San Clemente Pier

California’s piers used to have a special feel to them, a mix of geography, life style and élan that dated back to the early 1900s. It’s a feel that perhaps only the old-timers still recall, a fact that I’ve often felt was unfortunate. Only a few piers still have that feel and San Clemente is one of them.

The pier itself has a friendly, clean, somewhat old-time touristy feel with white painted railings and light blue trim (similar to Crystal Pier in San Diego). It sits in an attractive area and though well visited rarely sees the crowds common at some southland piers.

Of course it’s a fishing pier so it also needs to produce fish. I first fished this pier in the late 1960s and during the 60s and 70s did not really do that well. However, for whatever reason, my records since the 80s show an above averagecatch of several species including spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, corbina and sharks. Today, I would rate the San Clemente Municipal Pier as good for inshore species and sharks even if only average for the pelagic species.

Luckily, this is another pier saved from the destruction of the 1983 storms. Much of the pier’s end was lost in those storms but the pier has been rebuilt and even improved. At the front of the pier there is the first of three wide areas. On one side sits the main dining room of the Fisherman’s Restaurant. On the opposite side of the pier sits the restaurant’s oyster bar and additional outdoor seating. Mid-pier there is another wider T-section on the pier (which of course the anglers like to fish).

Near the end of the pier are restrooms and Schleppy’s, a combination snack bar, tackle shop, and meeting place for locals to play checkers when they aren’t dissecting world and local events. Out front sit a couple of picnic tables and benches—and it seems like they’re almost always full, Lastly there is the wide end, the favorite spot for the young Turks, the shark anglers. At times you may feel that you are in a fish bowl as the tourists and restaurant patrons walk out on the pier to check out the action, but the pier is in excellent and clean condition.

The pier itself is located down near the end of Del Mar Street and it’s a little difficult to find if you don’t know where to look (so do follow the signs). Up the street and hill from the pier is a large parking lot. There’s a fine beach—the San Clemente City Beach, small grassy areas, and a small area populated with shops and restaurants. The area has somewhat of a Mediterranean feeling to it, and on a warm summer night has a classy ambiance matched by few piers. One final interesting note: railroad tracks run adjacent to the front of the pier, and several times a day the Los Angeles-San Diego train rumbles by and sometimes stops to let off passengers. All in all, this is an interesting area.

Often in the morning you will find the pier populated by local joggers, usually older joggers, locals who bought their homes for $50,000, saw them rise in value to be million dollar homes, and have now seen those values plummet—somewhat. But the vulgarities of real estate in coastal SoCal. are only one topic of many to be discussed, debated, and gossiped about by those enjoying a pier jog in the morning sun.

Most of the locals are friendly, most but not all. One morning I watched a “club” of older gents meet for some fishing but apparently it was an alpha experience for some because they certainly did not know how to pier fish. One had brought a frozen bag of squid. Another had brought a bag of frozen shrimp. A third had visited Trader Joe’s and was set for some “Bouillabaisse de Clemente” having brought a collection of green-lipped mussels from New Zealand, calamari, shrimp and scallops. The group really didn’t know what in the heck they were doing but also didn’t want to listen to advice. The guy who had visited Trader Joe’s proceeded to put a whole scallop on a hook. I’m standing there thinking what a waste of a good scallop. Soon after he pulls in a 3-4 pound spotfin croaker. The others cluster around and ask what it is and he says he thinks it’s a tomcod. I inform him he has caught a nice-sized spotfin croaker but he’s unimpressed and less than friendly. Standoffish and stuckupish I don’t need, but it’s an anomaly at this usually very friendly pier.

This is a stretch of coast known for excellent surf fishing and for offshore kelp beds (although diminished in the past twenty years). To the north is fish-rich Dana Point and to the south is the warm-water area around the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. The pier itself is located over a sandy beach and the pier’s pilings (it was built in 1928) are heavily covered with mussels much of the year (although this is changing due to recent practices by the city). In addition, a Wildlife Conservation Board reef was constructed out near the end of the pier in the ‘60s. Inshore wave action is typically mild and though water depth is only moderate it is more than sufficient for most pelagic species.

