General Rod and Reel Maintenance —

Rods and reels line the rail at the Hermosa Beach Pier

If you want to become a serious and successful angler you should learn how to properly use and take care of your tackle. One of the best ways is to find a knowledgeable tackle store, especially one that repairs rods and reels, and then become a regular. The tips and knowledge you will pick up from your visits will more than make up for any additional cost over using the big box chains. The following are some tips for maintenance given by Ron Crandall who used to write the “Tackle Tips” page for the Pier Fishing in California web site (he recently retired). Ron owned a tackle repair shop in Santa Rosa and is still considered one of the true “experts” in the field of rod and reel repair.

Reel Maintenance

            Clean your reel after every use. The number one rule in reel maintenance is to rinse the reel gently with fresh water after use in salt water. However, do not rinse it with water at  high pressure as this will force salt into the reel and cause corrosion problems.

            Lubricate the reel after rinsing. After your reel is thoroughly dry, apply a moisture-dissipating lubricant, such as Corrosion X, to a rag, and wipe the reel with the rag. Do not spray the reel with lubricant, as this will cause the reel to collect dirt.

           Use the proper lubricant when overhauling your own reels. Use Penn lubricant, or other light grease such as, Lubriplate #105. Do not use boat axle grease.

           If you drop your reel in the sand… STOP! Do not test the reel to see if it still works. Use a spare reel and overhaul your reel  or take the reel to a repair shop for an overhaul. Turning the handle of a reel with sand in it has a 95% chance of breaking parts.

            Periodic maintenance saves costly repairs. Do not get caught in the old myth of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

            How to store a reel after you’ve cleaned it! Do not store your reel on your rod. Corrosion can build up on the rod’s reel seat as well as on the foot of the reel.  After the reel is cleaned and dried, and since the reel is already off the rod, leave it off.  Let the reel thoroughly dry. Store the reel in a breathable cloth bag, like cotton, or flannel or muslin.  Avoid plastic or nylon bags. Store extra spools in a cloth bag as well. Clean old socks work well and are the right size.

Rod Maintenance.

           New rods. To insure a long life for your new rod, do the following: Apply a paste wax (not a liquid) to the rod and the base of the guides only (not directly to the guides). Apply paraffin wax to the screw threads of the reel seat. This will  allow for smooth operation and less wear. For a rod with glass or graphite ferrules, apply paraffin wax to the ferrules. For a rod with metal ferrules, use only Œskin oil on the ferrules.  Apply by rubbing the male end of the ferrule in hair or, lacking that, rub on a forehead. This will apply a minuscule amount of oil to the ferrule. This is all you need.

           After fishing, do the following. Remove the reel and clean any sand or grit from the reel seat with an old toothbrush, or a paint or acid brush that has its bristles cut short (for stiffness). Spray the rod with Salt Away, then rinse. This breaks down an amazing amount of salt that you didn’t realize was on the rod. Take the rod into the shower with you and clean it thoroughly with a toothbrush. Naturally, dry  it before putting it away.

          For older, abused rods. Apply Corrosion-X to any corrosion build-up on metal ferrules, reel seats and guides.  Let the rod sit overnight.  Next, scrub it with a toothbrush and rinse.  (Tip — WD40 or Simple Green do not work as well as Corrosion-X). Install a rod butt cap if it is missing (caps are available through tackle shops). After the rod is free of corrosion and thoroughly clean, proceed to treat it as if it were a new rod.

          Other considerations. Most new rods have a single coat of epoxy covering the rod and guide wrapping.  This epoxy will chip off with use, exposing the uncoated surfaces to moisture.  Moisture will get under the epoxy and lift it off, deteriorating the guide wrapping and causing the guides to come loose. You need to seal the chipped epoxy immediately.  Applying paste wax will help, or clean the chip with alcohol, and apply a flexible marine varnish like McCloskey’s Man-O-War. Inexpensive rods are more prone to chipping than expensive rods.  But, treating an inexpensive rod as described above will allow you to keep it for a lifetime.

         Paraffin Wax. Someone (TW) sent a note to Ron and asked if applying paraffin on glass or graphite ferrules, and on reel seats, wouldn’t cause dirt, sand or similar items to cling to the rod parts and cause  an even worse problem? Ron replied: “Paraffin is a dry wax not a sticky wax. Sand and dirt don’t stick to paraffin as they would on a sticky wax, but instead, fall off. Paraffin is used as an industrial lubricant because it is neutral in its reactivity. It allows the surfaces of the male and female ferrule to be tightly in contact without abrading each other. Paraffin allows the ferrules to be separated as needed, and not stick together as they would if a lubricant was not applied. Not using a lubricant would eventually cause the ferrules to wear against each other and loosen over time.  Naturally, if there is dirt or sand on the ferrules, clean them before putting them together. Paraffin prevents the build up of corrosion on metal based ferrules and reel seats. These are the rods that you can’t separate and the reel seats that won’t unscrew. Paraffin helps prevent crossthreading of graphite reel seats, which is a common problem if the reel seat and ring get dirt or sand in them.  When the ring or the seat is dirty the ring can crossthread on the seat and in turn damage the seat threads.  This will cause the ring not to tighten properly and cause the reel to be loose. Where do you get paraffin? First look in the kitchen cupboard. If you or a member of your family makes jam, or cans fruits and vegetables, there is probably a blue and white box of paraffin already there. If not, paraffin is available in the canning supply sections of most grocery and hardware stores. Note, do not use candles, candle wax or beeswax. Use only paraffin.”

California Crabs —

Subphylum Crustacea (Crustaceans)  — Order Decapoda

Crabs — Family Cancridae (Cancer Crabs)

Genus Cancer

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Dungeness Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

A Dungeness from the Pacifica Pier

Species: Cancer magister (Dana, 1852). Some scientists, based on the shapes of the teeth of the carapace, have called for a new genus name Metacarcinus which would mean a scientific name of Matacarcinus magister. Until clarified we will use the traditional classification.

Alternate Name: Market crab. Its common name comes from the town once called  Dungeness in Washington (today it’s called Old Town). A common name by anglers: Dungie.

Identification: Dungeness crabs have a wide, long, hard carapace (shell), and five pairs of legs. Unlike most of their cousins, Dungeness have white-tipped pincers on the claws (chelipeds). The top edges of the claws, and the upper pincers have sawtooth-like serrations that contain more than a dozen teeth along each edge. The crabs use these claws for defense and to rip apart their food. They use their smaller appendages to pass the food particles into its mouth. Once inside the crab’s stomach, food is further digested by a collection of tooth-like structures called the “gastric mill.” The last three joints of the last pair of walking legs have a comb-like fringe of hair on the lower edge, and the joint previous to these has hair on both top and bottom edges, but with a much greater amount on the top edge. In both male and female, the tip of the last segment of the tail flap is rounded (unlike other crabs in this group). The color of the Dungeness is generally light reddish brown to gray on the back (often with light streaks and spots), with a purplish wash anteriorly; the underside is whitish to light orange, the inner and upper sides of the anterior legs with crimson or purple.

Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Size: To 9.8 inches across the back for males (most less than 8 inches), females to 6.5 inches.

Range: Bahía Magdelena, Baja California, to Unalaska, Alaska in the Aleutian Islands (some sources say to the Pribilof Islands in Alaska). In California, adults are rarely seen south of Point Conception; most common from Monterey Bay north. As a general rule, the farther north you go the better your chance for netting crabs.

Habitat: Recorded from intertidal depths down to 750 feet but are most common on sandy and mud bottoms from 60 to 300 feet deep. Inhabits eelgrass beds in bays. Estuaries are important to their life cycle and they inhabit all such areas between Morro Bay and Puget Sound, Washington. Dungeness are scavengers that will almost anything; their preferences are clams, other crustaceans and small fish.

Piers: Most commonly found on piers that sit over a sand or mud bottom. Most pier-caught Dungeness are taken on piers from Pacifica north. Many rivers along the north coast see an influx of Dungeness into their estuary areas during late winter and early spring months, and harbors and bays are active spawning grounds for Dungeness. In these far northern waters Dungeness are common and at times a nuisance (if you’re an angler concentrating on fish). On one of my trips to Eureka nearly every cast saw a crab latch on to the bait. I finally had to switch to artificial lures to keep the crabs off my line. Of course if I had been crabbing (which I wasn’t) I would have had no complaints.  Best piers seem to be the Pacifica Pier, Lawson’s Landing Pier (Tomales Bay), almost any pier in Humboldt Bay, and either of the two piers at Crescent City.  Although a common catch at piers inside San Francisco Bay, and even into San Pablo Bay, it is illegal to keep Dungeness in these bays.

