FORUM: Daytime Pier Fishing

I took my first-ever college courses at George Washington University (GWU) in the summer session after my seventh year in elementary school. During this time my family was moving to California, but they stayed with Mom’s family in Chicago most of the summer. I stayed with the family of my best friend and neighbor in Annandale, 15 miles from the GWU campus. I rejoined my family in Chicago after the summer session ended.

In order to attend the summer session at GWU, I had to leave seventh grade two weeks before graduating. Thus, I had to spend two additional weeks as a seventh-grade student in order to graduate into eighth grade.

I enrolled in summer school in a parochial school in my grandparents’ working-class neighborhood soon after arriving in Chicago. On my first morning the teacher told the class I was a new student, and she asked me to introduce myself. During lunch she spoke with me privately, saying that beginning immediately I’d be helping the maintenance man paint pipes in the basement for two weeks. When I asked why, Sister said that if I said anything in their presence again the children would surely kill me. Time passed quickly and soon we were off to California!  

Our first stop was Santa Monica, where Dad worked for a few weeks at the Rand Corporation. We stayed in a hotel walking distance from the pier—where I spent most of my time watching people fish. Reconnaissance revealed that all one needed to catch fish from the pier was a hand line, a weight, some hooks attached to transparent monofilament leaders, and a bag of frozen anchovies for bait. I asked the man operating the pier bait and tackle shop to compute the total cost of such a rig and bait, with tax. He did, so I knew exactly the amount of money required for me to be able to go hand-lining.

I avoided trouble potentially arising by asking my parents for money: they were already stressed, and I didn’t want anything to ruin my opportunity to fish from the pier. It seemed obvious, I needed a short-term job. Pondering what type of local short-term job I could obtain, I had an idea!

Near the front of the pier was a shooting arcade with metal duck targets on conveyor belts, and .22 rifles. The floor behind the counter, and beneath the target façade, was covered in mounds of lead dust, fragments of broken bullets, and brass bullet casings. I offered the manager a deal: I’d pull the brass in exchange for cash—specifically, for the amount I needed to purchase the rig and bait for hand-line fishing. He accepted my offer, and I had my first-ever part-time job. I got the brass: filthy work that took time—no gloves, no face mask. In retrospect, this period in America—was quite hazardous.

The next morning I purchased my equipment and bait, and went fishing. I caught and released some white croakers, called “tom cods” by locals. Most were about a foot long and weighed a pound or two—fun enough to catch using a hand line. I learned that while “hooking” a fish with a handline isn’t too difficult, hauling the fish 30 or 40 feet up from the water to the pier railing requires pulling the line up slowly, methodically, without pausing, shaking, or accelerating (positively or negatively)–and even then the struggling fish sometimes manages to become unhooked and return to the water. Before leaving the pier I noted that the pier bait shop had photos of a fish named bonito, which appeared to me as if to be much stronger and faster than a Tommy—and thus probably a lot more fun to catch.

We left, rented, and moved into a house in Huntington Beach (HB), two miles from the HB pier. At first opportunity Mom and the kids piled into the station wagon and headed for the beach. The kids played in the sand and I investigated the pier.

The first thing I learned is the HB pier is much longer than the Santa Monica pier. The second thing I learned is the HB pier has two zones where productive fishing occurs.

  • The first zone corresponded to the location where waves begin forming, extending toward shore, ending where there is a minimum of foot-deep water. In this zone anglers caught a variety of species, primarily white croakers. Benches for sitting next to rails were on both sides of the pier, and sinks were available for cleaning fish and rinsing hands.
  • The second zone began about fifty feet before the end of the pier, and ended at the rail facing the Pacific. When fishing was good, which often was the case, this zone was crowded—especially on summer days. Experienced anglers would set-up for morning and evening bites. Bonito were the glory gamefish—five pounders and larger were considered a trophy. Lucky anglers had a photo taken with their fish and displayed on a bait shop wall.

Absolutely, I thought, I must become proficient angling in zone two—the tip of the pier.

