Saltwater Fishing

Kelpfishes — Family Clinidae

California is blessed with a number of attractive little kelpfishes that unfortunately are rarely seen by an angler unless he or she is using small hooks in search of perch. Herein, are several of the smaller species. The Giant Kelpfish, Heterostichus rostratus, is given a different article).

Striped Kelpfish

Striped Kelpfish from the Malibu Pier

Species: Gibbonsai metzi (Hubbs, 1927); from Gibbonsai (William P. Gibbons, an early naturalist from Alameda), and metzi (Charles W. Metz, a student of ichthyology once interested in kelpfish).

Alternate Names: Striped kelp-fish, seaweed kelpfish, weed klipfish. Called sargacero or sargacero rayado in Mexico.

Identification: Reddish to light brown, usually with darker stripes or darker mottling on sides (color often matches nearby seaweed). Tail rounded (distinguishes them from a giant kelpfish); pectoral fin is short, not reaching the front of the anal fin.



A kelpfish from the Elephant Rock Pier in Tiburon

Size: To 9 1/2 inches long; most caught off piers are 5-8 inches.

Range: Punta Rompiente, central Baja California to Maquinna Point, Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Habitat: Shallow-water areas near rocks or kelp.

Piers: Found at piers that have a heavy growth of kelp or seaweed. Best bets: I’ve taken them at the Cabrillo Mole (Avalon), the Paradise Cove Pier (Malibu), Coast Guard Pier (Monterey) and the Princeton Harbor Pier. I’ve also taken them at several Bay Area piers including Agua Vista (in San Francisco), Berkeley Pier (East Bay), and Elephant Rock (North Bay). At the first two they were inshore by the rocks, at the latter the pier sits on a rock.

Shoreline: Occasionally taken by anglers fishing in rock or kelp areas if using small hooks.

Boats: An inshore species rarely take from boats.

Kelpfish from the Cabrillo Mole, Avalon, Catalina Island

Bait and Tackle: Light to medium tackle and small, size 8 to 6 hooks. Preferred baits appear to be pieces of worm, blood or pile, while small pieces of shrimp and mussels will also entice them.

Food Value: Too small, let ‘em go.

Comments: A pretty little fish that likes to hang by the rocks, dart out to grab the bait, and then head back to the rocks.

Crevice Kelpfish

Crevice Kelpfish from the Monterey Coast Guard Pier

Species: Gibbonsai montereyensis (Hubbs, 1927); from Gibbonsai (William P. Gibbons, an early naturalist from Alameda), and montereyensis (Monterey, an early collection point for the fish).    

Alternate Names: Spotted kelpfish and crevice klipfish. Called sargacero or sargacero de Monterey in Mexico.

Identification:  Reddish to brown or lavender; plaincolored to spotted or striped. Dorsal fin soft rays widely spaced at rear of fin. No scales at base of or furher out on the caudal fin. Color variable with several phases, reddish, green, dark and silver bars, which intermix freely; there is usually a strong dark ocellus above the lateral line canal behind the pectoral fin and there may be additionally several series of dark spots of various intensities; fins weakly pigmented at bases, anal and pectorals most so; head often with pigment bars radiating from eye

Size: To 5 ½-inches long; most caught off piers are around 4 inches.

Range: Isla Guadalupe and Bahia San Carlos, central Baja California to Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Usually north of Point Conception.

Habitat: Shallow-water areas near rocks or kelp. Occurs in inshore rocky areas in algae, usually on exposed coast

Piers: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Cabrillo Mole in Avalon, and the Monterey Coast Guard Pier.

Shoreline: Occasionally taken by anglers fishing in rock or kelp areas if using small hooks.

Boats: An inshore species rarely take from boats.

Bait and Tackle: Light tackle and small hooks. Preferred baits appear to be sea worms—pile worms and bloodworms, pieces of shrimp, and fresh mussels.

Food Value:  Too small to be used for food.

Comments: Rarely caught due to their small size. A small fish with a small mouth that is sometimes an incidental catch by perch anglers using small hooks.

Spotted Kelpfish

Spotted Kelpfish from the Redondo Sportfishing Pier in Redondo Beach

Species: Gibbonsia elegans (Cooper, 1864); from Gibbonsai (William P. Gibbons, an early naturalist from Alameda), and the Latin word elegans (elegant or handsome).   

Alternate Names: Called Sargacero or Sargacero manchado in Mexico.                

Identification: Typical kelpfish shape—pointed snout, tiny mouth, rounded caudal fin, and long dorsal fin. Color varies widely; green to brown or tan or reddish—often blotched or streaked. 1-3 (often 2) ocelli on back. Soft rays more widely spaced toward rear of dorsal fin. Scales that extend well onto the caudal fin distinguish it from other kelpfish.