Dungeness crabs at the Pacifica Pier

Shoreline: Almost all sandy-shore beaches north of Half Moon Bay will see Dungeness, as will areas inside of bays from Tomales Bay north.

Boats: An important goal for boaters from Half Moon Bay north. As regulations have changed and made it more difficult to keep some species, i.e., rockfish, many Sportfishing boats in central and northern California have begun to run combination fish and crab trips.

Bait and Tackle: Traditionally taken with hoop nets but more and more people use crab snares each year.

A crab snare at the Pacifica Pier

Snares ready to go at Pacifica

A Dungeness caught on a snare at Pacifica

Measuring the Dungeness

Food Value: About one-quarter of the weight of a Dungeness is meat with the bigger the crab the larger the percentage of meat. The flesh has what is considered to be a delicate flavor that is slightly sweet. Live crabs are cooked by dropping them into boiling salt water, waiting for the boil to return, and then cooking for another 15 minutes. The crabs are then placed into cold water and cleaned. Two common tools for removing crabmeat from the shell are a crab cracker and a shrimp fork. Sometimes, a cleaver, mallet or small hammer is used for cracking.

A crab net (hoop net) at Pacifica

The crab

Keepin’ them fresh

Comments: Generally considered the most desirable of California crabs. It is also known as the market crab and is familiar to anyone who has visited San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The crab reaches a good size, yields more meat per crab than most other species, and the meat is firm and delicious.

A Dungeness from the B Street Pier in Crescent City

A Dungeness taken by illcatchanything (Brian Linebarger) at the Fort Baker Pier. Since Dungeness are illegal in San Francisco Bay (all waters inside the Golden Gate), this “Dungie” was returned to the water to grow and perhaps be caught another day.

Crab net and smallish-sized Dungeness from the B Street Pier in Crescent City

 ••••••••••••••••••••• Slender Crab or Graceful Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••

Species: Cancer gracilis (Dana, 1852). (Alternate Metacarcinus gracilis)

Alternate Name: Graceful rock crab.

Identification: The slender crab has a very broad and oval-shaped shell with dull tooth-like protrusions toward the front of the shell and slender walking legs. They, and Dungeness crabs, are the only two members of this group of crabs whose chelae (claws) are white tipped. The tops of the claws are sharp-edged, with two or three prominent teeth, but these edges are not the saw tooth-like serrations seen in Dungeness. Female crabs can be distinguished from males by the broad tail flap on their undersides, which are used for protecting their eggs when they are gravid. Due to their relatively small size, slender crabs are frequently mistaken for juvenile Dungeness crabs. They can be distinguished from Dungeness by their (almost always) hairless legs; Dungeness have hair on the posterior three legs. In addition, in the slender crab the last segment of its tail flap is pointed, where that of Dungeness is curved. The slender crab usually has a shell that is olive brown and legs that vary from yellowish brown to purple. The underside is white or yellowish white.

Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Size: Small, males to 4.5 inches across the back, females to 3.4 inches.

Range: Bahía Playa Maria, Baja California, to Prince William Sound, Alaska. Most commonly seen in central California.

Habitat: Recorded from intertidal depths down to 570 feet but primarily found in shallow inshore environments—sandy and muddy bottoms, eelgrass beds and kelp beds. They do not tolerate low salinity brackish environments as well as some species and are usually not found in estuaries (although seasonally found in sloughs and bays).

Piers: Occasionally taken from piers, especially those between Avila and Sonoma County.

Shoreline: Occasionally taken by people seeking out Dungeness and often mistakenly discarded as undersized Dungeness.

Boats: Rarely taken from boats.

Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.

Hoop net — Goleta Pier

Food Value: Although taken by recreational anglers they are generally small and do not yield an abundance of meat.

Comments: Due to their fairly small size it’s best just to release them.

•••••••••••••••••••••• Yellow Crab or Yellow Rock Crab •••••••••••••••••••••

A yellow crab taken from the Santa Monica Pier by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)

Species: Cancer anthonyi, (Rathbun, 1897). (Alternate Metacarcinus anthonyi). The name honors Alfred Webster Anthony, a naturalist working in San Diego. 

Alternate Names: Yellow crab and yellow rock crab.

Identification: Yellow crabs have an oval-shaped, fairly broad and hard shell. Yellow crabs are noted for large black-tipped pincers on the claws with the claws large and smooth resembling those of rock crabs. However, they can be distinguished from rock crabs by their lack of red spotting on the underside. Coloring is yellow or yellowish-brown above with a purple wash anteriorly and on the legs (some specimens). The underneath is plain yellow or yellowish-white. The juvenile crabs tend to be darker than the adults.

A big yellow crab from the Hermosa Beach Pier

Size: Males to 6.9 inches across the back, females to 5.6 inches.

Range: Bahía Magdelena, Baja California, to Humboldt Bay in Northern California, but uncommon north of Point Conception.

Habitat: Recorded from intertidal depths down to 430 feet but primarily found on sandy habitat between 60 to 180 feet. In the north, where many of the benthic areas are rocky, they are more commonly found in bays, sloughs and estuaries.

Piers: Not really a common species from piers since they tend to be caught in deeper waters. Nevertheless, they are the main “rock crabs” taken from SoCal piers. Best bets: Santa Monica Pier and Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.

Shoreline: Few adult yellow crabs are caught in shallow, inshore waters.

Boats: A moderate goal of southern California boaters.

Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.

Food Value: Excellent. Most food is found in the claws and legs but its delicate and sweet.

Yellow crabs taken from the Santa Monica Pier by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)

Comments: Yellow crabs are the most abundant crab landed in southern California, 70-95% of the total commercial crab catch.

Yellow crabs taken from the Paradise Cove Pier by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)

 •••••••••••••••••••••• Red Crab or Red Rock Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••

A red crab from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

 Species: Cancer productus (Randall, 1839).

Alternate Names: Red crab or red rock crab.

Identification: Red crabs have a wide, hard shell with large, black-tipped pincers on the claws. The hands of the claws are rough, particularly above, but not saw-toothed as in the Dungeness crab. They are identified by their large broad tail flaps (although the tip of the last segment of the tail flap is pointed in both male and female).  Adult red crabs are generally brick red above with an underside that is yellowish white with orange-red blotching’s. Young crabs may show many different color patterns including white, and some show up with spots or stripes. The tail flap in the female has a great deal of red, as does the tail flap of the female rock crab. The red blotching’s on the underside of the red crab are not to be confused with the distinct red spots found on the underside of the rock crab.

Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Size: Males to 7.8 inches across the back, females to 6.2 inches.

Range: Isla San Martin, Baja California to Kodiak Island, Alaska  

A red crab from the Fort Point Pier in San Francisco

Habitat: Although recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 300 feet, primarily lives in shallow inshore environments on rocky substrate—rocky reefs, boulder-strewn beaches, and gravel beds (they cannot live on bottoms of mud or pure sand). They do not tolerate low salinity as well as some crabs and thus are not seen in estuaries as often as some species. Red crabs are carnivorous and will eat almost anything including barnacles, small crabs, and dead fish. Apparently one of their favorite foods are green crabs, which is good since green crabs are an invasive species that should be eliminated. Rarely are the two species found in the same estuary habitats.

Red crab from the Trinidad Pier

Piers: Found at piers located in rocky areas, primarily those from Santa Barbara north. A considerable number of these crabs are taken at rocky-area piers in San Francisco Bay, Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, and Humboldt Bay. They are taken at Trinidad Pier north of Eureka and around Citizen’s Dock in Crescent City; they are the main “rock crabs” taken in northern California. Although it would seem to be a natural area, I have seen few of these caught at the Point Arena Pier.

Shoreline: A commonly encountered crab while fishing in rocky areas of the central and northern coast but rarely sought out by anglers due to the difficulty of using crab hoops and snares in such areas.

