Interview with George Tasulis — Oceanside Pier

It’s nearly noon on a hot August day, the sun is shining a little too bright, and you’re almost late for your appointment at the Oceanside Pier Bait and Tackle shop. But there it sits, midway out on the pier, opposite the lifeguard tower and helping to form a perfect frame for Ruby’s Restaurant out at the end. As you get closer, the irreverent, hand-lettered signs are the first things to grab your attention! “Next bait shop 3,645 miles due west!” “Will work for $35.00 per hour, I have my own food.” “The buck stops here…leave one.” “Cigarette smoking by Chinese spies will not be tolerated…this is grounds for immediate dismissal…Bill Clinton.” “We love Hillary, she’s our man.” “It takes a village to raise an idiot.” Then you notice the photographs under glass: large sharks and marlin from other seas and the huge black sea bass caught at the Oceanside Pier—although many, many years ago. Next you notice the crowd near the front of the bait shop and the three men working ever so hard to keep up. Finally, you notice an umbrella and several folding chairs that sit across the pier next to the lifeguard office. Each of the chairs has a label denoting ownership: George with the “T,” The Hankster, and Big Al.

George with the “T” is George Tasulis, owner of the bait shop and one of the deans of Southern California fishing, especially pier fishing. One day I sat down with George and asked him to discuss some of the changes he has seen take place over the years.

The Oceanside Pier itself was of course one of the main topics. His relationship with the pier dates back to 1934 when he was a mere lad of 14. He and his friends would make the all day trip down to Oceanside from Santa Monica. Oceanside was the “primo pier” to load up on yellowtail, barracuda and bonito. Fill up the gunnysacks with fish, ice them down, and head back to Santa Monica. Once there, the wagons were loaded and the boys headed down to the promenades at Venice and Ocean Park to sell their catch. Yellowtail garnered the grand sum of $.50 a fish, barracuda $.30 and bonito $.15. It was hard work but decent money and a good way to make a buck back in those Depression-era days. It was the beginning of a lifetime connection with fishing and the area that today he calls home.

The bait shop itself is fairly new. The pier was rebuilt and opened in 1988, but George has run the pier bait shop for longer than that. He operated the Oceanside Liquor and Bait and Tackle for 25 years prior to the stint at the pier. That shop, first known as Schneider’s Liquor and Bait and Tackle, set on the old Coast Highway and was, for many years, the place to go if you wanted live bait.

George says it was a real art getting good quality bait. The specialty was black razor clams taken from the Back Bay at Carlsbad, and ghost shrimp. He says he had good ghost shrimp then, not the kind you see today. He feels the pumps used today break the backs of the shrimp and that’s why they only last 2-3 days. Back then he used a technique taught to him by some Australian anglers. He would go down to the Tijuana Slough and walk around the mud looking for air holes. Once found, he would begin to stomp on the holes (sounds like an Australian jig) and pretty soon the shrimp would come to the top where he and his buddies would grab them. The shrimp were kept in saltwater tanks and would last for a month. However, he also says that during peak periods the shop would sell as many as 500-1,000 dozen shrimp a week, so they rarely stayed in the shop for a month. The razor clams, by the way, are long gone, and it isn’t worth the trip down to the Tijuana Slough.

Today the only live bait he sells is bloodworms and they are flown in from Maine. What about live anchovies? “Impossible, the city wants $18,000 to run a saltwater line from the front of the pier to the bait shop.” What about fresh mussels? “No, we have flash-frozen mussels from Japan and Korea, they’re easier to use and just as effective.” Other baits? “Frozen squid, Pismo clams, shrimp, mackerel, razor clams (from the north), and salted anchovies.”

How is fishing on the pier? “It’s still good at times but nothing like it used to be. Too many people break the laws today and they keep too many fish. People will fill a bucket with perch, salema, herring (queenfish), tomcod (white croaker), smelt and other small fish, and some of these species have limits. Many ethnic groups are fishing for food and they keep everything they hook. The Fish and Game tries to crack down on the people but they simply go to the courts in Vista and San Marcos, plead an ignorance of the law, and are let off with no penalty. The judges really don’t seem to care. People still catch mackerel, croakers, and perch, but you don’t see nearly as many quality fish. Large halibut, white seabass, barracuda, yellowtail and even black sea bass used to be common to the pier. The Department of Fish and Game is beginning to run sting operations at the pier, four so far this year, and they seem more successful so perhaps it will improve. People also are supposed to have only two poles at the pier but many times I’ll see a person with 5-6 poles. They’ll bring along relatives and claim that they are all fishing, but they’re not.”

