Evolution Of A Pier Rat — Ken Jones

Crystal Pier

The Beginning

Pacific Beach was a different place in 1957 when my daddy moved our family into a small rental house located just a few yards off of Garnet Avenue, one of the two main thoroughfares in that beachfront section of San Diego. The house set at the bottom of a hill and, unbeknownst to me at the time, my daddy’s girlfriend owned a house at the top of that hill. It wasn’t too much later that my father moved his belongings to the top of the hill. It was not a particularly good moment in my life.

However, the move to the PB (as it’s called) and that particular location would provide an entryway into a sport that to this day helps define my life. At the ocean end of Garnet sat Crystal Pier. That pier was where my introduction to ocean fishing would take place and where I would catch my first ocean fish.

Reinforcement to my actual fishing experiences was provided by a small used bookstore located just across Garnet, a store that also carried magazines. The fishing magazines it carried—Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and especially Saltwater Sportsman—and the stories and images they portrayed helped stimulate and give genesis to a love for a sport that I had actually participated in (with my Dad) from an early age.

Looking back, what I find interesting is that I was never particularly interested in the pictures of the big marlin or tuna. Even then I was more interested in the “odd” fish—giant sawfish, alligator gars, Nile perch, electric eels and rays, and exotic Amazon species. As a youngster I had fished for bass and perch in the Midwest and for trout in the Northwest; now I was looking for something else. Saltwater fishing and the piers would provide an entryway into a different world of fishing, one in which you never knew what new and exciting species might decide to grab your bait. To this day the variety of species is what I find truly amazing at our piers and at last count I’ve caught 123 different species from 123 California piers. In fact, if I had the choice between a larger specimen of an existing species versus catching a new species I would quickly opt for the new species!

My mom liked the ocean and so a few days after our arrival we rode the bus down to the end of our street. The bus stopped at the corner of Mission Boulevard and from there you walked a short half block to the arched blue and white entrance of Crystal Pier. The pier is the only pier on the Pacific coast that has motel rooms right out on the pier but I didn’t know that fact that day. The pier seemed old but had a fresh coat of paint and you could feel the timbers sway as the waves pushed their way ashore on the fairly short pier. We didn’t fish that day; instead we just watched the waves, the swimmers, sunbathers, sea gulls—and fishermen. Eventually we left and walked over to the Oscar’s Drive-In, a restaurant on the corner of Mission and Garnet. They had great milk shakes and burgers and we sampled both.

Of course the discovery of that pier meant a return visit—to fish—was necessary.

It was a long walk from our house to the pier but it seemed like a much shorter journey on my flashy Schwinn Corvette, a bike that seemed to have as much shiny chrome and bright red paint as the Corvette’s after which it was named. It was a gift from my dad and would be my main means of transportation for many years. I don’t know how long the trip took but anticipation seemed to lessen the distance (and it seemed far longer coming home). Garnet Avenue was different then—not quite as crowded, absent the shopping centers of today, and the traffic was actually tolerable. I headed out, tooled past Brown’s Military Academy (wondering what life was like in that starchy school), zipped past the bowling alley where my dad sometimes worked, checked out Oscar’s, and then arrived at the pier. It cost money to fish the pier, twenty-five cents I believe, and you had to go into the motel office to pay your money but soon they would open the gate and you could head out to the end.

As mentioned, I did manage to catch a fish on what would be my initial pier fishing experience. It wasn’t much of a fish, in contrast to the fish I had read about in the magazines, and the fish was caught on a hand-line, not one of the beautiful (and expensive) rods and reels you saw in the magazines. But the rig worked! My mom had given me an inexpensive set-up that consisted of heavy, green Dacron line wound around a wooden contraption that looked like four Popsicle sticks stuck together. To the end of the line I attached a long-shanked Mustad hook and a small sinker, both items I had discovered in the garage next to the house. You had two choices as far as casting, unwind the line and then toss it out, or slowly unwrap the line and drop it straight down. The former was more fun but it seemed like most of the bites were down around the pilings (a lesson I remembered).

It took me a few hours but I finally caught that fish using a small piece of shrimp. It was probably a perch although to this day I am still not sure. The fish didn’t even weigh a pound but I was so excited that I made a spectacle of myself. As soon as I caught that fish I stopped fishing and headed home to show the prize. But before I had even gone a block I made sure to walk through that Oscar’s restaurant proudly showing off my fish. I’m sure the people were a little dumbfounded as to how to respond to a pudgy little kid holding aloft a smelly and quickly drying fish as they tried to eat their double-decker hamburgers. But emotion and logic come from different worlds; I was proud of that fish. To this day I have a picture of the fish but cannot tell what kind of fish it was (a perch or a small halibut?). I do know we ate it for dinner that night after my mom cleaned it.

