like to hang around the pier.
Dan and a small lingcod from the pier
Last but not least is the silver and walleye perch that are often present in the spring through fall months. Best bet for these are small size 6 or 8 hooks baited with small pieces of anchovy and fished mid-depth.
Special Recommendations. (1) Make sure you always bring warm clothing with you to this pier. Point Arena is one of the windiest points on the coast. It’s easy to take off a jacket; it’s not easy to put one on if you didn’t bring it. This pier is also heavily used by both commercial and skiff fishermen. Skiff fishermen use it to launch their boats. Commercials use it to unload their catch of fish, crabs or sea urchins onto the pier and to get supplies, such as ice or gas. This means there are many trucks on the pier, so always be careful to stay out of their way. Also, be careful to not hit anyone as you are casting; remember the underhand cast. The commercial activity means that boats are often tied to the pier in spots you wish to fish or come into water you are trying to fish; be cautious and remember that without this mostly summertime hazard, there wouldn’t be a pier.
Calrat and a cabezon from the pier
(2) Be sure to bring a net or gaff! One day two of my students, John Gowan and Antonio Soto, decided to visit the pier. Following my suggestions, they brought shrimp as bait and were soon fishing in the shallow waters near the inshore rocks. Almost immediately, Antonio had a savage hit from a large fish. Soon after, the still feisty fish was hauled to the top of the water. It was a ferocious looking wolf-eel, one that was a little over 4-feet-long. John and a large group of people watched the battle but there was a problem, since neither John nor Antonio had brought a pier gaff or a net. There were no shortages of suggestions from the onlookers but finally the pier attendant offered to help. A small hoist, usually used to lower and bring up dinghies, was fitted with a fish basket, and then it was lowered into the water. After the eel was brought into position above the basket, it was hauled to the top of the pier. On deck, everyone gave congratulations, a few snapped pictures, and Antonio and John thanked the pier attendant for the help. A few hours later John called and asked, “how do I cook this darn thing?” Remember, always bring a net or treble hook gaff with you.
Debbie and a nice rockfish from the pier
(3) Expect the unexpected. One day in late September, I was fishing with limited success (a few seatrout) when I spotted baitfish breaking the surface of the water. Deciding to catch some live bait, I rigged up a multi-hook leader and cast it out. A couple of turns of the reel handle, a quick jerk, and I was hooked to a SALMON. Since the leader had size 12 hooks, and a light line, I knew my chances of landing the fish were slim but nevertheless I played the fish carefully and finally got it up next to the wharf. It looked like a silver salmon; about 8 pounds in weight. Unfortunately, the tiny hook, last one on the leader, was just barely caught in the tip of his mouth and about the time he spotted the pilings he decided he had given me enough thrills for the day. He made a sharp turn, the hook pulled out, and a salmon dinner became seatrout fillets (which weren’t too bad).
This large octopus was taken from the pier
(4) Pay attention to any fish you leave on a stringer in the water. One mid-October day I was fishing at the pier with John, had caught a nice kelp greenling (seatrout), and had put it on the stringer, which was dropped into the water. Soon after, John gave an exclamation and ran to the stringer. A large lingcod, in the twenty pound category, had his (her) mouth around that seatrout and was hanging on, much as do the hitchhiker lingcod which grab hooked fish out on the rockcod boats. Although I tried to snag that fish with my treble-hook gaff, and almost got it with one drop, it ultimately proved too smart, and got away. Later, after talking to several anglers, I found out this had happened a number of times. Since there are a lot of lingcod around this pier, be prepared.
Renee and her lingcod
(5) Bring binoculars with you. This pier is probably the best in the state to get a really good view of a whale. Every year gray whales pass close to the cove while making their annual trips up and down the California coast. Several times I have seen these whales playing right in the cove, swimming around the boats which are anchored near the front of the pier, and at times, the whales were within casting distance of the pier. It’s hard to imagine whales in such shallow water but the moderate depth doesn’t seem to bother them.
Kimiko and a nice mess of perch
Author’s Note — An interesting plaque sits near the front of the pier: “This monument dedicated to the fifteen young men from Yawatahama, Japan who sailed 11,000 kilometers across the Pacific in a 15 meter wood boat to realize their vision of coming to America. Landing at Point Arena on August 13, 1912, their dreams and courage continue to be a source of inspiration and a foundation of the friendship between the people of Yawatahama and Point Arena.” Raven B. Earlygrow, Mayor of Point Arena.
