The Sauna Tour —A Trip to the SoCal Piers

A yellowtail caught at Crystal Pier in San Diego

“While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.” Oops, whoa Nellie, stop, stop, stop the press, that’s the wrong vision! This vision was more pescatorial, one of big game fish being caught at the SoCal piers, fish such as yellowtail, shortfin corvina, bonefish and more exotic species rarely seen at the piers. The reports of great fishing and unusual species that began to show up in boat reports in the spring and summer of 2015 were amazing. Bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, dorado, wahoo, unbelievable numbers of yellowtail, marlin, spearfish and others were seemingly being caught throughout southern California’s offshore waters. Even half day boats and kayaks fishing fairly close to land were catching the big game species.

For the piers the main difference, at least into July and August, was the arrival of bonito, one of the hardest fighting fish in the sea, and the boneheads were being reported from San Diego up to Goleta. Every warm-water year sees some bonito but by the end of August yellowtail were also being reported at many piers. Then came reports of the aforementioned corvina and bonefish. September seemed like it might be an epic month, perhaps even rivaling the 1957 season when so many big game fish were caught from piers.

The result was an almost mandatory trip to southern California; a five-day trip to eight southland piers. But, it was a trip that would earn the nickname “Sauna Tour.”

Why that title? One initial hope for the trip was to escape the 100-104 degree weather that was taking place in Fresno. There’s nothing like a cool 75-degree day at the beach to alleviate the scorching valley heat. Hurricane Linda, sitting off of Baja, and the effects from that storm, would change the entire picture, both the weather and the fishing.

The temperature at the beach cities for the five-day trip was basically the same—92 to 98 degree heat along with very high humidity. It felt more like Mississippi or Louisiana than SoCal.  It was scorching in the sun and shirts were sweat soaked after a short time.

The hurricane also affected the fishing. A few days before the trip, powerful waves began to slam the SoCal beaches. In response, the huge numbers of baitfish that had been reported in inshore waters disappeared. Apparently they moved offshore and that meant the number of larger fish that fed on the baitfish also largely disappeared. The story was the same at every pier. “You should have been here last week. The bonito bite was fantastic but they all disappeared.” One bait shop reported they had been selling over 50 pounds of anchovies a day before the fish left, now they were selling about four pounds a day.

It is what it is, you have to take the bad with the good and there are rarely guarantees when it comes to fishing. The trip would yield some fish but nothing like anticipated. One bonito would be caught, but no more, and none of the more exotic species.

Day one, Wednesday, September 9, would see me pick up my fishing buddy, Mike Granat, in Clovis before starting the four hour drive from Fresno to Los Angeles. We would make a stop to pick up some “Goody Bags” for our next Kid’s Fishing Derby, and then make another short stop at Best Fishing Tackle on Rosecrans in Hawthorne to pick up some lug worms. From there it was a short trip down to Costa Mesa and our motel for the night. Upon arrival in Costa Mesa it was quickly evident how hot and sticky the weather would be.

But, since there was time for a few hours fishing before dinner, we headed out to the Newport Pier. I always tell Mike that if a pier is crowded the fish are in, if the pier is deserted, fishing is slow. Given the sparse number of anglers on the pier, it was obvious that the fishing might not be as hot as the weather—and that indeed was the case.

The dozen or so anglers at the end were fishing Sabiki bait rigs and catching a few fish, a few small fish. Their main catch was little 6-inch Pacific mackerel which make great bait for halibut (or yellowtail). However, our visit would be short and it was getting a little too late in the day to be catching live bait.

Nevertheless, high-low rigs were sent out baited with lug worms and cut mackerel. Soon after, a kelp bass (aka calico bass) in love with the lug worm decided to make a trip up to the top of the pier. But, instead of 14 inches, the legal length, it was only 11 inches long. It was returned to the briny and told to grow a few more inches. Not much was biting other than a few mackerel.

Kelp Bass aka Calico Bass, Checkerboard Bass and Police Cars

Eventually the 4:15-6 PM fishing yielded three mackerel and the one bass, all fairly small. The one good bite, two large mackerel grabbing the high/low hooks at the same time, were lost when one of the three sea lions patrolling the pier waters decided the mackerel were easy pickings. The bewhiskered beast grabbed the mackerel, broke the line, and showed who was boss.