Kelpfish from the Oceanside Harbor Pier

Size: To 6.2-inches long; most caught from piers are around 4-5 inches.

Range: Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California, including Isla Guadalupe, to Piedras Blancas Point, central California

Habitat: Shallow-water areas near rocks or kelp. Typically feeds on benthic crustaceans, small mollusks and worms, but also eats fair quantities of algae. Found from subtidal rocky areas to 56 m depth, usually in seaweed. Female lays white eggs in seaweed; male guards egg mass.

Piers: Embarcadero Marina Pier, Oceanside Harbor Pier, Cabrillo Mole in Catalina, Redondo Spotfishing Pier, Malibu Pier, and Monterey Coast Guard Pier.

Shoreline: Occasionally taken by anglers fishing in rock or kelp areas if using small hooks.

Boats: An inshore species rarely take from boats.

Bait and Tackle: Light tackle and small hooks. Preferred baits appear to be sea worms—pile worms and bloodworms, pieces of shrimp, and fresh mussels.

Food Value: Too small to be used for food.

Comments: A small fish that is rarely caught due to their small mouth. However, they are sometimes an incidental catch by perch anglers using small hooks.

Kelpfish from the Cabrillo Mole, Avalon, Catalina Island

Pier Fishing — There’s Magic in the Air

 Port Hueneme Pier — 2008

There’s something magic about being out over the ocean on an old wooden pier. It might be the fish, it might be the salty tang of the sea air or the feel of the ocean’s majesty as it pounds against the pilings, it might simply be the feeling that you’re away, even if ever so slightly, from the hustle and bustle on the normal world. Whatever it is, it’s an attraction that can be addictive in nature. Just ask any “pier rat” who has adopted a pier as his second home, or, in some cases, as his only home (although the “authorities” frown on such accommodations).



















Port Hueneme Pier — 2008


Yellow Snake Eel — Eew!


A yellow snake eel from the Balboa Pier

Species: Ophichthus zophochir (Jordan & Gilbert, 1882); Ophichthus, from two Greek words meaning serpent and fish, and the Greek zophochir, for darkness and hand (dark pectoral fins).

Alternate Names: Eww, a snake!  In Mexico called Tieso Amarillo; in Peru called Anguila amarilla or Culebra marina.

Jimbo Jack and a yellow snake eel from Huntington Harbor

Identification: Typical eel-like shape with a spike-like tail, no fin rays and no spots.  Reddish-olive, yellowish-brown or yellow above; lighter below.

Size: Up to 34 ½ inches.

Range:  From Huacho, Peru, to Eureka, Humboldt Bay; also seen in the Gulf of California.

Yellow snake eel from the Dana Harbor Pier

Habitat: Found in both sandy and rocky areas down to a 60-foot depth (although one source says 210 feet). Officially considered rare by the CA Fish and Game (supposedly under 20 ever reported in California) although Pier Fishing in California ( has had many reports of these eels over the years, most commonly from Newport Bay and Huntington Harbor.

Piers: PFIC has had reports from quite a few piers. Best bets: Oceanside Harbor Pier, Dana Point Harbor Pier, Balboa Pier, Newport Pier, Seal Beach Pier, Belmont Pier, Burton Chace Park Pier, Venice Pier and the small piers inside of Newport Bay and Huntington Harbor. Science records show an Ophichthus zophochir being taken from the Del Mar Pier in 1960 (although the pier was demolished in 1959) and from the Berkeley Pier in 1964. PFIC regular “Mel” caught, photographed, and released a yellow snake eel from the Berkeley Pier in 2006. In 2002 I photographed one that was caught by a fellow angler one night out at the end of the Newport Pier  (the same night I caught a basketweave cusk-eel, Otophidium scrippsi). That snake eel and the cusk-eel were given to the DF&G.

 Yellow snake eel and basketweave cusk-eel from the Newport Pier

Shoreline: A rare catch by southern California shore anglers.

Boats: An inshore species rarely seen on boats.

Bait and Tackle: Taken incidentally by anglers fishing on the bottom for other species. Most commonly taken at night and with squid as bait (although their preferred food is supposedly fish and clams). Tackle should be kept simple: a medium-sized outfit with light line and a size 6 to 2 hook. Be prepared for a surprisingly spirited tussle.

Mel’s hands and a “whirling dervish” kind of an eel — Berkeley Pier

Food Value:  Don’t know anyone who has eaten one although most eels are considered fair to good eating.

Comments: An unusual, gnarly catch that enjoys twisting its limber body around your arm (and scaring the bejeebers out of you) when you try to unhook it. A related species, considered rare in California, is the Spotted snake eel (Ophichthus triserialis). The spotted snake  eel ranges from Peru  to Humboldt Bay, including the Galapagos Islands and the Gulf of California.