Boats: Available to boaters in rocky areas but generally they take a backseat to those seeking out Dungeness crabs.

Red crab (although possibly a rock crab) from the Elephant Rock Pier in Tiburon

Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.

Food Value: Although sport fishermen are able to catch large numbers of these crabs, commercial fishermen land few. Red crabs yield a lower amount of flesh than Dungeness (almost all is found in the claws and legs) but the meat has a slightly sweet, delicate flavor that is delicious.

Comments: Together with rock crabs they make up the majority of crabs caught by sportsmen. Red crabs are larger but less numerous than rock crabs.

Red crab from Lawson’s Landing in Marin County

Even dogs are interested in crabs! Red crab from Lawson’s Landing

Red crab from the Del Norte Street Pier in Eureka

Genus Romaleon

••••••••••••• Rock Crab, Brown Rock Crab or Pacific Rock Crab ••••••••••••••

Species: Cancer antennarium (Stimpson, 1856). (Alternate proposed name Romaleon antennarium).  Antennarium — Latin for “antennae” in reference to the large antennae, larger than those of other species in the family.

Alternate Names: Pacific rock crab, California rock crab, brown rock crab or just plain rock crab.

Identification: Rock crabs have a wide, hard shell with black-tipped pincers on claws that are large and smooth. Legs are “hairy” and they have distinctive long antennae between the eyestalks that are the longest of the various species. The tip of the last segment of the tail flap is pointed in both male and female.  The coloring is generally medium to dark red-brown or orange, usually mottled with a lighter grayish tinge. The undersides are yellowish white with a number of small distinct red spots that help distinguish this species since they are not seen on the other species. In the female, the red spots on the tail flap are usually blocked out by a general red coloration, but the spots can be found on the legs and the underside of the shell. Red crabs have red blotching’s on the underside but not the distinct spots seen in rock crabs.

Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Size: Males to 7 inches across the back, females to 5.8 inches.

Range: Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, to Virago Sound, Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. Most abundant from Mexico to the San Francisco Bay area and numerically probably the number one “rock crab” in central California..

Habitat: Although recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 330 feet, they primarily live in shallow inshore environments—on sand, mud, gravel, and rock substrata in estuarine and coastal shelf areas. Rock crabs do not tolerate brackish conditions as well as some other crabs. Rock crabs feed by means of both scavenging and predation with a large diet that consists of bivalves, snails and echinoderms, as well as other crustaceans such as hermit crabs. Sensitivity to the odor of food serves as a major means of locating food. Many of the small rock crabs seen snapping and seemingly blowing bubbles, in tidepools and around rocks, will be small members of this species.

Piers: Found at most piers from Avila north to Sonoma County. Best bets: Port San Luis Pier, Santa Cruz Wharf, Fort Point Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Fort Baker Pier, Lawson’s Landing Pier, and several piers in Tomales Bay and Bodega Harbor. Although very common to piers in Morro Bay, and a long time sport for local anglers, crabs (or any other invertebrates) may no longer be taken due to the Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area closure.

Shoreline: Readily available inshore but the rocky areas they typically inhabit make it hard to use both hoops and snares.

Boats: Available to boaters in rocky areas but generally they take a backseat to those seeking out Dungeness crabs.

Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.

Food Value: Although sport fishermen are able to catch large numbers of these crabs, commercial fishermen land few. Rock crabs yield a lower amount of flesh than Dungeness (almost all is found in the claws and legs) but the meat has a slightly sweet, delicate flavor that is delicious and favored over Dungeness by many.

Comments: Since Dungeness crabs and red crabs reach the largest size, and yield the most meat, they are the preferred species. However, rock crabs are the most numerous crab caught by pier anglers in central California. Note: the proposed species name is Romaleon not Romulan, these crabs did not come from the planet Romulus nor are they related to Vulcans.

Crabs— Superfamily Majoidea (Spider Crabs)

Family Epialtidae

Genus Loxorhynchus

 ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Sheep Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Eric and a sheep crab (spider crab) from the Redondo Beach Pier

Species: Loxorhynchus grandis, (Stimpson, 1857): Loxorhynchus (bent nose) grandis (large).

Alternate Name: Spider crab and California king crab.

A sheep crab (spider crab) from the Cayucos Pier in 2007

Identification: Sheep crabs have a large, hard oval-shaped carapace (shell) that tapers down to spine-like points on its bent snout. All kinds of bumps (tubercles) cover its body along with a variety of growth. As juveniles, sheep crabs camouflage themselves with barnacles, sponges, hydroids and algae; adult sheep crabs are a little more refined and often have a film of green algae on the shells. Some speculate that the name sheep crab comes from the wool-like covering of algae. The crab has eight long legs and two claws.

Size: Males to 10.7 inches or more across the back, females to 4.5 inches.

Range: Cape Thurloe, Baja California, to Cordell Bank (west of Point Reyes), Marin County, California. Sheepies are most abundant in southern California.

Mike Katz and a sheep crab (spider crab) from Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

Habitat: Recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 410 feet with favorite haunts including haunts and pier pilings. Males spend the winter months in deep water while males and females migrate to shallower water in the spring.  Like most crabs, they are scavengers that feed on almost anything they can find including starfish, clams and octopus.

A sheep crab (spider crab) taken from the Crystal Pier in San Diego in 2010

Piers: Common to most southern California piers. Best bets: Newport Pier, Balboa Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Port Hueneme Pier, Stearns Wharf, and the Santa Cruz Wharf.

Shoreline: Rarely taken by shoreline anglers.

Boats: Taken in shallow, sandy-bottom areas 30-70 feet deep in the spring and summer; deeper water 120-240 feet in the winter.

Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets.

Spider crabs (sheep crabs) — Fort Baker Pier

Food Value: Surprisingly delicate flavor and firm texture from the meat in both the body and the legs. However, it’s somewhat of a task to clean the heavy, thick shells of sheep crabs. Sheep crab became an important commercial species in the 1980s but when gill and trammel nets were banned in 1990, the commercial catch plummeted.

Comments: One of the earliest lessons I learned when fishing at the Newport Pier was that we don’t always catch what we think we are going to catch. Not only was this true regarding fish but also in relation to a number of other strange and unusual creatures. One of the most common catches at Newport was the ugly and often fairly large spider crabs (at least they were called that by most fisherman). Although no one, to my knowledge, actually crabbed for them with nets, most days would see a few of the long-legged beasts grab hold of bottom baits intended for fish. The majority of anglers would be perplexed with the heavy but not exactly fighting weight on their line, and then watch in disgust as the creature let go of the bait halfway up to the pier’s surface. Sometimes the crab made it up to the pier and people would rush over to see the “gnarly” looking creature (whose shell would sometimes be covered with barnacles, sponges, hydroids, algae and other growth, including anemones). I’m not sure how many people actually took them home to eat (although the large crabs are delicious), but their catch spiced up the action and provided conversation for those who had never seen the creatures before.

Sheep crab from the Balboa Pier

Do spider crabs and stingrays hang out together (it would make an interesting bar scene in an aquatic version of Star Wars)? That unusual question arose one early summer day in 1996. I had been fishing out at the end of the Redondo Sportfishing Pier for some bonito and mackerel but unfortunately those fish were not cooperating and I eventually decided to try on the bottom. There, I soon began to catch what seemed to be a seemingly numberless assemblage of small speckled sanddab. Next to me set a guy who was crabbing and he had three buckets full of large spider crabs. On one drop to the bottom I hooked something heavy and as I pulled it up realized it must be one of the crabs. Sure enough, it was, but it wasn’t really hooked. Mr. Spider Crab had grabbed hold of a sanddab on my hook and didn’t want to let go. Following about two to three feet behind the crab was a large round stingray. Halfway to the surface of the pier the crab released its pincer-hold on the fish, and the crab, together with his companion, the stingray, drifted slowly out of sight. I had seen a similar occurrence a few years ago at the Port Hueneme Pier. Did the spider crabs and stingrays have a thing going, were the stingrays just nosy, or was a form of symbiosis taking place between these two quite different species? Unfortunately, I do not have an adequate explanation for these soul-searching questions.

A sheep crab (spider crab) taken by Burger (Jason Stalboerge) from the Ventura Pier

Genus Pugettia

•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Kelp Crab •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Species:  Pugettia producta, (Stimpson, 1857); Pugettia (Puget Sound) producta (product of). 