One of the early fish at Crystal Pier

I also must admit that in looking back that the fish was caught mostly by luck. I actually had few clues as to how to how to catch a pier fish. And, unfortunately, my parents would soon divorce and my mom and I would head east to begin a two-year hiatus at my Hoosier hometown in Indiana. My pier fishing education would have to wait even though there were fish, especially bullheads—of a different sort—to be found by my grandpa’s farm and the nearby Kankakee River.

The Piers of Carolina

 Within two years my mom had remarried—to a Marine‚ and my second exposure to pier fishing soon took place. My stepfather was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina, just a short distance from Morehead City, site of a number of fishing piers and some top-notch ocean fishing. The piers were private and required a fee and we rented poles—big heavy, bait casting poles—that were equipped with the standard rigging of the day. The leaders were wire or heavy monofilament line, two to three hooks, plastic beads and red bobbers. Surprisingly, we did manage to catch fish—mainly pinfish, spot, croakers, ocean catfish, small fluke, a few baby bluefish and an interesting pufferfish that sure enough puffed itself up into a wacky-looking ball. Interesting but to this day I am convinced that less tackle would have produced more fish. The infrequent visits did not teach me too many new methods of saltwater angling but they did provide an introduction to new species and wetted not only my line but also my desire to learn more about the sport. Unfortunately I was still too young to drive, it was too far to bike, and the trips were few. Nevertheless those visits were introductory lesson number two in my pier fishing life.

Newport Pier — 1962-63

My third and most lasting introduction to pier fishing took place at the Newport Pier. My stepfather was transferred back to California and then sent to Vietnam. Soon after, my mother, brother and I moved to Costa Mesa.

Adjacent Newport Beach wasn’t always the capital of the “Big Orange.” There was a time when it was more the home of proletarian fishermen and others whose lives were connected in some way to the briny deep. Luckily, I was able to experience a few of those days in the early-’60s, a time when an average person might actually be able to afford a simple domicile along the narrow peninsula that separates the bay from the deep blue sea. Good thing!  Mom loved the beach and when she would take my brother to the beach alongside the Newport Pier, I would head out to the pier to go fishing.

In April of ’62, I was a freshman in high school, a poor boy from the wrong side of the road—Costa Mesa—going to the affluent and preppy Newport Harbor High School. Times were a little tough and I needed a job to supplement the income in our home. One day I noticed a help wanted sign at the Coffee Haven Café near the front of the pier (today’s Charlie’s Chili) and I applied for and got the job. I was now provided the perfect excuse to go fishing and I date my true addiction to pier fishing to the spring and summer after I got that job. The routine varied little: during the school year I was on the pier during the weekends, during the summer it was several days a week.

Still too young to drive, that trusty old Schwinn Corvette bicycle was put to use  hauling me down the seven mile or so trek to my job and the pier. I would get up very early, gather together the various and necessary accouterments, and head down to the pier. Typically I wore a hooded sweatshirt and it was a good thing due to the moisture that likes to call the seaside its home. Down the street, past the high school, and then down the steep hill that led to the PCH. If traffic was light (and it usually was at 4:30 in the morning) a quick dash up and across the roadway, across the bridge at the arches, and then the morning ride out Newport Boulevard to the Newport Pier. The bike would be parked in back of the restaurant and then I would head out to the end of the pier and the coveted right corner spot, Mecca to the regulars. That spot presented access to the deepest waters and the biggest fish or so we thought. It certainly was a top spot for the bonito, the fighting boneheads that were so common in those years.

Foggy mornings were common at the Newport Pier

All summer long I was out on that pier fishing and watching the “old pros aka regulars aka pier rats” and their techniques. I did catch fish but it took some time before I became proficient. My first few trips saw an occasional small halibut or more often a sculpin (scorpionfish).  It wasn’t until my seventh trip that I caught a decent-size fish, a barracuda, and it wasn’t until the tenth trip that I caught as many as ten fish. However, I soon began to understand the needed baits and proper presentation and with those skills began to catch a variety of fish: bonito, mackerel, jack mackerel, queenfish, jacksmelt and several varieties of perch. Deep-water fish like sanddabs and hake were added to the mix. I was finally becoming an angler.

