The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Through The Years

Newport Pier was where I began my pier fishing life in 1962. I would ride my bicycle down the hill from Costa Mesa and try to get the best spot on the pier (the corner spot). To do that meant I would have to leave the house around 4 AM. Generally the only people I would see by the pier when I arrived were the fishermen at the dory fleet that was located next to the pier. The fishermen in the iconic fleet, a fleet in existence since 1891, had a long day in front of them. Originally they simply rowed out the 3-5 miles to the fishing grounds; by 1962 they were using outboard motors. Today, not much has changed  except for the actual people fishing, prices, and sometimes onerous regulations that can shut down various fisheries (with immediate impact on the earnings of the fleet).

Herein a few pictures taken during a visit in March of 2018 and a look back at the fleet and some of its history through the years

A marker near the entrance gives note of the history

Old Pictures

The dory fleet sits next to the Newport Pier

A “Lady Angler” — Rita Magdamo

Fresh fish — rock cod (rockfish), thornyheads, sablefish (black cod), and mackerel

Deep-water thornyhead rockfish

Deep-water sablefish aka black cod aka sea trout

Due to their fat content, sablefish are one of the VERY BEST smoked fish

Deep-water rock cod (rockfish)

There are almost always a few birds around

Some older pictures — and some history as recorded by the newspapers



Some history through the years —

Dorymen put to sea in their small boats early in the day, often before dawn, and are always (to some degree) at the mercy of mother nature. Blinding fog, freakish waves, sudden squalls and thrashing wind can make for a dangerous ocean. And, over the years, too many dorymen have left Newport’s shore and not returned. It’s rare, but risk is always a part of the game. Several stories over the years, including the story below, give evidence of that risk.

Newport Fishermen Lost In The Deep — Two Sail For The Banks And Fail To Return

Santa Ana, Dec. 15.—Early yesterday morning a Slavonian fisherman of Newport Beach, named Teakovich, accompanied by a French boy, started out in a dory for the fishing banks, a few miles off shore, and they have not been heard from since. When they left the beach they said they would be in the same afternoon, and the fact that they had not returned today led to the fear that they had met with accident, foundered, or been blown by the winds to some remote point. Searching parties were organized and a diligent hunt made up and down the beach for miles, without revealing a trace of the missing persons… Word was sent to Laguna, San Juan by the Sea, and other seaside settlements further down the coast… The belief of the Newport fishermen is that the unfortunate boatmen have found a grave in the briny deep. The lost men were typical coast fishers, poorly dressed, and had a green-painted dory. They were experienced fishermen and sailors. Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1903

On the other hand, there have also been quite a number of stories that reference people that were saved by the actions of dory fishermen.

2 Bathers Rescued From The Surf By Three Fishermen

Newport Beach, Sept. 13.—Three Newport Beach fishermen covered themselves with salt water and glory besides reaping a reward Sunday when they pulled two bathers out of the surf just west of the Southern Pacific wharf. The men were not able to swim and ventured out beyond their depth before realizing the danger.

Their appeals for assistance were answered by “Steamboat” McDonald, Chandler Johnson and Louis Dixon, who launched a dory and went to the rescue. With methodical precision born from a long and close acquaintanceship with the sea, the daring fisher lads drove their boat through the rolling, tumbling surf and out to the helpless bathers, who were hauled from their perilous predicament into the dory and brought safely back to shore.

The men were so grateful for their deliverance from the jaws of death that they rewarded the fishermen with a five-dollar bill, which, although not much of a price for two human lives, showed that their hearts were in the right place. It was reported that the men were from Santa Ana, but they vanished so quickly that their names could not be obtained.Santa Ana Register, September 13, 1918 

Sometimes sharks are caught by the dorymen. Most are fairly small and, depending upon species, they can be sold since shark can be good table fare. However, I think few would wish to encounter the following, both caught by “Shorty” Gunther. The first  sounds like a  hammerhead shark while the second definitely is a great white

Shark Attacks Boat At Beach

A death battle with a giant killer shark which attacked his open fishing boat in the sea a mile offshore from Newport Beach was won yesterday by Richard Gunther only after he had reached the point of exhaustion and after the monster had torn the gunwale from his pitching boat. Gunther and Donald Cavanaugh, 14 years of age, were fishing in the boat when the huge shark, more than twenty feet in length, rose alongside, apparently attracted by the smell of the bait.