Pacific Mackerel aka Chub Mackerel, Blue Mackerel and Greenbacks

At six we packed up and headed over to one of my favorite restaurants along the California coast. The Crab Cooker sits across the street from the pier and I’ve been going to the restaurant for over 40 years. I always make sure to get some chowder, eat too many of the hard bread sticks, and I usually get some shrimp and scallops. For once I was able to park right outside the front door (parking can be a problem) and we headed in. Soon after we were stuffed and heading back to the motel.

The Crab Cooker

Day 2, Thursday, September 10, was a planned reunion with Snookie and her gang at the Balboa Pier. Expectations were high. She had reported  catching bonito, yellowtail, barracuda, numerous halibut, and a variety of other fish the prior week (including seeing an angler land a bonefish).  It did seem a little improbable based upon what we had seen at Newport the prior night but you never know.

We arrived at 8 AM and decided to fish the end area until Snookie arrived. I asked a couple of anglers who were leaving the pier how the action was and they both replied the same thing, good mackerel action from 6 until about 7 and then the bite had shut down (the typical early morning mackerel bite). We were late and by the time we got to the end there weren’t too many anglers. That’s always a bad sign and sure enough those still fishing were lamenting the slow action. They were using Sabiki rigs but not getting many fish.

The end of the Balboa Pier was relatively devoid of anglers

Mike had never caught a bonito and that was his main goal for the trip so he rigged up one of his red colored bonito balls (that he makes), attached one of his bright green feathers (that he gets from Africa), and started casting out. Lo and behold in about fifteen minutes he had a nice-sized bonito. The rest of the anglers casting for bonito, including yours truly, went fishless for bonito in Newport. What was interesting was the number of anglers who came over to check out his bonito gear, both the feather and the ball, and all seemed to think his was the best they had seen.

Mike Granat, his first bonito, and his “Granat Ball and Feather”

Pacific Bonito aka Boneheads, Flashers, Striped Tuna and (my favorite) Mr. Bojangles

I did catch a couple of nice little bass, one a kelp bass and the other a sand bass, but none of the bonehead bonito.

At about 9:30 I spotted Snookie and we headed inshore to fish with her. Unfortunately the weather had tuned hot, real hot. It would reach 98 degrees at the pier that day and we were sweating more than I thought possible.


She said she had been at the pier Tuesday and sure enough the action had slowed. The waves had stirred up the water and the baitfish so prevalent the prior week were now largely missing. But, she went on a quest for some live bait. She had been using a variety of baitfish including small Pacific mackerel and Spanish mackerel but they just weren’t biting. She worked hard to fill the bait bucket and did manage some smelt but even the smelt weren’t cooperating (and I only got one).

Fishing was slow, in fact very slow. However, Snookie did manage to land one bonito. I on the other hand could not buy a bonito. I did though rig up a live bait rig and dropped a smelt into a depression between the pilings under the pier. The result was a flattie, a halibut that must have liked dining on smelt. As usual, it looked bigger in the water but upon bringing it to the pier it was obviously a sub-legal fish only about a guesstimated 17 inches long.

KJ and a sub-legal sized California Halibut

I also managed a smallish-sized shovelnose guitarfish while Mike caught a small yellowfin croaker but that was it. The fishing was as cold as the weather was hot. Snookie and her sister were using some kind of “cool” scarves but I think we were all red faced, sweating, uncomfortable, and getting dehydrated.

The Newport Pier sits just a short distance up the Newport Peninsula from Balboa

We fished until 12:15 and that was enough. We wanted to beat the traffic out of Orange County, Snookie needed to go to her choir practice, and everyone was beat. We had enjoyed the company but were obviously disappointed with the fishing.

We then headed south toward Oceanside but did make a short detour to Hogan’s Bait and Tackle in Dana Point. I wanted to pick up some bloodworms and managed to spend a few more bucks after seeing some things that I just couldn’t live without. It’s always good to visit that store and see its knowledgeable staff.

Back on the road, we were soon in Oceanside and checked into the motel. Mike was a little tired out from the heat and wanted to take a nap while I wanted to go fishing.  I decided to head down to the small pier in Oceanside Harbor. I usually manage to catch a few fish at the pier and this day would be much the same (although most were fairly small). I fished from 3:30 until 4:45 and managed 14 fish, 8 kelp bass (on bloodworms), 1 decent-sized spotfin croaker (on bloodworm), 1 salema, 3 smelt and a shinerperch. It wasn’t much to crow about but at least there was some action and I enjoyed the beautiful clouds while suffering through the heat.