Alternate Name: Shield-back crab, northern kelp crab, northern lame crab, and spider crab. Called spider crabs due to their long legs and small body although they have ten legs unlike spiders that only have eight legs.

Kelp crab from Citizens Dock in Crescent City — dorsal (top) view

Kelp crab from Citizens Dock in Crescent City — ventral (bottom) view

Identification: A reason for one alternative name, shield-back crab, is that the carapace (upper shell) is shaped much like a five-pointed shield or badge (one resource describes it as like an upside down shovel) that is roughly squarish-shaped but longer than wide and with a pointed front. The entire shell is almost smooth. The legs are long, smooth and end in sharp points. Coloring depends primarily on the type of food they’ve been eating and they are primarily nocturnal vegetarians (herbivores) whose favorite food is, no surprise, kelp! Thus if eating green-colored kelp they tend to be green. If eating red-colored kelp they tend to be red. Given their diverse environments, anglers may encounter a plethora, almost kaleidoscope of colors. The dorsal (back) color can range from yellow-green to greenish-brown to brown to maroon or red. The ventral (underside) color is usually   red, yellow, or reddish orange. Young crabs are brown, red, or olive green. Living among kelp, and eating kelp that helps them have the color of that kelp, provides a natural camouflage and protection against predators.

Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Size: Males reach 4.3 inches across the back, females 3.5 inches across the back. 

Range: Punta Asunción, Baja California Sur to Bertha Bay, Chichagof Island, Alaska.

dompfabro at the Goleta Pier with a kelp crab

Habitat: Typically found in rocky intertidal areas, kelp beds and around structure such as pier pilings. In the fall the adults move to deeper water where they congregate, feed, and mate. Found to a depth of 240 feet. Young crabs are often in the low intertidal areas of algae and eelgrass and are sometimes found under rocks and other objects at low tide. Although kelp is their favorite food (especially bull kelp, sea cabbage and rockweed) those kelps can diminish during the winter months. At such times they will cheat on their vegetarian diets and eat such meats as barnacles, mussels, hydroids, and bryozoans. In turn, other species like to feed upon them. These include birds, other crabs, fish, octopuses, pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), and otters.

Piers: Occasionally seen at most piers from Santa Barbara north. Best bets: Stearns Wharf (Santa Barbara), Goleta Pier, Morro Bay T-Piers, Port San Luis Pier, Monterey Coast Guard Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Fort Baker Pier, Point Arena Pier, Trinidad Pier, and Citizens Dock (Crescent City).

Kelp crab from the Fort Point Pier

Shoreline: Occasionally taken by shoreline anglers.

Boats: Occasionally taken by boaters fishing around shallow-water kelp beds.  

Bait and Tackle: Taken incidentally on both fishing line and in hoop nets.

Kelp crab taken at the Balboa Pier by Daniel in 2005

Food Value: Some claim the meat in the claws is both plentiful and sweet tasting.

Comments: Kelp crabs seem to be the black sheep of their family. Members of the Family Epialtida fall into a group called masking crabs (see sheep crab above) and like to attach pieces of algae, kelp, and small shells to hook-like structures on their back and legs. They use this for camouflage, masking themselves against predators. However, kelp crabs rarely do this. They are larger and relatively more active than their cousins and need to keep a clean shell for smoother movement through their intertidal environment (Ricketts et al. 1985). They will however still attach small pieces of kelp to the hook-like structures on their backs. Instead of using the kelp as a mask, they save the kelp as food to be later eaten.  A note of caution: although the legs look slender and harmless, the claws are very strong and adept at both grabbing and pinching a careless victim. So, be careful!

Kelp crab from the Pillar Point Pier

 ••••••••• Some Tips On Crabs ••••••••••

* All of these crabs should be kept alive as long as possible. Most anglers use a bucket of water or a wet gunnysack to keep the crabs fresh until it is time to go home. It is a good idea to tie up the pincers so they do not fight each other while they are enclosed together.

A Goleta Pier crab — Neil, Eric and Brandy Acker 

*For most crabs wintertime is the time to go crabbing. As crabs grow they must molt or shed their hard shells. This typically happens during the warm summer months and during this time their body is full of water and the chemicals needed to harden their new shells; the result is soft and unappealing meat. Once the new shell hardens, the texture becomes firmer, and the meat is much better tasting. In addition, the deeper water species are really only common inshore during the winter months, November or December through March—with the exception of far-northern waters.

* Be sure to check current Fish and Game regulations before you go “crabbing.” Minimum size restrictions, open waters, approved seasons, and legal bag limits will all be explained.






••••••••• Some Odds and Ends ••••••••••

California king crab ( Paralithodes californiensis)? — from the Goleta Pier

Southern kelp crab aka globose kelp crab (Taliepus nutalli) from the San Clemente Pier (missing part of a leg)

Graceful crab (Cancer gracilis) — note the white tips on the claws in contrast to the black tips on a yellow rock crab

Weird crab from the Seal Beach Pier — actually moss crab (Loxorhynchus crispatus)

I did not initially know what this creature was. Thus the label “weird crab.” But then  I received a note from a friend who is a marine biologist and the crab was identified as a decorator crab Oregonia gracilis Dana, 1851, Graceful Decorator Crab


However, I then received a second note from marine biologist Gregory Jensen who said the “mystery crab is a juvenile Loxorhynchus, not Oregonia. Probably the moss crab, L. crispatus.” His views were seconded by another teacher of marine biology specializing in crabs, Nin Gan,  so we are going to go with the identification as a juvenile Loxorhynchus crispatus. It shows once again how hard it can be to identify a species based just on pictures.

Mr. Jensen by the way is considered an expert on crabs and the author of books on the same.


Young spider crabs (sheep crabs) — Goleta Pier

A crab combo-pack taken by Daniel at the Redondo Sportfishing Pier

Decorator crab from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

A sheep crab (spider crab) taken from the Ventura Pier in 2012

A mix of crabs at the Spud Point Marina Pier

A trio of crabs from the Spud Point Marina Pier

Red crab (top) and slender crab (bottom) from the Pillar Point Pier

A nice night-time outing (and variety) at the Goleta Pier with dompfa ben

Rock crab on top, red crab on the bottom — caught by transbaby 

Crab taken at the Elephant Rock Pier by gdawg

A crab caught by the dompfa bros at San Clemente Pier

The start of a bouillabaisse—perch, crab and mussels (catch made by catchinkelp).

Globe Crab from the Goleta Pier

Looks like we’re going to have some crabs for dinner! Elephant Rock Pier

Dinner from the Fort Baker Pier

Crabs from the Pillar Point Pier

Be careful!

Sea Star eating a crab — Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara


Many thanks to Ed Roberts and Paul Gregory (retired) of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Gregory Jensen of the University of Washington, and Nin Gan of Saddleback College for their invaluable help with the identification of these crabs. Good thing because I am a fisherman, not a crabber.

I also want to give a big thanks to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for their help and willingness to share information and resources including the “Crab ID” pictures. 


Catching Dungeness Crabs at Brookings Harbor, Oregon, just four miles from the California state line.

#1 — Using a net

A lot of Dungeness but all too small.

#2 — Using a rod and reel with a crab trap

Using chicken for bait

_____________________________A Question on Claws_____________________________

February 19, 2017, To: Ken Jones

Can you explain the discrepancy between harvesting claws only in South Carolina and Florida and the fact that the practice of taking a claw and returning the crab to its habitat is illegal in California?

Thanks, Terry J, Soquel, CA


Here’s the official response that was given by the California Fish and Wildlife Department to a similar question a few years back.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – February 20, 2014
California Outdoors Q & A: Taking One Claw From Crabs?

Question: Our fishing club is planning a fishing trip for local crab out of the Santa Monica Bay area. Some people in the group insist we should only keep one claw from each crab so they can be put back to grow another claw and still live. I know with lobsters we are instructed to leave them whole until they are ready for consumption to allow the wildlife officer to verify it’s a legal catch. Is it legal to keep only one claw or do we need the entire crab to allow the wildlife officer to verify? (Jerry E.)