James and a nice striped seaperch
••• Note — Now I don’t want to say that some of the people in my old Mendocino County stomping grounds are a bit strange, but… from the Barbary Coast Dive Club Newsletter of September, 1999: “Another highlight of the weekend was the Drowning Woman Parade on the Point Arena Pier. According to the locals, the Festival is a response to the annual Burning Man festival that is held in the Nevada desert. The parade featured a number of revealing, wacky costumes like a guy with a pig head mask who was walking around wearing a giant dildo…Perhaps next year the BCD club can enter a float in the parade. Any ideas…?” My suggestion would be to stick to diving.
••• Note Who doesn’t like a feel good nature story?
‘THE ALBATROSS IS BACK’ — Mr. Al B. Tross has a following at Point Arena
The “Cove Coffee” shop at the Point Arena pier held a modest crowd, with people sipping hot brew and peering at their newspapers shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday. Then the front door was flung open.
“The albatross is back!” a young, bearded man announced. “Just saw him come in and land.”
The customers all nodded and smiled. They were relieved, because the bird had vanished for almost a week. It was easy to understand why someone might get excited about seeing a bird with a 6- to 7-foot wingspan sail into the home cove. I jumped from my table and went to take a look.
This illustrious visitor is a legendary bird locals had named Mr. Al B. Tross, a wandering Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) who has wintered at this harbor in southern Mendocino County for fourteen consecutive seasons. Though the phenomenon of “”agrants” — individual birds who depart or are blown away from customary migratory routes — is well-known in the birding world, this albatross is something special. He’s not simply dropping by. It seems he has adopted Point Arena as his winter home.
—Paul McHugh, San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 2007
This sign sits near the front of the pier
••• Note — The Point Arena high school mascot is the “Pirates” but perhaps a better name would be “beavers” since Point Arena is the home of an endangered species of beaver—the Point Arena Mountain Beaver (Aplodontia rufa nigra). The beaver, a sub-species of Mountain Beaver is only found in a 24 square mile area around Point Arena
A typical mix of fish — rockfish, greenling and perch
History Note. Originally home to the Native American Pomo Tribe, the first European to “discover” Point Arena and give it a name was the Spaniard Bartolomé Ferrelo who named it Cabo de Fortunas (Spanish for “cape of fortunes”) in 1543.
A little over two hundred years later, in 1775, the cape was renamed Punta Delgado (narrow point) by lieutenant Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (commander of the schooner Sonora), part of a royal expedition chartered by the government of Mexico to map the north coast of Alta California.
However, by the late 18th century the common name among sailors for the point and town south of the point seems to have been Barra de Arena (sand bar) which in turn became Punta de Arenas (sandy point). This name was eventually Americanized into Point Arena.
Early wharf and chute — 1884
Prior to the 1860s Point Arena was one of many sites along this stretch of coast that utilized chutes and wire trapeze rigging to bring supplies to local residents while loading the small coastal schooners with redwood lumber, dairy products, hides and other exports destined for San Francisco and beyond.
Arena Cove — 1896
Most of these ports were so small they were called dog-hole ports—since they supposedly were just big enough to allow a dog to get in and out. Dozens of these were built, and almost any small cove or river outlet was a prime candidate for a chute. Luckily, the captains of these schooners were masters of their art and were able to get out of places like Hard Scratch and Nip-and-Tuck.
Point Arena got its first store in 1859 and a real wharf in 1866. With a prime location, roughly 40 miles south of Fort Bragg and 110 miles northwest of San Francisco, Point Arena became the most active port between San Francisco and Eureka during the booming logging period of the 1870s (in fact at one time the cove had two wharfs). Steam schooners like the Seafoam, Pomo and Point Arena made regular runs along the Mendocino coast.
Unfortunately shipwrecks occurred at the point at an alarming rate so a lighthouse was needed and the original Point Arena Lighthouse was constructed in 1870; this lighthouse was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and later replaced.
In the years since 1866, Point Arena has seen several wharves, testimony to the killer storms (primarily from the south) and waves that periodically thrash the cove. The storm in 1983 was only the latest but it ended the life of the old pier and resulted in the building of a completely new pier in 1987, a pier that hopefully will be better able to weather the storms.