The Oceanside Harbor Pier

Spotfin Croaker aka Golden Croaker and Roncador (the snorer)

The most interesting fish I saw was a garibaldi caught by an angler who was using bread to catch some smelt for bait. I didn’t know they liked bread.

There are almost always some birds at the pier

Dumbest move was by a girl in a kayak who decided to paddle over to a float full of sea lions. She actually paddled right up to the float and tried to pet a couple of the beasts. They bellowed at her and she seemed surprised that they might not enjoy her visit.

El Dumbo!

It was a beautiful sky that day

Next up was dinner and we headed over to the Joe’s Crab Shack that sits in the harbor. Burnt food, desultory service, and an unhappy Mr. Jones by the end of the meal.  

After dinner I walked down to Helgren’s Sportfishing to talk to some fishermen who had arrived on the Oceanside 95 Sportfisher while we were eating.  Boats had been pulling in yellowtail, bluefin tuna and yellowfin tuna during an almost unheard of season of success. But the hurricane had affected their action too. The boat full of anglers had returned from the 1½ day trip with 4 fish, not exactly a crowd pleasing number. They were hoping the next day would be better.

After dinner Mike was ready for bed. I said we needed some fresh bait so headed down to the Oceanside Pier to catch some mackerel.  Anglers were catching mackerel using glow sticks and hi/lows baited with pieces of mackerel and I copied their rigs and bait. I fished from 8:30 to 10 PM and landed 15 Pacific mackerel and 1 sargo. We now had some fresh bait for the next day.

Day 3, Friday, September 11. Friday morning we planned to meet up with Ed Gonsalves who runs the Oceanside Pier Bait Shop and then do a little fishing. Ed suggested a spot midway out on the pier and his advice was good. Three hours of fishing yielded 13 Pacific Mackerel, (on cut mackerel) 10 Kelp Bass (on bloodworms), 1 Sand Bass (on a bloodworm) and 1 Topsmelt.

Mike at the “spot”

Ruby’s Restaurant sits at the end of the pier

Good sentiment!

The Oceanside Pier is one of my favorite piers

The Oceanside Pier Bait ShopA nice Shovelnose Guitarfish caught by “Bernie”

We had lunch with Ed ad his wife Pam and were soon headed to San Diego. The first stop in San Diego was at Squidco where I bought one more bag of bloodworms and would have gotten some ghost shrimp but they were out. We then checked into our motel. Mike was a little tired so decided on a nap before dinner. I, on the other hand, wanted to go fishing so headed over to the Ocean Beach Pier where action HAD been great. It was now slow. Nevertheless, fishing from 3-4:45 PM produced a plethora of fish: 7 Kelp Bass (most on blood worms), 4 Topsmelt, 2 Salema and 1 Rock Wrasse, the first I have caught at the pier.

You could see the Coronado Islands (Islas Coronados) off in the distance

The left corner of the pier

Out at the end

Salema aka Big Eye Bass and Lima Perch

Rock Wrasse aka Parrot Fish

Dinner was at the Kaiserhof Restaurant in Ocean Beach where we met up with my son Mike. It may be the best German restaurant in California and I’ve been going there for years. Once again they produced an excellent dinner.

I got a chance to visit with my son Mike for a few hours

Day 4, Saturday, September 12. Crystal Pier would be the destination Saturday morning. It had just yielded up a 40+ pound yellowtail a couple of weeks before our trip, had been producing some shortfin corvina, and might be our best chance for some good fish.

We arrived fairly early because we knew parking would be a problem (it always is) but we still had to park two blocks away from the pier. Upon arrival we only found one other angler (and he was a good one). We headed out to the end and settled in for some fishing (which was slow).

Although already hot and sticky, it was a beautiful morning

Mike getting ready

Looking shoreward

I decided to set up a heavy rig on the bottom baited with mackerel and shortly thereafter hooked something strong that headed out like a bat ray. I finally got it stopped and heading into the pier (where I worried about the pilings). Sure enough it was a bat ray that took more work than it should have to get it up onto the pier. The problem was the current moving inshore and pushing the net under the pier as soon as it got into the water. It took a while but finally the fish was netted and pulled up. Then we had a new problem getting it over the boards that stick out a couple of feet.  If I was a little younger I might have hopped over the railing and simply grabbed the net but those days are over. I finally swung the net over the railing and we were able to grab it and bring it in. It wasn’t a huge bat ray but it still was fun.