My freshwater rod and reel were useless because their line strength rating was too weak for saltwater pier fishing. I told Dad what I’d hoped forthe same kind of rod, reel, and line which I saw many anglers on HB pier use to fish for bonito. With Dad’s help I obtained:

  • a spinning reel filled with 150 yards of 20-pound Chameleon monofilament line;
  • a fiberglass fishing rod a bit longer than six feet, rated for 20-pound line;
  • some weights; hooks and leader material;
  • a 2-ounce diamond jig; and
  • a sabiki rig with four hooked feathers, hand-made in the HB bait shop.

Two fishing methods were used to catch bonito from the end of HB pier: jig or live-bait.

Jig fishing involved tying a four-feather rig to the end of the line coming from the reel, then tying a diamond jig to the end of the rig. To fish this rig begin by lowering the rod over the rail, pointing the rod tip at the water; open the reel bail and carefully release line until the jig is ten feet above the ocean; swing the line like a pendulum, back and forth three times under the pier, increasing the length of its arc with every swing (using more swings risked losing rigs that became entangled with pier understructures). As the rig swings away from the pier the third time, snap the rod tip higher and simultaneously release the line allowing it to peel off the spool in a ballistic arc of 45 degrees for maximum distance.

Once the cast is completed the rig is allowed to sink. Anglers “count down” the number of seconds after the lure impacts the water, starting their retrieve after five seconds, and adding one second to each successive cast until a strike occurs: this informs one how many seconds after casting (a proxy for depth) to fish. The typical jig-return pattern involved pointing the rod tip at the rig; heaving backwards down and towards oneself as firmly, fast and far as possible; raising and pointing the rod tip at the rig while rapidly winding in slack line; and repeating. It is easy to know if a bonito bites a lure or feather being jigged: all motion of rod, reel, and jig stops instantaneously. It was unusual for more than one bonito to hit the rig in the same cast, and even more unusual to land more than one bonito at a time.

Live-bait fishing involved tying a two-ounce pyramid sinker—which holds the bottom better than curved weights, to the end of the main line. An underhand 45-degree ballistic cast is used to fling the weight as far from the pier as possible. When the weight hits bottom slack in the line is eliminated by gently turning the reel handle. A leader consisting of a snap swivel tied to a six-foot-long piece of 20-pound monofilament line, ending in a hook, is “snapped” over the main line. A live anchovy is hooked and the leader released. The angler holds the rod as high as possible as the leader slides toward the water, to get the bait as far away from the pier as possible. Then one simply waits. If something pulls the leader and the rod tip begins moving the angler gently winds in any slack line, then “sets the hook” by pulling the rod tip up and backwards once the line becomes taught.

Here is a photo (taken by Mom when I returned home) of my first bonito, caught on HB Pier using live bait. It was delicious!

In my experience, fishing using live bait could be boring in-between bites. Jig fishing was more active, and was especially exciting when two fish hit one’s rig in the same cast, but casting and retrieving quickly became tiring in the absence of strikes from fish. At HB pier I usually caught more bonito using live bait, but I caught a larger variety of fish when jigging: jack smelt, Pacific barracuda, and pompano, for example. I encountered one exception to this generalization.

A no-name storm stranded a large school of bonito on the beach-side of a reef 600 feet off the end of the pier. I went to the pier the morning after the storm, along with two young brothers, Charlie and Jimmy—fraternal twins about half my age. I got a Lucky Joe and Diamond Jig rig ready, and went to the rail to wet my line (which casts further than dry line), and gently lowered the rig into the water. When the rig hit water it stopped sinking. I leaned my fishing rod against the rail, held and gently pulled the line trying to pry it loose. It felt heavy, as though it became entangled with mussels coating the pier pilings starting at water level. I asked my bros to look and see if I was caught on the piling. They told me I was not—I had a fish.

Amazed, I pulled the line up slowly, methodically, without pausing, shaking, or accelerating (positively or negatively). I breathed rhythmically in synchrony with my pulling, imagining that I was an electric winch operating in slow retrieve mode. There were FOUR bonito (one on each feather), and a barracuda on the Diamond Jig—the best single “cast” catch I’ve ever had.

Fishing’s always great, catching’s even better.

Daytime Pier Fishing

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

June 16, 2021

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