Crystal Pier

Small though it may be, this pier has long held special affection for me for a number of reasons. Most prominent may be the fact that Crystal was the site of my first foray into the adventurous world of California pier fishing. The time was the “I Like Ike” era of the ‘50s, 1957 to be exact, and I was a newbie, basically clueless as to what I was doing. Nevertheless, I caught one (unidentified to this day) fish. Soon after, a quickly drying fish, held up by a pudgy young angler, was proudly paraded through the nearby Oscar’s Restaurant. I’m sure that all those lucky patrons munchin’ on their 44-cent double-deck burgers and slurpin’ up their 25-cent creamy shakes were impressed. It may have seemed exciting to me at the time but looking back I can see that I had no clue.

My family left San Diego soon after that inaugural, not-too-auspicious trip to the pier and it wasn’t until April of 1964 that I would return. By now I was at least a semi-accomplished angler having spent many a day learning the basics at the Newport Pier. Now I just needed more time on the piers.

However, our new address was inland in sun-baked Santee, just a little too far from the ocean for my bright red Schwinn Corvette bike, the bike that had served me so well at Newport Beach. No problemo! Soon I was working and, with my big-time $1.00-an-hour-job, accumulating wealth. Greedy capitalist that I was, I saved my hard-earned money looking for the perfect investment. That investment came in the form of a light blue ’55 Ford that I purchased for the princely sum of $100. It came equipped with white sidewall tires and a great big Ahoooooga horn. I now had some wheels and the American freedom of the road beckoned (especially since gas was 18 cents a gallon and included green stamps, blue chip stamps and/or a free glass when you filled up).

Transportation meant that I was able to fish whenever I wasn’t working or going to school and during the next five years I would be a regular visitor to all of the area’s piers. Crystal would prove to be the most productive San Diego pier: it yielded the highest number of fish per hour as well as good numbers of big fish, especially halibut and shovelnose guitarfish.

Crystal is still, in my opinion, an excellent pier for barred surfperch, walleye surfperch, shovelnose guitarfish and (at times) California halibut. It is also seasonally good for yellowfin croaker, queenfish, white croaker, and gray smoothhound shark (sand shark).

Lastly, there are cottages available on the pier, the only pier on the California coast to offer such accommodations. So even though Crystal isn’t one of the largest piers, one of the most modern piers, or one of the most convenient piers in California (as far as parking), it still gets my nostalgic vote for one of the top piers in the state.

The pier is located at the end of Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach (“PB” to locals) and sits on a long sandy stretch of shoreline that stretches from Mission Beach up to the rocky Tourmaline Surfing Park. The pier has neither rocks nor reef to attract fish; it is simply one of the best beaches to fish for sandy-shore species. However, its proximity to the fish-rich waters of Mission Bay (just down the beach) and La Jolla kelp beds (just up the coast) probably have some influence as to the fish that show up at the pier. Most of the weathered pilings are old and covered with mussels but the pier has fairly recently been restored and lengthened to 872 feet. Past the cabins the pier is fairly narrow, only 20 feet wide, but it does have a wider 100-foot end section. During the summer months there may be heavy growths of kelp around the outer end of the pier.

The number of different types of fish here doesn’t seem as high as some piers (although one PFIC member said he had seen 46 different species); however, the concentrations of some species are very high. Fish here at the tide line include corbina, barred surfperch, spotfin and yellowfin croaker, round stingrays, guitarfish and thornback rays. Halfway out there are all of these but also more walleye surfperch, queenfish, white croaker, halibut and smoothhound sharks. The end area will see these plus Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, jacksmelt, bat rays, small to medium size white seabass, bonito (some years), and an occasional yellowtail.

Increasingly, in the last few years, more and more bass—kelp bass, barred sand bass, and even spotted sand bass—have been caught. The same is true with giant (black) sea bass, most of them youngsters in the 20-50 pound class. A number of the illegal big bass have been hooked, caught, and released during the new millennium and the numbers seem to increase each year.

Sargo are another fish that used to be rarely seen at the pier but now seem to be fairly common. Although most of these species can be caught almost any time of the year, summer is by far the best time, especially for halibut, spotfin croaker, corbina, mackerel, bonito, big sharks, and rays. Winter often yields fewer but larger halibut; early spring yields the largest barred surfperch.

A third fish that I rarely saw during my early years at the pier was lizardfish. However, during visits in July and August of 2010 the toothy little critters seemed to cover the bottom; only large bait and large hooks prevented their capture. Unfortunately few of the people who were fishing, mostly tourists, seemed to realize that they make a excellent live bait for halibut.

A species once considered rare to San Diego that has begun to show up at the pier is shortfin corvina. Perhaps reflecting their increasing numbers in San Diego Bay, shortfin first showed up at the pier when two small specimens were taken in August of ’08. Then, during the grunion runs in July of ’09, more shortfin made an appearance and most were good-sized fish. Only problem was that some mistook the fish for undersized white seabass and called the DF&G who, much to their surprise, announced after checking that they were legal shortfin corvina. Most of the shortfin were taken by anglers using live queenfish as bait.