KJ and a Bat Ray (aka Stingray, Mud Marlin, Flapper, NASCAR and Sea Bird)

The only two other fish I caught was a round stingray and a small mackerel, which I baited up while trying for a shortfin corvina (with no success). Mike caught a Round Stingray.

Mike and his Round Stingray (aka Stinger and Stingaree)

Live bait was needed but I couldn’t even seem to get that. And, it meant I didn’t have the right bait when a school of firecracker-sized yellowtail showed up next to the pier. Five yellowtail were caught, all small ones, but still yellowtail.

One of the local experts, Angel Hernandez, did have the right bait and he caught two yellowtail. We had a long and interesting talk and I am waiting on some pictures he has taken of recent catches of shortfin corvina. He has also hooked several Giant Sea Bass including one that he said might go two hundred pounds.

A small yellowtail caught by Angel Hernandez at Crystal Pier

Of course I also wasn’t in the right spot. I had started out at the end when yellowtail were not being caught. I then moved into the shallows fishing for corvina but none would be caught that day. While I was at the front of the pier the yellowtail were visiting the back of the pier. So it goes.

The pier became a popular spot with people as the day continued 

We had to leave at 11:00 AM to attend my granddaughter’s soccer match but I think Crystal would have been the place to be for both yellowtail and corvina (if I just had a little more time). Unfortunately, I didn’t have the additional time.

Following the soccer match we had to head north, the destination being San Clemente. This time we checked into our motel, had an early dinner, and then headed down to Dana Harbor to fish from the small pier.

It turned out the harbor area by the pier was having a festival— the “Toshiba Tall Ships Festival,” and the shoreline and pier was filled with people. Thankfully most of the activities were finished by 5 PM and we were able to find a parking spot and some room to fish.

The Pilgrim

We fished from 6:40-9:10 PM and the visit yielded the usual bay species: 6 kelp bass, 2 sand Bass, 1 sculpin (California scorpionfish), 1 sargo and 1 good-sized spotfin croaker.

Spotfin Croaker

Day 5, Sunday, September 13. The last morning I would be fishing alone since Mike was visiting his daughter. I was at the pier at 7 AM and joined several other anglers out at the end of the pier who were pulling in some fish.

The early morning at the pier

Once again I tried for bonito and once again I had no success. However, smaller species were abundant. Three and a quarter hours of fishing produced 40 fish: 18 Pacific mackerel, 6 jacksmelt, 5 salema, 5 topsmelt, 3 kelp bass, 2 grunion and 1 sand bass.

Sand Bass aka Barred Sand Bass, Sugar Bass, Johnny Verde Bass and Grumpies (large fish)

Surfers and the train

The pier, the train, and no surfers

Looking shoreward

The San Clemente Pier and one of the prettiest settings for a pier

Unfortunately the sun and heat were once again brutal and I was covered with sweat when I left the pier. Once I picked up Mike the next stop would be back home in Fresno. Surprisingly when Mike and I arrived in Fresno/Clovis the weather had cooled slightly. In fact, it was actually cooler than it had been at the beach.

In summary, the trip was somewhat disappointing, both as to the heat and humidity and the lack of large, exotic species, i.e., yellowtail, shortfin corvina and bonefish. Realistically though, you still have to have some luck to catch those species. You have to be there at the right time with the right techniques. I think we had the techniques and bait covered but the timing was off. Everyone said you should have been here last week. Big tides had moved in and rattled the inshore waters, the baitfish seemed to mostly move offshore, and many of the larger species followed them. I think things were calming by Saturday/Sunday, and fishing would start to improve, but I had to return to Fresno (darn it). You only have so much time and money.

