Catalina Island and its main city Avalon are wonderful places to visit and offer up an environment and atmosphere markedly different from that of the mainland that sits just a short, hour-long ferry ride away. So too the piers on Catalina, which offer up a plethora of different species of fish many of which are rarely encountered on the mainland piers. Herein, a sampling of species from the Catalina piers, primarily from the Cabrillo Mole and Green Pleasure Pier, both in Avalon, and the Isthmus Pier at Two Harbors.
Species: Hypsypops rubicundus (Girard, 1854); from the Greek word hypsypops (high area below the eye) and the Latin word rubicunda (red). Alternate Names: Golden perch, ocean sunfish and ocean goldfish. In Mexico called jaqueta garibaldi. As for the name garibaldi, it apparently was a name bestowed upon the fish by California’s Italian commercial fishermen in the 1800s. Giuseppe Garibaldi was one of the main leaders in the unification movement to create an Italian nation and his followers were known as the “Redshirts” for the bright red shirts they wore. He was considered a hero to Italians throughout the world and apparently the fish, at least to some, were reminiscent of those red shirts. Identification: Garibaldi are easily distinguished by the brilliant golden-orange coloring on the whole body and are considered by many the prettiest fish in our coastal waters. They are perch-shaped but very deep-bodied with large fins. The young (up to about 6 inches in length) are reddish orange with bright blue spots.
Size: To 14 inches (some books say 15 inches) but most pier-caught fish are under a foot in length. Range: Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California to Monterey Bay. Uncommon north of Santa Barbara and rare north of Point Conception. Habitat: Generally found in shallow-water, rocky-shore areas although they have been encountered down to a depth of almost 100 feet. Fitch and Lavenberg, Tidepool and Nearshore Fishes of California, report that “A wide variety of food items has been found in garibaldi stomachs, including sponges, sea anemones, bryozoans, algae, worms, crustaceans, clams and mussels, snail eggs, and their own eggs.” No wonder it is sometimes hard to keep them off a hook even though they’re illegal to keep.
Garibaldi — Kim and a small garibaldi from the Cabrillo Mole
Piers: Often hooked at southern California piers located near kelp beds or rocky reefs. Best bets: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Harbor Pier, Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, and the three main piers on Catalina island—the Green Pleasure Pier and Cabrillo Mole (where it’s hard not to hook them) at Avalon, and the Isthmus Pier at Two Harbors. Bait and Tackle: None—illegal to take. Food Value: None since you can’t keep them. Comments: Although pretty to look at, they are pugnacious, strong, and not the friendliest fish. They are extremely territorial and will defend fairly large areas. This is especially true during the spring-summer spawning season when males will build a nest and defend it against intruders, both fellow male garibaldi and other species (including humans). Apparently the cute little missy garibaldi are an exception and allowed to invade those spaces and deposit their eggs. It is illegal to keep these fish, but why? As related to me by a Fish and Game official, the campaign to make them illegal originated in Avalon. It seems that the glass bottom boats, a popular attraction at Avalon on Catalina Island, were worried that anglers (actually divers) were taking far too many of the beautifully colored fish and that it was bad for their business (since garibaldi are one of the most viewable fish from the boats). They got a law passed making it illegal to keep them in Avalon waters and soon after the question came up as to why not make it illegal throughout the state. Eventually the statewide law making them illegal was indeed passed by the legislature. Today most anglers return the fish to the water if they’re mistakenly hooked. However, a number are also speared illegally. It seems colorful fish are required at the wedding dinner tables of some Pacific Islanders and garibaldi are a favorite. Once again long-time cultural tradition clashes with today’s rules.Garibaldi are one of California’s two official “state fish.” Garibaldi are the “saltwater” or marine fish while golden trout are the “freshwater” fish. Garibaldi are illegal to keep in California.
Species: Paralabrax clathratus (Girard, 1854); from the Greek words para (near) and labrax (a European bass), and the Latin clathratus (latticed, referring to the coloring on the back). Alternate Names: Commonly called calico bass; also rock bass, bull bass, checkerboard bass, kelp salmon, lockee cod, cabrilla, bucket mouth (a large bass) and dinner bass. Weird name—police car, a name probably invented by an angler who watched too many episodes of Cops. Called cabrilla sargacera in Mexico. Identification: Typical bass shape. Kelp bass have a single dorsal fin notched between the sections, and the third and fourth spines are of about equal length and taller than the soft-rayed section. Their coloring is brownish or olive on the back, brownish white blotches on the uppersides, tinged with yellow on the underside, and yellow fins.
Kelp Bass — DompfaPops and a kelp bass from the Cabrillo Mole
Size: Length is to 28.5 inches and weight to 14.5 pounds. Most caught from piers are less than 12 inches in length. The California record fish weighed 14 lb 7 oz and was taken near San Clemente Island in 1958. Range: Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California to the Columbia River, Washington. Uncommonly seen north of Monterey Bay. Habitat: Rocky areas or around kelp, from surface down to 130 feet, but common from 8 to 70 feet. Milton Love, our favorite über-marine biologist, says “kelp bass actually should be called stuff bass, because what they really like is, well, stuff. And they don’t care what the stuff is. Sewer pipes, old tires, oil platforms, chunks of sunken streetcars, it doesn’t really matter. If a kelp bass can stare at it, sort of cuddle up to it and the stuff doesn’t turn around and eat it, that’s all that counts.” Piers: Oceanfront piers with artificial reefs or extensive summer kelp see the most kelp bass. Best bets: Embarcadero Marina Park Pier, Shelter Island Pier, Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Harbor Pier, Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon), Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Stearns Wharf (Santa Barbara), Goleta Pier and Gaviota Pier. Bait and Tackle: As with their brethren bass, they are opportunistic feeders grabbing just about anything that looks palatable. They’re also carnivores subsisting mainly on small fish—anchovies, smelt, sardines, perch, queenfish—as well as squid, octopus, crabs, shrimp and worms. Most kelp bass that are caught off piers are caught while anglers are fishing on the bottom for other species. Typical gear is a high/low leader with number 4-2 hooks. Best bait is live bait—anchovies or smelt—followed by strip bait, such as anchovy, mackerel or squid. Live bloodworms, fresh mussels and ghost shrimp will also attract the calicos, as will well-presented artificial lures.
Food Value: If you are lucky enough to land a keeper-size fish you will have a good meal. Kelp bass have a mild-flavored meat suitable to almost any kind of cooking. They can be used as fillets, baked whole, or cut into smaller pieces for deep-frying. Comments: One of the favorite sport fish of southern California anglers but not really a leading species on piers. However, the number of small, immature, and illegal bass found at times around the Green Pleasure Pier at Avalon is almost unbelievable. An interesting discussion took place one week on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board. The question was asked as to which fish was a better fighter—kelp bass or largemouth bass? With one exception, those anglers who have caught both species gave the nod to the kelp bass. The lone dissenting vote did not rule in favor of largemouth bass. He simply said that calicos (kelp bass) fight differently in open water than they do around kelp. He felt around cover they fight incredibly strong, in the open water they fought somewhat less, likening it to the fight of a smallmouth bass which he still thought was superior to that of a largemouth.
Species: Chromis punctipinnis (Cooper, 1863); from the Greek word chromis (a croaker) and the Latin words punctipinnis (spot fin). Alternate Names: Blue perch, kelp perch, rock bass and black perch. In Mexico called castañeta herrera. Identification: Perch-shaped but not so deep—compressed and somewhat elongate. Their dorsal fin is long and undivided. Their coloring is dark blue or black on the back, grayish blue on sides, yellow tones in fins; they have black spots on the posterior half of the body. Size: Length to 12 inches; most caught off piers are 6-10 inches. Range: Punta San Pablo, central Baja California, to Monterey Bay. Common in southern California. Habitat: Shallow-water, rocky-shore areas and in kelp beds; young and adults aggregate according to size. Surface to 150 feet deep although may travel down to 300 feet. Piers: Generally found only at southern California piers, and then only those located close to extensive kelp or reefs (although I have seen a few blacksmith landed at Monterey Wharf #2). Best bets: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Green Pleasure Pier and Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Paradise Cove Pier, and sometimes in late summer, Gaviota Pier. Bait and Tackle: Size 6 to 8 hooks fished on the bottom to mid-depth. Best bait are live bloodworms, lug worms, live crabs, fresh mussels or small pieces of shrimp. Food Value: Too small to have much meat. Comments: Really only common at a few piers although I have seen them caught at many piers. It is reported that young blacksmith seek out cleaning fish, usually juvenile pileperch or senorita, and place themselves in positions where the cleaning fish are almost forced to remove external parasites from them. During these actions, the blacksmith may be head up, head down, on their side or even upside down. If the cleaner tries to leave, blacksmiths follow and prevent escape. Talk about bad manners.
Species: Pimelometopon pulchrum (Ayres, 1854); from the Latin pulcher (for beautiful) and pimelometopon (meaning fat forehead). And, this may have been changed to Semicossphus pulcher. Alternate Names: Sheepie, goat, billygoats (large fish), red fish, snaggle tooth, humpy, and fathead. Early day names included California redfish. In Mexico called vieja californiana.
A female sheephead beginning to transform into a male
Identification: Easily identified by color. Adult females uniform brownish-red to rose; male with black head, red band in middle, and black in posterior portion of body; chin white on both sexes. Males have a large, fleshy lump on their forehead, which increases in size with age. Stout, protruding canine-like teeth in front of mouth; somewhat bucktoothed. Size: Length to 3 feet, and weight to 36.25 pounds although the majority of fish taken from piers are 9-14 inches in length. The California record fish weighed 30 lb 8 oz, and was taken at Newport Beach, Orange Co. in 2009. (A 29-pound sheepie was 32-inches long and 53 years old.) The largest sheephead I’ve seen reported from a pier was a 29.7-pound sheephead taken from the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in February 2008.
Range: Cabo San Lucas, southern Baja California, and the Gulf of California to Monterey Bay. Common in southern California but considered uncommon north of Point Conception. An isolated population is found near the warm water discharge at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near Avila Beach and Port San Luis. Habitat: Surface to 180 feet deep, along rocky bottoms and in kelp beds.
Piers: By far the two best piers are those located at Avalon—the Green Pleasure Pier and the Cabrillo Mole. Sheephead are an expected catch at those piers. Coastal piers that are located near rocks or kelp beds will see a few sheephead most years but they are always an unexpected treat. Best bets: Shelter Island Pier, Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Santa Monica Pier and Paradise Cove Pier.
Bait and Tackle: Medium sized tackle, hooks size 4-2/0, and a variety of baits—shrimp, ghost shrimp, bloodworms, fresh mussels, cut squid—will attract sheephead if they’re around the pier.
Food Value: Good. Sometimes used as a lobster substitute in salads and other recipes.
