San Simeon Pier and Bay on Thursday — You Had To Be There

San Simeon Bay is one of those beautiful spots along California’s coast that almost seems to demand that a person stop and take a look around the area. The juxtaposition of sky, land and ocean can grab the attention of the soul, as well as the eye, and provide respite, even if only briefly, to our normal helter-skelter world.

It’s a bay where on a crystal clear day, one kissed by California’s abundant sunshine, a person is presented a beautiful post-card picture for the eye. On a foggy day the horizon can be dim and the scenes impenetrable, but the noises and smells of the sea will invoke a picture in the mind.

San Simeon Point extends out into the sea at the north end of the bay while lush beds of giant kelp and feather boa cover the water at the south edge of the bay. Together they temper the ocean’s forces of disruption—the currents and waves. The bay’s surface is usually mild; the waves that strike the beach are usually tame.

Life in and on the bay’s waters is also generally mild. Some seabirds are always present, some fish are to be found, and onshore tourists and locals go about their duties, the tourists checking out every sight, the locals working to keep the sights available. But the fishing, especially at the pier is also fairly mild. The surf is too light for top-notch perch action, the resident bottom species prefer the kelp beds, and the pelagic forage fish come and go.

But when the pelagics do enter the bay’s waters the chemistry can change—with dramatic results. Such was the case this week as shoals of sardines entered the bay. Did they enter in response to a bloom of plankton, the essential food for the small fish? Were they simply seeking out some calm and shelter from their usual ocean haunts? No one knows but the response of other species was evident.

Thousand of sea birds converged on the area, large and inelegant pelicans, screeching sea gulls, and the smaller but just as hungry cormorants and terns. In the water were giant rafts of dolphin-imitatin’ sea lions together with their less numerous pinniped cousins—the harbor seals.

Surprisingly missing were the dolphins themselves and the whales that often visit such buffet gatherings in the sea. It didn’t matter that some species were missing, the ones that were present provided carnage on a scale rarely seen today by most visitors.

I arrived at the pier just before noon; soon had the pier cart set up, and headed out to the pier. A short way out on the south side of the pier stood two gentlemen holding their fishing rods and reels; they looked like locals. “How’s the action, catching anything?” The first angler piped up, “It’s still slow but you should have seen it yesterday, we both caught over fifty sardines.” The second looked north toward the point and nodded, “see the birds over there, that’s where there are at.” In the horizon, several hundred yards away, was a mass of birds hanging over a spot and just barely perceptible was movement in the water; it was like flies hovering over some smelly but tasty trash.

My partners in crime going fishless, I decided to move farther out on the pier. Anglers at the end were also on the south side, the wind was to their back, and they were pulling up empty Sabiki-type bait rigs.

I moved to the mid-pier section. Why fish where others were already proving the futility of their spots? I began the ritual of fishing. Where to cast? Since I wanted my sitting pole to have a taunt line, I needed to cast to the south side; there was a wind and it would keep the line honest. My heavier outfit was baited up and soon after the hooks and bait was sitting on the bottom of the sea. My lighter rod and reel followed suit but was equipped with a Lucky Lura bait rig; if the sardines were around why not see if I could stock the cooler with fresh bait? I would cast this line to the north even though the fish were mainly in the distance. A few stragglers might be in the area.

The first two casts gave good exercise for the arms but no fish. The third cast saw the hooks start to be smacked by the fish and soon the tension increased as fish grabbed what they thought was food. I had to be careful since tendrils of kelp poked their fingers out from the pier. But, I had set up between two hands of the kelp and had a vegetation-free passage of water about twenty feet in width. That passage of water would provide the highway that the sardines would travel to the pier and up to my waiting hands.

Almost every cast was producing a fish and the anglers at the end were starting to look over—but they stayed at their spots. My biggest problem was trying to keep an eye on the pole to my back while working the pole in my hand.

Shortly after arriving at my spot I noticed that the amount of birds near the pier was increasing. Then I saw something I have rarely seen before, giant rafts of sea lions, each raft numbering twenty to thirty sea lions, and all were making a hard swim into the area. Their swim was reminiscent of dolphins as they would dive and emerge, dive and emerge, all at a breakneck pace and all in unison. There were several such rafts with the total numbers exceeding a hundred but the number of birds far dwarfed even that number.

As a student of history it reminded me of the stories of battle, thousands of soldiers marching in orderly fashion into battle against their adversary. Here it was a little less orderly only because the brown pelicans and sea gulls showed individuality in action. The sea lions would attack the shoal of sardines from below, the birds from above. The pelicans would make their cannon ball dive into the water emerging with a mouthful of fish. The sea lions would grab a fish and sometimes toss it into the air only to be enraged when a herring gull would grab it in front of their snout. The terns and cormorants played at the periphery of action but still were well filled.

The water near the pier was now dimpled with fish and the air was filled with raucous sound. Most amazing was the picture in the water when the sardines moved next to the pier. Huge bait balls twenty to thirty feet across would begin to darken the water twisting and turning in unison to avoid the pursuing lions. Some would leap out of the water, most wouldn’t, but all fled instinctively in terror from their pursuer.

As said it was like watching a battle, one filled with death. But the battle was in fast motion; I’ve watched civil war movies that showed the armies in slow motion and soldiers heroically crumpling to the ground. This was more akin to the fast-paced battles seen in Lord of the Ring. As for the number of fish consumed it’s anyone’s guess but it gives glimpse to the number of fish still in the ocean.

There are parts of the world where scenes like this are still common but it seems like you rarely see it today in California. It still happens, but it’s usually more out of sight. I’ve seen similar scenes at Cayucos and at Pacifica, and on a tamer scale at many sites, but I’m not sure if I have ever seen so many sea lions on the hunt in such a fashion.

I talked to a local lady who had come out to see if the sardines were still in the bay. She said she had been out the previous day watching a similar scene and was amazed. She also said that though she had lived in the area nearly thirty years she had never seen such number of fish or predators. I felt privileged that I had decided to visit the pier this day.

As for the fishing, the cooler was soon filled with fresh sardines to be used for bait. Some fish were given to less fortunate/lucky/experienced anglers. A few of the sardines were used to catch nice-sized kingfish on the bottom. My freezer is full and I will not need to buy bait.

Much more important though is the reminder that Mother Nature can be spectacular. Some view such carnage with distain but to me it simply reflects nature; it was simply the food chain on display. The bigger eat the smaller and of course humans are usually at the top of the chain. Many today reject our role in the mix; they feel we do nothing except disrupt nature. I feel that though we have indeed made many mistakes over the years we also have learned from those mistakes and can practice our skills (such as fishing) in ways more respectful of nature. We still are the top of the food chain and should be able to continue our ways; we just need to do it in a manner that helps preserve the nature that we all love.

From a post on — 7/10/2009

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