Nevertheless, the 23.75 hours spent fishing did yield a variety of fish: 50 Pacific Mackerel, 36 Kelp Bass, 14 Topsmelt, 8 Salema, 6 Jacksmelt, 5 Sand Bass., 2 Spotfin Croaker, 2 Sargo, 2 Grunion, 1 California Halibut, 1 Shovelnose Guitarfish, 1 Bat Ray, 1 Round Stingray, 1 Sculpin (California Scorpionfish), 1 Rock Wrasse, and 1 Shinerperch

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2 Responses to The Sauna Tour —A Trip to the SoCal Piers

  1. Joe says:

    Love fishing stories. It is unfortunate that you missed the bite two weeks ago, though it had been slowing even before that. The best bonito bite that I saw this year was in June and July. Back then the regulars at the end of the Balboa and Newport piers were landing 5-6 fish at a time. A lot of them use 12-16 hooks at a time and heavy line, and I’ve personally seen every single one hooked to a bonito when the school passed by – and the guy subsequently losing them all, as there’s no way to pull 12-16 bonito up a pier. I’ve also heard stories, unfortunately, of 40-60 bonito being kept during certain days, even though the limit is 5.

    During that time, the best fishing in my opinion was actually at the less visited piers, such as San Clemente, simply because there was less competition. The regulars there were using much less “greedy” set ups, with 1-2 feathers, and landing bonito one at a time throughout the day. They’d start biting with the morning light, and on certain days you’d see schools of them at the end of the pier, swimming in large circles, and chasing small fish under the pier. They are very fast fish – much faster than mackerel from what I’ve seen, and definitely one of the best fighting fish. I initially tried to catch them with store bought sabiki up with 20 pound test, but soon found out that the bonito are capable of tearing the hooks from the line, such that whenever I had 2-3 bonito on a sabiki and they were going in different directions, the sabiki broke. I eventually stopped doing that and went with the standard 1-2 feather set up.

    Reading your post, I now know that the small fish frustrating everyone trying to catch live bait at San Clemente pier was salema. I’ve heard from the regulars that salema make for very bad bait, as no fish takes them. I don’t know why myself but having tried it, indeed it looks as though no fish want to bite them. No idea why. The same was the case for the small halfmoon we have been getting at Balboa pier.

    We haven’t been getting a lot of mackerel during the day this year. I think it has a lot to do with the bonito. The mackerel, which used to and are now biting again around 5-7 am, adapted to bonito schedule and there would be days when you won’t find a single mackerel during the early morning. Those days, you’d get schools of bonito out at the end of the pier, and having fished mackerel as live bait, bonito DO eat them. So I know I’d be scared were I a mackerel, because there’s no way a mackerel would be able to escape a bonito in open water, which explains why they’ve become night fish. Bonito don’t seem to hit at night, but the bait are still there, so the mackerel come. Had you stayed later than 6 pm at Newport, I think you’d have seen wide open mackerel bite, as that’s been the case every time I’ve visited the last few weeks.

    You’ve heard it from others already, but yellowtail were indeed hitting Newport and Balboa about two weeks ago, though only for 2-3 days. Around the same time, big bonito were also being caught – up to five pounds, when the normal bonito you get is about one pound. A week after that, however, the bite shut down completely. The bonito were gone from the end, and even the live bait people were having a difficult time catching them, when earlier they’d take every little fish you threw in the water within minutes. Their replacements have been increased amounts of mackerel and, unfortunately, lizard fish. I say unfortunate, because lizard fish love to hit live bait not much smaller than themselves, and spending all that effort just to get a 12″ lizard fish is not fun.

    That said, there are still larger fish in the water. Just last Saturday I was at Balboa at night and saw fish >16″ circling the surface. They looked similar to bonito so I thought they were back, but later on changed my mind because these fish were pretty slow. They didn’t look to be bass – they were on the surface and in a school. They also weren’t barracuda because they weren’t that long. I wasn’t able to tell what the fish was till I saw snaggers in the surf pulling up mullet. The ones they were getting were small, but there are large ones out at the end. I have no experience with mullet so have not tried to get them. They don’t take the usual bait.

    As for the fishing improving, I certainly hope so! But from the looks of it, the fish went south, as on the same day you saw yellowtail at San Diego, there was again no fish being caught at Balboa and Newport. Whether it’s because of the hurricane, I don’t know, as the rain has come to southern California this week. Come to think of it, although you guys missed the fish by a week, you did avoid the rain :) There’s always a bright side.

    • kenjones says:

      Thanks for the note Joe. Yes, it looked like I was a little late and missed the good bite but I still enjoyed the days on the pier. As for Newport, I assumed the mackerel would be there later since the pier starting to fill up as we left. However, after the day’s travel we were ready for dinner and a good night’s sleep. Just wish we would have arrived at Balboa a little earlier the next day. Hope the action picks up once again.

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