Comments: Feeds on such delicacies as sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers, snails, squid, lobsters, shrimp and crabs. It uses its canine-like teeth to pry food from rocks, which it then crushes with tooth-plates in the rear of the mouth. Can live to over 50 years and is a protogynous hermaphrodite starting life as a female and then turning into a male when about one foot in length and 4 to 5 years in age (although some appear to stay females up to fifteen years of age and some even refuse to change). Why, dear reader, do most of these fish start life as females and then turn into males? The process, by the way, seems to take less than a year. Apparently it is much more effective than that practiced by the medical establishment in California and is, I am sure, much less expensive.
Species: Halichoeres semicinctus (Ayres, 1859); from the Greek words hal (belonging to the sea) and choer (like a pig); and the Latin words semi (half) and cinct (banded, in reference to the color). Alternate Names: Wrasse, iodine fish and Parrot Fish. Called señorita piedrera in Mexico. Identification: Similar in shape and sometimes confused with senorita; rock wrasse have a long and slender body (but considerably deeper than a senorita) and a small mouth with protruding teeth. Their coloring is generally greenish brown with dusky vertical bars; males have a dark blue bar behind the pectoral fin. Lacks the large black spot at the base of the tail fin found in senorita. Size: Up to 15 inches although most caught from piers are less than 12 inches long. A 12-inch male weighed 1 pound and was 7 years old. Range: Isla Guadalupe, central Baja California and the Gulf of California to Diablo Cove, San Luis Obispo County. Habitat: Shallow-water, rocky-shore areas, preferring areas with small patches of coarse sand. Main foods are amphipods, small crabs, dove shells, and slipper shells. Piers: Common at only a few piers due to their rock-loving affinity. Best bets: Green Pleasure Pier at Avalon (where they are common), Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Paradise Cove Pier, and occasionally at inner bay piers such as the Shelter Island Pier and the Oceanside Harbor Pier. Bait and Tackle: By far, the best bait is fresh mussels or sea worms, although they will bite on shrimp or small crabs. Tackle should be a size 6 or 4 hook and a light leader. Rock wrasse like to grab bait and immediately head back to their hole under a rock so be ready with a quick response. Food Value: The verdict isn’t in. Some say they’re good, some say not so good. Comments: This little fish invokes an interesting vocabulary and a somewhat epicene and unconventional sex life. These wrasses are protogynous hermaphrodites, which means in simple terms that they start their lives as females and become males when they reach a length of about one foot. Some sources say all rock wrasses go through this BIG, BIG change, some sources say as little as 5%. Whatever the percent, it must be a traumatic experience. They are also diurnal (another interesting word) meaning they sleep at night. Most seem to bury themselves in sand with only their head sticking out. Reports say they go to bed at twenty minutes before sunset and reappear twenty minutes before sunrise. Since I’ve never witnessed any of these critters wearing a watch, or even a tiny clock, I’m not too sure how they manage this twenty-minute routine? Perhaps the moon acts as the zeitgeber, the environmental cue triggering their strange naptime behavior? By the way, they are not the only local fish that are hermaphrodites, California sheephead undergo a similar feat at about the same size.
Species: Oxyjulis californica (Gunther, 1861); from the Greek words oxy (sharp, for sharp nosed fish) and julis (an old world genus of wrasses), and californica (from California, the location of the first fish studied). Alternate Names: Kelp fish, kelp wrasse, butterfish and iodine fish. Called pescery by 19th century fishermen. Also called Señorita in Mexico. Identification: Señorita have a very long and slender body (one guide book says they’re cigar-shaped), a small mouth and protruding buckteeth. Their coloring is reddish orange above and yellow below with brown and bluish streaks on the side of the head; they have a large black or dark brown crescent-shaped spot at the base of the caudal fin (tail). Size: To 10 inches although most caught from piers are 6-8 inches. Range: Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California, to Salt Point, Sonoma County. Considered uncommon north of Santa Cruz. Habitat: Shallow-water, rocky-shore areas, and near kelp beds; usually found in small to dense schools. Senorita are carnivores that feed on small animals and the animals can be located on plants, other animals, in the water or on the bottom. They will pick parasites from other fish and are apparently sought out by a diverse group that includes bat rays, giant (black) sea bass, kelp bass garibaldi, halfmoon, opaleye and mola. It’s reported many fish will maintain awkward positions while being “cleaned” and that garibaldi actually hold their gill slits open for removal of parasites in the gill chamber. Considering that the “ectoparasites” removed includes bacteria, copepods, and isopods, it’s easy to see why the larger fish would be willing to maintain a weird position or two. Piers: I have only seen these caught on a few piers but where present they are the proverbial “bait stealers” for the most part. However, they can be caught at almost any southern California pier located near rocks, reefs or kelp beds. Best bets: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Green Pleasure Pier at Avalon (where they are far too common), Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Paradise Cove Pier, Gaviota Pier in the fall, and Monterey Wharf No. 2 (where they also are sometimes far too common). Bait and Tackle: Winner of the MNBS Award: Most Notorious Bait Stealer Award. Señorita will try to grab (steal) almost any bait that is in their immediate vicinity. If you want to catch them use a small hook, size 6 or 8, and a small piece of mussel, shrimp or worm. Drop your bait to the bottom and then move it up in short increments until you find the school, or perhaps more accurately, until they find your bait—and they will. Food Value: Really too small to eat since a 9-inch señorita only weighs about three ounces. Nevertheless, some people claim to find their “different” flavor delicious and they eat them, others say they have a slight iodine taste. One angler who likes to catch and eat señorita reported that the meat was soft and flakey and tasted a lot like sheephead. Comments: As discussed in Fishes, An Introduction to Ichthyology, by Peter Moyle and Joseph Cech, señorita apparently are sometimes involved, in a complex manner, in helping to restore kelp beds: “Occasionally a severe storm will destroy a kelp forest, and regeneration may be prevented by the grazing of fishes or sea urchins on new kelp plants. Regeneration can occur, however, if rapidly growing green algae colonize the area first, providing the new kelp plants with shelter from grazing fishes (Harris et al. 1984). One of these grazers is the señorita, which is actually after a small bryozoan that encrusts the blades of plants. In order to eat the bryozoans, the señorita has to take bites from the blades; this can seriously weaken the plant if it is small, but has little effect when the plant is large. There is, however, another invertebrate, a herbivorous isopod, than can become so abundant it can destroy mature kelp plants. The señorita is the main predator on this isopod and keeps its populations small, maintaining the kelp beds in the process (Bernstein and Jung 1979).“Señorita are attractive little fish that seem best suited for saltwater aquariums, or simply to be left alone since they seem to do quite a bit of good. Problem is they won’t leave bait alone. It is reported that they bury themselves at night in the sand with just their heads sticking out. Since they’re typically found in fairly large congregations, their nesting area must look a little strange. Perhaps like some sort of a weird colored, underwater asparagus patch.
Species: Heterostichus rostratus (Girard, 1854); from the Greek words heter (different) and ost (extra bone), and the Latin word rostratus (beaked or hooked). Alternate Names: Kelpfish, eel, iodine fish, butterfish, and kelp blenny. Called sargacero gigante in Mexico. Identification: The body is long and compressed. The dorsal fin is very long and continuous with many more spines than soft rays. The caudal fin is deeply forked (rounded in spotted kelpfish and striped kelpfish). Their coloring varies from light brown to green to purple depending on the habitat; typically those in kelp are usually kelp-colored, those in eelgrass bright green with brilliant silvery stripes. Apparently these fish can change colors rapidly, at least juvenile fish, with browns and greens seeming to be the preferred colors. Adult females also have the ability to change from red to brown to green, however, it takes them a little longer than the kids. Alas, the adult males seem to have forgotten how to perform this party-pleasing trick. Size: To 24 inches long; most caught off piers are 10 to 14 inches. Range: Cabo San Lucas, southern Baja California to British Columbia.
Habitat: Shallow-water areas near rocks or kelp. Piers: Found at piers that have a heavy growth of kelp or seaweed. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Cabrillo Pier, Green Pleasure Pier and Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Paradise Cove Pier, and Gaviota Pier. Bait and Tackle: Light to medium tackle and small, size 8 to 6 hooks. The best bet is to tie the hooks directly onto the line. Preferred baits appear to be small crabs, pieces of shrimp, live bloodworms or pile worms, and fresh mussels (although I have caught some on small pieces of abalone). Food Value: Reported to be fair eating although with an unusual flavor. I’ve never tried them myself but would expect them to be good fried. The flesh assumes the external color of the fish.
Comments: Although generally considered uncommon north of Point Conception, I have caught a number of these pretty fish while fishing inshore at the Berkeley Pier. The fish were caught right in among the shoreline rocks and the usual bait was small pieces of pile worm. Two related species, striped kelpfish and crevice kelpfish are also common at Bay Area piers; both though have rounded tails and their coloring is different from giant kelpfish.
Species: Gibbonsai metzi (Hubbs, 1927); from Gibbonsai (William P. Gibbons, an early naturalist from Alameda), and metzi (Charles W. Metz, a student of ichthyology once interested in kelpfish). Alternate Names: Striped kelp-fish, seaweed kelpfish, weed klipfish. Called sargacero or sargacero rayado in Mexico. Identification: Reddish to light brown, usually with darker stripes or darker mottling on sides (color often matches nearby seaweed). Tail rounded (distinguishes them from a giant kelpfish); pectoral fin is short, not reaching the front of the anal fin.Size: To 9 1/2 inches long; most caught off piers are 5-8 inches. Range: Punta Rompiente, central Baja California to Maquinna Point, Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Habitat: Shallow-water areas near rocks or kelp. Piers: Found at piers that have a heavy growth of kelp or seaweed. Best bets: I’ve taken them at the Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), the Paradise Cove Pier (Malibu), Coast Guard Pier (Monterey) and the Princeton Harbor Pier. I’ve also taken them at several Bay Area piers including Agua Vista (in San Francisco), Berkeley Pier (East Bay), and Elephant Rock (North Bay). At the first two they were inshore by the rocks, at the latter the pier sits on a rock. Bait and Tackle: Light to medium tackle and small, size 8 to 6 hooks. Preferred baits appear to be pieces of worm, blood or pile, while small pieces of shrimp and mussels will also entice them. Food Value: Too small, let ‘em go. Comments: A pretty little fish that likes to hang by the rocks, dart out to grab the bait, and then head back to the rocks.
