Oceanside Pier

This used to be a two-sack pier; that was what I learned one day while talking to a pier regular. The regular, a gentleman of a youthful 78 years of age, and one who fished about 350 days a year, told me the story. “Back in the thirties you needed to bring two gunnysacks with you when you visited the pier because of the barracuda. Back then we called them logs, you know, big fish about 10 or 12 pounds each, and you could only get about five in a sack lengthwise. You fished until you loaded a couple of sacks then you stopped, no sense overdoing it. Of course you might need a little help carrying the sacks off the pier.” How accurate that memory was after 50 years can only be speculated. There is no doubt, however, that fishing can be very good at Oceanside and that it probably was outstanding “back then.”

In fact, old pictures and faded newspaper stories that once sat under glass near the lifeguard tower gave evidence of how it was “back then.” Several pictures of large black sea bass (giant sea bass) that were caught from the pier highlight the pictures; one was of a 286-pound fish taken in 1936. Another picture was of a 200+pound hammerhead shark taken by Max Gray on September 8, 1949. A third showed a 42 lb. 1 oz. yellowtail taken from the pier in July of 1955 by Elmo Nealoff. Stories tell of an 11 3/4-pound bonito and a 10 3/4-pound lobster taken from the pier—both evidently records for the pier.

The pier sits over what was once one of the best sand beaches in southern California—until the Oceanside Small Craft Harbor was built. Unfortunately, currents changed when the upcoast jetty was built and for many years the rocky base of the beach was almost bare of sand. Today the situation seems to have improved; there is more sand, and Pismo clams are even returning, so perhaps the problems have been fixed.

The pier seems to be about as productive as when I first fished it in the mid-1960s although quantity is more common than quality. A lot of fish can still be caught but relatively few of the “trophy” fish common in years past. Fish typically caught here are the normal sandy-shore, long-pier variety.

Inshore, you will find barred surfperch, corbina, yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, sargo, round stingray, guitarfish, too many (at times) thornback rays and an occasional California butterfly ray (first recorded from the pier by scientists in 1952).

Midway out, you can catch halibut, white croaker, yellowfin croaker, queenfish, jacksmelt, topsmelt, butterfish, walleye surfperch, bass, more guitarfish and sand sharks (smoothhound sharks).

At 1,942 feet, the pier is long, and out toward the end you may catch any of these fish but also the more pelagic species like mackerel, bonito, barracuda (today, usually a small pencil instead of a log), small white seabass (usually called seatrout), and an occasional small (firecracker size) yellowtail. The end area is typically also the best area for kelp bass, barred sand bass, salema, rockfish and other rock-frequenting species (including infrequent, but occasional, sheephead). It’s also the best area for the larger sharks (leopards, threshers and blues), the biggest shovelnose guitarfish, and the monster bat rays (including one that weighed an estimated 150 pounds in April of 2001.

If the fish aren’t biting just sit back and relax—or head down to the Ruby’s at the end of the pier and have a hamburger, fries and a milkshake. Watch the dolphins that seem to show up most days at the pier and, if it is wintertime, you might even see a grey whale migrating by the pier. The pier is a great spot to simply sit and enjoy the ocean.

Fishing Tips. This can be an excellent pier for halibut, sand bass, and guitarfish. Live anchovies are best, but the bait shop doesn’t offer them; instead, try to net some bait or snag a smelt, small queenfish, anchovy, or even a baby mac, and use the fish with a live bait rigging. Mid-pier is the best area for the halibut, especially from May to July (although flatties caught in the winter are often the largest of the year). For guitarfish, try the mid-pier to the end. If live bait (fish-type) isn’t available, try bloodworms, ghost shrimp, cut mackerel or frozen anchovies.

The end of the pier can be good for bass including barred sand bass and some calico bass (kelp bass). Generally the spring and summer are the best months for the bass. The end area can also, at times, be great for bonito and mackerel. Generally the mackerel will hit best on a small strip of squid or a bloody piece of mackerel. The larger bonito (some up to 6-8 pounds), prefer a splasher, cast-a-bubble or golf ball with a feather trailing behind it. Late summer to fall months will also see some barracuda. Most of the barries show up at night and your best bet to catch them is generally a gold or silver colored spoon like a Kastmaster or Krocodile. As far as sharks and rays, and many are taken from the pier, regulars say a long cast out from the southern corner of the pier is a prime spot.

The mid-pier area is a good area for fish besides halibut and guitarfish, although the halibut certainly receive the majority of attention from May to July. It is the best area for a number of the smaller species such as herring (queenfish), tom cod (white croaker) and jacksmelt. It yields a lot of yellowfin croaker, some spotfin croakers, sargo, China (black) croakers, and quite a few smoothhound sharks, thornback rays, and bat rays. Almost all of these can be caught on high/low leaders with the bait deciding the type of fish that will hit. Queenfish and white croaker will strike on small strips of anchovy, jacksmelt prefer worms or a small piece of shrimp; most sharks and rays get all excited and goose bumpy when they smell a bloody piece of mackerel or a delicious piece of calamari (oops, squid).