Circles Boat—The shark circled the boat several times and then raced towards it. It attempted to seize the boy, who sat cowering in his seat. The maneuver was repeated a number of times, the boat threatening to capsize each time. Gunther commanded the boy to lie down in the bottom of the boat. He took a smooth bladed spear which he keeps in the boat and as the shark flashed in again slashed at it. This appeared only to infuriate the creature. It returned to the attack again and again, dyeing the water about the boat crimson with its blood. Finally the shark flashed part way up from the water and seizing the gunwale of the boat between its jaws tore a ragged hole in the craft.

Battle An Hour—The battle had lasted an hour and Gunther was nearing exhaustion. The frantic cries of the boy, however, finally brought aid in the person of Al Warnick and Albert Himes. They drew near the imperiled boat and also attacked the shark. Apparently mortally stricken by a thrust from the spear it swam slowly away and disappeared. The shark had a flat head with large saucer-shaped eyes and a huge mouth with double rows of spear-shaped teeth, Gunther stated. The dorsal fin of the giant fish seemed as large as a sailboat’s jib… he said, and it was considerably longer than his eighteen-foot boat.—Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1924

Three-Year Struggle Ends With Capture of Man-Eating Shark

 Jonah could have done it! Yes, sir, the prophet could have passed through the whale’s mouth at least. Score one for the fundamentalists, as proved by one of the most valuable instruments of science, the camera. Whether Jonah could have snuggled in the stomach of the whale for three days and three nights is beside the question at present, because “Shorty” Gunther, of Newport Beach, doesn’t have any evidence on that score. However, he does have evidence that Jonah could have found a welcome in the mouth of the whale, provided, of course, that the whale’s mouth was as large as a shark’s mouth. To prove that, Gunther today exhibited a picture of the mouth of the shark which he recently snagged at Newport Beach.

Three years ago, the shark, said to be a man-eater, attacked Gunther’s lines and escaped when Gunther attempted to spear him. Recently the same shark was caught on one of Gunther’s set lines and the battle, which had continued at intervals over a period of three years between the fisherman and the fish, was ended. If one doesn’t believe that the shark was plenty mean, take a look at the picture. —Santa Ana Register, November 8, 1926

Although rockfish, sablefish, mackerel and other mid-size fish have provided the majority of fish caught by the dory fishermen, every so often a larger fish (like the sharks above) made the news. It’s doubtful though that many swordfish were ever part of the catch.

From the Santa Ana Register, June 25, 1930

Once again the dory fishermen rescued someone, in this case a fisherman who had fallen from the Newport Pier (which did not have railings on much of the pier until recently).

Fisherman In Narrow Escape

An elderly Long Beach fisherman narrowly escaped death shortly before noon today when he toppled from the damaged Newport Pier and was saved from drowning by two fishermen who pulled him from piling beneath the pier, police reported.

T. L. Skillton, 72, of 1035 Lewis Avenue, Long Beach, was sitting on the edge of the pier near a broken end when he suddenly fell into deep water, officials said. Lifeguards, foremen and police were called, but before they were able to give assistance two unidentified fishermen pushed a small dory through the waves and rescued the struggling man. Santa Ana Register, October 13, 1939

The monsoon-like chubasco that struck SoCal in 1939 destroyed many piers including those at Newport and Balboa. New piers were built and celebrations were needed for the dedications. Only at Newport did the celebration include dory races.