Species:Gibbonsia elegans (Cooper, 1864);from Gibbonsai (William P. Gibbons, an early naturalist from Alameda), and the Latin word elegans (elegant or handsome). Alternate Names: Called Sargacero or Sargacero manchado in Mexico. Identification: Typical kelpfish shape—pointed snout, tiny mouth, rounded caudal fin, and long dorsal fin. Color varies widely; green to brown or tan or reddish—often blotched or streaked. 1-3 (often 2) ocelli on back. Soft rays more widely spaced toward rear of dorsal fin. Scales that extend well onto the caudal fin distinguish it from other kelpfish. Size: To 6.2-inches long; most caught from piers are around 4-5 inches. Range: Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California, including Isla Guadalupe, to Piedras Blancas Point, central California. Habitat: Shallow-water areas near rocks or kelp. Typically feeds on benthic crustaceans, small mollusks and worms, but also eats fair quantities of algae. Found from subtidal rocky areas to 56 m depth, usually in seaweed. Female lays white eggs in seaweed; male guards egg mass. Piers: Embarcadero Marina Pier, Oceanside Harbor Pier, Cabrillo Mole in Catalina, Redondo Spotfishing Pier, Malibu Pier, and Monterey Coast Guard Pier. Bait and Tackle: Light tackle and small hooks. Preferred baits appear to be sea worms—pile worms and bloodworms, pieces of shrimp, and fresh mussels. Food Value: Too small to be used for food. Comments: A small fish that is rarely caught due to their small mouth. However, they are sometimes an incidental catch by perch anglers using small hooks.
Species: Girella nigricans (Ayres, 1860); from the French word girelle (a derivative of julis, an old word used to denote a number of small wrasse in Europe), the Latin word nigr (dark) and the Greek word ikanos (becoming, in reference to its pleasing appearance). Alternate Names: Blue-eye perch, green perch, opaleye perch, bluefish, blue bass, greenfish, Jack Benny, Catalina perch, button-back, button-eye, and button bass. Called chopa verde in Mexico. Identification: Opaleye are perch-shaped but heavier bodied. Their coloring is usually dark olive green, usually with two light spots at the base of the dorsal fin; occasionally pale green while some almost all white fish have been observed. Eyes are distinctive: large and an opalescent, blue-green color. Size: To 25.4 inches and 13 1/2 pounds (a 10-11 year old fish speared off south Laguna); most caught from piers are less than 14 inches. The California record fish weighed 6 lb 4 oz and was taken near Los Flores Creek in 1956. Range: Cabo San Lucas, southern Baja California and the Gulf of California to Otter Rock, Oregon. Uncommon north of Point Conception. Habitat: Shallow-water, rocky areas and kelp beds. Piers: Can be caught from almost any pier in southern or central California located near rocks, reefs, or kelp, but they’re uncommon north of Cayucos and rare north of Monterey. Best bets: Shelter Island Pier, Ocean Beach Pier (inshore), Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Harbor Pier, Cabrillo Pier (jetty side), the Green Pleasure Pier and Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Redondo Sportfishing Pier, and the Paradise Cove Pier. Most of the fish caught at most of these piers are fairly small opaleye. The exceptions are the two piers in Avalon that almost always have good-sized fish available for opaleye-seekers.
Bait and Tackle: Some anglers specialize in opaleye, and many of them swear that moss or frozen peas are the best bait. I’ve caught them on both, but I’ve actually caught more on ghost shrimp, fresh mussels, pile worms, bloodworm, and small rock crabs. I also managed to hook a few opaleye using garden snails during an experiment testing different baits at Catalina in 2005. Food Value: A good eating fish that is generally fried. Comments: Primarily herbivores (vegetarians), opaleye eat a variety of plants including feather boa kelp, giant kelp, sea lettuce and coralline algae. Evidently they also grab organisms attached to seaweed as they’re making their rounds, tasty little items like tube worms and red crabs. Opaleye are a favorite of many anglers; they’re hard to hook but once hooked put up a very good fight for their size. The crystal-clear waters at Avalon present quite a challenge for the sagacious, line-shy opaleye. Big schools of 2-4 pound fish hang around the Green Pleasure Pier and the Cabrillo Mole but can be very hard to catch. Use 2-4 pound fluorocarbon line and you might get them! Of course the 1,794 ropes, tangled lines, pilings and yellow submarines that surround and hang under the GPP might also get your line. At the Mole it’s the long fronds and blades of the giant kelp that sway (tidally) in or out near the railing. If the opaleye are allowed to encircle the kelp it’s pretty much over. As soon as they are hooked apply pressure and try to keep them coming toward you while having a person ready with a net. You need to use light line but can also pay the consequences if you’re unwilling to apply enough pressure.
Species: Medialuna californiensis (Steindachner, 1876); from the Spanish word medialuna (halfmoon, referring to the shape of the tail) and californiensis (California, where first found). Alternate Names: Catalina blue perch, island mackerel, blooper, blue wizard, blue perch or blue bass. In early days sometimes called medialuna. In Mexico called chopa medialuna. Identification: Halfmoon are perch-shaped but heavier bodied; they’re similar in many ways to opaleye. Their coloring is normally bluish-black above, bluish-gray on sides, and light blue below. Their tail is shaped like a half-moon. Size: A 19-inch fish weighed 4 pounds 12.5 ounces. Range: Gulf of California to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Habitat: Halfmoon are found in shallow-water, rocky areas and kelp beds. They’re often in small loose schools in the mid-water area and, at times, mixed in with schools with pileperch. Piers: Common at southern and central California piers that are located near rocks, reefs or kelp. They’re common as far north as Cayucos but occasionally taken as far north as Santa Cruz. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, the Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon), Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Hermosa Beach Pier, Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Gaviota Pier, and the Paradise Cove Pier. Bait and Tackle: Halfmoon will take almost any bait but they prefer fresh mussels, shrimp, or small crabs. When schools are present, a small strip of squid will often work, and you will lose far less bait. Halfmoon caught from boats seem to be less picky and will often hit pieces of anchovy, sardine, or sqiuid. Food Value: A good eating, mild-flavored fish. Comments: Halfmoons are good fighters, very similar to opaleye and the larger perch. They will eat almost anything in their environment including red, green, and brown algae, sponges, bits of seaweed, green moss, shrimp, mussels, squid, and fish. Apparently they have a hard time deciding whether to be vegans or meat-eaters and that may explain their scrappy and perhaps irritable nature.
Species: Embiotoca jacksoni (Agassiz, 1853); from the Greek word embiotoca (bringing forth living young), and jacksoni (in honor of A. C. Jackson of San Francisco, who first noted that these perch give birth to living young and brought it to the attention of Alexander Agassiz who described the species). Family Embiotocidae, subfamily Embiotocinae. Alternate Names: Buttermouth perch, black surfperch, black seaperch or bay perch. Often called pogie by anglers in the Bay Area. In Mexico called mojarra negra or perca negra. Identification: Typical perch shape. Although variable, their coloring is usually black or brown to reddish, and yellowish on the belly; scales often have blue flecking. Lips are orange or yellow and they have a “mustache” on the upper lip. Typically they have dark vertical bars on the side; a bluish-white line is often seen at the base of the anal fin. Easily identified by a large patch of enlarged scales between the pectoral and pelvic fins. Size: To 15.4 inches; most caught off piers are under a foot.The California record fish weighed 1 lb 11 oz and was taken from San Carlos Beach in 2006. Range: Punta Abreojos, central Baja California, and offshore Isla Gudalupe to Fort Bragg, Mendocino County. Habitat: Most common in eelgrass beds of bays and rocky-shore areas; both in bays and along the coast. Piers: Common at most piers north to Bodega Bay. Generally caught at bay piers or inshore piling areas of oceanfront piers. Best bets: Imperial Beach Pier, Shelter Island Pier, Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Harbor Pier, Long Beach Finger Piers, Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Venice Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Cabrillo Pier (jetty side), Malibu Pier, Paradise Cove Pier, Goleta Pier, Gaviota Pier, Morro Bay T-Pier, Monterey Coast Guard Pier, Capitola Wharf, Fort Point Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Candlestick Pier, Berkeley Pier, Ferry Point Pier, Paradise Beach Pier, Elephant Rock Pier, Angel Island Pier, and Fort Baker Pier. Bait and Tackle: Prefers fresh mussels, bloodworms, pile worms, small pieces of shrimp or small rock crabs. Size 8 or 6 hooks fished on the bottom with a high/low leader seem to work best. Food Value: In the past this was considered a fairly good, mild-flavored fish. Today, because of our polluted waters, they are considered unfit to eat in some locales. Comments: Once a favorite spring fish for Bay Area pier fishermen; today there’s a perch closure during the spawning months.
Species: Damalichthys vacca (Girard, 1855); from the Greek root words racos (ragged) and cheilos (lips) and the Latin word vacca (like a cow). Family Embiotocidae, subfamily Embiotocinae. Alternate Names: Splittail perch, forktail perch, dusky perch, white perch, silver perch, piler perch, and porgy. In Mexico called mojarra muellera or perca, Identification: Pile perch are distinguished by the black spot on the cheek, the very deeply forked tail, and the very tall, first soft rays on the dorsal fin that are about twice the height of the last spines. Color is dark brassy-brown, fading to silver on sides and belly; often has yellow pelvic fins. Pile perch have one dusky, vertical bar across the side at about the high point of the soft dorsal. The posterior position of the bar and the deeply forked caudal fin (tail) distinguish it from sargo. Size: To 17 1/4 inches; most caught from piers are 10-14 inches. The California record fish weighed 1 lb 15 oz and was taken at Long Beach in 2007. Range: Isla Guadalupe (and possibly Bahia Playa Maria), central Baja California to southern British Columbia. Unverified report to Port Wrangell, Alaska.Habitat: Shallow-water, rocky-areas, and around piers and docks, both oceanfront and in bays. Typically they are a bottom dwelling species, called “benthic grazing carnivores” by some. Others classify them as “commuter” fish that move between different habitats in search of prey. All agree they are primarily day feeders seeking out large, hard-shelled invertebrates that they are able to crush with their well developed, fused pharyngeal tooth plates. Since other perch do not share this ability, some scientists feel pile perch should be placed in a separate genus —Danalichthys. Foods include crabs, brittle stars, sand dollars, barnacles, bean clams, (whole) mussels, limpets, dove shells, California cones, Norris top shells, and chitons. Piers: Pile perch are taken at virtually every pier in California but the largest numbers are taken at Bay Area piers. Best bets: Santa Monica Pier, Stearns Wharf, Goleta Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Berkeley Pier, Point Pinole Pier and McNear Beach Pier. Bait and Tackle: Pile perch can be exasperatingly difficult to catch. The large perch will often be seen placidly swimming in clear view around the mussel-covered pilings while refusing to partake of the offerings of the gods up above—anglers whose mojo is evidently on empty. Damalichthys vacca do seem a little easier to catch when in their dense schools are a’spawning. Perhaps their pea-sized brains are distracted and normal caution takes a back seat to other thoughts? The most common setup is to use a high/low leader with number 6 or 4 hooks, light line, and a light sinker. Best bait in southern California seems to be fresh mussels, rock crabs or bloodworms. In the Bay Area, grass shrimp, rock crabs, pile worms or fresh mussels are best. In Humboldt Bay, frozen tube worms or crab backs are most commonly used. Usually pile perch are nestled up next to the pilings; fish accordingly. Check out the shoreline by the pier at low tide and grab some local live bait—small crabs, mussels, worms, snails or clams; these will usually make the best bait. Food Value: Although large sized and yielding some usable meat, the flesh is only fair in taste. Comments: Many years ago, at Newport Pier, I watched an old-timer show one way to catch the perch. Pile perch were doing their typical trick d’tease: big fish showing a leg but refusing to bite. The old-timer tried out a trick of his own. He took out a mass of recently pried loose mussels, at least a dozen in the clump, and in and around this mussel-mass he wound a leader that had several number 8 hooks attached. Then he attached the leader to a handline and carefully dropped it down next to the pilings. This new mini-piling soon attracted the fish and he was able to catch several of the large pile perch. Sporting? I’m not sure, but it sure was effective. Since then, I’ve seen variations of this technique at both the Santa Monica Pier and at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara and heard stories of its use at the Goleta Pier.
