California’s Biggest Pier Fish?

A question that’s intrigued me for a long time, and one that I am sure has occurred to others, concerns the largest fish caught from a California pier. When I sent the question out on my Pier Fishing in California web site, Boyd Grant, my Santa Barbara reporter, e-mailed me that he had once seen a story on a huge black sea bass caught from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. A little research on Boyd’s part soon provided the Santa Barbara Daily News article that told about the “Big Fish.” And it was big!

The fish was a seven-foot-three-inch-long, 453-pound black sea bass caught from the wharf on October 22, 1925. To date this is the largest fish that I have been able to verify as being caught from a California pier. However, a couple of lines in the old article bring out further questions.

The newspaper reported that R.A. Hendricks “played the fish from the wharf until it had broken one of his handles on his reel and was nearly exhausted…the fish made forty to fifty runs out to the end of his 150 yards of line. Each time, the fish apparently tired and allowed himself to be toward back to the wharf by the fisherman. Finally, Mr. Hendricks jumped into a rowboat that was alongside the wharf. The fish was tied to the boat and the fight continued. Several times the big fish was worked alongside of the boat, but would suddenly break away for another run. A small .22-caliber rifle was brought into play as the fish came alongside the boat for the final time and five shots stopped the fight. The fish was hauled up the stairs to the wharf.”

Biggest fish? Perhaps! Should it qualify as the California record? Probably not. One of PESCA’s goals is the establishment of a record book for pier, shore and surf-caught fish. Since these fish would be differentiated from boat-caught fish, they must not, by definition be caught, or landed, from a boat.

It is a simple and clear distinction. In this instance, the angler could have walked the fish to the shoreline and gaffed it in the surf. Once the angler left the pier and boarded the boat it changed the dynamics of the fight. There may be some who will argue this rule is too strict but strict rules are necessary if integrity is to be given to these records.

Of course, in a situation such as this, when a truly large fish is being fought from a pier, most anglers would not be thinking of the record as much as simply trying to land the fish. Keeping a large fish away from the mussel-encrusted pilings while simultaneously trying to somehow gaff it from a perch 20-30 feet away can be an almost impossible task. Even with treble hook gaffs and strong ropes most really large fish that are hooked from piers are lost.

Still, it isn’t impossible given the proper equipment and a group of people that know what they are doing. Still, many anglers would choose to do like Mr. Hendricks and do whatever it took to land the fish. That is a choice each angler must make and he or she should live with the consequences of the choice,

Another interesting aspect of this story is the fact that if this catch were declared a record, it is a record that would probably never be broken. It is currently illegal to keep giant (black) sea bass in California and even though there seems to be somewhat of a comeback for the fish, the Fish and Game Department shows little or no inclination at this time to make the species legal. If, at some time in the future, giant (black) sea bass are made legal, the large specimens will probably have some sort of a slot set-up in which the largest fish are returned to the water.

A similar situation concerns the record fish from a northern California pier, the 194-pound white sturgeon taken at the Vallejo Pier in 1980. Today white sturgeon have a slot in which all fish over 72 inches must be returned to the water. Therefore, that 184-pound sturgeon will remain the record unless the regulation is changed.

The good news is that there are more than thirty other saltwater species that are both commonly available to California pier anglers and for which the Fish and Game Department keeps records. If PESCA awards records for the same species, then there is ample opportunity for PESCA anglers to set many, many records.

PESCA, Professional Surf & Shore Casters Association

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