Inshore, and this is the area preferred by many locals, try sand crabs, ghost shrimp, bloodworms or mussels for barred surfperch, corbina, spotfin croaker, and yellowfin croaker; remember to use a fairly small hook, no bigger than a size 4. When fishing around the pilings, try mussels, bloodworms, or ghost shrimp; use a bait holder-type hook for the bloodworms and mussels, a Kahle-type hook for the ghost shrimp. These baits will be your best bet for most types of perch (although walleye surfperch like a small strip of anchovy). Best time for the barred surfperch is winter to spring while the large croakers prefer the summer to fall months.

If the pier isn’t too crowded, try artificial lures such as Big Hammers and Fish Traps for the sand bass, the already mentioned feathers with a cast-a-bubble for the bonito, and multiple-hook, bait rig outfits for the macs and jacksmelt (although 3-5 mackerel twisting up a Lucky Lura/Sabiki leader isn’t so lucky—it often results in the loss of the $2-3 leader).

A few sculpin (California scorpionfish), buckets of salema, and other rock-loving species will be attracted by the rock quarry artificial reef out toward the end of the pier. I say buckets of salema because people literally catch and keep enough of the small fish to fill buckets, although the limit is ten and some of the people are going to face some stiff fines one of these days. This is also the best area for people seeking lobsters during their season with most of the spiny creatures being taken at night.

Although sheephead are never common, quite a few have been caught out at the end of the pier (to 27 pounds); in most instances the bait was ghost shrimp or pieces of market shrimp (although crabs and mussels should also be good bait, and both bloodworms and live anchovies have been reported as successful baits at the pier). If you want to try to catch one of the big-toothed creatures be warned that they only feed during the daylight hours (they sleep at night) and are most common during the winter months.

Unusual fish from the pier have included a deep-water lancetfish, a 27” striped bass (taken in July ’00), and a bonefish (taken in February of ’01). An unusual catch was a 9-pound kelp (calico) bass caught by a neophyte angler in October of ’02. He rented a pole, bought some frozen squid, and came back to the bait shop a short time later with the huge calico. Most anglers will fish a lifetime from a pier and never catch a 9-pounder (in fact, it’s a pretty good calico even from a boat).

A fish that was becoming rare, and was considered endangered just a decade or so ago, was the giant (black) sea bass, a goliath of the sea that never fails to startle pier fishermen used to the smaller species. The earliest PFIC report of a giant sea bass capture was of a 143-pound fish that was hooked on Memorial Day Weekend in 1997. Three drops of a treble hook gaff were needed to snag the fish and then four people were needed to haul it up onto the pier. These bass are of course illegal and the smart move would have been to simply cut the line when the angler saw what it was. Instead, the determined angler headed up the pier dragging his catch behind him—only to meet a game warden coming down the pier. It was a TRULY DUMB act since the fine is around $2,000. Since then there are almost regular reports of anglers hooking the large bass at the pier and occasional stories of knuckleheads who think they should keep them. By the way, Fish and Game “sting operations” are run fairly often at the pier so don’t join that group of knuckleheads.

Another giant, although of a quite different species, is the Humboldt squid and every few years will see a run of the large cephalopods at the pier. One such run, although short lived, took place in May 2007 and resulted in the usual crowds and excited anglers hooking the large (up to around 30 pound) squid. A cousin cephalopod, although of a much more diminutive size, are the small octopus that are sometimes encountered while fishing at night from the end section, especially in the winter months.

Another unusual catch, again not a fish, was a tropical turtle that was caught by a startled angler on July 4, 2000. The creature was netted, the hook removed, and the big fellow (or girl?) was gently lowered back down to the sea.

Oceanside Pier Facts

Hours: Open 24 hours a day.

Facilities: A parking lot is available near the entrance to the pier and metered parking is available on Pacific Street. Restrooms and the bait and tackle shop is located mid-pier. Lights, benches, and fish cleaning stations are found throughout the pier. Snacks can be purchased at the bait and tackle shop bars while a Ruby’s Diner with its ‘50s themed food and servers covers much of the end of the pier.

Handicapped Facilities: The pier has handicapped parking and restrooms. The pier surface is cement and planking and the rail height is 44 inches. Posted for handicapped.

Location: 33.19278 N. Latitude, 117.38583 W. Longitude

How To Get There: From I-5 take Mission Blvd. west to Pacific, turn right and follow it to the pier.

Management: City of Oceanside, Public Works Department.

Fish Taco Chronicles

2 Responses to Oceanside Pier

  1. jcinter says:

    I have seen more than 5 times and heard more than 15 cases of giant black sea bass being hooked at Oceanside pier since 2014. I hooked twice in 2015. We mostly caught them at the pier end, when pulled close to the pier (usually after 1 hr hard fight) we either cut line or one brave soul climbed down the ladder to unhook the gentle giant. The largest one we hooked was more than 7 ft, mostly hooked were 3 to 5 ft. The estimated weights are from 100 to 400 lbs, since they all have huge girth. They show up all year around and were very close to the pier. The only excitement can match the giant sea bass were 80 lb plus bat rays and 5 ft sharks.

    • kenjones says:

      I have heard of black sea bass being caught from the pier but did not know the number was so large. I think the Oceanside Pier and the San Clemente Pier probably see the greatest number of these fish that seem to be making a comeback. Thanks for the information.

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>