Wintertime At The Piers

Hop a red eye special to N’Awlinz. Once there take a cab to St. Louis Cemetery #1 and look for the tomb of Madam Marie Laveau. At the tomb place small offerings at the front of the headstone (perhaps a Big Hammer, a Krocodile, and some dried anchovies), walk around the tomb three times and tap the tomb. Make a request and perhaps, if you’re lucky, she may grant you some improved fishin’ on the pier. If not, you’ve paid a lot of money for a wasted trip (of course you may also get just a little bit wasted visiting The Big Easy). Asking a deceased Voodoo Queen to solve the fishing woes might work—right?

That’s what I sometimes feel like saying when one more angler asks the wintertime question of what happened to the fish? He’s been hitting the piers and skunk is becoming his least favorite word. “Ken where did the fish go and when will they return?”

It’s a question that in one form or another seems to crop up every year on the Pier Fishing In California Message Board. Usually sometime between mid-November and December we begin to receive a number of sorrowful posts lamenting the dearth of fish at the local piers. Generally the post ends with the simple question, WHAT CAN I DO? After having that question repeated year after year one is tempted to reply in a somewhat sarcastic manner.

Luckily the pier rat nation is a hospitable and enlightened group that likes to educate its members. Someone will inevitably point out that fishing at the piers is determined, to a large degree, by cyclical conditions that are somewhat predictable. Scientists say water temperature is the single most important factor affecting the behavior of fish and typically the water temperature in inshore southern California waters starts to drop by these winter months. As a result there tend to be fewer fish around the piers during the winter months and the fish that are present tend to be less active. Happens almost every year and with the coming of the warmer water during the spring things will pick up. An exception is during the El Niño years that bring warmer water to California; sometimes the fishing remains fairly hot throughout the winter. But most years sees some species leave our inshore California waters, some to go south for the winter, some move out to deeper waters. Given this fact, what fish can pier anglers realistically expect to catch during the winter months?

The croaker family, largely because of the habitat they prefer, are one of the most common families of fish caught from piers. Queenfish (herring) and white croaker (tomcod) typically rate first and second numerically in the fish caught from southern California piers. Yellowfin croaker, spotfin croaker, black or China croaker, and corbina are all familiar pier species and the favorites of many fishermen who specialize in one species or another. White seabass, the largest of the local croakers are no longer as commonly caught as in decades past but every year many of the younger fish (sea trout) are taken as are a few legal-size fish.

All of the croakers are most common from late spring to the fall but generally are uncommon during the winter months. Whereas anglers during the summer target the vast schools of queenfish and white croakers, from just past the surf-line to midway out on most piers, the schools move offshore to deeper water during the winter months. Anglers who specialize in fishing the inshore waters for yellowfin, spotfin and corbina find that they too have moved away although scientists are somewhat divided on if they are simply in deeper water or if some actually head to more southern (and warmer) waters. The bottom line is that much of the action on these species is slow and anglers would be wise to spend their time on other species. (Having said that, I must admit that I’ve had some days in February and March at the Newport and Balboa piers when every cast seemed to produce a white croaker. Perhaps since these are both deep-water piers the small croakers were indeed in deeper water than where normally found.)

The most common pelagic species are Pacific mackerel, Pacific bonito, and Pacific barracuda. Typically these are most common from the late spring months into late fall but usually there is a decrease in numbers as colder waters surround the pier. The barracuda usually move south, the mackerel move offshore, and the bonito (which have made an amazing comeback this year) may or may not hang around the inshore waters. This year, with the amazing amount of bait in the water, some predict the bonito will be caught from piers throughout the winter.

California halibut are the favorite fish of many southern California pier anglers. Their numbers are highest in the spring (when they concentrate to spawn) to the fall months. But while the numbers are down in the winter (perhaps due in part to the fact that two of their favorite foods are gone—queenfish and white croaker—there are still fish around. Anglers switching to live smelt, shinerperch and walleye surfperch as bait, or using lures such as Big Hammers, can often still fulfill their halibut fantasies.

