Manhattan Beach Pier

The visit which sticks out in my mind when I think of the Manhattan Beach Pier was neither my first, nor my most productive visit. It was simply a typical August morning about a year after the pier had been rebuilt. For once the traffic was minimal, there were no problems finding a parking space, and there wasn’t a problem finding a good spot on the pier.

It was 6:45 A.M. and the town was beginning to wake. The sky was calm, a few earlybirds were out for a morning jog, and a couple of members of the “caffeine nation” were enjoying their morning Joe—or cappuccino. A typical day in Paradise.

After gathering together my tackle, I headed out to the end of the pier. Four anglers were at the end and three seemed to be catching fish. I quickly baited up and soon I had my first fish, a nice-sized mackerel. And, as is usually the case with mackerel, this fish was soon followed by several of his brethren. It looked like it might be a good day.

About that time the solitary angler who wasn’t catching fish ambled over. Somewhat of a sad sack, he said it was his first time fishing and wondered if I might take a look at his bait and tackle since he hadn’t had a single bite. Although his tackle was o.k., his bait wasn’t. Out there at the end of this classy pier, in this classy town, was an angler using cheese and salami for bait. I will admit it was a classy cheese, Gouda I believe, but it wasn’t going to catch him any fish. I gave him a couple of mackerel, showed him how to cut the small pieces that their cannibalistic kin were biting on, and watched him start to catch fish.

Visions of myself as an amateur Confucian, teaching someone a skill that would feed him for a lifetime, crossed my mind. About the same time I noticed the three hundred dollar shoes, gold chains, and obviously well tailored and expensive clothing. It was just a little too chichi for a fishing expedition and my Walter Mitty-like visions came to an end. I think it’s more likely that he will pay someone else to catch his meals.

Although I’ve seen some strange baits, and I’ve got some strange looking lures including one that supposedly has a scrambled eggs and bacon coloring, this was the first time I’ve seen cheese and salami used as bait. What really would have been interesting would have been for him to catch a big fish using that cheesy bait—maybe a white seabass, or a small firecracker yellowtail. Imagine the run on local delis by starry-eyed anglers seeking out this hot new bait.

That visit and the unique aspects of this pier itself make it one of my favorites. Visualize driving down Manhattan Beach Drive, the San Francisco-style (it’s steep) street that serves as the approach to this pier. There it sits, an old looking pier with an odd, octagonal, Mediterranean-style building out at the end, a building which houses the Round-House Marine Studies Lab. As you draw near you notice its stylish aquamarine colored railings and strange astrolabe-like light fixtures. Once on the pier you’ll also notice the obvious efforts to keep the pier clean. I’ve used the word too much, but it has a classy feeling to it that reflects the character of the town itself. It also has the feel of an old time pier but it is actually new. Restoration efforts, which took place in the early ’90s, kept as one goal a retention of the old time appearance, much like Pier 7 in San Francisco.

The original pier, dating back to 1920, simply had to be fixed. Old age and decay required extensive repair and in fact made it unsafe by the late 1980s (when a jogger was injured by falling concrete). Citizens banded together and with the help of the Coastal Conservancy made sure it was replaced with a nearly identical copy. Today, the fairly short, 928-foot-long pier has a new life. Although facilities are somewhat limited, it remains one of the most popular spots in town. Fisherman continue to toss out a line, and lovers (or perhaps wannabe lovers) continue to stroll, hand in hand, out to the end of the pier.

Environment. A wide sandy beach, mussel-covered pilings, and an artificial reef made up of 2,000 tons of quarry rock help describe this pier’s environment. The sandy beach area yields the normal surf species: barred surfperch, croakers, corbina, small rays and guitarfish (shovelnose shark). The area around the pilings yields pileperch, walleye surfperch, silver surfperch, and other common pier species. Mid-pier, casting away from the pier, yields small tomcod (white croaker) and herring (queenfish), jacksmelt, yellowfin croaker and an occasional halibut. Action at the end of the pier is improved by the surrounding artificial reef which is located about 65 feet from the end. Fish at end include the normal pelagics—Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, and sardines while barracuda can visit late summer to fall, bonito some years. Spring to summer can show a few juvenile seatrout (white seabass) while warm water years may show a few yellowtail. Out toward the end, and the reef, is also where anglers will pull up some reef residents like kelp bass, sand bass, sculpin (scorpionfish) and an occasional perch. The reef may also account for the infrequent visits from giant (black) sea bass. A 43-pound BSB was taken in September of 2007 (and released).