Inshore, anglers should expect to see corbina, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, a few sargo, barred surfperch, guitarfish, various rays, and small sharks. The mid-pier area will yield all of these (but in a lesser number) and, in addition, offer white croaker, queenfish, halibut, sand bass, silver and walleye surfperch, sculpin (California scorpionfish), salema and jacksmelt. Although not a noted pier for halibut, a 27-pound beauty was taken in August of 2007. The far end of the 1,296-foot-long (and 24-foot wide) pier will see all of these but also yields mackerel, jack mackerel, bonito (some years), barracuda (in the fall), and occasionally even a few small firecracker-size yellowtail.

Regulars also report that some years see good wintertime catches of pileperch—down by the pilings—using fresh mussels or small sidewinder crabs. The piling areas, as well as the area by the reef (reachable with a good cast), also yield some sheephead, especially in the winter and typically the humpies bite best on live ghost shrimp. If live ghosties are unavailable, bring along some market shrimp or squid. Contradicting the wintertime bite, use ghost shrimp advice, was a 21-pound sheephead taken in August of 2009 on a whole, live mackerel. It just shows that anything can happen.

Unfortunately, even though the pilings and their mussels have always attracted fish, that may be changing. The city has begun removing mussels from the pilings to lessen the weight and provide wintertime protection against storms. Fewer mussels on the pilings also mean less fish feeding on the mussels and the assorted Lilliputian critters that call the mussels their home. But then again, mussel-free pilings are still better than no pilings.

The end section is also the preferred area for the “shark specialists” who at times will have their heavy outfits neatly lined up against and nearly covering the outer railings (and I’m not sure all remember the two pole per person rule). One afternoon, I witnessed the capture of two nearly 5-foot-long shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), several smaller smoothhound sharks, a couple of small rays, and a medium-sized bat ray. Another, truly huge, bat ray fought an angler for over an hour, up and down the south side of the pier, before breaking free as the angler’s friends desperately tried to gaff it with their treble hook gaff. All of this in the space of two hours time.

San Clemente is a good sharay pier and most years will see a variety of Selachians (sharks) and Batoids (rays) being taken from the pier’s waters. The largest are usually the big old mama bat rays but large leopard sharks and shovelnose guitarfish provide many of the thrills. December of ’07 saw a 55-pound soupfin shark while April of 2008 seemed to be “Shark Month.” A duo of four-foot-long 7-gill sharks, an impressive 36-pound angel shark, a horn shark, and a small mako shark joined the already strong showing of resident sharks. In addition, that month saw the capture of one of the pier’s largest shovelnose guitarfish ever, a hefty fish that measured 66” in length.

Although anglers might want to sample several spots on the pier, this is one pier where I recommend checking out the inshore area first. Use a high/low leader with number 6 or 4 hooks; bait up with bloodworms, lugworms, fresh mussels, ghost shrimp or sand crabs; fish just outside the breaker area. Any time of the day may yield a nice yellowfin croaker or barred surfperch but early evening or night seems to yield the largest yellowfin and spotfin croaker, as well as corbina and an occasional black (China) croaker. Target the barred surfperch in the winter and spring, the croakers in the summer and fall.

The inshore and mid-pier area (starting just past the breakers and extending 3/4 of the way out on the pier) will offer up most of the pier’s halibut. Prime months will be from April or May through the summer months into the fall. Fish on the bottom using live bait (and more and more anglers are using nets to capture live bait and aerators to keep them alive). Smelt and grunion are the longest lasting baits, but anchovies, small queenfish and baby mackerel are the apple of the halibut’s eye. Many anglers are also beginning to target the flatties with artificial lures. Some favorites from the Pier Fishing in California Message Board include small plastics (Worm King AAA, 3-inch Fish Traps or 3-inch Big Hammers), and Chrome/Prism Krocodiles in 1/4 to 1/2 ounce sizes. A slow retrieve along the bottom, and a little luck, is all that is necessary.