Answer: You are required to take the whole legal-sized crab to prove your crab is of legal size. Possessing just claws would be a violation because the size of the crabs they came from cannot be determined (Fish and Game Code, Section 5508). Crabs also carry a lot of meat in the body. Crab season for all crabs of the genus Cancer (except Dungeness crabs) is open all year. The size limit in Southern California is four inches and the part of the crab that we measure is the main body shell (edge of shell to edge of shell at the widest part).

While crabs may be able to regenerate lost claws under good conditions, crabs with only one claw have a far tougher time fending off predators than if they had both claws for protection. Predators will go after any weakened animal, so just removing a claw may be considered a waste of fish – also a state violation.


Evolution Of A Pier Rat — Ken Jones

Crystal Pier

The Beginning

Pacific Beach was a different place in 1957 when my daddy moved our family into a small rental house located just a few yards off of Garnet Avenue, one of the two main thoroughfares in that beachfront section of San Diego. The house set at the bottom of a hill and, unbeknownst to me at the time, my daddy’s girlfriend owned a house at the top of that hill. It wasn’t too much later that my father moved his belongings to the top of the hill. It was not a particularly good moment in my life.

However, the move to the PB (as it’s called) and that particular location would provide an entryway into a sport that to this day helps define my life. At the ocean end of Garnet sat Crystal Pier. That pier was where my introduction to ocean fishing would take place and where I would catch my first ocean fish.

Reinforcement to my actual fishing experiences was provided by a small used bookstore located just across Garnet, a store that also carried magazines. The fishing magazines it carried—Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and especially Saltwater Sportsman—and the stories and images they portrayed helped stimulate and give genesis to a love for a sport that I had actually participated in (with my Dad) from an early age.

Looking back, what I find interesting is that I was never particularly interested in the pictures of the big marlin or tuna. Even then I was more interested in the “odd” fish—giant sawfish, alligator gars, Nile perch, electric eels and rays, and exotic Amazon species. As a youngster I had fished for bass and perch in the Midwest and for trout in the Northwest; now I was looking for something else. Saltwater fishing and the piers would provide an entryway into a different world of fishing, one in which you never knew what new and exciting species might decide to grab your bait. To this day the variety of species is what I find truly amazing at our piers and at last count I’ve caught 123 different species from 123 California piers. In fact, if I had the choice between a larger specimen of an existing species versus catching a new species I would quickly opt for the new species!

My mom liked the ocean and so a few days after our arrival we rode the bus down to the end of our street. The bus stopped at the corner of Mission Boulevard and from there you walked a short half block to the arched blue and white entrance of Crystal Pier. The pier is the only pier on the Pacific coast that has motel rooms right out on the pier but I didn’t know that fact that day. The pier seemed old but had a fresh coat of paint and you could feel the timbers sway as the waves pushed their way ashore on the fairly short pier. We didn’t fish that day; instead we just watched the waves, the swimmers, sunbathers, sea gulls—and fishermen. Eventually we left and walked over to the Oscar’s Drive-In, a restaurant on the corner of Mission and Garnet. They had great milk shakes and burgers and we sampled both.

Of course the discovery of that pier meant a return visit—to fish—was necessary.

It was a long walk from our house to the pier but it seemed like a much shorter journey on my flashy Schwinn Corvette, a bike that seemed to have as much shiny chrome and bright red paint as the Corvette’s after which it was named. It was a gift from my dad and would be my main means of transportation for many years. I don’t know how long the trip took but anticipation seemed to lessen the distance (and it seemed far longer coming home). Garnet Avenue was different then—not quite as crowded, absent the shopping centers of today, and the traffic was actually tolerable. I headed out, tooled past Brown’s Military Academy (wondering what life was like in that starchy school), zipped past the bowling alley where my dad sometimes worked, checked out Oscar’s, and then arrived at the pier. It cost money to fish the pier, twenty-five cents I believe, and you had to go into the motel office to pay your money but soon they would open the gate and you could head out to the end.

As mentioned, I did manage to catch a fish on what would be my initial pier fishing experience. It wasn’t much of a fish, in contrast to the fish I had read about in the magazines, and the fish was caught on a hand-line, not one of the beautiful (and expensive) rods and reels you saw in the magazines. But the rig worked! My mom had given me an inexpensive set-up that consisted of heavy, green Dacron line wound around a wooden contraption that looked like four Popsicle sticks stuck together. To the end of the line I attached a long-shanked Mustad hook and a small sinker, both items I had discovered in the garage next to the house. You had two choices as far as casting, unwind the line and then toss it out, or slowly unwrap the line and drop it straight down. The former was more fun but it seemed like most of the bites were down around the pilings (a lesson I remembered).

It took me a few hours but I finally caught that fish using a small piece of shrimp. It was probably a perch although to this day I am still not sure. The fish didn’t even weigh a pound but I was so excited that I made a spectacle of myself. As soon as I caught that fish I stopped fishing and headed home to show the prize. But before I had even gone a block I made sure to walk through that Oscar’s restaurant proudly showing off my fish. I’m sure the people were a little dumbfounded as to how to respond to a pudgy little kid holding aloft a smelly and quickly drying fish as they tried to eat their double-decker hamburgers. But emotion and logic come from different worlds; I was proud of that fish. To this day I have a picture of the fish but cannot tell what kind of fish it was (a perch or a small halibut?). I do know we ate it for dinner that night after my mom cleaned it.

One of the early fish at Crystal Pier

I also must admit that in looking back that the fish was caught mostly by luck. I actually had few clues as to how to how to catch a pier fish. And, unfortunately, my parents would soon divorce and my mom and I would head east to begin a two-year hiatus at my Hoosier hometown in Indiana. My pier fishing education would have to wait even though there were fish, especially bullheads—of a different sort—to be found by my grandpa’s farm and the nearby Kankakee River.

The Piers of Carolina

 Within two years my mom had remarried—to a Marine‚ and my second exposure to pier fishing soon took place. My stepfather was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina, just a short distance from Morehead City, site of a number of fishing piers and some top-notch ocean fishing. The piers were private and required a fee and we rented poles—big heavy, bait casting poles—that were equipped with the standard rigging of the day. The leaders were wire or heavy monofilament line, two to three hooks, plastic beads and red bobbers. Surprisingly, we did manage to catch fish—mainly pinfish, spot, croakers, ocean catfish, small fluke, a few baby bluefish and an interesting pufferfish that sure enough puffed itself up into a wacky-looking ball. Interesting but to this day I am convinced that less tackle would have produced more fish. The infrequent visits did not teach me too many new methods of saltwater angling but they did provide an introduction to new species and wetted not only my line but also my desire to learn more about the sport. Unfortunately I was still too young to drive, it was too far to bike, and the trips were few. Nevertheless those visits were introductory lesson number two in my pier fishing life.

Newport Pier — 1962-63

My third and most lasting introduction to pier fishing took place at the Newport Pier. My stepfather was transferred back to California and then sent to Vietnam. Soon after, my mother, brother and I moved to Costa Mesa.

Adjacent Newport Beach wasn’t always the capital of the “Big Orange.” There was a time when it was more the home of proletarian fishermen and others whose lives were connected in some way to the briny deep. Luckily, I was able to experience a few of those days in the early-’60s, a time when an average person might actually be able to afford a simple domicile along the narrow peninsula that separates the bay from the deep blue sea. Good thing!  Mom loved the beach and when she would take my brother to the beach alongside the Newport Pier, I would head out to the pier to go fishing.

In April of ’62, I was a freshman in high school, a poor boy from the wrong side of the road—Costa Mesa—going to the affluent and preppy Newport Harbor High School. Times were a little tough and I needed a job to supplement the income in our home. One day I noticed a help wanted sign at the Coffee Haven Café near the front of the pier (today’s Charlie’s Chili) and I applied for and got the job. I was now provided the perfect excuse to go fishing and I date my true addiction to pier fishing to the spring and summer after I got that job. The routine varied little: during the school year I was on the pier during the weekends, during the summer it was several days a week.