Newport To Dedicate New Pier Sunday

Newport Beach, June 7.—More than 4000 persons will eat free fish at a gigantic old-fashioned fish fry on the beach here Sunday as a feature of formal dedication of Newport’s new 1100-foot ocean Sportfishing pier, O. M. Campbell, general chairman, announced today… A full afternoon program has been arranged for the beach and ocean… The most interesting events will be dory races, which are open to fishermen only. Men who daily launch their craft through the surf to catch market fish will display their skill in piloting their boats through the roaring breakers. Both one-man and two-man dories will be used in competition, with the boats going through the surf and returning… The ceremony will observe completion of the new $50,000 structure which replaces the old pier destroyed in last September’s storm.Santa Ana Register, June 7, 1940

Gleaners Of The Sea

As rich in drama and pictorial interest as the Cape Cod fishermen is the Newport dory fleet in Southern California. In calm or stormy weather you’ll find their small boats pulling out through roaring surf before daybreak, sometimes going out as far as 10 miles.

Before noon they return with their catch, pulling the dories high up on the sand.

The fish are cleaned, a canvas umbrella goes up over each dory, and along the boardwalks come customers to buy fresh fish from the sea. —Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1940

Pictures by Robert A. Jackson

Anytime big fish are mentioned as being caught, there’s a good chance that a shark might be involved. Warm-water years see hammerhead sharks enter local waters.

400-Pound Shark Caught Off Balboa

Newport—Balboa. Sept. 18.—A monster of the deep was landed on the beach at Newport yesterday after a long fight during which it threatened to tear out the side of a small boat occupied by its captor.

Shorty Gunther, widely known dory fisherman, brought in the catch, a 10-foot, 400-pound hammerhead shark, which he says is a man-eater and will attack anything within its reach.

The shark, its head measuring more than a yard across, chewed and lashed at the sides of the small dory before being killed Gunther said. The fisherman, who catches sharks for their livers, said that when such a large specimen is hooked it is kept tied to its line overnight to “cool off” and is pulled into the boat the following day. Santa Ana Register, September 18, 1940

Like most areas along the coast, Newport too saw its shoreline activity impacted during World War II. Boats were restricted to certain harbors while piers saw guns mounted on some of them along with prohibitions against lights at night.

Newport’s Dory Fishermen Are Shut by New Army Landing Order

Newport-Balboa—The war this week brought to a halt one of Newport’s most-famed industries, that of the dory fishermen. For more than 45 years the fishermen have been putting out to sea at dawn, returning in the late afternoon to sell their wares to beach-front crowds, but an Army order forbidding landing anywhere except in certain harbors has halted their operations.

The tiny boats were allowed to continue their offshore operations for some time after the order was issued, but this week authorities “cracked down” as a measure. Army men pointed out the possibility of landing of enemy agents along this coast similar to those in the East, and orders that no small craft may approach the shoreline except at five harbors in the area between San Diego and Santa Barbara.

The picturesque fish market has brough nationwide fame to Newport in the past, and huge throngs formerly visited the beach where the boats were drawn up out of reach of the waves. The day’s catches were sold directly to the visitors—who were assured of “fresh” fish, as they could see them brought directly from the sea. Many of the fishermen have obtained employment on commercial boats which are allowed to leave the harbor after inspection by the Coast Guard. Santa Ana Register, August 11, 1942

After World War II things returned to normal for the dory fleet.

Hardy Fishermen Risk Sea’s Perils to Supply ‘Dory Market’ at Newport

Newport Beach, Feb. 18—In this community, which has grown into a resort city of fine beach homes, sailing craft and elaborately equipped cruisers, a group of hardy fishermen in their little dories still wrest a well-earned living from the sea. They put out at dawn to work their set lines and do a little trolling and in the afternoon make the run back through the surf. There on the beach their dory becomes their shop. A plank counter rests across the stern, upended oar supports a spring scale and the apron pocket of the fisherman’s wife on duty as clerk is the cash register.

Housewives seeking fish “hour-fresh” from the sea move from boat to boat inspecting their wares. Perhaps a fish wagon pulls up at the nearby street curb and its owner bargains for a wholesale lot to be peddled to inland residential sections.

Since Early days—It’s the Newport Beach “dory market” which has been in existence since the days when there were only a few shacks on the peninsula which circles Newport Harbor. From father to son and grandson these fishermen have been returning each afternoon to sell their catch on the sands by the Newport Beach pier. The picturesque craft, their weathered owners, the smell of the sea and the bargaining are little changed.