Species: Brachyistius frenatus (Gill, 1862); from the Greek words brachys (short) and istion (sail), and the Latin word frenatus (bridled). Family Embiotocidae, subfamily Embiotocinae. Alternate Names: Brown seaperch, brown perch and kelp seaperch. In Mexico called mojarra sargacera or perca. Identification: Typical perch shape. Kelp perch have a compressed body, long pointed snout, long dorsal fin spines and coloring that is generally golden-brown to reddish above and tan below. There is usually a pale stripe on the upper side and sometimes blue spotting. Size: To 8 1/2 inches (.3 pounds) but most caught from piers are around 6 inches in length. Range: Bahia Tortugas, central Baja California to near Sitka, southeastern Alaska. Habitat: Typically seen around offshore kelp beds but will move in around piers which have a heavy growth of kelp. Usually a kelp-canopy, dwelling species that likes to pick small invertebrates off of plants. Piers: Seen in late summer at piers with heavy kelp. Best bets: Cabrillo Mole in Avalon, Paradise Cove Pier, Goleta Pier, Gaviota Pier and the Spud Point Marina Pier (Bodega Bay). Bait and Tackle: Use light tackle with small number 8 or 6 hooks and a small piece of bloodworm, shrimp or mussel. Food Value: Too small so throw ‘em back. Comments: A “cleaner fish” that often picks ectoparasites off the bodies of larger fish.
Species: Sphyraena argentea (Girard, 1854); from the Greek word sphyraena (an ancient name meaning hammer fish) and the Latin word argenteum (silvery). Alternate Names: Pacific barracuda, barry, gar, fire hose, stove pipe, skinny, scooter, scoot, snake, slime, slimestick, pencil (small fish), barelycuda (small or short fish), or log (big fish). In Mexico called barracuda plateada. Identification: Barracudas are long and slender with a sharp-pointed head and a mouth full of very sharp fang-like teeth. They have two widely separated dorsal fins. They have a distinct look from most other fish, although the young look a little like lizardfish. Size: Reported to 5 feet but recorded to 4 feet and 18 pounds; most caught from piers are under 30 inches. Almost all large barracuda are females. The California record fish weighed 15 lb 15 oz and was caught near San Onofre in 1957. Range: Cabo San Lucas, southern Baja California, and the Gulf of California to Kodiak Island, Gulf of Alaska. Uncommon north of Morro Bay. Habitat: Pelagic, but young are often found inshore and in bays. Piers: Only common at piers north to Point Conception although fish will sometimes be caught as far north as Pismo Beach and Avila in the late summer and fall months. Best Bets: Shelter Island Pier, Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Seal Beach Pier, Cabrillo Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Manhattan Beach Pier, Venice Pier and Burton Chace Park Dock. Bait and Tackle: Live anchovies, when available, are by far the best bait. If using live anchovies, try a size 4 hook and a sliding leader or use a float/bobber to keep the leader at mid-depth. Small smelt can also be used for live bait although they are not as good as anchovies. Gold spoons—Krocodiles and Kastmasters—as well as Rebel Fast Tracks, have proven to be reliable artificial lures for the scooters.
Food Value: Keeper size fish are good to excellent eating. Barracuda will tend to soften quickly if left in the hot sun so clean soon after capture and then keep the fillets in a cooler. Comments: Although barracuda today are considered somewhat of a bonus fish by most pier fisherman, there was a time, in the not too distant past, when they were common to piers; however, the numbers that frequent piers seem to decrease each year. When I first moved from Newport Beach to San Diego, I was surprised at the number of barracuda caught from piers inside San Diego Bay and Mission Bay. Since then I have come to learn that bays are often the best areas for the young barracuda—small fish up to around two feet in length. In those days it was sometimes common to catch a fish on nearly every cast using a live anchovy or a small lure, especially gold or silver spoons. Today these small fish are illegal and it is best to simply not fish for them; hooks, in particular the treble hooks common to spoons, will tear up the mouths of the under-sized fish. Strange but true, the only time I ever caught a fish with my line OUT of the water was when I was fishing for barracuda one day near the Dana Marina in Mission Bay. A friend and I had rented a rowboat early one morning, and then proceeded to tie gold spoons onto our lines before heading out to the small bait barge in the cove. I left my pole at the back of the boat with the spoon dangling at least 8-10 inches away from the water. Imagine my surprise when a small barracuda jumped out of the water and grabbed the lure as we were rowing out to our spot. And yes, I did land the fish. It happened in August of 1964 on a trip where I caught 21 barracuda among others. The “out of water” fish was the highlight.
Species: Scomber japonicus (Houttuyn, 1782); from the Greek word scombros (an ancient name for the common mackerel of Europe) and japoniocus (of Japan). Given the name Pneumatophorus japonicus diego in the early Fish Bulletin #28. Alternate Names: Greenback, green mackerel, green racer, greenies (or candy bar greenies—small mackerel), blue mackerel, striped mackerel, zebra mackerel, right mackerel, chub mackerel, cornfed, frog, tiny tuna, mac, big mac, or mac trash. 19th century fishermen called these tinker mackerel, little mackerel or Easter mackerel. My goodness, what a plethora of diverse names. Called macarela del Pacífico in Mexico. Identification: Typical mackerel shape with am elongated body tapering at both ends; identified by the long space between the dorsal fins, 25 to 30 black to dark green bars and spots across the back, and irregular spots on the sides. Size: To 25 inches and 6 pounds. Most caught off piers are less than 18 inches. The California record fish weighed 2 lb 8 oz and was taken at Los Angeles in 1995. Range: Gulf of California (some sources say Bahia Banderas) to southeastern Kamchatka, western Gulf of Alaska. Also Panama to Chile and Islas Galápagos. Habitat: Pelagic, feeding mainly on euphausids (small, shrimp-like crustaceans, i.e., krill, usually 1/8 onch to less than an inch), squid, and young fish. Found from the surface down to about 100 feet.
Piers: Common at most piers in California north to and including those in Monterey Bay (at more northern piers in late summer or fall). Best bets: Imperial Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Manhattan Beach Pier, Malibu Pier, Stearns Wharf, Goleta Pier, Gaviota Pier and Monterey Wharf #2. Generally uncommon at piers north of Monterey Bay although recent years have seen them enter San Francisco Bay. In 2009 they were taken at many Bay Area piers including most along the San Francisco waterfront and several in the East Bay. Bait and Tackle: Caught on a wide range of baits and artificial lures. A very simple method is also the most common; it is especially useful when fishing from a pier that sits down near the water. Simply attach a size 4-2 hook to the end of the line, put a small split-shot sinker a couple of feet above the hook, and use a small strip of squid, 2-3 inches long, or a bloody strip of mackerel, as the bait. The rigging can be used as is, or used in conjunction with a small float so that the bait stays a few feet under the surface of the water. If available, live anchovies are also excellent bait. When a school of mackerel is in one of their ravenous moods, a Sabiki/Lucky Lura-type bait rig can be deadly and will often produce a fish on every hook (which can lead to tangles and loss of the rig). The most fun can be had with a light outfit and a small artificial lure—a light bonito-type jig or even a cast-a-bubble with a bucktail fly. Generally the bait, whether live bait or cut bait, should be kept moving. A technique that often works is to cast out a high/low leader baited with cut anchovy or piece of mackerel, let it sink toward the bottom, then immediately begin a medium speed retrieve; mackerel will often hit it on the way up, usually just before it gets to the surface. At times, when a school is really hungry, the mackerel will hit on anything and everything (although I think pieces of mackerel are the best bait) and this leads to the common term: “mac attack.” It’s an appropriate title. Food Value: Mackerel are a fairly strong flavored fish, a fact that stops some people from eating them. Too often they wind up being used as bait, as fertilizer, or being thrown away. At the same time many people find them delicious. Typically the difference is due to the way they are handled and cooked. Being a fairly oily fish, the flesh can quickly deteroriate and soften. Put them on ice after capture, keep them cold, and use within a couple of days, and you will be starting with a much more palatable type of flesh. In addition, you can remove the darker (muscle) flesh from the side of the fish (the lighter the flesh the more mild). Lastly, if you want to reduce the strong flavor, cook utilizing methods that remove oil from the flesh—broiling and bar-b-que being best. If you have a smoker they can also be made into tasty jerky. It’s recorded that in England there has been a special dispensation in existence since the seventeenth century that allows mackerel to be sold on Sunday. Thus the quickly spoiling fish are not wasted. It simply affirms the necessity of keeping them cold and eating them while fresh. The flip side is that some groups prefer the strong flavors. They know that using spices that complement the flesh produces a tasty and favorable piece of fish. Still, mackerel may not be the fish for those raised on the mild tasting, white-fleshed fish used for fish and chips (cod, halibut, rock cod, etc.). Comments: Mackerel numbers seem to go in cycles; for years they will be fairly uncommon and then there will be years when they will be at nearly every southern California pier. Recent years have seen huge catches. Unfortunately many of these mackerel go to waste. I have seen people who loaded buckets (or gunnysacks) with mackerel day after day at their favorite piers. I sincerely hope they used them. Pacific mackerel are pretty little fish and terrific fighters for their size. Seafood, A Connoiseur’s Guide and Cookbook by Alan Davidson, comments on the “attractive and flashy appearance of mackerel,” noting that the “French name maquereau also means ‘pimp’” and that “in the past mackerel was a term for dandy in England.”
Species: Sarda chiliensis (Cuvier, 1832); from the Greek word sarda (an ancient name for a European species of bonito) and chiliensis (in reference to Chile, South America, where the species was first recognized). Alternate Names: Most commonly called bonehead but also given the names bone, boner, bonefish, flasher, Laguna tuna, magneto, bongo, striped tuna and little tuna. One of my favorites —from the PFIC Message Board—Mr. Bojangles. Called bonito del Pacífico oriental in Mexico. Identification: Tuna-shaped, elongated and pointed at both ends; a series of 6 to 8 finlets that follow the second dorsal fin and anal fin. Coloring dark blue above with greenish reflections and a metallic luster shading into silver below; several dark oblique lines on the back. Size: To 40 inches; most caught from piers are less than 24 inches. The California record fish weighed 22 lb 3 oz and was caught in Malibu Cove in 1978.