An interesting note about the wintertime halibut is that while smaller numbers are taken during the winter, many of the winter-caught fish will be much larger in size on the average than those caught in the summer. A favorite story about wintertime halibut action took place on Super Bowl Sunday, January ’00 at the Port Hueneme Pier. A group of anglers decided to fish for halibut on the mostly deserted pier, brought some live bait with them, and proceeded to catch some halibut, some more halibut, and then even more halibut. When they finished, they had 11 keeper-size halibut including an impressive 30-pounder (and they had released many more under-sized flatties). It isn’t supposed to be like that in January but don’t be afraid to try for them!

The sharks and rays that are so common to most of these piers also show a decrease during the winter months. Leopard sharks, gray smoothhounds, shovelnose guitarfish (shovelnose sharks), thornback rays (banjo sharks), bat rays and round stingrays all seem to move to warmer offshore waters although again, some will be taken throughout the winter months. However, since few anglers target these specific species, other than the leppies, shovelnose, and mud marlin (bat rays), there is not much change in this fishery.

The family of perch is, numerically, the one that yields the second most fish to pier anglers throughout the year. The good news is that wintertime is an excellent time to fish for several of the perch species and yields some of the biggest fish of the year. Although most of the southern California species are called surfperch, I’ve always looked upon perch as two almost separate families. In the surf area itself are found the majority of barred surfperch as well as many walleye surfperch and silver surfperch. The waters just past the surf area out to mid-pier (on the longer piers) or to the end (on the shorter piers) yields impressive numbers of walleyes and silvers as well as some white perch. Pileperch, rubberlip perch, black perch (buttermouth), rainbow perch and striped perch are most common down around the pilings, usually from the mid-pier to the end of the pier. They are rarely found in the surf area. All of these perch provide a year round fishery but the barred surfperch in particular have become one of the main species sought out by pier and surf anglers during the winter months. But they are not alone! This is also one of the best times of the year to catch walleye surfperch and silver surfperch. Pileperch too seem to congregate more during the winter although they are often found around piers in bays and harbors.

Barred surfperch seem to congregate in the surf in their largest numbers from December to March. During these months anglers using bait—fresh mussels, bloodworms, ghost shrimp, market shrimp, and even cut anchovies‚ can almost be assured of fish if they hit the right spots. Increasingly though, anglers using soft plastic lures are pulling in the greatest number and largest barred perch. Favorite lures include root beer and oil colored grubs, Berkeley Power sand worms, 2-inch power grubs in pumpkin seed and camo patterns, Big Hammers, and similar lures.

Given this information, how should the question that began this article be answered? First off, anglers should expect to see some decrease in the number of species as well as number of fish they normally catch. However some fish are always there and a few, mainly the perch will be in large numbers. Learn to fish the inshore areas for the barred surfperch, learn how to catch that tantalizingly and frustrating duo—pileperch and rubberlip perch, and downsize in gear to enjoy the fun of catching panfish like walleyes and silvers. Don’t be afraid to try for halibut, and perhaps bonito, but realize their numbers may be down. Lastly, be thankful that on most days the southern California angler can go out and enjoy a day at the pier in 60-70 degree weather while the pier fishermen back East are sitting inside their homes and offices wishing they had this opportunity. Take what nature provides and be thankful.

Fish Taco Chronicles

One Response to Wintertime At The Piers

  1. Hans van Randwijk says:

    December the fifth 2016 at 2pm i caught a 6 – 7 foot female Blue shark of the Pier of Cayucos. Conditions were perfect, sunny and mid sixty temp, off land wind. The bait i used was a chunk of a Jack Smelt i caught earlier. I released the shark. Fishing with 12 feet Ugly stick and 80 Lbs braided moss green fishing line with self made 3 feet 100 Lbs steel leader and straight hook, seize 10.

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