Still too young to drive, that trusty old Schwinn Corvette bicycle was put to use  hauling me down the seven mile or so trek to my job and the pier. I would get up very early, gather together the various and necessary accouterments, and head down to the pier. Typically I wore a hooded sweatshirt and it was a good thing due to the moisture that likes to call the seaside its home. Down the street, past the high school, and then down the steep hill that led to the PCH. If traffic was light (and it usually was at 4:30 in the morning) a quick dash up and across the roadway, across the bridge at the arches, and then the morning ride out Newport Boulevard to the Newport Pier. The bike would be parked in back of the restaurant and then I would head out to the end of the pier and the coveted right corner spot, Mecca to the regulars. That spot presented access to the deepest waters and the biggest fish or so we thought. It certainly was a top spot for the bonito, the fighting boneheads that were so common in those years.

Foggy mornings were common at the Newport Pier

All summer long I was out on that pier fishing and watching the “old pros aka regulars aka pier rats” and their techniques. I did catch fish but it took some time before I became proficient. My first few trips saw an occasional small halibut or more often a sculpin (scorpionfish).  It wasn’t until my seventh trip that I caught a decent-size fish, a barracuda, and it wasn’t until the tenth trip that I caught as many as ten fish. However, I soon began to understand the needed baits and proper presentation and with those skills began to catch a variety of fish: bonito, mackerel, jack mackerel, queenfish, jacksmelt and several varieties of perch. Deep-water fish like sanddabs and hake were added to the mix. I was finally becoming an angler.

At last, on an early September morning, I had my first “big day.” I had arrived, as usual, at the crack of dawn, and was fishing just down from the northwest corner. I was using squid for bait and had experienced very little early success. However, around 5:30 a.m., I had a strike and pulled in an ebony-colored fish—a type I had never seen nor caught before. The next cast yielded two more of these strange colored fish and I continued to catch fish, nearly every cast, for the next two hours. Strangely, only two other anglers were having similar success. Most anglers were going fishless in Newport. Later, I found out the fish were sablefish, a deep-water fish more common to northern waters and a fish sold as black cod by the dory boats near the entrance to the pier. Upon cleaning the fish, I also found the reason for my success. The fish were stuffed with squid that were schooling in the waters near to the pier. Anglers who were using squid for bait, and there were only a few of us, were catching the fish. I caught 47 sablefish that day, but it was only a start. I continued to catch fish: large jacksmelt, Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel— 77 fish in all. It was, mirabile dictu, one of the best days I ever had at the pier even though the fishing probably would have been considered poor for most of my fellow anglers that day.

That day showed that I had begun to learn and understand the basics of pier fishing. I had, by September, put in the time at the pier to be considered a regular myself. I had also developed the addiction, “the Jones,” to call myself a true pier rat (and I note with some satisfaction and bemusement that today some of my website regulars use the term Jonesin’ to indicate that they are going pier fishing).

You just never know what is going to happen at that pier. The deep-water Newport Canyon slopes down sharply from the end of the pier and species rare or uncommon to most piers sometimes make the journey up from the hidden depths to partake of the yummy offerings cast out by the hoards of anglers who visit the pier (it’s almost always crowded). That variety by the way has resulted in over 40 species of fish for me from the pier, one of the main reasons why I still hold it so special.

Queenfish, Pacific Hake and Jack Mackerel — Newport Pier, 1962

Most days that summer I would be able to get in a few hours of fishing before work. What fish I caught were stored in the café’s cooler and quite often I was also able to get in a few hours of fishing after work. Of course the ride back home wasn’t nearly the same exhilarating ride that I had experienced in the pre-dawn hours. The ride was now up the hill, fighting the traffic, and (hopefully) carrying home some fish for dinner.

I never knew how poor we were, I just knew that the fish I brought home made up a large portion of our military diet—fish and macaroni and cheese (three or four nights a week). I learned how to clean and cook fish and discovered that not all fish taste the same— halibut good, hake bad, croakers good, mackerel not so good. I began a life-long interest in cooking and eating fish that parallels to some degree my interest in fishing.

Costa Mesa 1963 — My brother John taking some pictures of my barracuda

In the summer of ’63 we moved down to San Diego where I would search out and fish from several new piers—Shelter Island, Imperial Breach, Ocean Beach (after 1966) and the pier where it had started—Crystal Pier. Each would provide new experiences and new chances to learn but I still consider the relatively short time I had at the Newport Pier as the nexus point that led to my life-long addiction to pier fishing. Just as certain, my love for three species certainly dates from those days—the hard fighting bonito, the tasty halibut, and the tasty but dangerous sculpin. Most important though, I learned the discipline of working from that job at the café and the discipline of fishing from those visits to that venerable old pier.

I’ve detailed my experiences in greater detail in Pier Fishing In California but important were several lessons that every angler should remember. The first is to listen and learn from those that came before you. The regulars will generally share their information once they have confidence in you, but you may need to be humble and the key term here is to listen. Second is to tone your observational skills. What works, what doesn’t, what differences are needed for different species and different conditions? Watch the regulars, jot down what you see, and learn to predict what will work for you. Third is to practice, practice, and practice. There is nothing that is as stimulating and meaningful as the time you actually spend on the pier. Regulars are people that are out on their favorite piers day after day, week after week, and they normally know what will work based on experience. So become a regular. Last, but not least, is to be cognizant of the fact that life is truly a lifetime venture in learning. As you traverse the nooks and crannies that will confront you over the years be willing to have an open mind and realize that there is always someone out there from which you can learn. Learning and then practicing what you have learned will produce over time a master angler, one who can then impact and teach the new generation of anglers.

My first yellowtail — San Diego, 1966

An early kelp bass — San Diego, 1967

Spotfin Croaker —

Spotfin Croaker — Oceanside Pier

Species: Roncador stearnsii (Steindachner, 1876); from the Spanish word roncador (in reference to a snorer) and stearnsii  (referring to Robert E. C. Stearns, a 19th Century sea shell expert in San Francisco).

Alternate Names: Spot, spotties, golden croaker or roncador. Called roncador aleta manchada in Mexico.

Yellowfin Croaker (Top), Spotfin Croaker (Bottom) — San Clemente Pier

Identification:  A heavy-bodied croaker which has a large black spot at the base of the pectoral fin; the mouth is underneath the head (subterminal); they do not have a barbel on the chin (unlike most California croakers). Their coloring is metallic gray above and brassy on the sides. Occasionally you may see a beautiful, bright “golden” spotfin. This color phrase by larger males is during spawning and led, at one time, to the mistaken belief that there were two distinct species of spotfins. I’ve only caught a few spotfins over the years that had the bright gold coloring but each was a truly beautiful fish. Apparently the females do not acquire this golden coloring, instead they develop blackish streaks on their bellies during the spawning season.

Spotfin Croaker — UPSAC/IGFA Kid’s Fishing Derby, Oceanside Pier, 2010

Size: Reported to reach a length of 27 inches and a weight of 10 1/2 pounds (although the record fish would seem to contradict this usually given factoid). Most caught from piers are less than 20 inches and range from one to three pounds. A 26 ½-inch, 9 ¼-pound fish was 15 years old; reaches 18-19 years in age. The California record fish weighed 14 lb 0 oz and was taken at Playa del Rey in 1951 (and was apparently a freak of nature).

Range: Mazatlan, Mexico to Point Conception. Most common from Los Angeles south. (One specimen reported from south San Francisco Bay.)

Habitat: Shallow-water sandy areas, both in bays and along the coast. In coastal conditions they tend to be in the slightly deeper waters beyond the innermost line of breakers (out to about a 30-foot depth). A difference in body shape, together with an air bladder, prevent their feeding in the backwash of the surf, the common area of corbina and sand crabs.

Piers: Common at most bay and oceanfront piers north to Los Angeles Harbor; those that have a sand or mud bottom. Best bets: Embarcadeo Marina Pier, Shelter Island Pier, Crystal Pier, San Clemente Pier, Oceanside Pier, Oceanside Harbor Pier, San Clemente Pier, Dana Point Harbor Pier, Huntington Beach Pier, Seal Beach Pier, Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier, and lately—the Santa Monica Pier.

Spotfin Croaker — Crystal Pier

Shoreline: One of the main catches by sandy shore and bay anglers in southern California. Favored areas include Mission Bay, Newport Bay, and Alamitos Bay.

My dad and a spotfin from Mission Bay

Boats: An inshore species but some are taken by boaters fishing the various bays in southern California.