Passage of time has brought a few changes, mainly in the use of outboard motors in place of oars. But the danger of running the surf, riding out coastal storms and outwitting fog continues and scarcely a season passes that one of the several dozen fishermen is not lost at sea.

Father and Sons—Typical of the salty clan who man the boats are the Dixons. Old Albert Dixon retired a dozen years ago, but remembers the years just after the turn of the century when he rode his dory to sea every day at dawn. His son Joe took up the trade and still fishes occasionally, while young Albert, now in his 30s, is one of the regular fleet. Tom Walker is another old-timer whose son is carrying on. Fred Davenport of Costa Mesa is a familiar figure with 19 years in the fleet. His wife Mary is one of the many wives who help clean the fish and sell to the public.

Gay umbrellas shade the fishermen and lend a market place air to the beach boats. The dories are 16 feet long and normally carry two men. A good day’s catch is 400 to 500 pounds of edible fish, including mackerel, rock cod, black cod, sea bass, bonito, kingfish, groupers, halibut and an occasional albacore when in season.

Around 15 boats fish the year round with a few more in the months from April through October during the fastest selling period. The men average in age from 20 to 45, although use of the motors is enabling older men to stay at sea.

Fishermen can make good wages with reasonable luck on the catch, especially when their wives help with the marketing. Newport Beach makes no license charge for use of the beach and the fishermen need only a State fish and game license and their necessary equipment to bring in the fish. —Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1950

Newport Beach Shark Captured

Newport Beach—A 7-foot man-eating shark was caught in a light fish net 300 yards off a beach crowded with bathers, a fisherman said Sunday. Dory fisherman Ted Phegley said a 500-pound great white shark was still alive when he found it wound up in his net Saturday. Phegley wrapped a rope around the shark’s tail and towed it ashore through the surf as swimmers retreated from shore. —Long Beach Independent, June 13, 1960

 From This Corner — The Dory Fishermen

 It is early yet; a cottony gray fog bank hovers just off the coast, trailing bits of mist past the still-lighted Newport Beach Pier. Straight as an arrow, a sharp-prowed dory draws toward the beach, knifing its way through the surf. The fisherman in the stern is standing, guiding his laden craft past the pier and onto the shore. A group of waiting children hurries to assist his landing. Rollers are heaved onto the beach along the wooden track leading onto the market area. It must be about 9 a.m.; and the first dory fisherman is in.

The More Things Change—We were waiting for the boats to come in. Newport’s dory fishermen have been plying their trade since we can remember. And their fresh-caught sea trout and rock cod are far better than market fish, if one can get to the beach in time to buy them. The routine of the catch has remained the same. So much so that the State of California has declared the dory fishermen’s area to be a State Historical Monument. And to us, a personal historical memory as well. In spite of radar-equipped craft with sonar fish-sighting equipment and all that, the dories still go out early in the morning to fish the banks in a natural way. One dory, an engine, one man, and his baited lines: to seek the deep-lying sea trout and rock cod (and an occasional halibut), and then to bring in the catch and sell it, fresh from the boat. The dories are moved up to the selling space by means of metal rollers and volunteer help. After unloading the outboard motors, gas, tackle, and other materials, the boats are converted into individual fish markets with colorful beach umbrellas shading the sales area. The wives of the fishermen serve as saleswomen.

Weight scales, newspaper wrappings, sharp fileting knives and trash barrels are laid out. A crowd of housewives has appeared, and questions begin:  “How much is rock cod today?” “Forty cents a pound, Mrs. Blaine, and how is your son doing?” A typical market day. Fileting knives flash as the types of fish are selected. The scales bounce; papers surround the purchases; tourists gasp and say: “Look, he has a gold ring in his ear. And his wife looks like a hippie!” The young people who have been working since before dawn give each other a wry look; they have been doing this work since they were children, but they dress as they please.  “May she be swallowed,” whispers one, eyeing the tourist who criticized her.

