The Santa Monica Municipal Pier

For many years my family hosted a number of foreign exchange students. Each year before they headed back to their home country we would take them on a trip down the California coast. Inevitably the Southern California beaches, especially those between Malibu and Los Angeles, would excite them. They also recognized the Santa Monica Pier. Bay Watch was at the time the number 1 ranked television show worldwide and my students—from Finland, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia and Japan—thought Bay Watch represented the “real” California. Little did they know!

As for the pier, I wasn’t surprised. The Santa Monica Pier with its various amusements, shops, restaurants and yes, fishing areas, has been a not-to-miss attraction for California visitors since its opening on Admissions Day, September 9, 1909 and has been seen in more movies and television shows than any other pier. Although closed for several years following devastating El Niño storms in 1983, a new and even better pier was reopened in 1990.

Local anglers may view the pier from a slightly different perspective but it’s almost always crowded and always seems to entice at least a short visit out of me on my pier hoppin’ excursions up and down the coast.

The pier is large with nearly 1,000 feet of surface over the water and offers several different fishing areas. Anglers can fish off of the inshore areas of the Newcomb and Municipal Pier or fish from the newer, multi-leveled sections of the Municipal Pier. Because of the businesses at the shore end of the pier, fishing is restricted to the south side of the pier in the surf area, but fishermen continue to fish this area.

The pier fronts on Santa Monica Bay and is wide open to the ocean, although an old, mostly submerged breakwater exists approximately 550 feet from the end of the pier. The bottom is primarily sand and mud with some old pilings and rocky areas underwater off to the right side of the pier. Most pilings have good growths of mussels.

Because of the length of the pier, water is moderately deep in most areas. The most common fish around the pier are white croaker and mixed in with these are the normal southern California varieties: surfperch, croakers, halibut, mackerel, guitarfish, thornbacks, and a few sharks

The pier is not noted as a great halibut pier but several really large flatties have been landed here. Most locals (and they normally know best) use live brown bait (small queenfish or white croaker), or live shinerperch (locally called 7/11 perch), and fish straight down in the depressions between the pilings. Quite a few halibut in the 22-37″ range are hooked with these live baits. A few regulars also “drag” for the halibut. They put a long-shanked hook into a headless anchovy and then pull it along the bottom. If crowded, cast out and retrieve slowly. If it isn’t too crowded, you can walk your bait along the edge of the pier, always alert for the soft mouthing of the halibut.

More common than halibut are white croaker (tom cod), queenfish (herring), walleye surfperch, sargo, blackperech (buttermouths), scorpionfish (sculpin), kelp and sand bass, Pacific mackerel and Jack mackerel (Spanish mackerel). Occasionally, barracuda, white seabass, bonito and even yellowtail will show up, most often out at the end of the pier in deeper water. The most common method used for the mackerel is to fish a light line with little or no weight and a single hook baited with a small strip of squid or a piece of mackerel. This of course works best on the areas nearest to the water so get down by the water.

During the winter and spring, try around the older pilings or fish under the pier (it’s possible because of the way the lower level platforms on the pier are designed) with bloodworms, lugworms, mussels or sidewinder crabs (called “long arms” by some). The result may be a few pileperch, rubberlip perch, black seaperch or sargo.

Smaller walleye surfperch are also fairly common, especially during the summer (although regulars say there is usually a good walleye bite from November to March). Most walleyes are caught on small pieces of anchovy fished mid-depth from the mid-section of the pier to the end. Increasingly however, anglers are also using artificials for the walleye. Lucky Lura-type bait leaders with size 8 or 6 hooks can be deadly and will also catch queenfish and other small fish. A few truly knowledgeable anglers also use crappie jigs. 1/64 ounce size jigs with mini skirts in chartreuse, hot pink, white, clear or root beer colors seem to do the trick. Remember, when using the jigs, a slow retrieve works best.

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nshore, use fresh mussels, bloodworms, soft shelled sand crabs or ghost shrimp for barred surfperch, yellowfin croaker and an occasional spotfin croaker or corbina. Corbina up to six pounds are caught, mostly while using light tackle (6-8 pound line), size 4-2 hooks, and soft shelled sand crabs—the bigger the crab the better. A trick used by some locals for the larger barred surfperch (up to 3 pounds) is to use a fresh mussel still in its shell. The shell is opened and then three size 8 hooks are put into the soft meat and the rind. This same rigging can be used on the larger pileperch, rubberlip perch, and black seaperch further out on the pier. Many regulars report good success on the barred surfperch using soft plastic grubs (root beer colored) and the aforementioned crappie jigs.

A number of opaleye, zebraperch and sargo are also caught. The opaleye (up to 5-6 pounds) and zebraperch prefer green moss but will also hit on frozen peas and fresh mussel. The sargo prefer soft shell sand crabs and fresh mussel. Most of these are caught in the mid-pier section of the pier out to the end, most are caught down around the pilings, and all seem to prefer the evening hours.