The mid-pier to end area offers a number of the smaller southland species: white croaker, queenfish, jacksmelt, butterfish, salema and walleye surfperch. Numbers of each specific species will change with the seasons but there is almost always some type of fish available. All of these can be caught by using size 8-10 Sabiki-type leaders, high/low leaders that contain size 6-8 hooks, or simply use 2-3 small hooks tied directly onto your line. Fish from the bottom to mid-depth areas of the water and try small pieces of anchovy, mackerel or bloodworms as bait (although many like to use strips of squid). When these schooling species are around it can be almost hard to keep them off your hook.

Mixed in with these fish, if your bait is on the bottom, will be a few round stingrays, thornback rays, gray smoothhound sharks and shovelnose guitarfish. Since they tend to be larger, size 4-2/0 hooks and slightly heavier line may be appropriate. Other sharks, although less common, are horn sharks (sometimes called spotted horn sharks) and Pacific angel sharks.

The end area is best for the pelagic species! Mackerel will hit strips of squid or pieces of mackerel, while bonito will grab feathers trailing behind a cast-a-bubble or a splasher. If barracuda show up, try for the toothy critters with Krocodile, Kastmaster or similar-type spoons. Yellowtail and white seabass prefer a lively sardine, anchovy, herring (queenfish), smelt or small mac.

Nighttime (and daytime) will often also see some sharks and rays caught. Probably the favorite sharks for the shark “specialists” are thresher sharks and the big old bat rays, but more commonly caught will be shovelnose sharks (guitarfish), gray sharks (smoothhounds), and leopard sharks. A lively mackerel slid down the line on a slider is the most common method for the largest sharks (sometimes with a balloon to keep the bait near the top), while whole squid or cut mackerel is employed on the bottom for mid-sized sharks and rays. Since sharks and (many) bat rays have been landed here which exceeded 100 pounds in weight (including a 135-pound bat ray caught by a lady named June in November of ’99), be sure to bring along sufficient equipment to get the large fish up the twenty-eight foot height (at low water) to the pier’s surface.

An added attraction at the pier is spiny lobster; it seems to be one of the best piers for the southern California delicacy. If you’re seeking the big crawdads remember that Panulirus interruptus is generally a nocturnal beast. Night hours are the prime-time “catching times” since that’s when they move out of their hiding spots in search of food. By the way, report lobster poachers! It’s an ongoing problem and the increasing number of Knuckleheadus californiensis has decreased the number of lobsters taken from the pier.

San Clemente Municipal Pier Facts

Hours: Open 4 A.M. till midnight.

Facilities: Lights, benches, fish-cleaning tables, snack bar at the end (Schleppy’s), and the fancier Fisherman’s Restaurant near the entrance. A parking lot is located just up the street; cost is $1.00 an hour (although you only have to pay from 10 A.M. to 5 P.M.). Limited bait and tackle is available at the liquor store across the street from the pier.

Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking and restrooms. The pier surface is wood planking and the rail height is 43 inches. Posted for handicapped.

How To Get There: From I-5 take any of several exit streets west to El Camino Real, follow it to the center of town, and from there take Del Mar down to the pier.

Location: 33.41815302244228 N. Latitude, 117.62266516685486 W. Longitude

Management: City of San Clemente

Fish Taco Chronicles

2 Responses to San Clemente Pier

  1. Charles says:

    Hey, thanks for the positive outlook on fishing here. I’m a newbie and the 4-5 times I’ve been out here mid Pier I haven’t got a single thing, or gotten a single bite. But, based on your enthusiasm I’m going to keep trying!

    • Chuck says:

      I fish there quite a bit now. Please let me know if any one would like some more current information. Me and some of the guys have a club now and we are polite to the tourists, too!

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