The human environment, by the way, is sometimes a little misinformed. A visit in July of 1994 occurred on a hot Sunday afternoon, when a parking space was almost impossible to find, and sunbathers and onlookers seemed to cover most of the beach and pier. There I was, calmly reeling in fish out at the end of the pier, when I was approached by a bronzed young beauty (naturally a blond) in a spandex jogging outfit, one who definitely deserved to be in the movies (and yes, I guess I can be sexist at times). She watched for a few moments and then leaned over and asked what I was catching. “Mainly mackerel,” I replied. “Why do you fish?” she asked in her sweet valley voice. “Aren’t all of the fish out here polluted, don’t they cause cancer?” I then began to patiently explain about the types of fish and the differences between the resident species in Santa Monica Bay (which might be dangerous to eat), and those that migrate in and out of the bay (and are safe to eat). She seemed somewhat appeased until she was joined by a bronzed young man, apparently an escapee from one of the local muscle salons. She relayed to him some of what I had said, but he, in a dumb, bellicose manner, replied that there was no way he was going to eat any fish from these waters. Sticky wicket, end of debate and end of education.

About that time a deafening noise was heard, noise which I initially mistook for someone on the pier playing obnoxiously loud music. But no, it was a boat passing by (several hundred feet away) which had a huge “Save Our Bay” banner and a disc-jockey who, I am sure, was soon to lose his hearing. Between songs, he would ask the people on the beach for help in cleaning up the bay, an act that should be supported by all. What did upset me a little was the attitude of these young people who had bought the pollution headlines but failed to read the fine print. The only way we will save any bay or the ocean is to learn about the problems and work together to correct the causes. Facts and education are needed, not half-truths backed by the aerious science and scare tactics of some groups. But, that is probably asking too much.

Fishing Tips. There’s no live bait at this pier so anglers should come equipped with both bait and a variety of lures in case the pelagics are around. In the surf area, sand crabs, bloodworms, mussels, clams, or shrimp, all fished on the bottom, will produce fish. Winter to early spring is the best time for barred surfperch, while summer and fall months will provide the majority of yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker and corbina. A few thornback rays and stingrays will also enter the catch, together with some shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) but I’ve never really seen too many sharks at this pier.

Midway out, halibut get absolutely giddy if you offer them a lively brown bait (tom cod or queenfish), small sardine, or baby mac, although smelt are often the most common live bait used, and one of the longest lasting. If you can’t catch some live bait try a whole or cut anchovy fished on the bottom. Yellowfin croaker will hit fresh mussels or clams and white croaker and queenfish will hit small pieces of anchovy fished at mid-depth. Around the pilings, fish with mussels or bloodworms for pileperch, sargo or salema; use small strips of anchovy for walleye surfperch and silver surfperch.

At the end, fish on the bottom with a whole or cut anchovy for kelp bass and sand bass, try pieces of squid for the sculpin (scorpionfish). Fish with a slider and a small, self-caught fish, for larger species like barracuda or white seabass. For bonito use a splasher and a feather. The white seabass will often show up for a short period in April; the barracuda August-September. The bonito typically show up in the warmer water months in the years they are around but some years will see the boneheads (especially the mico-sized youngsters) making an appearance throughout the year.

As for the mackerel, it doesn’t take a lot of skill to catch “a mess” of fish when they’re running. Personally, I prefer a couple of size 4 hooks rigged up in a high/low fashion with a torpedo sinker at the bottom. Two at a time is enough. However, many anglers like to throw out Lucky Lura-type bait rigs. If the macs are in their attack mode you don’t even need bait. If they’re a little more skittish, attach a small piece of bait (and mackerel is often the best bait) on each hook. Cast out away from the pier and be prepared for a strike as the line settles, or as soon as you begin a retrieve.

Although the shallow waters of the pier are not great for sharks, late evening angling can produce both sharks and rays. Most common are gray smoothhounds, leopard sharks, mid to large-sized bat rays, and the already mentioned shovelnose sharks. Less common, but still a possibility, are the large threshers that sometimes swim by, decide to swat a hapless fish with their large tails, and perhaps, if the angler has prayed to the right gods, even digest said angler’s bait for dinner. Once in a blue moon, a hundred pound bat ray (or heck, maybe a two-hundred pounder) will latch onto an angler’s line but the majority of the large fish will be lost on the pilings before they can be brought to the surface of the pier.

Manhattan Beach Pier Facts

Hours: Open 6 A.M. to midnight.

Facilities: Some lights, fish-cleaning stations, benches and restrooms on the pier. The Bohemian Beach Café is found out at the end of the pier; stop by and say hi to its owner Andreas Beck. Metered parking is available on adjacent streets at a cost of $.25 an hour. There is also a beachfront parking lot that costs $.75 an hour and which has a 5-hour maximum time; it is closed from 9:30 P.M. to 4 A.M. As mentioned, parking can be hard to find during the summer, especially on weekends or during hot spells of weather.

Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking near the pier but non-handicapped restrooms. The pier surface is cement and the rail

Fish Taco Chronicles

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