A spotted snake eel from the Hermosa Beach Pier

The gnarly end of the eel!

Rare fish caught at Belmont Pier — catalufa

Rare fish caught at Belmont Pier

Casting a bait and then sitting down and watching the rod tip on Belmont Pier isn’t the most glamorous and exotic fishing along the Pacific Coast, but it’s restful and sometimes productive for perch, an occasional halibut and other species. Then too, you meet interesting people.

Gerald Osier of 221 Grand Ave., who has worked on the pier and still does some part time work there in the summer months, likes to fish the pier and just loaf. Just recently he caught one of the rarest fishes in the Pacific Ocean. It was small, and there was no way that he could have filleted it and got a dinner for two  So he reported to the department of Fish and Game, and  one of  the DFG biologists came to take a look and carry the fish back to the laboratories at 350 Golden Shore.

The fish was red, looked like a perch, had large blue eyes almost the size of nickels, weighed 11 ounces, and was 9 ½ inches long. Now Osier has a letter from John Fitch, research director of the State Fisheries Laboratories at Long Beach DFG, saying that the fish is a catalufa, extremely rare. In fact, said Fitch, fewer than 15 had ever been caught either by hook and line or in commercial nets in all the time that he has been with the DFG. Fitch, in his letter to Osier, said that the largest  that he had ever seen was 13 inches long and weighed two pounds. He also told Osier that the fish was being sent to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. It will be made into a mount and displayed.

This is just one sample of what can happen in pier fishing, which can be fun for individuals or a family except for the fact that all piers now are afflicted with vandalism. What public facilities are not endangered the same way? Belmont Pier is the one remaining public fishing facility in Long Beach and it deserves enough security protection to keep it clean.

 —Donnell Culpepper, Long Beach Press-Telegram, November 21, 1975


Pacific Electric Ray — the shocking details

 Good old sparkie!

Species: Torpedo californica; (Ayres, 1855); from the Greek word torpedo (for numbness—from the electric shock) and californica (for California, where the first specimens were taken).

Alternate Names: Torpedo ray, numbfish, crampfish or torpedo. Called torpedo del Pacifico or torpedo in Mexico.

Identification:  An oval disk that is thick and flabby; the tail is short, stocky, with two dorsal fins and a large symmetrical caudal fin. No spines or prickles. Eyes small and round; mouth moderate in size with 4 or 5 rows of teeth in each jaw. Coloring is blue-black to drak gray above; white to slate gray below; often with black spotting.

Electric Ray — Ventura Pier

Size: Reported to 4 feet in length and 90 pounds. Typical size at piers is from two and a half to three and a half feet.

Range: Worldwide in tropical and temperate seas; in the eastern Pacific from Sebastian Viscaino Bay, southern Baja California, and the Gulf of California, to Wiah Point in Dixon Entrance, Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia.

Habitat:  Generally in shallow coastal waters but reported to a depth of 900 feet. During the day they will often partially bury themselves in sand before ambushing unsuspecting victims that come a little too close. They capture their prey (fish, invertebrates, cephalopods) by suddenly lunging their heads upwards and simultaneously delivering an electric shock (of up to 45 volts). At night they like to swim mid-level and attack fish that have settled near the bottom in a quiescent state. It’s reported that when “a prey fish enters range, the ray lunges forward and folds the anterior and lateral margins of its pectoral fins over it. It then envelops the prey further by making short kicks with its tail, sometimes performing somersaults and/or barrel rolls, while incapacitating it with electric shocks. The stunned fish is then passed to the weak but flexible mouth with undulations of the disc, and swallowed head-first.” When vision is limited  (night or turbid water) they may find their prey by picking up electrical cues with their ampullae of Lorenzini.

Electric Ray — Ventura Pier

Piers: An uncommon catch at piers although some are taken each year; most common at piers south of Point Conception. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, San Clemente Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Ventura Pier (#1), and the Gaviota Pier.

Shoreline: Rarely caught by shore anglers.

Boats: Rarely seen by boaters.

Electric Ray — Venice Pier

Bait and Tackle: Since this is one of the larger fish pier anglers will encounter, you should use at least medium saltwater tackle—twenty pound test line and size 2 to 4/0 hooks. Most electric rays have been taken on cut bait such as mackerel and sardines or on squid.

Food Value: Apparently they are quite tasty (at least according to the French who savor electric rays).

Comments: Milton Love reports that they “hover over the potential tidbits, then stun them with a jolt that can reach at least 45 volts.” These rays are generally a surprise catch on a pier and often the angler is shocked (literally) by the catch. If you must pick them up, do so by their tails; the shocks are produced in organs located in the disk on each side of the ray.