The Joys of Pier Fishing

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PHOTO: JACK McQUARRIE
Angles at a pier in Ventura, California try to hook some tasty bottomfish

There’re no two ways about it . . . a store-bought fish
dinner just can’t match the flavorful goodness of a meal of
piscatorial delicacies that you’ve caught yourself.
Unfortunately, though, the sport of angling–like many forms
of recreation–has been inflated and complicated to the
point where anyone who buys enough gear to be considered
well-equipped will also likely be well on his or her way to
bankruptcy.

Worse yet, folks who do their fishing in salt water seem to
bear an even heavier financial burden than do
freshwater anglers. Big, high-powered boats, sophisticated
fish-finding sonar sets, and jewel-bearinged reels often
raise the effective per-pound price of the ocean
fisherperson’s catch to somewhere near that of pure gold!

There’s a way to beat the high cost of snaring yourself a
finny dinner, however. All you have to do is put aside
complication-for-complication’s-sake and join the
leisurely, happy–and productive–world of pier
fishing!

While in some eastern coastal states the pier fisherman or woman may be required to purchase a fishing license and
even shell out a dollar or two in order to obtain
admittance to a promising dock or jetty (neither expense is
likely to apply to folks fishing from public wharfs along
most parts of the West Coast), pier fishing
equipment can be just about as inexpensive as you
want to make it. In fact, whatever tackle you happen to
have in your garage–or even a simple handline made up of
nothing more than cord, hook, bait, and sinker–will do the
job (make sure that your line is 20 pound test or more,
though, because there are likely to be a few “big’uns”
lurking around your favorite pier).

The simplicity of most pier fishing gear doesn’t mean that
this back-to-basics angling won’t fill your stringer,
either. In fact, while folks who pursue salmon (a species
which is a good example of “glamour” game fish) only
average one-half fish per outing–according to
fisheries statisticians–pier anglers (who regularly tie
into such tasty bottom fish as cod, flounder, bass, or
perch) average 2.44 fish every time they spend a
day fishing! And as long as you don’t mind the weather, or
can dress to offset it, pier fishing is good all year
round!

Several factors contribute to the good success ratio
enjoyed by wharf anglers. For one thing, the shade provided
by the large docks attracts fish . . . as the critters have
no eyelids and like to get out of the sunlight on bright
days. Then, too since most pier anglers clean their fish on
the spot and return the innards to the ocean the water
around such wharfs is rich in food.

And, though catches of bottom fish are common, a pier angler
never knows just what might grab hold of his or
her bait next! Large game fish often cruise such locations
in search of the smaller species that congregate around the
pilings, for instance, and the lucky angler can sometimes
land a trophy that would put many of the fish caught on
budget-breaking charter boat expeditions to shame!

Pier Group Pleasure

The catch isn’t everything, though, because piers are also
wonderful places just to relax with your fishing rod and
shed your everyday concerns. The atmosphere is usually a
social one, and you’ll find that most wharf anglers are
gregarious sorts . . . always ready to share a net and a
helping hand, a bit of “special” bait, and probably a
little advice and instruction.

Many public piers also feature bait and tackle shops . . .
where an angler who chooses to do so can–for a few dollars–rent all the equipment he or she will need. If, however,
you decide to purchase your own pier fishing outfit, the
following guidelines will help you make sure that your
choice of tackle is right for the job:

The best rod for pier angling is long (from 6 1/2 to 10
feet), flexible enough to cast well, and sturdy
enough to discourage a lunker that’s dead set on wrapping
your line around a piling. Either a conventional casting or
a spinning reel will work well . . . as long as it’s wound
with strong line (again, at least 20-pound test).

Most pier “pros” keep their bait in plastic buckets, and
use a gunnysack (or a cooler) to haul their loot home.
Another handy accessory is a drop net or gaff attached to a
rope that will reach from the pier to a foot or so below
the water level . . . to winch up any line-busting monsters
you might catch.

The well-equipped pier angler will also carry a half-dozen
sinkers (in weights ranging from two to six ounces), a
variety of hooks, a pocketknife, a club to kill (quickly
and humanely) his or her catch, a rag, and a pair of
long-nosed pliers to remove hooks from the jaws of
sharp-toothed species.

And, while you can buy bait at most piers, the
savvy angler will find all the fish-enticing morsels he or
she needs by simply foraging the beach at low tide. In
fact, if I had to choose one all-around pier-fish lure, I
wouldn’t hesitate a minute before naming easily gathered
pile worms. The critters can be found in mussel beds (or in
the mud and gravel area between low and high tide lines).
Besides holding a fatal fascination for most kinds
of fish, pile worms (unlike the garden variety) have very
tough skins . . . and it takes a fair bit of time for a
“nibbler” to clean one off your hook.

Small mussels make good bait, too. Just remove ’em from the
shell, turn the meat inside out (so the juices can “milk”
into the water), and place it on your hook. Clams will also
bring in the fish . . . especially if the bivalves are used
while they’re fresh. It’s best to bait up with pieces of
the “neck” or other tough portions of meat, though, to be
sure your lure will stay on the hook long enough to attract
a finny prize.

Of course, on the days when you want to concentrate on
tryin’ to tie into one of the big cod that often lurk
around piers, you’ll need an enticement that’s more
substantial than any worm, mussel, or clam. For
such lunkers I use a number 3-0 hook and a whole herring
for bait . . . fished on–or just a bit above–the
ocean bottom.

Jigs and spoons will also tempt the big’uns if you simply
lower the artificial lures to the bottom and then bounce
’em up and down. There’s no need to buy a jig,
either . . . just take a three-inch length of “pencil lead”
sinker, bend it into a loose S-shape, and crimp its ends to
your line just above the hook. The jury-rigged lure will
work as well as any attracter that can be bought for
$5.00-plus in a sporting goods store.

From Pier to Platter

No matter how successful your day’s fishing might be, the
catch won’t cook up as tasty as it ought to if you don’t
give it proper care. Fish should be cleaned as soon as
possible–before you head for home–if they’re to
taste their delectable best. Many pier fisherfolk do their
cleaning on the spot, and store the fish–with ice–in a
cooler or burlap sack. Should you want to wait until the
day’s angling is over and do all your cleaning at once,
simply wrap your catches–as you reel ’em in–in damp
newspaper . . . and set the packaged fish in a shady spot
on the pier until you’re ready to do the job.

And although some of the critters that you’ll haul up from
the deep won’t look too tempting, most fish that are caught
from piers are every bit as nutritious and palate-pleasing
as are the better-known game fish. In fact, many seafood
fanciers prefer the flavor of bottomfish to that
of “sport” species.

A cabezon, for example, isn’t much to look at. Even after the fish has
been gutted and filleted, the raw meat has a decidedly
unappetizing green color. The strange hue disappears when
the meat is cooked, however, and the resulting delectable
fillets are flaky, white, and similar to catfish in flavor.

Should you need advice on how to prepare your haul, you’ll
likely find your fellow pier fishers to be a treasure house
of information. You can also consult a seafood cookbook (
if you don’t own such a volume, your local library is sure
to have several good ones on hand). And whether you serve
your catch simply broiled with butter and lemon, or use it
as the basis for a complicated gourmet masterpiece, the
memories of your day of fun and companionship on the pier
will add to the flavor of every bite!