“One good thing that is happening is the reappearance of Pismo clams on the beach. People really haven’t clammed on local beaches for over 30 years but kids are starting to find them once again.”

What changes have taken place in tackle or techniques? “There is much more light tackle fishing today. Also, the techniques for bonito have really changed. Years ago you would go to the five and dime store, buy a rubber ball, and then put a torpedo sinker in it. You would then rig a short leader behind the ball with a bonito feather. About twenty years ago I helped develop the idea of using a clear plastic bubble filled with water instead of the ball, and that’s one of the standard riggings today.”

Seen any unusual fish at the pier? “Years ago you would see huge black sea bass, some over 300 pounds. In the ’40s a lot of black sea bass were caught off the pier and a huge hammerhead shark was caught in 1944. One angler caught an illegal 143-pound black sea bass this year that was confiscated by the Fish and Game. He faces a fine of several thousand dollars. The last legal black sea bass caught in the state was one caught locally in ’88 or ’89. A guy caught the 350-pound fish while fishing from a freshwater bass boat up by the San Onofre nuclear power plant. He brought it in late in the day and we put it in the cooler. Had to cut off its head to fit it in the cooler and then the next morning I nailed the head back on. It was quite a sight, both the fish, and me, nailing the head back on. It’s also ironic that he caught it where he did. Before they even opened the plant we noticed hot bubbling water. They said not to worry. Then we noticed some fish were getting cancers and the kelp was beginning to disappear. It’s hurt the fishing in that area.”

“Of course the Fish and Game also screwed up by allowing the Japanese to harvest kelp. There were supposed to be strict guidelines and they said harvesters couldn’t cut the kelp too near the bottom. The law was never enforced and the kelp is largely gone.”

“Getting back to unusual fish, once an angler landed a deep-water lancetfish. It was about three feet long and very ugly. That was probably the weirdest fish.”

Got any stories about the regulars at the pier? “One guy was “Corbina” Al Amlick who fished until he was 90 years old. He always wanted small fresh mussels and he would shuck the mussels himself. He always used a certain pound test line, would always fish the surf area, and he would bring up corbina every time. Other people would try to copy him, same bait, same line, but none were as successful as him. His name is engraved on one of the sponsor boards near the front of the pier.”

What about yourself, what’s the biggest fish you’ve caught? “The biggest was a 210-pound marlin I caught at Cabo San Lucas. I also caught a 45-pound white seabass in Ensenada. A guide took me out to a kelp bed where he used his machete to cut a path into the middle of the kelp. I hooked and landed the fish right in the kelp. Some of the local officials really wanted that fish for themselves. I was offered drugs and even women if I would give up the fish. But I didn’t give it away.”

Any other stories that might interest our readers? “Well, I spent one summer when I was a kid working as a lifeguard in Avalon on Catalina. We only got $.85 a hour but we still made good money. How? When the big ships came in to dock, people would throw silver dollars in the water. Only the lifeguards were allowed in the water and we would sometimes make $200-300 in a single day from the silver dollars.”

About this time, a swarm of lookers and buyers hit the shop, and it was time to stop the interview. Although George is approaching 80 years of age you’ll still find him out at the pier most days. He’s still watching the fish and still selling the bait. I don’t think however that you’ll ever see him dive into the water for silver dollars.

Pier Fishing In California, 2nd Edition, 2004

4 Responses to Interview with George Tasulis — Oceanside Pier

  1. Stephanie McNaughton says:

    When was this article written? 2004 or 2011? George is my grandfather and he passed away last year!!!

    • kenjones says:

      This was written in 2004. I used to talk to your grandfather every month when he would give me fish reports from the pier.

    • Christina says:

      Hi Stephanie. I am George’s neice. He & my dad Chris Tasulis were half brothers (same mother Angelike) and they grew up together in Culver CIty, Ca. I know George’s 4 daughters Debbie, Dana, Susan & Stephanie and none of their daughters are named Stephanie. George must have had a 5th child (your parent).
      Were you at his funeral (BTW, not in 2010 but) in Feb 2009? If you’d like to contact me –

      • Debbie says:

        Hi, my name is Debbie…I used to be George’s barber for many years. He was the sweetest man. I moved to Temecula and didn’t see him anymore but heard he had gotten sick. He used to call me daughter, lol…he was like another Dad to me. I’m sorry to hear he passed.

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