Bait and Tackle: Spotfin croaker have pharyngeal (throat) teeth made for crushing heavy shells and primarily feed on the bottom for clams, although polychaete worms and mussels are also a popular diet (studies on fish captured in Long Beach also revealed crabs, shrimp, serpent star fragments, scallops, sand stars and lots of crushed shells and sand in the bellies). Therefore, the best bait is clams, but ghost shrimp, fresh mussels, bloodworms, lugworms and innkeeper worms can also be good. Best tackle is a high/low leader with number 6 or 4 hooks fished directly on the bottom. Although spotfin may be caught year-round, the best time is late summer to fall. In addition, spotfin follow the tides, so fishermen should do the same. Fish two hours before and after a high tide, especially a late afternoon or evening tide. Late evening and night is often the best time to catch spotfin croaker.

Spotfin Croaker — Ventura Pier

Food Value:  An excellent mild-flavored fish that shares the same problems with pollution as the other croaker species. They may be unsafe to eat in certain localities.

Comments: Spotfin croakers are one of the favorite inshore fishes of southern California. In bays, spotfin croaker tend to congregate in croaker holes; when these are discovered, the anglers can often return time after time for fish. It is much harder to find these holes and depressions around piers, but it can be done. Look for spots where the surf-line seems to flatten out; this often indicates a depression in the sand. Illegal to take in California with nets since 1909, or to buy or sell since 1915. Scientific studies indicated an increase in numbers in the late 1990s while anecdotal PFIC reports have shown a startling number of large spotfins being caught at piers in 2006-2010, especially those at Oceanside, Huntington Beach and Santa Monica.

Swell Shark — Ain’t so Swell

 Order Carcharhiniformes — Cat Sharks—Family Scyliorhinidae

A swell shark from the Cayucos Pier

Species: Cephaloscyllium ventriosum (Garman, 1880); from the Greek words cephalo  (with a head) and scyllium  (like a dog or monster) and the Latin ventr  (referring to the belly).

Alternate Names: Catshark, puffer shark and balloon shark. Called tiburón inflado, pejegato globo or gato hinchado in Mexico.

Identification: Swell sharks have a broad flat head with a rounded snout, and sharp, pointed little teeth. Their first dorsal is back of the middle of body and directly above pelvic fins; second dorsal above anal fin. Their skin is rough and appears flabby while coloring is yellowish-brown to creamy, with black or brownish spots and saddles; sometimes with white spots. When caught, the swell shark may inflate its belly with air or water until its circumference nearly triples in size. However, young swell sharks are not able to duplicate this neat little trick. So see, sometimes it pays to be an adult.

Size: To a little over three feet in length.

Range:  Acapulco, Mexico and the Gulf of California to Monterey Bay; most common in southern California.

Habitat:  Usually found near kelp beds or rocky areas that contain some kelp; likes to spend the daytime hours holed up in crevices or caves. A nocturnal feeder, they emerge at night to search for food—mainly small fish. But they seem a little lazy. Although sometimes they suck other fish into their mouth (as would a normal feeding fish), some reportedly simply open their mouths and wait for the smaller fish to swim in. It’s called yawning and perhaps explains why swell sharks have less than an athletic looking body (afterall, how much energy can be expanded in yawning for your food?). The next question becomes how often do you think bait is going to swim into their mouths, especially dead bait? Perhaps this is one reason that they are not more commonly caught.

Piers: Rarely a common species although good numbers are reported from the Avila Pier, Port San Luis Pier, and the Cayucos Pier. Best Bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Green Pleasure Pier (Avalon), Hermosa Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Goleta Pier, Gaviota Pier, Avila Pier, Port San Luis Pier and Cayucos Pier.

Shoreline: Occasionally taken by central California anglers fishing near kelp.

Boats: Rarely taken by boaters although kayakers who can fish fairly shallow waters and kelp beds catch a few.

Bait and Tackle: Most swell sharks that are caught from piers are around two feet in length, so medium tackle with a size 2 to 2/0 hook should work fine. Small fish, crabs, and shrimp, seem to be the best bait.

Food Value: It is reported that eating a swell shark is not so swell! The flesh is slightly toxic and causes stomach cramps and nausea as well as acting as a cheap aperient (result: diarrhea) and emetic (result: vomiting). Unless you’re really into the masochistic routine I would avoid puffer stew. Nevertheless, I can see all those sadistic little eyes lighting up. Wouldn’t it be cute to give Henry some puffer steaks for his dinner? Let’s see how long it is before he heads to the head. Dompfa Bro and a swell shark from Goleta Pier

Of course there’s always the story that’s told in the fascinating book Cod, by Mark Kurlansky. He mentions the unusual methods used by a people (Icelanders) seemingly on the verge of starvation: “They ate what the island produced, which was mainly every conceivable part of a cod-fish and a lamb. They roasted cod skin and kept cod bones until they had decomposed enough to be soft and edible. They also ate roasted sheeps’ heads, particularly praising the eyeballs. Another specialty was hákarl, the flesh of a huge Greenland shark, hunted for the commercial value of its liver oil. The flesh, which contains cyanic acid, a lethal poison, was rendered edible by leaving it buried in the groud until it rotted.” Apparently æstur hákarl (Icelandic for fermented shark) with its ammonia-rich smell and taste is still enjoyed by some of the locals.

Leaving aside this strange diet, and the question of how they discovered these enriching techniques, it makes you kind of wonder if a swell shark could be made edible by burying it in the ground for a few weeks. Anyone want to give rotted swell shark a try? Perhaps the “Iron Chefs” could do a show using æstur hákarl as the featured ingredient?

Swell sharks — Goleta Pier

Comments: An unpleasant and mistaken belief in some areas, especially the central coast, is that returning a swell shark to the ocean after capture ruins the fishing. It’s a rather stupid idea, and wrong, yet you’ll often find misshapen dying or dead swell sharks littering the piers. Since you don’t want to eat swellies (see above), and since they DO NOT hurt the fishing, please return them to the water.  Of course that may not be as easy as it sounds! A puffed up shark returned to the water may simply float away to be attacked by… whatever. Best is to net them and bring them to the top of the pier as quickly as possible. Then, as carefully as possible (since they do have sharp teeth), remove the hook. Try to then keep their mouth shut while returning them to the net and lowering them back down to the water. If successful, they will have gulped as little air as possible and still be able to swim away.

Dead, discarded young swell sharks at the Avila Pier—what a waste!

The issue of burping a swell shark became an interesting thread on the Pier Fishing In California Message Board.

Date: June 28, 2005
To: PFIC Message Board
From: pierhead
Subject: How do you ‘burp’ a swell shark …

Yesterday at Gaviota I observed a young man walking off the pier with a swell shark that he had just caught. I asked if he was going to keep it as they are not fit for food. He replied that he was going to release it closer to the shore. I reminded him that it was important to get it back in the water before it filled with air. Next thing I know he had dropped it in a trash can. I retrieved it but by then it had doubled in size. Remembering that EddieE had successfully burped them I thought I could do the same … no such luck … they have teeth and no way was I going to put my hand in there like Eddie did. I tried massaging it like burping a baby but that didn’t work either. Finally I held it over the rail by the tail and it expelled quite a lot of air … just as I dropped it (no net around) it gulped more air and swelled up again. As it floated away on its back I tried to enlist some nearby boaters to assist but by then it was too close to the breakers for them to approach.
I’m frustrated … any suggestions?

Posted by scooterfish

Maybe… I know someone had mentioned something about “pliers down the throat,” which sounded a bit primitive, but maybe the right tool, such as a smooth-ended tube (turkey baster without the bulb maybe?) would work…
ps- never even seen a swell shark in person, so this is purely conjecture…

Posted by eelmaster

Turkey Baster sound feasible. Squeeze the bulb first then insert and release the bulb? Worth a shot. Either that or Rolaids.
Monte, Support the UPSAC

Posted by pierhead

Here is what you are facing… tried to insert a small pole handle but the shark clamped down on it like a pit bull on steroids! Unless the mouth were propped open somehow it would cut through the turkey baster in no time at all. Don’t tell me we are going to have to construct some sort of dental tool just to start the procedure … there has got to be a better way. I considered the procedure used to deflate air bladders on rockfish … but I don’t think we are dealing with an air bladder here. Guess I’ll just have to do some research on swell shark anatomy.
Pierhead, Proud Supporter of UPSAC

Posted by malibooger

Several layperson’s-level websites describe the swell shark as sucking water or air into its stomach- since it can suck up water as well it seems the upper GI is probably where it is going. I haven’t hit the stores here yet, but when I used to hang out at the kitchen supply store on south Willamette St. in Eugene, OR, they had a selection of stainless-steel turkey basters. I always thought they were overkill until now- maybe you could find one of those. The websites mentioned above (just Google ‘swell shark’ and look for sites ending in .edu) say that the sharks will deflate themselves when they no longer feel threatened.
The real question is, what kind of a**hole tosses a live fish in a trash can?