James Liu and a bonito from the Cabrillo Mole
Range: Southern Baja Californa and Gulf of California to Copper River in Alaska. Also found in subtropical eastern Pacific, Peru to Chile, and off Japan. Primarily feeds on fish, occasionally on squid. As a general rule they’re only found north during El Nino, warm water conditions (and I witnessed several large bonito, all over ten pounds, being caught off of Elk in Mendocino County during the El Nino year of 1983). Habitat: Pelagic, although enters bays, especially those with warm water outlets. Piers: Common at most southland piers, both those in bays and those at oceanfront spots. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Harbor Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Stearns Wharf and Goleta Pier. Rarely seen at piers north of Point Conception excepting during warm-water years. Bait and Tackle: Taken on a variety of baits and lures. The best bait is live anchovies fished on a sliding leader or with a cast-a-bubble. The best lure is a bonito feather affixed to either a cast-a-bubble, a Styrofoam float or a golf ball—the bubble/float/golf ball causes commotion on the surface which attracts the bonito and keeps the lure near the top. Food Value: Bonito are good flavored but require cleaning soon after capture. If bleed quickly, or even better if filleted and then put on ice, the flesh can be quite tasty. If allowed to warm up in a gunnysack on the nice hot surface of a pier the flesh can be almost inedible (which is true with many fish). However, parts of the flesh are dark colored—bloody—and strong flavored. Cut out those parts of the flesh unless you desire them for smoking. Typically the best cooking methods are broiling or bar-b-cuing the meat, although smoked bonito and pickled bonito are also good. When I was young and lived in San Diego, I would often go out on the half-day boats to catch some bonito. A couple of the cooks on the boats would cook up some of the fresh-caught fish. A favorite method was to cut thin slices of meat from the head of the bonito (up behind the eyes) and then lightly cook the slices on a grill using just a little butter. Flavored with soy sauce, it was delicious.
Comments: Many people feel that bonito are among the strongest fighting fish, pound for pound, in the sea. Sometimes during the cold-water, winter months, the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in King Harbor is the best place in the state to catch bonito. Sometimes? The nearby power plant used to allow its hot water to flow into the harbor every winter, an event that usually would attract bonito and anglers. Today it’s a sometimes thing. When on, the warm water is discharged via the famous “bubble” that sits a short distance out from the pier.
Species: Trachurus symmetricus (Ayres, 1855); from the Greek words trachus (rough) and oura (tail), and the Latin word symmetria (symmetrical or regularly shaped). A member of the jack family Carangidae. Alternate Names: Spanish mackerel, Spaniard, horse mackerel, mackerel jack, saurel, agii and jackfish. Called horse mackerel and scad by 19th century fishermen. In Mexico called charrito or charitto chicharo. Identification: Typical jack shape although slim. The second dorsal fin and the anal fin extend almost to the caudal fin. On the side, along the lateral line, there is a ridge extending almost the entire length of the fish. Their coloring is iridescent green above, sometimes with a bluish luster, often mottled with lighter and darker shades; silvery on the belly. Size: To 32 inches; most caught off piers are less than 14 inches. The California record fish weighed 5 lb 8 oz and was taken at Huntington Beach in 1988. Range: Gulf of California to the Pacific Ocean south of the Aleutian Islands and in the Gulf of Alaska. Habitat: Pelagic in nature, preferring moderately deep water although ranges from the surface down to 150 feet. Often found in schools with Pacific mackerel and sardines. Primarily feeds on large copepods, euphausids, pteropods, squid and small fish. Piers: Most common to southern California and the central coast. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Redondo Beach Pier and Hermosa Beach Pier. Some years will see large schools of these fish at the Central Coast piers—Avila, Port San Luis, Monterey Wharf #2, Seacliff State Beach Pier and the Santa Cruz Wharf. I have also had reports of good catches of jack mackerel at the “B” Street Pier in Crescent City, which is just a short distance south of the Oregon border. The fish in Crescent City seem to show up from late August to September and typically are good-sized fish, 22-28 inches long, the kind that are more commonly taken out in deep water by anglers trolling for salmon. Bait and Tackle: Usually caught near the top of the water; often found in mixed schools with Pacific mackerel (and sometimes Pacific sardines). When present, jack mackerel can be caught on a variety of tackle and baits. Light to medium tackle, a size 6 or 4 hook, and a live anchovy (especially small pinhead anchovies), can be deadly. Many are also caught on small lures, every thing from small bonito jigs, to Scampis, to small feathers. Often times bait rigs can also produce a lot of fish: simply tie several shiny size 8 hooks to your line. In central California, Sabiki/Lucky Lura-type bait leaders are the most common rigging. Many times a cast, followed by a slow retrieve, will see the jack mackerel follow the bait nearly to the surface and then strike just before the line leaves the water. Best months are usually July through September. Food Value: Fair food value, somewhat oily. The common name was changed from horse mackerel to jack mackerel by the DF&G in 1947 in order to increase the consumer appeal of the fish. In other words, it was done to (hopefully) help the fish canning companies make a little more money. Companies that had seen the sardines disappear along with cans of sardines and profits! Comments: Small jack mackerel are favorite baits for white seabass and yellowtail. A close relative and very similar looking fish, the Mexican scad, is occasionally seen in California; the scad have an orange or reddish stripe on the side. The one and only one I have caught was at the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon.
Species: Xenistius californiensis (Steindachner, 1876); from xenitius (strange sail, in allusion to the dorsal fin) and californiensis (in reference to California as a geographic area). Alternate Names: Bass, big eye, big eye bass, striped bass and lima perch. In Mexico called salema, pajarillo or ojotón. Identification: This pretty little fish resembles a striped bass in shape and is even striped, but both color and range is different. Salema have a bass-like body, very large eyes, and 6-8 orange-brown horizontal stripes on the side. Their coloring is iridescent blue-green above, and silvery below; tail fins orange-brown. They will often also make a grunting noise when removed from the water. They are sometimes mistaken for small striped bass. Size:Up to 12 inches but most caught off piers are only 6-8 inches long. Range: Found from Peru to Monterey Bay but reportedly most common south of Dana Point. My records however show they are most commonly caught from piers between Oceanside and Santa Monica. They are uncommon north of Point Dume and rare north of Santa Barbara. Habitat: Shallow-water rocky areas and in kelp beds. Salema are usually found in schools and though primarily nocturnal feeders they also forage (and bite) during the day. The young often school with juvenile sargo and black croaker. Piers: Best bets: Oceanside Pier, San Clemente Pier, Seal Beach Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Manhattan Beach Pier, and the Henry Chace Park Pier. I have also taken quite a few from the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon but only during nighttime hours. In addition, I have seen a number taken from the Port Hueneme Pier and Ventura Pier—both supposedly in areas where salema are considered uncommon. Bait and Tackle: These fish will take most small baits on a size 6 or 8 hook, including small pinhead anchovies. Most, however, are caught on mussels, bloodworms, or a small strip of anchovy or mackerel. Fish around the pilings and fish from just off the bottom to mid-depth. Food Value: Salema are a mild-flavored fish, best suited for pan-frying. Comments: Although this is a small fish, its relative scarcity and attractive appearance make it a worthwhile catch (and they give a good, rugged little battle when caught on ultra-light tackle). I’ve always thought they would make a beautiful saltwater aquarium fish.I’m not sure where the name derives but there is a small fishing village on the coast of Portugal named Salema. Although once considered part of the “last undiscovered tourist frontier,” those days apparently are over (at least according to the esteemed travel expert Rick Steves). It’s been discovered. In 2006 Practical Fishkeeping Magazine reported: “Men hallucinate after eating fish. Two men have suffered terrifying visual and auditory hallucinations after eating a popular local seafish in Mediterranean restaurants… the men started seeing and hearing things after contracting a rare form of hallucinogenic poisoning from the Salema fish they were dining on… The effects of eating ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes, such as certain mullet, goatfish, tangs, damsels and rabbitfish, are believed to be similar to LSD, and may include vivid and terrifying auditory and visual hallucinations. This has given rise to the collective common name for ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes of ‘dream fish’. The poisoning can start to cause vivid hallucinations within minutes of eating a poisonous fish and may last for days, often with no other effects. There is no antidote… Indoles, with similar chemical effects to LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) are believed to be responsible and may be consumed when the fish eat algae or phytoplankton containing the chemicals. All of the species effected by ichthyoallyeinotoxism are algal grazers. Others have claimed that different species of ichthyoallyeinotoxic fishes, such as Kyphosus fuseus, contain much more potent hallucinogens, such as dimethyltryptamine or DMT, which is considered to be one of the world’s most mind-bending hallucinogenic chemicals… Sarpa salpa, the fish consumed by the men was a member of the Sparidae family and is commonly known as the Salema porgy… According to the paper, Sarpa salpa was consumed as a recreational drug in the Med during the Roman Empire.” So there you have it, the salema in California were not the culprit in this strange episode of hallucinogenic poisoning even though California, especially the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco would seem a natural place for such an occurrence.