Best fishing here is generally halfway out on the pier on the left (south) side. Fish with two rods. On the larger pole use a high-low or live bait leader. If you can net some small smelt or queenfish, or hook one with a bait rig, use the live bait leader to try for halibut. If you can’t get live bait use cut anchovies, sardines or squid with a high-low rigging. Use 15-20 pound test line with hooks size 2 or larger to catch guitarfish, sharks and perhaps a halibut. On the second, smaller pole, use a high-low leader, size 6 hooks, and a sinker just heavy enough to hold bottom. For yellowfin croaker or barred surfperch use bloodworms, ghost shrimp or mussels. For queenfish, walleye surfperch or white croaker, use small strips of anchovy; cast out and reel in slowly for best results. For many of the fish, a multi-hook bait-rig (Sabiki or Lucky Lura) can be deadly! Use size 4 or 2 hooks for the mackerel, size 6 or 8 hooks for the queenfish, walleye surfperch or jacksmelt. The water down around the pilings will also yield a few of the larger rubberlip or pileperch as well as a few opaleye (I saw a nice 4-pound opaleye caught on one visit.

Inshore, the quantity will be less, but you can often catch some very nice corbina, spotfin croaker and barred surfperch; use sand crabs if available, next best baits are ghost shrimp, fresh mussels or bloodworms. Fish the shallowest water possible and this often means you are practically right up against the fence that surrounds the cabins on the pier.

The far end will yield some pelagic species, but less than at bigger piers that go out into deeper water. Use bait rigs for the mackerel, try jigs, feathers behind a Cast-a-Bubble, or Crippled Herring lures for the bonito. Try anchovies, bloodworms or soft plastics for bass. Use live bait (small queenfish, white croaker or walleye surfperch) for the halibut and I’ve always had my best halibut success casting out from the south side of the pier (and unfortunately it’s hard here to fish down between the pilings).

Quite a few sharays are also taken from the pier. Thornback rays (throw-‘em-backs), round stingrays and gray smoothhound sharks are all very common and will hit on almost any bottom bait including sea worms, ghost shrimp, anchovies, and cut mackerel. Bat rays seem to prefer squid while the large leopard sharks and shovelnose will hit a variety of baits (with live fish seemingly the pièce de résistance).

Be sure to bring a net with you, and be sure you know how to use it (or have someone with you who can use it). Some truly large guitarfish, leopard sharks, and halibut have been hooked here while bat rays exceeding a hundred pounds are a frequent visitor. A large diamond stingray was taken in September of 2008, a large soupfin shark and 7-gill shark was taken in 2010. Be prepared!

Amazingly, quite a few yellowtail have also been landed from this shallow-water pier including a 20-pound fish in September of 2006 (which surfers helped land) and a 40+-pound fish in 2007. One key for the yellows is live bait such as a mackerel or jack mackerel and the rig of choice is a sliding leader rig. Cast out a sinker heavy enough to hold bottom, and then slide the live bait down to the water. Use a 3-foot slider with the baitfish at one end and a snap-swivel at the other. It’s a rig I’ve used since the ‘60s and it still works. A second key is to tire out the fish before you bring it to the pier. Yellowtail are tough and a still fresh fish will often head for the pilings and wrap your line as soon as it nears the pier; play it out and then bring it in. The third key is to have quality tackle that is heavy enough to finish the job started by the first two steps.

A special recommendation since live bait is unavailable at this pier is to go to a tackle shop, buy a live bait drop net, an aerator and a bucket—and use them. Live bait (anchovies, small smelt, queenfish and small perch) is key for the halibut and guitarfish. Live mackerel and jack mackerel, (usually caught on bait rigs) may lure in a yellowtail or other pelagic during the warm water months.

Crystal Pier Facts

Hours: Vary by season; generally 7 (or 8) A.M. to 7 P.M. (or sunset) for visitors in the summer, 8 A.M. to 6 P.M. in the winter. 24 hours a day for those staying in the pier motel.

Facilities: One cleaning station, some benches, and some night lighting. Rental rods, limited tackle, frozen bait (generally frozen anchovies, shrimp and squid), and snacks are available at the Crystal Pier B&T found just past the row of cabins. James Barrick runs the shop and is friendly and helpful to both tourists and the regulars alike. Parking can be a problem! Metered parking is available on the side street at the foot of the pier if you can find it. This is a popular area for beach go’ers and surfers and they just don’t seem to realize they should leave some parking spaces for the pier rats. Arriving any time after the early morning hours can mean a search for a spot. Do not park in parking lots that have posted warnings; they mean it and will not hesitate to have your car towed away. If you’re visiting San Diego and need a place to rest your head I recommend staying at the Crystal Pier Hotel. It’s not the fanciest place you could stay but its unique, populated by a friendly staff, and can provide some night fishing that otherwise you couldn’t enjoy (and their motto “Sleep Over The Ocean” is appropriate). Details and rates can be checked out at Kono’s, located near the entrance of the pier, serves up great breakfasts and lunches for a very reasonable price and will provide takeout if you’re on the pier.

Handicapped Facilities: None. The surface is wood planking with a railing 40 inches high.

How To Get There: Take I-5 to Garnet Ave. then take Garnet to the foot of the pier.

Management: City of San Diego and Crystal Pier Motel.

Fish Taco Chronicles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>