At last, on an early September morning, I had my first “big day.” I had arrived, as usual, at the crack of dawn, and was fishing just down from the northwest corner. I was using squid for bait and had experienced very little early success. However, around 5:30 a.m., I had a strike and pulled in an ebony-colored fish—a type I had never seen nor caught before. The next cast yielded two more of these strange colored fish and I continued to catch fish, nearly every cast, for the next two hours. Strangely, only two other anglers were having similar success. Most anglers were going fishless in Newport. Later, I found out the fish were sablefish, a deep-water fish more common to northern waters and a fish sold as black cod by the dory boats near the entrance to the pier. Upon cleaning the fish, I also found the reason for my success. The fish were stuffed with squid that were schooling in the waters near to the pier. Anglers who were using squid for bait, and there were only a few of us, were catching the fish. I caught 47 sablefish that day, but it was only a start. I continued to catch fish: large jacksmelt, Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel— 77 fish in all. It was, mirabile dictu, one of the best days I ever had at the pier even though the fishing probably would have been considered poor for most of my fellow anglers that day.

That day showed that I had begun to learn and understand the basics of pier fishing. I had, by September, put in the time at the pier to be considered a regular myself. I had also developed the addiction, “the Jones,” to call myself a true pier rat (and I note with some satisfaction and bemusement that today some of my website regulars use the term Jonesin’ to indicate that they are going pier fishing).

You just never know what is going to happen at that pier. The deep-water Newport Canyon slopes down sharply from the end of the pier and species rare or uncommon to most piers sometimes make the journey up from the hidden depths to partake of the yummy offerings cast out by the hoards of anglers who visit the pier (it’s almost always crowded). That variety by the way has resulted in over 40 species of fish for me from the pier, one of the main reasons why I still hold it so special.

Queenfish, Pacific Hake and Jack Mackerel — Newport Pier, 1962

Most days that summer I would be able to get in a few hours of fishing before work. What fish I caught were stored in the café’s cooler and quite often I was also able to get in a few hours of fishing after work. Of course the ride back home wasn’t nearly the same exhilarating ride that I had experienced in the pre-dawn hours. The ride was now up the hill, fighting the traffic, and (hopefully) carrying home some fish for dinner.

I never knew how poor we were, I just knew that the fish I brought home made up a large portion of our military diet—fish and macaroni and cheese (three or four nights a week). I learned how to clean and cook fish and discovered that not all fish taste the same— halibut good, hake bad, croakers good, mackerel not so good. I began a life-long interest in cooking and eating fish that parallels to some degree my interest in fishing.

Costa Mesa 1963 — My brother John taking some pictures of my barracuda

In the summer of ’63 we moved down to San Diego where I would search out and fish from several new piers—Shelter Island, Imperial Breach, Ocean Beach (after 1966) and the pier where it had started—Crystal Pier. Each would provide new experiences and new chances to learn but I still consider the relatively short time I had at the Newport Pier as the nexus point that led to my life-long addiction to pier fishing. Just as certain, my love for three species certainly dates from those days—the hard fighting bonito, the tasty halibut, and the tasty but dangerous sculpin. Most important though, I learned the discipline of working from that job at the café and the discipline of fishing from those visits to that venerable old pier.

I’ve detailed my experiences in greater detail in Pier Fishing In California but important were several lessons that every angler should remember. The first is to listen and learn from those that came before you. The regulars will generally share their information once they have confidence in you, but you may need to be humble and the key term here is to listen. Second is to tone your observational skills. What works, what doesn’t, what differences are needed for different species and different conditions? Watch the regulars, jot down what you see, and learn to predict what will work for you. Third is to practice, practice, and practice. There is nothing that is as stimulating and meaningful as the time you actually spend on the pier. Regulars are people that are out on their favorite piers day after day, week after week, and they normally know what will work based on experience. So become a regular. Last, but not least, is to be cognizant of the fact that life is truly a lifetime venture in learning. As you traverse the nooks and crannies that will confront you over the years be willing to have an open mind and realize that there is always someone out there from which you can learn. Learning and then practicing what you have learned will produce over time a master angler, one who can then impact and teach the new generation of anglers.

My first yellowtail — San Diego, 1966

An early kelp bass — San Diego, 1967

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