The pier before the 1983 storm
Mendocino Coast Ravaged By Storm
Thousands of coast residents remained without power this morning in the wake of wind and heavy rains from the winter’s roughest storm, but damage was light throughout the inland areas of the county…
Point Arena, at the county’s southern tip, was the hardest hit. Waves, wind and localized flooding caused the collapse of two buildings near the water at Point Arena Cove and smashed through the front windows of the Cove Café.
Eight people were caught inside the restaurant and its rear buildings when the high water struck, but all were rescued without injury.
“My little boy was trapped,” Betty Moran said. “I floated around and started screaming for help. I was afraid that another wave would come and force them to leave me.”
“I was in the building taking a shower when it happened,” said Dori Fox, daughter of the restaurant’s owner.
“I was standing in there looking out the window like I always do and then I saw a wave coming eye level.”
“I’ve never been so scared in my life. The water was coming in all over — under the door, up the drain. I got out of the house, and people were running all over screaming.”
Fox, 26, said she had lived there all her life and never seen such high surf.
Along with the destroyed boathouse and outbuildings, raging seas demolished much of the Point Arena Cove pier, built during the last century to load timber ships…
—Charles Rappleye, Ukiah Daily Journal, January 27, 1983
The storm and its aftermath
All storm pictures courtesy of Nicholas King and from his EXCELLENT book The Great Disaster at Arena Cove (a recommended purchase if interested in local history of Mendocino County).
Today the nearest oceanfront pier to the north is at Trinidad, a nautical distance of 131 miles. Such was not the case back in the late 1800s. There were a number of true wharves along the Mendocino and Humboldt coasts including those at the Navarro River, Albion, Little River, Caspar, Noyo Harbor, and Fort Bragg (where C.R. Johnson built a wharf at Soldiers Harbor Cove in 1885). To the north was Roger’s Wharf at Westport (which was called Beal’s Landing in the 1860s and Westport after the late 1870s). Eventually Westport had two wharves. Further north, a wharf was built at Rockport in 1876 by W.R. Miller; at the time it was built it was claimed to be among the finest on the coast. Bear Harbor had its own wharf until it was washed away by a tidal wave in 1899. Across the county line, in Humboldt County, a 900-foot-long wharf was built at Shelter Cove in 1886.
Smaller dog-hole ports (which generally had a chute, sometimes a modified type of wharf, but rarely a true wharf) came and went depending on the health of their lumber mills. Still remembered were those at Iversen’s Landing and Saunders Landing, which were south of Point Arena. Rollerville (near the Garcia River), Greenwood Cove (where Casket Wharf operated until 1929), and Cuffey Cove, were located south of the Navarro River. Mendocino, Cleone, Newport, Kibesilla, Union Landing, Juan Creek (McFall’s Landing) and Hardy Creek are/were all located in central to northern parts of the county still located on Highway 1. Usal, Northport, Little Jackass Gulch and Needle Rock were found in the territory that today is called the “Lost Coast.” Most of these date from the 1860s to 1880s and many today are just history. Although Humboldt and Del Norte counties both saw extensive timber operations in the late 1800s, most of their movement of logs was done by railroad.
Although stories of people fishing on the wharves are to be expected, what is really interesting are the stories of fish caught off the chutes. The chutes weren’t always as safe as wharves, but some people, especially kids, would hardly be stopped just because there was a little danger.
Looking up from the water
Point Arena Pier Facts
Hours: Open 24 hours a day.
Facilities: Restrooms with toilets, coin-operated showers, fish cleaning stations, free parking, some benches, night lighting, boat launching (up to 5 tons and 27 feet) are all available on or near the pier. Food is available at the Arena Cove Bar and Grill just a few feet from the foot of the pier. Bait and tackle is available near the foot of the pier. Picnic tables are available near the front of the pier. Private Sportfishing boats are also available some years; check with the harbormaster at (707) 882-2583, he usually has the phone numbers of local craft.
Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking and handicapped restrooms. The pier surface is concrete and the railing is 40 inches high. Not marked for handicapped.
How To Get There: From the south, turn left from Hwy. 1 onto Iverson Ave., which will turn into Port Rd. Simply, follow the road to the pier. From the north, turn right onto Port Rd. and follow it to the pier.
Management: City of Point Arena.