Quite a few sharks and rays are also caught on the pier; in fact it is a pretty sizable fishery in the evening hours. Most are caught out at the end of the pier but mid-pier to the end, on the south side, will see rods lined up for the sharks. Typical tackle is a sliding live bait leader with a 6/0 to 8/0 hooks and 120 pound steel leader. The line is cast out and then a live Pacific or Spanish mackerel is slid down to the water to await the sharks. This was a common technique using live anchovies back in the sixties but a technique rarely seen on piers today.

Species of sharks include soupfin sharks, leopard sharks (to 50 pounds), gray smoothhound sharks, horn sharks, a few thresher sharks (to 85 pounds) and even blue sharks. Somewhat recent catches have included a soupfin shark weighing an estimated 90 pounds, and an angel shark estimated to weigh 40-50 pounds. Together with the sharks will be a number of rays; because of the large baits and hooks these will primarily be shovelnose sharks (guitarfish) and bat rays.

Most piers, sooner or later, will have a super run of fish that will be forever etched in the minds of local anglers. Santa Monica, because of its location and size has had several of these. The most famous took place back in 1957 (some sources say 1959) when the waters around the pier were invaded by schools of marauding white seabass. They were in the deep waters of the pier, the mid-pier areas and even the surf. More important, they seemed to hit almost any bait or lure (although the regulars, who would snag a sardine and lower it to the water using a live bait leader, had the best success). Early morning and evening were the best times but fish hit all day. One single afternoon saw 200 of the fifteen to forty-two pound fish landed, and the run lasted for nearly two weeks. To put it mildly, Santa Monica Pier was humming, and jammed with anglers seeking the prize fish.

That same El Niño year saw barracuda swarm into local waters. Pier fishermen and surf casters had an easy time limiting out on the normally deeper-water fish. The local tackle shop also had a run, a run on every type of lure that might attract the toothy invaders. Legend has it that one exasperated angler, unable to buy a lure, made his own out of a beer can opener and had to give away his over-the-limit fish. As in the case of the white seabass, the pier was jammed and the tackle shop owner was whistling a happy ($) tune.

The El Niño year of 1997 saw several unusual fish landed. Included were a 60-pound black sea bass which was caught by an angler (and returned) and a 25-pound beak-nosed king salmon that had apparently lost his way home. Most years will also see a few triggerfish landed, enough to indicate a local population of the typically more southern species.

“D,” one of the main men at the bait shop, told an interesting story about the pier to me one day. The story concerned the occasional instances of red tide at the pier. This particular time (I think it was in ’98 or ’99) the red tide lasted almost three months and, of course, really put a crimp in the fishing. What was interesting was the good fishing immediately following the red tide. Seems “D” had a commercial license at the time and he would fish when he wasn’t working at the shop. He had great success after the red tide— culminating in a one-day catch of 208 opaleye perch and sargo. Putting the ethics of catching so many fish aside for the moment (it was, after all, a commercial catch), it challenges some assumptions about red tide. If local organisms had been killed during the red tide, why would the fish return with such a vengeance? What food was available to attract them back to the pier in such numbers? Did the red tide not affect the mussels and other creatures on the pilings?

A final story concerns what is undoubtedly the largest California halibut ever landed on a pier in the Golden State—if the story is accurate. In March of 2001, it was reported that an angler had landed a 58-pound, 11-ounce, 4 1/2-foot-long halibut at this pier. The fish was brought up to the pier and then taken down to a fish market to be weighed. Amazingly no pictures were taken, nor were certificates filled out to enter the fish into the record book. Even more amazing was the fact that the angler returned to the pier the next day and hooked and landed a 25-pound halibut (which was photographed). Either fish would qualify as a lifetime best for most California pier fishermen. And, not to end the story there, an additional 3-4 fish in the 20-25-pound range were landed during the next three days. Why so many large halibut were there at the pier during that short time span is anyone’s guess. The entire story was the subject of an intense debate on the Pier Fishing in California Message Board for several days (with most refusing to believe that the reported weight was accurate). John, one of the owners of the bait shop on the pier reported the story to me and said it was the largest halibut he had seen in his 45 years at the pier (and he saw the length measured). Since John is normally a very accurate reporter to the site I will stick with the story.

Santa Monica Pier Facts —

Hours: Open 24 hours a day.

Facilities: There are lights, benches, fish-cleaning facilities and restrooms on the pier. Multi-level balconies allow anglers to fish closer to the water and they were designed to be wheelchair accessible. There is a bait and tackle shop by the end of the pier. There are several snack shops and restaurants on the shore half of the pier and the Mariasol Mexican food restaurant out toward the end. There is parking on the pier in a lot; the cost is $5-7 a day. There is metered parking on streets above the pier.

Handicapped Facilities: Handicapped parking but non-handicapped restrooms. The pier surface is cement and the rail height is 41 inches. Posted for handicapped.

How To Get There: From I-405 take Santa Monica Blvd. west to Ocean Ave. Turn left, and go to Colorado Ave., and turn right onto the pier.

Management: City of Santa Monica.

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