The ‘Riviera of California’ and its Piers


When you think of Santa Barbara you tend to think of its “Riviera of California” label, its elegance, and the plethora of interesting motels, restaurants, wineries and shopping areas available to a visitor.

You probably see it as a nearby weekend escape from California’s normal pressures—crowding, jobs pressures, traffic, and the 101 other things that confront us on a regular basis. It may even be a romantic weekend escape! It’s easy to forget the natural attractions that exist all around the city.

That fact was brought home recently when I attended a meeting of OWAC, the Outdoor Writers Association of California. The meeting was held in Santa Barbara where we were housed in beautiful motels, given some great meals, had an enchanting evening cruise and dinner along the Santa Barbara coast, and had a pleasant evening at the Carriage & Western Arts Museum.

Of course as Outdoor Writers we were looking for outdoor activities available in the region—and were not disappointed. We had our choice of rock fishing on the Stardust, whale watching on the Condor Express, trout fishing at Lake Cachuma, kayaking at the Channel Islands, fly fishing in the Santa Barbara surf, mountain bike riding from the mountains to the shore, or taking a back-country wine tasting tour—in jeeps.

Those who chose to rockfish caught rockfish. Those who chose to whale watch saw whales. Those who fished the surf caught a variety of perch and jacksmelt. Those who went to the lake caught some trout. Everyone had a good time. The variety of activities, all found within a short distance from Santa Barbara, was amazing.

As for myself? One option was to strike out on your own and due to other commitments I had to forgo some of the scheduled activities. But I did have some time to visit the local piers and even catch a few fish. It might not have been as exciting as some of those other trips but for this self proclaimed “pier rat” it once again showed the ease of doing a little fishing even when you don’t have much time. It also allowed me to fish two of the state’s most interesting piers; one just minutes from downtown Santa Barbara, the other a short fifteen-minute or so drive.

Stearns Wharf—This fascinating old wharf was once the doorstep into Santa Barbara for most people, back in an earlier time when the coastal steamers called at Santa Barbara with their passengers and cargo. Today it is the most visited spot in town and is a large multi-use facility that caters to a wide range of interests. It’s the home of fine restaurants, fresh fish markets, ecology groups, a museum/aquarium (the Ty Warner Sea Center), Gypsy palmistry, and an estimated five million visitors a year.

Only a few of these big, old multi-use wharves remain: Redondo Beach, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and Santa Cruz and I always enjoy visiting them. Of course fishermen and fishing don’t always get the most attention, but they still provide a lot of the life, flavor and excitement on the pier.

I made two visits to the wharf amidst other meetings and found the pier devoid of fish; at least that was what I was told. For almost three weeks there had been an amazing run of jack mackerel and sardines, along with good counts of pier-caught halibut and thresher sharks that had followed the baitfish to the pier. Then severe winds hit just a week before the conference and both baitfish and big fish disappeared.

My first visit to the pier found a sparsely crowded pier with anglers who were catching few if any fish and a good number of tourists out seeing the sights, especially the pelicans doing their waddling dance on the pier. The few anglers who were fishing were of two minds: those who were using Sabikis to catch a few super small jack mackerel and sardines, and three or four regulars using the small bait for halibut. In talking to Frank Drew at his Stearns Wharf Bait and Tackle Shop, I found out that there had only been about one halibut caught each day during the previous week, so it was SLOW.

However, I was on a perch quest, apparently the only one on the pier seeking perch, and I began to go down the pier checking the pilings for kelp. I found one that was well covered and decided that was where I would try. I fished the piling for an hour and forty-five minutes and discovered that there were indeed still fish around, people just weren’t fishing the right spots or using the right bait/riggings. I was using my normal high low rigging with size 6 hooks a short distance above a one-ounce torpedo sinker. The bait was pile worms I had brought from the north. I quickly found that if you put your rigging about 8-12 feet down, right next to the piling and its kelp, you would get almost immediate strikes. If you dropped the rig to the bottom, in a small space between four closely spaced pilings, you would get a little slower action but somewhat better fish. Catch: 7 kelp bass, 4 senorita, 2 walleye surfperch, 1 white seaperch, 3 topsmelt. A couple of casts away from the pier followed by a slow retrieve yielded 2 shinerperch and 1 speckled sanddab. Nothing big or exotic but steady action on my light pole when others were ogling the pelicans ogling my fish.

I returned a second day for another short visit, this time for only an hour and a half. Once again both visitors and regulars were having little luck. I returned to the same piling with the same rigging but the bait now was a couple of pile worms (that were soon gone) and some mussels (that I cut into worm-like strips). One and a half hours yielded 9 kelp bass, 9 senorita, 2 cabezon and 2 shinerperch. All of the kelp bass were between 8 1/2 inches and 11 inches long; the senorita ranged up 9 inches; both cabezon were about 9 inches in length. So, again no large fish but pretty consistent action (and that’s all I really wanted this trip).

