When I was about seven or eight, my dad took me on my first “Deep-sea fishing trip,” aboard the First String. Being on a boat–the First String was one of the finest of the day–was a wonderful experience for me. As I remember it, we chased barracuda all morning, and ended the day dropper-looping for rockfish. It was the first time I saw a yellowtail, a blue shark (that ate half of a starry on it’s way to my gunny sack), or a deckhand. It was a great trip, and one that was to be the first of countless trips on things of all sizes that float.
Up until that day, going fishing had meant doing so with sand, rocks, or pier-boards underfoot. But there was a certain mystique to the concept of “deep-sea.” Granted, we did a lot of fishing in 20 to 60 feet of water, certainly not “deep” by comparison with most of the ocean’s depths. But for a young boy, miles from shore, catching fish alongside his dad, it was deep enough. The barries were a lot bigger than the perch we had caught at San Onofre or Huntington, and thus, “deep-sea” became synonymous with “big fish.”
It seems that, often times, pier anglers have that same mindset. The relatively deeper water at the ends of piers seems to beckon most pier anglers the the farthest railing, perhaps with the possibility of one of those big fish that have existed in tale and imagination. Instead, what many anglers find at the ends of piers are crowded conditions and small mackerel or other baitfish. Most piers are not deep enough, it seems, to bring in large fish with regularity.
That’s not always true, of course. Anyone who has pulled on big sharks and rays from the ends of piers like Gaviota, Goleta, Seal Beach, Balboa, or Oceanside knows there are some big ones out there. The occasional yellowtail will chance a trip through the pilings of Newport, bonito runs can be frenetic and exciting, and many of us have heard stories of bluefin tuna caught from piers in Santa Monica bay a century ago.
The next time you’re heading for the end, remember that with every step along the pier, if there’s water underneath you, there are fishing opportunities, too. Perch, corbina, and croakers will take pier-fished baits in the skinniest foam. Mid-pier areas beyond the breakers are often the most productive for halibut and other gamefish, and in some cases, these fish see the lightest fishing pressure… there’s simply fewer people targeting them in these areas. And even though they’re probably not supposed to be there, watch out for surfers, waders, swimmers, and other folks who are within casting range, particularly in that skinny water close to shore.
Also remember that every trip doesn’t have to be about “big fish.” Scale down to a trout rod or an ultralight rig, and target perch with a hi-lo rig baited with ghost shrimp or razor clams. Just don’t forget to bring your landing net to bring your catch safely to your side of the rail, so the decision to retain or release the fish is yours, and not the unfortunate result of light gear.
If mackerel is your thing, then by all means, head to the end and bring your bucket. If you’re trolley-rigging one of those mackerel for threshers or yellowtail, the end might be just the place for you. But if you want to try something a little different, find a nice spot along the rail a few steps closer to the beach, and see what’s biting in the shallows. You might just be surprised what’s swimming around beneath the kids on boogie boards.