Species: Sebastes atrovirens (Jordan & Gilbert, 1880); from the Greek word sebastes (magnificent), and the Latin word atrovirens (black and green). Alternate Names: Confused with gopher rockfish, grass rockfish, and brown rockfish. Commonly called sugar bass, sometimes called dumb bass or grass bass. Called garupa or green rockfish in the Monterey Bay fishery of the 1880s. A favorite but still slightly weird name, one probably invented by some Internet addicted angler, is oogly googly. Called rocote de sargaso or rocote sargacero in Mexico. Identification: Typical bass-like shape. Their coloring is olive-brown to gray-brown with brown mottling; whitish or pinkish white below. Just to confuse anglers, a few kelpies also show up with reddish coloring (don’t know why). Although often mistaken for grass rockfish, they are easily differentiated during cleaning—the kelp rockfish has long and slender gill rakers on its first gill arch while the grass rockfish has very short and blunt gill rakers. Although not really a stuck up fish, they do have a definitive up-turned profile. Size: To 16 3/4 inches; most caught from piers are less than 12 inches long. Range: From Bahia San Carlos and San Benito Island, central Baja Californa (some sources say Punta San Pablo), to Albion, Mendocino County. Most commonly found from central California south. Habitat: Commonly found in kelp forests, ranging from the canopy down to the bottom where they feed on a variety of prey including small fish, crustaceans and cephalopods. During the day they will often rest in the kelp, drifting motionless within the blades of kelp (including hanging upside down). At night they come to life seeking out whatever food is near their home. Younger fish are often in intertidal areas although adults can range down to a 190-foot depth (but most common from 20-80). Kelpies are one of the most common rockfish in shallow-water rocky areas. They are also one more resident species that rarely moves more than ten feet away fom its home in an entire year. Although sharing territory with other shallow-water rockfish sich as blue, gopher, black-and-yellow, and olive rockfishes, they are apparently kept out of the bottom areas by the more aggressive (and territorial) gopher and black-and-yellow rockfishes. Piers: Kelp rockfish are primarily found at piers that have a good summertime growth of kelp around the pier. Best bets: Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Paradise Cove Pier, Stearns Wharf, Goleta Pier (along the pipe-reef), Gaviota Pier, Port San Luis Pier, Cayucos Pier, San Simeon Pier, Monterey Coast Guard Pier, Monterey Wharf No. 2, and Santa Cruz Wharf. Juvenile fish are common at the Morro Bay T-Piers, Pillar Point Harbor Pier and the San Francisco Muni Pier. Bait and Tackle: Use a high/low leader, number 6 or 4 hooks, and pile worms, small pieces of shrimp, or small strips of squid. Food Value: An excellent eating, mild-flavored fish that is best fried. Italian fishermen of the 19th century considered this to be one of the best tasting of all the rockfish. Comments: Kelp rockfish are reported to live 25 years of age although few are older than 20. Most females are first mature (and reproductive) at about 6 inches and 3 years of age, most are mature by 7 inches and 3.5 years, all are mature by 9 inches and 6 years of age (although one study found initial maturity and reproduction not starting until 8.7 inches and 5 years of age).
Species: Sebastes auriculatus (Girard, 1854); from the Greek word sebastes (magnificent) and the Latin word auriculatus (eared, referring to the large spot on the gill cover). Alternate Names: Chocolate bass is a common name as is bolina (from Bolinas Bay where they were first caught in large numbers). Sand bass, sugar bass, brown bass, cinnamon bass, brown bomber, brown rock cod, ground owl, and garrupa (grouper) are other colloquial names. Called cha menuke and chairo menuke by the Japanese; rocote moreno in Mexico. On PFIC these fish are simply designated SBRF or sbrf in deference to the appellation first applied by “pierhead” (actual name Boyd Grant, the Yoda-like Pier Master and patient teacher of youthful, local padawans on the path to “Pier Rat” enlightenment). He recorded the daily catch at Goleta Pier from 2002-2003 and found that nearly 30% of the fish caught from the pier’s pipe-reef were small brown rockfish. If it was a “larger” small brown rockfish it became SBRF, if it was a “smaller” small brown rockfish it became sbrf. To this day most regulars on the site know what the acronyms mean and use them in their reports. Identification: Typical rockfish shape. Their coloring is light brown with darker brown mottling. A very prominent dark brown spot on the opercle (gill cover) most easily identifies brown rockfish. Sometimes confused with copper rockfish but the coppers do not have the dark spot on the opercle and are lighter colored. Up in the northern waters of Puget Sound hybridization between brownies, quillbacks and coppers can really confuse identification.Size: To 22.4 inches; most caught from piers are less than 12 inches long. The California record fish weighed 6 lb 15 oz and was caught at the Colorado Reef, north of Princeton Harbor, San Mateo Co. in 2008. Range: Bahia San Hipolito, central Baja California, to Prince William Sound, northern Gulf of Alaska. A wide-ranging rockfish that I have caught as far south as the Cabrillo Mole at Avalon and as far north as Pier 57 on the Seattle waterfront. Habitat: Shallow subtidal areas and in bays. In shallow waters they prefer rocky areas and kelp beds; in bays they are often found around structure (especially the younger fish) although some are also found in beds of eelgrass. Adults in deeper waters tend to hang down near the rocky bottoms. San Francisco Bay is considered an important habitat for juvenile brown rockfish. Apparently all of the brownies in S.F. Bay are five years of age or younger, after that age they move offshore into deeper waters. Adults can range down to 444 feet but are only common to about 400 feet. Most are caught in waters shallower than 175 feet. Apparently they are residential, rarely moving more than a couple of miles from home (although sometimes into deeper water during the winter). Their diet includes a variety of invertebrates, especially crabs and shrimp, and they will rarely pass up the opportunity to gulp down an available, smaller fish. Piers: Most commonly caught from piers north of Monterey Bay although the pipe-reef at the Goleta Pier yields a steady number of fish throughout the year. Small brown rockfish are one of the most common fish caught at Bay Area piers. Best bets: Cabrillo Mole (Avalon) Goleta Pier, Port San Luis Pier, Morro Bay T-Piers, Piller Point Harbor Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Port View Park Pier, Berkeley Pier, Paradise Beach Pier, Angel Island Pier, Elephant Rock Pier and the Fort Baker Pier. Many brownies are also caught from the piers and docks that line the Eureka waterfront, especially the Commercial Street Dock. Bait and Tackle: Small brown rockfish are commonly caught under and around the pilings of Bay Area Piers. Small hooks, size 6 or 8, baited with a small piece of pile worm is by far the best bait although strips of squid and even cut bait will take some fish. Food Value: An excellent eating, mild-flavored fish that is best fried. Comments: Brownies can live to 34 years in age although few reach 25 years, a relatively short life for members of the rockfish family. A few fish mature and reproduce at 7.4 inches and 3 years of age, most mature between 9.4-12.1 inches and 4-5 years, all are mature by 14.8 inches and 10 years of age. These fish can be a lot of fun for youngsters to catch but most caught from piers are really too small to keep. According to the California Fish and Game “the brown rockfish has been identified as a species vulnerable to severe localized depletions in other areas; in Washington state, the Puget Sound stock of brown rockfish was recommended for listing as a threatened species in 1999.”
Species: Sebastes rastrelliger (Jordan & Gilbert, 1880); from the Greek words sebastes (magnificent) and rastrelliger (a rake, in reference to the stubby gill rakers). Alternate Names: Often called a variation of bass—grass bass, rock bass, pepper bass, sugar bass, and in the north, kelp bass. Also called rock cod, green garrupa, green rockfish, kelp rockfish, schmo, and green bomber. Called garrupa (grouper) by early day Portugese fishermen; scomoda (Italian for inconvenient or hard to catch) and gopher by Monterey fishermen; grass rockfish by San Francisco fishermen. Called rocote de olivo in Mexico. Identification: Typical bass-like shape although they have the chunkiest body shape of the shallow-water rockfish. They are a dark colored fish—dark green or olive above; mottled green, black or gray on side; whitish below; fins dark. There is also a rare light-colored variation in pigmentation that is yellowish-orange. Although often mistaken for kelp rockfish, these “husky boys” are easily differentiated during cleaning—the grass rockfish has very short and blunt gill rakers on its first gill arch. The gill rakers are nearly as wide as they are long. Size: Length to 22 inches; generally between 8 and 16 inches for those caught from piers. The California record fish weighed 5 lb 6 oz; it was caught at Trinidad in 2006.Range: Bahia Playa Maria, central Baja California, to Westport, Washington. Habitat: A shallow water rockfish, found from intertidal depths to about 150 feet. Most are found in shallow-water rocky areas, especially where there is vegetation. Grassies are common to kelp beds and reefs where they often hide in the crevices. In comparison to other rockfish, their shallow water habitat most closely mimics that of the black-and-yellow rockfish. While juvenile grassies are diurnal (daytime) feeders, adult fish are nocturnal (nighttime) feeders that primarily feed near the bottom. Key prey includes crabs, shrimp, snails, isopods and small fish including perch. Piers: Although one of the most common shallow-water rockfish in California, relatively few are taken from piers south of Point Conception (although I have taken several from the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon). Needed ingredients are a rocky bottom or substantial kelp near the pier. However, juveniles are often taken from piers located in bays during the summer months. Best bets for juvenile fish include the Morro Bay T-Piers, Pillar Point Harbor Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Berkeley Pier and Citizen’s Dock (Crescent City). Most years see a few adult fish taken from the Goleta Pier (near the the pipe-reef) and Gaviota Pier. Higher numbers of adults are taken from the Port San Luis Pier, Morro Bay South T-Pier, Monterey Coast Guard Pier, Capitola Wharf, Santa Cruz Wharf (in the wells at the end), Point Arena Pier (perhaps the best), Trinidad Pier and Citizen’s Dock (Crescent City). Grass rockfish are fairly common around the Point Arena Pier from June until October; fish inshore or cast straight out on the left side of the pier to the nearby reefs. Generally considered the most important rockfish for rock and jetty fishermen. Bait and Tackle: Medium to light gear is sufficient for these fish. A high/low leader equipped with size 4 or 2 hooks is common tackle. Fish on or near the bottom and be prepared for a strike at any time. Best baits appear to be shrimp, mussel, pile worms or tube worms. Food Value: An excellent eating, mild-flavored fish that is best fried. Italian fishermen of the 19th century considered this to be the best tasting of all the rockfish and apparently that opinion is still held by many. At $4.85 per pound, grass rockfish received the highest prices paid to California commercial fishermen for rockfish in 1998. There was a distinct difference in price between the shallow water rockfish kept and sold as live fish versus the deepwater species but that doesn’t detract from the grass rockfish ranking of #1. Treefish were #2 at $4.66 per pound, olive rockfish and bronzebacked rockfish tied for #3 at $3.74, gopher rockfish were #5 at $2.78, China rockfish #6 at $2.72, black-and-yellow #7 at $2.41, quillback rockfish #8 at $1.79, brown rockfish #9 at $1.61, and kelp rockfish #10 at 1.57. Rosethorn rockfish were down at the bottom of the 31 species listed at only $.38. Comments:Grass rockfish are relatively short-lived rockfish only reaching an age of about 23 years. In southern California, some females are reproductive by 8.6 inches and 2 years of age, the majority are reproductive by 9.4 inches and 4 years, all are reproductive by 11 inches and five years. Those in central California north take longer to mature.