I understand that not everyone is content with the smaller fish but I’ve long contended that if you’ve located and are catching the smaller fish a larger one will eventually show up. What amazed me was that none of the other fishermen were willing to try down by the pilings. They continued to toss out their Sabikis away from the pier and for the most part continued to land no fish or very few fish. It makes me wonder.

I finished up my visit with another visit to Frank at the bait shop and enjoyed hearing the local stories of what had been going on at the pier. Frank’s a knowledgeable angler himself and when not inside his excellent shop is out on the wharf trying for the fish himself.

Stearns Wharf Facts


Hours: Open 24 hours a day.

Facilities: Lights, some benches, restrooms, an excellent bait and tackle shop (Stearns Wharf Bait and Tackle), restaurants and snack bars are all located on the wharf. Wharf parking is available at a cost of $2 an hour with some validation possible. There is some free 90-minute parking on State Street and there is also a city parking lot that costs $1 an hour.

Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking and restrooms on the pier. The surface is wood planking and although there are no railings, large pilings (to sit on) have been placed near the edge of most fishing areas. These would restrict handicapped anglers in some areas. There are some sections that have only a short, 6-inch wood curbing and these probably could be used.

Location: 34.40967136517077 N. Latitude, 119.68548774719238 W. Longitude

How To Get There: From Highway 101 take Castillo St. or State St. west to the beach and follow signs to the pier. State Street ends at the wharf where a water fountain featuring three gracefully arching dolphins greets you. Right behind it is the toll station. Be warned that midday on a summer weekend may see every parking space on the wharf taken.

Management: City of Santa Barbara.

Goleta Pier—This pier has long been considered one of the best fishing piers in the region, if not the state, and has long been a special pier for me due to the variety of fish that can be caught from the pier (I’ve caught nearly 40 different species from the pier).

It’s wooden, always a plus, it’s large, and the pilings are covered with fish-attracting mussels. Traditionally a sandy-shore pier, it has also developed a dual nature during the past twenty years due to an artificial pipe that was placed on its west side. That pipe has become the pipe reef and offers up an interesting mix of rock dwelling species infrequently seen at SoCal piers (brown rockfish, kelp rockfish, cabezon, lingcod, and others). Recent large increases in kelp growth around the pier have meant even more of the rocky/kelp species that add interest to a pier.

My main reason though for visiting the pier was to deliver some supplies to the UPSAC Goleta Angler Center and to see how things were going. The Angler Center, a joint venture between United Pier and Shore Anglers of California and the Santa Barbara County Parks Department is a unique experiment and one that hopefully will be repeated. As it turned out Boyd Grant, the Pier Host for the center, was doing fine even though still looking for a little more local backup to help with staffing. He’s had a chance to meet an unending number of visitors, introduce many to the sport of fishing, and introduce both old and new anglers to the ethical ideals UPSAC espouses. To date the center has been an overwhelming success.

As for the fishing, I simply didn’t have enough time to do an adequate job. However, two hours of dunking bait out by the Angler Center (high low, size 6 hooks, one ounce-sinker, and pile worms) produced 15 walleye surfperch, 2 kelp bass, 2 white seaperch, 1 blackperch (buttermouth), 1 kelp perch and 4 jacksmelt. Again nothing large, but steady action on the light pole and I think with a little more time I could have coaxed a couple of bigger fish into joining the fun.

Looking back at the conference and my pier visits I think it shows how easy it is to slip down and do a little pier fishing even if you’re on a business trip or a family vacation. As for that romantic weekend, you might want to leave the rods at home and concentrate on some of the other fine Santa Barbara offerings. You can return at another time for the fishing.

Goleta Pier Facts


Hours: Open 24 hours a day.

Facilities: Lights and fish-cleaning facilities are located on the pier as is a launch sling for small boats. At the foot of the pier are found restrooms, an excellent restaurant (Beachside Bar & Café), and a snack bar. Free parking is found near the front of the pier.

Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking and restrooms. The pier surface is wood (but very uneven and rough in spots) and the rail height is 42 inches. Posted for handicapped.

Location: 34.41598223529864 N. Latitude, 119.82887864112854 W. Longitude

How To Get There: From Highway 101 take the Hwy. 217/Airport exit. Follow it to Sandspit Rd. and the Goleta Beach Park turnoff. Follow this to the park and the pier.

Management: County Parks Department—Santa Barbara County.

Fish Taco Chronicles

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