Posted by pierhead

What kind of person would toss a… live fish in a trashcan? Me. When I was just starting to fish 50+ years ago it was common to leave your catch on the deck all day so passerby’s could oogle, gawk and offer congratulations. All sharks were immediately dispatched by multiple stabbings… the more the macho … sure to draw a crowd interested in your proficiency with a knife and fearlessness in combat with a “killer” shark. In my 30′s I returned from a day’s fishing off the barge at Redondo with a huge gunnysack of mackerel … which had rotted by the time I got home … they ended up in the garbage can as well. It wasn’t until after I first logged onto to this board (1997) that I started practicing consistent catch and release. And the truth is, there is still a bit of that attitude in all of us … thankfully through exposure here most of us have evolved to CPR (Catch, Photo, Release). Better to display your catch on PFIC than on the deck. After the advent of digital photography with it’s instant (and repeatable previews) the practice of CPR took off. Next to a net I think a camera is our most important accessory. I saw a young man catch his first fish this past weekend and he started to cry when his father insisted he put it back. I explained to him he gets more credit for releasing fish he isn’t going to eat than keeping them and offered to take his picture and email it. Seemed to satisfy him.

Posted by Salty Nick

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Are they able to deflate themselves on their own, or is it necessary to “pop” them somehow? (I know nothing about them, being too far north to catch any). Salty.

Posted by pierhead

My experience is that they expel any water when you bring them up but if you handle them roughly on deck they will start gulping air. I’m thinking that inducing a ‘tonic state’ by putting it on its back might cause it to relax enough to burp … If it is put back swollen they flop over on their backs and can’t right themselves … and I don’t believe they can breathe either and so end up dead.

Posted by Seabass_Seeker

I’ve heard of them being burped, but as to the process I have no clue. Whenever we caught one at Goleta we just put it in the net full of air and let it swim away. Figured if the shark had a defense mechanism, which allows it to engulf air/water, it should have a natural way to expel the stuff.

Posted by cayucosjack

They will eventually expel the air. It’s just a matter of time but the problem comes on an incoming tide or big swells that push it onto the beach before it can deflate. The more you touch them and handle them the more they puff. The last 2 that I burped I used my boga grip. Just stick it down the throat a little and push the air out. You don’t have to get it all out. If the skin is somewhat lose they usually can swim away fine after a few moments. Sometimes all sorts of other stuff comes out especially if they had puffed up with water during the fight. Smaller ones I’ve been able to burp by pinching their throats a little so it stays open and pushing. Sounds cruel (especially pliers) but those little guys are tough and I’m sure they’d gladly deal with a sore throat over a beaching any day. I’ve caught about a dozen in the last few trips at Cayucos and haven’t had to burp one yet. It’s all about keeping stress levels low in the fish during the fight, landing and release. And I’ve officially debunked the theory that they release a toxin in the water that scares away other fish (I’ve been told this many times by old timers that try to make me throw my catch away or “at least release it way down there away from our poles”). There has been lots of other action each trip so there…

Posted by pierhead

Ahhh … that explains his trashing the fish…just before he dumped it he stopped to show it to several guys. Later those same guys told me swell sharks poisoned the water to keep other fish away. I bet they convinced him not to put it back. BTW … several articles I read this morning said the skin and flesh is toxic and can result in severe gastric distress if eaten. Perhaps that’s where the myth comes from.

Posted by kaveman

I catch at least one almost every trip to Goleta, I’ve tried massaging which sometimes works (one even burped out a smelt when I was massaging them). When that doesn’t I try something down the throat but sometimes they just wont burp, poor little fellas, hope this thread leads to a good consistent way to get rid of the air before they are released

Posted by gsxr750

Hold it up to your shoulder, with it’s head by your neck, and pat it on the back… oh, wait, that’s a baby… sorry

Posted by pierhead

Right … and babies don’t have teeth!

Posted by pierhead

Throw him over your shoulder. Pat on back… wipe off blood from neck. Continuing patting. Wipe off more blood. Hold compress tightly to neck to stop bleeding. Call paramedics.


Date: November 4, 2007

To: PFIC Message Board
From: yakattack

Subject: Goleta

Me and my son hit Goleta Friday night, about 7:30 to midnight…   About 10:45 the college kids nailed a swell shark and thought it was a leopard; once it was identified it went back in (he wanted a leopard shark skin, something about class credit). From 11 to 11:15 another 5 swellies came over the rail (I got one too) but that was the extent of the shark action, and the crab trap yielded larger spiders but still nothing of real interest.  Saturday night, I showed up about 7pm, sans six year old and crab trap. The spanish mack were running heavy so I filled up a bucket with them, waiting for the other guys to start getting clicker runs before I switched over to shark fishing. Unfortunately, very little happened in the shark arena, with three more swellies coming over the rail… At about 10pm one of the gang brought a 4-foot soupfin to the surface but it was farmed while they were trying to gaff it. The company was good both nights, the bait was happenin’ but the shark were elsewhere.
Question: Rumor has it that the swellies are poisonous, also that once released, when they expel the air/water they use to blow up, they regurgitate a semipoisonous (definately noxious) mass of stuff which drives other fish away. I really would like clarification on the second point as sop on the pier right now is to kill the sharks, leaving them on the pier to die so they won’t affect the night’s fishing and I’d like to avoid this if possible, education is the key. When someone is feeling spry enough, we’ll walk the shark to the shallow water for release but that doesn’t happen very often.

Posted by Ken Jones

Release them gently back into the sea. They are not in any way noxious to the water and do not drive other fish away. It is true though that if you eat them the flesh will cause stomach cramps and nausea—to you. Unfortunately the belief you mention is an urban legend that refuses to die

Posted by yakattack

Thanks Ken, I had a feeling it might be something like that… I will endeavor to kill the myth re: the swellies and get them released back into the water when caught. I’m much more comfortable with that for lots of reasons, including the smell!


Date: February 28, 2009
To: Ken Jones
From: fishboy
Subject: Swell Sharks

Just saw your revised swell shark article. You mentioned that small swell sharks are not able to puff up like the adults. Was just wondering where you found this bit of information. My understanding from those working at the miniature UCSB aquarium/touch-tank is that even with newly hatched swell sharks under a foot long, gulping air is a problem. While I am not sure if they are able to gulp in enough air to create a distended stomach like the adults, it is something they try to avoid, and if one of the small swell sharks does gulp air, they need to burp it. Which leads me to another interesting thing that you may consider adding to your article. They prevent these small swell sharks from gulping air by holding their mouth closed when they are out of water. Because swell sharks are actually gulping air/water, holding their mouth shut prevents them from doing this. I have been using this technique fairly successfully with the swell sharks we catch off of Goleta Pier as well. After we pull a swell shark to the surface, we try to keep it in the water until we can get our crab net ready. As soon as we net the shark and pull it out of the water, we pull it up as fast as we can and grab the mouth and hold it shut. This gives us all the time we need to untangle the lines from the net and remove the shark. Then allow the mouth to open for only as long as we need to remove the hook, and then again lower it as fast as we can in the net to get it back under water. Before learning this trick, we had numerous incidents where released swell sharks had gulped so much air that they were unable to submerge themselves and were left floating belly up, but since learning this technique almost 100% of the swell sharks we release have been able to swim down to the bottom. Roy

Hi Roy,

In Probably More Than You Want To Know About The Fishes Of The Pacific Coast, Milton Love says “Curiously, small swell sharks, which you would think would benefit from the ability, don’t seem to be able to puff up.” That’s my source on the info but I find your note of great interest.