 “The More They Remain the Same—.” When we were very small children we used to come to Newport for the summer, and we’d visit the dory fishermen. They wore yellow sou’westers and seemed to us to be very old and wise and gnarled. They told us they could “smell—the places where the fish were—and we believed them implicitly.  After all, they caught the fish. Their ample, dark-eyed Portuguese wives would tell scary stories ‘bout the manta rays which washed unwary men overboard; or of giant squid which were just waiting outside the jetty to lure curious children into the sea.

We would shudder with apprehension and run home to tell breathless stories of these fishermen who braved the terrors of the deep. But we would be waiting, each morning, to help bring in the dories; to hear the stories of what was caught, and how many, and what strange adventures occurred. And this August, 1970, the youngsters were still waiting for the dories to come in—still helping the fishermen to bring up their boats to the market—still waiting for te tales of the glamorous deeps, from the men with gold ear-rings in their ears. —Sheila Thompson, Pasadena Independent, September 23, 1970

Fish Scare Eating Into Cash Registers

Recent findings of contaminated fish in Santa Monica and San Pedro bays have put a health scare into some Orange County residents, resulting in a business decline for many local fish merchants and eateries…

The fish scare began earlier this month when the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and the state Health Services Department issued warnings about consumption of fish taken from Santa Monica and San Pedro bays. Both agencies have called for further investigation of the dangerous levels of toxic chemicals if fish caught in the two bays.

About 20 miles down the coast from San Pedro Bay, at the foot of the Newport Beach Pier, customers have been scarce for the dory fishermen. Made up of 14 family operators who fish from their small boats and sell their catch, Newport’s dory fleet long has been a popular open-air market for fresh fish.

But now, said a solemn Carl Marberry “everybody down here thinks we’re selling people poison fish.” Marberry, 28, added that if it had not been for the toxic scare, he could have made $400 instead of $40 from the mackerel he caught during the dark hours of Wednesday morning. “They (customers) just don’t show like they usually do.”

Nearby, another dory fisherman, JoAnn Brey, wrapped up some red snapper and whiting for the only customer at her stand. Brey said it was unfair that she and other local fishermen are suffering because of the controversy up the coast. She called the situation “a bunch of political b.s.” —Heidi Evans, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1985

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Additional stories on the history of Newport’s Dory Fleet 

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #1 —1934


The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #2 —1950—-looking-back-2-—-1950/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #3 —1969—-looking-back-3-—-1969/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #4 — 1971—-looking-back-4-—-1971/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #5 — 1973—-looking-back-5-—-1973/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #6 — 1988—-looking-back-6-—-1988/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #7 — 1989—-looking-back-7-—-1989/


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4 Responses to The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Through The Years

  1. Gordon Quigg says:

    We moved to Newport Beach in 1958 to a house right on the beachfront between orange street and the Santa Ana River. They were still building the jetties and putting the last boulders by crane on them and I was about 2. As I grew up my dad would go off to work and my mom would ride me in a basket on her bike, down to the fishing dorys every morning to get in on the fresh catch. I was fascinated by the fishermen and their skills negotiating the surf, and the cooperation in placing the various rollers successively in front of each dory over and over as they were pushed up the beach to the base of the pier, and how they convert into a live on the spot market place within minutes. Later they switched from oars to outboard motors, and from heavy wooden rollers to light weight inflatable rubber/cloth rollers. And the dory designs became sleeker and racier, with the use of the motors. I’ve always been fascinated with their unique ocean wave penetrating and seaworthy designs. Does anyone have information on a history of just the dories and who designed and built the newer motorized dory boats of Newport pier, from 1962 onward? And are there any builder’s plans for these unique work boats?

  2. Cody says:

    I’m trying to recreate one of these shallow v bottomed dories an honor of the unique Newport dory history, do you have any suggestions, scaling, models, or points on what defined these boats? Anything would help

  3. Greg says:

    In the 70s and 80s I remember at baldys tackle at the base of Newport pier there was old photo under the glass counter top of a huge great white shark with old screwjackto lift nose and a man standing on his back. If I remember right the dimensions were 40 ft. Long and 8 tons. If anyone knows anything about this photo or details please let me know or have a picture of the photo I would appreciate that. Thanks Greg.

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