Species: Sebastes serriceps (Jordan & Gilbert, 1880); from the Greek words sebastes (magnificent), and serriceps (formed from two Latin words meaning saw head) in reference to the large head spines. Alternate Names: Convict fish, lipstick bass, lipstick fish, barber pole and garrupa. Called rocote presidiario in Mexico. Identification: Body short and compressed with thick spines on the head. Easily identified by the yellowish to olive (sometimes dark olive) coloring with five to six vertical black bars on the side, pink lips and two blackish bands radiate from the eye. The young have white-edged fins. Size: To 16 inches. Most caught from piers are under a foot in length. The California record fish weighed 4 lb 3 oz and was caught at Malibu in 2003. Range: From Isla Cedros, central Baja California, to San Francisco; common in southern California but rare north of Santa Barbara. Habitat: Although seen down to 100 feet in depth, they are primarily a shallow-water rockfish that likes to spend its time in caves and crevices, rocky areas, and kelp. Treefish are primarily night and twilight predators that seek out bethnic invertebrates such as shrimp, spider crabsand cancer crabs. However they will also grab small fish when they have the chance. A residential, homebody species that rarely strays far from home. Trees are also highly territorial, competing with fellow treefish and nearshore rockfish (black-and-yellows, grass, and gophers) for food and shelter habitat. Piers: Due to habitat only found at a few piers. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Cabrillo Mole (Avalon)—the best, Hermosa Beach Pier and Goleta Pier. Bait and Tackle: Will take a variety of baits including worms, fresh mussels, ghost shrimp, squid and anchovies. They will hit most bait fished on most riggings. However, a high/low leader utilizing number 4 hooks appears to work best. Food Value: An excellent eating, mild-flavored fish that is best fried. Treefish received the second highest price paid to California commercial fishermen for rockfish in 1998 at $4.66 per pound. Comments: Treefish live to 23 years of age but what’s with the Helena Rubinstein lips? Milton Love says these fish are territorial and the pink/red lips may warn off other fish. Sounds reasonable to me.
Species: Scorpaena guttata (Girard, 1854); from the Greek word scorpaena (scorpion, referring to the poison spines), and the Latin word guttata (a form of small drops or spotting). Alternate Names: Commonly called sculpin although also called scorpionfish, scorpion, little poker, rattlesnake and scorpene. Early records show stingfish and spinefish as favorite appellations. In Mexico they’re called escorpión Californiano. Identification: Typical rockfish shape, heavy-bodied and with strong head and fin spines. Their coloring is red (deeper water) to brown (more shallow water) with dark spotting over the body and fins. Fin spines are venomous and can cause a very painful, although not fatal, wound. Size: To 17 inches, although most caught from piers are less than 12 inches long. The California record was for a fish weighing 3 lb 0 oz. It was caught at the Silver Strand Beach in 1997. Range: Uncle Sam Bank, central Baja California, and the Gulf of California, to Santa Cruz. They are uncommon north of Point Conception.
KJ and a scorpionfish from the Cabrillo Mole
Habitat: Most abundant in shallow rocky environments such as rocky reefs, sewer pipes and wrecks; frequently found in caves and crevices. Some are also found on sand. Found from fairly shallow water down to 620 feet. May travel over 200 miles in annual spawning migrations (spring and early summer) that see them form large spawning aggregations on or near the bottom (at a variety of depths). Piers: Although scorpionfish are most common around rocky areas and reef areas, I have seen them caught at almost every oceanfront pier in southern California. Best bets: Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon) and the Cabrillo Mole (Avalon). Bait and Tackle: Scorpions are carnivorous, ambush predators that are primarily nocturnal, feeding at night. Their main diet consists of small crabs, octopus, shrimp, and small fish. A high/low leader with size 4 hooks baited with squid or shrimp seems to work best although they also really like ghost shrimp. Still, I’ve caught them on cut anchovies, strips of mackerel, pile worms, and one on a live queenfish that seemed almost as large as the scorpionfish; they’re not too discriminating as far as food. Food Value: An excellent eating, mild-flavored fish that is best fried (although they are a favorite fish for sushi and command top prices when fresh fish are available). Comments: Handle with extreme care. California scorpionfish are the most venomous member of the family found in California. If handled in a careless manner and a puncture wound does occur there will usually be pain (sometimes intense) and perhaps swelling that should subside after a few hours. If possible, soak the affected area in hot water as soon as practical (since the hot water alters the toxin and makes it less harmful). Multiple punctures may require doctor’s attention or even hospitalization. The worst story I ever heard of such multiple punctures concerned a middle-aged angler fishing from a boat near Catalina. This lady had caught upwards of a dozen scorpionfish that were dutifully deposited into her gunnysack. Unfortunately, many of the long spines were protruding from her bag when a heavy wave caused her to lose her footing and to fall, bottom-first, onto the bag. The result was butt-porcupine and a helicopter trip back to a hospital. Although studies showed a decline in population before 1980, they seem to have increased and today have a healthy population.
Species: Scorpaenichthys marmoratus (Ayres, 1854); from the Greek words scorpaena (a related species) and ichthys (fish), and the Latin word marmoratus (marbled). Alternate Names: Commonly called bullhead; also marbled sculpin, cab, cabby, bull cod, blue cod, giant sculpin, giant marbled sculpin, scorpion, marble sculpin, salpa and scaleless sculpin. Called scorpion or biggy-head by 19th century Italian fishermen. Identification: Cabezon have a very large head with a broad bony support from the eye across the cheek, no scales, a cirrus (fleshy flap) on the midline of the snout, and a pair of longer cirrus just behind the eyes. The coloring is brown, bronze, reddish, or greenish above, whitish or turquoise green below, with dark and light mottling on the side. The lining of the mouth is a translucent turquoise green. The color may correlate to their sex with 90% or greater red-colored cabezon being males, 90% or greater green-colored cabezon being females. The mouth is broad with many small teeth. Size: To 39 inches and 25 pounds; most caught from piers are less than two feet. The California record cabezon was a fish weighing 23 lb 4 oz; it was taken near Los Angeles in 1958. The cabezon is the largest member of the cottid (sculpin) family. Range: Punta Abreojos, central Baja California, to Samsing Cove, near Sitka in southeastern Alaska. Habitat: Typically found in shallow-water rocky areas, from intertidal pools to jetties, kelp beds and rocky reefs, any area with dense algal growth. Older fish tend to move to deeper water, as deep as 250 feet. Typically inhabits the tops of rocky ledges as contrasted with rockfish and lingcod that prefer the sheer faces of ledges. Cabezon like to sit and it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s in a hole, on the reef, or on vegetation, they sit versus actively swimming—until they see food. Piers:Cabezon are one of the premier fish for northern California pier anglers with lesser numbers taken from southern and central California piers. Best bets: Cabrillo Pier, Goleta Pier, Monterey Coast Guard Pier, Santa Cruz Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Point Arena Pier, Trinidad Pier and Citizens Dock (Crescent City). Bait and Tackle: Although most of the cabezon caught from piers will be fairly small fish less than two feet in length, most years also see some larger fish in the 8-12 pound category. Because of this, you should use at least medium sized tackle; line testing at least 15 pound breaking strength and hooks around 2/0 in size. The best baits are small crabs and fresh mussels but cabezon will bite almost anything that looks like food. Their normal diet includes crabs, small lobsters, abalone, squid, octopus, small fish and fish eggs. Although they often reach good size, they can be frustrating to catch. Cabezon will often tap or mouth bait and spit it out; patience and a feel for when to set the hook is required. Also remember that cabezon like to congregate around “cabezon” holes; if you catch one, there will often be more around. Food Value: Excellent mild-flavored meat that can be prepared in almost any manner; many feel it is best fried. Although few fish are better eating, anglers should not eat the roe (eggs) of cabezon—the eggs are poisonous and can make a person violently ill. Don’t worry if the flesh is blue colored, this is a common occurrence and the flesh will turn white when cooked. Comments: A “lie-in-wait” predator. Their coloring lets them blend in with the surroundings where they lie motionless. When food passes by they use their large, powerful pectoral fins and tails to lunge after the prey engulfing it in their large mouths. In Spanish cabezon means big headed or stubborn and it well describes both their looks and temperment. Cabezon can live to about 20 years of age and I imagine an old cabezon would be a real grouch.
Species: Balistes polylepis (Steindachner, 1876); Balistes comes from the Latin word ballista (a device that shoots arrows—referring to the trigger-like spine) and the Greek word polylepis (many scales). Alternate Name: Triggerfish. In Mexico called cochi, puerco coche, cochito or pez puerco. Identification: The body is very compressed; they have a small mouth containing strong, protruding teeth (8 in each jaw); 3 strong, sharp spines are located in the first dorsal fin with 26-28 rays in the second dorsal; small gill slits are located in front of the pectoral fin. The skin is thick with large, rectilinear, plate-like scales. The coloring is brownish with blue speckles on head. Size: To 32 inches and perhaps as much as 16 pounds. Range: San Antonio, Chile, to Metlakatla, (southeastern) Alaska) but considered rare north of Baja California. Habitat: Generally found on the bottom, nearshore near rocky reefs, but they can range down to 1,680 feet deep. Some have arrived north during the El Niño years and it’s speculated that there are at least three established groups near Redondo Beach, Santa Monica and Catalina. They feed on a variety of bethnic-invertebrates such as snails, sponges, sea urchins, shrimp, and crabs as well as the occasional or fish and are most active during the day. Piers: Reported from the Redondo Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, and Cabrillo Mole in Avalon. Bait and Tackle: Will take most bait including squid, market shrimp, and ghost shrimp. Food Value: Excellent, all-white fillets that can be cooked many ways. The only problem is that the skin is like leather so you need a good, sharp fillet knife. Comments: Considered a fairly rare species in California although just enough fish are caught to keep it interesting. I’ve caught three triggerfish —one in Maui, one while fishing out of Rancho Buena Vista in Baja California, and one from the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon.
Species: Cephaloscyllium ventriosum (Garman, 1880); from the Greek words cephalo (with a head) and scyllium (like a dog or monster) and the Latin ventr (referring to the belly). Alternate Names: Catshark, puffer shark and balloon shark. Called tiburón inflado, pejegato globo or gato hinchado in Mexico. Identification: Swell sharks have a broad flat head with a rounded snout, and sharp, pointed little teeth. Their first dorsal is back of the middle of body and directly above pelvic fins; second dorsal above anal fin. Their skin is rough and appears flabby while coloring is yellowish-brown to creamy, with black or brownish spots and saddles; sometimes with white spots. When caught, the swell shark may inflate its belly with air or water until its circumference nearly triples in size. However, young swell sharks are not able to duplicate this neat little trick. So see, sometimes it pays to be an adult. Size: To a little over three feet in length. Range: Acapulco, Mexico and the Gulf of California to Monterey Bay; most common in southern California.
Habitat: Usually found near kelp beds or rocky areas that contain some kelp; likes to spend the daytime hours holed up in crevices or caves. A nocturnal feeder, they emerge at night to search for food—mainly small fish. But they seem a little lazy. Although sometimes they suck other fish into their mouth (as would a normal feeding fish), some reportedly simply open their mouths and wait for the smaller fish to swim in. It’s called yawning and perhaps explains why swell sharks have less than an athletic looking body (afterall, how much energy can be expanded in yawning for your food?). The next question becomes how often do you think bait is going to swim into their mouths, especially dead bait? Perhaps this is one reason that they are not more commonly caught. Piers: Rarely a common species although good numbers are reported from the Avila Pier, Port San Luis Pier, and the Cayucos Pier. Best Bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon), Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Hermosa Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Goleta Pier, Gaviota Pier, Avila Pier, Port San Luis Pier and Cayucos Pier. Bait and Tackle: Most swell sharks that are caught from piers are around two feet in length, so medium tackle with a size 2 to 2/0 hook should work fine. Small fish, crabs, and shrimp, seem to be the best bait. Food Value: It is reported that eating a swell shark is not so swell! The flesh is slightly toxic and causes stomach cramps and nausea as well as acting as a cheap aperient (result: diarrhea) and emetic (result: vomiting). Unless you’re really into the masochistic routine I would avoid puffer stew. Nevertheless, I can see all those sadistic little eyes lighting up. Wouldn’t it be cute to give Henry some puffer steaks for his dinner? Let’s see how long it is before he heads to the head. Of course there’s always the story that’s told in the fascinating book Cod, by Mark Kurlansky. He mentions the unusual methods used by a people (Icelanders) seemingly on the verge of starvation: “They ate what the island produced, which was mainly every conceivable part of a cod-fish and a lamb. They roasted cod skin and kept cod bones until they had decomposed enough to be soft and edible. They also ate roasted sheeps’ heads, particularly praising the eyeballs. Another specialty was hákarl, the flesh of a huge Greenland shark, hunted for the commercial value of its liver oil. The flesh, which contains cyanic acid, a lethal poison, was rendered edible by leaving it buried in the groud until it rotted.” Apparently æstur hákarl (Icelandic for fermented shark) with its ammonia-rich smell and taste is still enjoyed by some of the locals. Leaving aside this strange diet, and the question of how they discovered these enriching techniques, it makes you kind of wonder if a swell shark could be made edible by burying it in the ground for a few weeks. Anyone want to give rotted swell shark a try? Perhaps the “Iron Chefs” could do a show using æstur hákarl as the featured ingredient? Comments: An unpleasant and mistaken belief in some areas, especially the central coast, is that returning a swell shark to the ocean after capture ruins the fishing. It’s a rather stupid idea, and wrong, yet you’ll often find misshapen dying or dead swell sharks littering the piers. Since you don’t want to eat swellies (see above), and since they DO NOT hurt the fishing, please return them to the water. Of course that may not be as easy as it sounds! A puffed up shark returned to the water may simply float away to be attacked by… whatever. Best is to net them and bring them to the top of the pier as quickly as possible. Then, as carefully as possible (since they do have sharp teeth), remove the hook. Try to then keep their mouth shut while returning them to the net and lowering them back down to the water. If successful, they will have gulped as little air as possible and still be able to swim away.
Species: Heterodontus francisci (Girard, 1855); from the Greek hetero (different) and odont (tooth) and the Latin francisci (referring to San Francisco). (They have a small pointed tooth at the front of their jaw and a blunt tooth at the rear.) Alternate Names: Bullhead Shark, Port Jackson shark, horned shark, hornback shark. Called tiburón cabeza de toro, tiburón cornudo or tiburón puerco in Mexico. Identification: Horn sharks are spotted sharks with a somewhat pig-like snout. They have a strong spine at the front of each dorsal fin (which accounts for their name) and an anal fin. Their coloring is tan to dark brown or grayish with black spots above, pale yellowish below. Size: Reported to 48 inches, but the largest verified was just over 38 inches long and 22 pounds. Most hornies caught from piers are under 30 inches in length. Range:Found from the Gulf of California to San Francisco.Habitat: Prefers rocky areas although also found near sandy areas that contain kelp. They are nocturnal, bottom-feeding foragers who prefer to spend their daylight hours resting on the bottom or in caves and crevices. At night they head out in their search for food—primarily squids, urchins, crustaceans, anemones and mollusks—but rarely are they found more than six feet from the bottom. Piers: Most are caught at southern California piers but a few are caught as far north as the pier at Cayucos. Generally found near piers that are close to reefs or kelp. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, San Clemente Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon), Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), Santa Monica Pier, Paradise Cove Pier, Gaviota Pier and Goleta Pier. Bait and Tackle: Crabs, shrimp, squid and small fish are prime baits but hornies appear to take almost any natural bait. Most horn sharks taken by pier anglers are fairly small fish so light-to-medium tackle equipped with size 2 to 2/0 hooks will suffice.
Food Value: Reported to be quite tasty, similar to most other sharks. Comments: An interesting little shark. Small horn sharks are frequently sold in aquarium shops where they command top prices. They are generally harmless but anglers should be careful of the dorsal spines and be aware that agitated fish may try to bite careless handlers. Horn sharks are in the Class Chondrichthyes and Subclass Elasmobranchii (as are all sharks and rays) but in the Superorder Galea, which only includes some of the sharks found at California piers. Many of the sharks found at piers are in the Superorder Squalea, which includes sharks as well as guitarfish and rays. Thus some of the sharks are more closely related to rays than to other sharks.
Species: Myliobatis californica (Gill, 1865); from the Greek words myl (a tooth or molar), io (an arrow or poison), batis (a skate or ray) and the Latin word Californica (referring to location). Apparently called aetobatus californica at one time in California: CA Fish Bulletin #28. Alternate Names: Stingray, stingaree, bat sting ray, sea ray, eagle ray, batfish, big black, sea bird, flapper, rat tailed stingray, NASCAR, mud marlin (my favorite), and monkey face ray. Called raya murciélago or tecolote in Mexico. Identification: Bat rays have a very heavy raised head and a dorsal fin at the base of a long whiplike tail with a stinger just behind it. Their coloring is blackish or blackish brown above and white below. Beware of the stinger. Size: Reported to reach nearly six feet across and over 200 pounds. Most bat rays caught from piers are less than fifty pounds but many in excess of a hundred pounds are caught every year. A 240-pound bat ray was reported from Newport Bay in 1957. I received a note on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board of a 246-pound fish with an 8.5-foot-wing span that was reputedly taken from the Newport Pier in the ’80s. However, the width sounds too wide leaving the weight also in doubt. I’ve seen pictures of a 176-pound bat ray taken from the Newport Pier and a 175-pound bat ray that was caught at the Aliso Beach Pier in (I believe) 1990. Another fish, this one weighing 203 pounds and measuring 54 ½ inches wide was measured and weighed on a certified scale. It was caught at the Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara on April 24, 2004. The fish struck a live smelt bait and was landed after a fight lasting one hour and twenty minutes. The fish was hooked and fought by James Elledge, and gaffed by Ron Maxell. With the help of bait shop owner Ray Angel (how appropriate) the fish was carried over to the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company to their certified scales. PFIC representative Boyd Grant was soon on the scene to witness and photograph the huge fish…one of the largest bat rays ever caught on a California pier (and possibly the largest to be weighed on a certified scale).The official California record fish was 4 feet, 9 inches wide and weighed 181 lb 0 oz; it was taken at Huntington Beach in 1978. According to the California DF&G “female bat rays reach a greater size than males, attaining a maximum disc width of 70.9 inches and weight of 210 pounds. The largest reported male is 40 inches wide and a weight of 37 pounds. Bat rays grow slowly, reach sexual maturity relatively late, have few young, and seem to be fairly long-lived. A 60-inch disc width female was estimated to be 24 years old.” So, all of the big bat rays are moms, grandmas or maybe even great grandmothers. Range: Gulf of California to Yaquina Bay, Oregon. Habitat: Prefers a flat, rocky bottom or sand among rocks although also seems to enjoy hanging around kelp beds. Most commonly caught in sandy or muddy bottom bays and the deeper water areas around piers. Bat rays basically “fly” through the water using their powerful pectoral fins and occasionally they will leap out of the water when hooked. Piers: Bat rays are caught at almost all piers in California, both oceanfront and those in bays. Best bets: Shelter Island Pier, San Clemente Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Huntington Beach Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Stearns Wharf, Cayucos Pier, Berkeley Pier, San Mateo Pier, Elephant Rock Pier, Angel Island Pier, Eureka Municipal Wharf and Del Norte Street Pier (Eureka). Bait and Tackle: Bat rays eat a wide variety of foods with oysters, clams, crabs, shrimp, abalone, snails and worms being scarffed down on a regular basis. To be expected, they’ll also take almost any bait. However, frozen or live squid, and live bait such as anchovies, ghost shrimp, mud shrimp and grass shrimp, produce most of the fish. Frozen squid is the least expensive and easiest bait to use and is undoubtedly the number one bait for bat rays. It’s reported by the way that these strong rays use their pectoral fins to lift their body rapidly up and down to create a suction that sweeps away the sand and gives easy access to their food on the bottom. Because of the potential large size, anglers wishing to fish specifically for bat rays should use heavy tackle and have a gaff or net available to bring the fish up onto the pier. Never use a pier gaff to lift them up to a pier unless you’re intending to keep them for food. Food Value: Very good.
Comments: Although Ray Cannon’s book How To Fish the Pacific Coast holds a cherished spot on my library shelf, and in many ways was a model for Pier Fishing In California, I believe he was wrong in his comments on bat rays. His most egregious was that “These giant Bat Rays should be exterminated whenever possible because of their menace to crabs, lobsters, and all kinds of edible shellfish.” Although it’s true that those species may be included in a bat ray’s diet, I’m not sure why they were singled out over predators. I think it reflects the thinking of the day, in particular the opinion that bat rays were a danger to commercial oyster operations, i.e., those in Tomales Bay. We know today that they are not a danger to those operations; in fact, they may help by keeping crabs under control. I’m not sure why he made a second statement, an assertion that bat rays are “Seldom taken by anglers.” Even back in those days bat rays (usually called sting rays) were a common catch, and several shark and ray derbies were conducted along the coast, the most famous probably being that at Moss Landing. Today, many anglers concentrate on bat rays. The rays reach a very large size, they put up a strong fight, and are delicious to eat once the fight is over (although more and more people practice catch-and-release with them). Of interest are the bat ray pools found at several aquariums (including the Monterey Aquarium, The Aquarium Of the Pacific, and the Chula Vista Nature Center). The bat rays can be petted and in fact are rather pet-like; some even seem to like to have their backs stroked. Yes, their stingers have been removed! The venomous spines are cut off about once a month (before they reach a length long enough to hurt anyone). Apparently the bat rays receive no harm from these “manicures,” in fact the spines are made of keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails, and the spines grow back. However, bat rays in the wild still have their spines and can inflict a painful wound, so be very careful if you catch one (and some bat rays have two or even three stingers). For some reason Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara sees a lot of small, immature bat rays and they’re usually called monkey face rays. Scientists report that bat rays move into inshore waters to breed during the summer then tend to move offshore in the winter (so guess when they are more likely to be caught from a pier). While inshore, they are sometimes found in large concentrations. At times these bat ray gatherings contain several thousand individuals. The sea bottom holding these creatures must look a little weird and would certainly have a somewhat alien feeling; not sure if it would be more like a black-cloaked Darth Vader convention, a Raider Nation convention, or something even more outlandish (and scary), a political convention.