Fish & Fisheries

Notes from an Urban Fishing Pier

Photo © Chris Wronski / Flickr

I watch as a sea lion surfaces and barks, then disappears beneath the waves in an elegant swoosh. As I wait for it to reappear, a pair of Western grebes floats by, shifting my attention. And then my fishing rod twitches. Seconds later, it twitches again. And then it begins steadily pulsing.

I set the hook. My line twists lightly and I feel a slight resistance; clearly not a large catch. As I reel up, I see I had not caught a fish at all, but an octopus.

A man and his 8-year-old son fished a few yards to my right. During the slow periods of the evening, I learned the man was a construction worker on a month-long project away from home, but his family had joined him. Each evening, he and his boy fished here.

I call the boy over, figuring he might want to see the octopus. When I lift my line towards him, he clearly expects another mackerel, perhaps a kelp bass. When the wriggling octopus appears, he squeals with laughter and jumps away.

He moves in closer to get a better look. I asks if he wants to touch it, and the boy reaches out his finger. The octopus grabs his index finger and wraps its tentacle around it. More laughing and squealing. We then release the octopus back to the depths.

“This. Place. Is. Awesome,” the boy says. And then his dad yells out that he has his own fish on, and the boy is off to enjoy another mysterious creature.

I too think this place – an urban fishing pier – is awesome. I’ve come to believe these spots represent some of the greatest places for people to connect with nature, for anyone to have their own outdoor adventure. They’re places to catch dinner, hang out with family, see wildlife large and small.

Why then do so many of my fellow outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists ignore them, or even look upon them with scorn?

Kelp bass, a common species caught from Southern California piers. Photo © Matt Miller / The Nature Conservancy

Angler on a Pier

Along the coasts of the United States, fishing piers are hidden in plain sight. Many began not as a place for fishing, but as a place for commerce. They were part of wharves, where commercial fishing boats unloaded their catches and shipping boats unloaded their products.

These piers also provided an unexpected benefit: they provided fish habitat. The structure provided hiding places for mollusks and small fish species, which in turn attracted larger species. As commercial uses shifted to new locations, the piers became important as recreational fishing locations. Because the commercial wharves were usually located near cities, these piers offered a recreational resource for urban residents.

Some states built additional piers to provide more fishing opportunity. California, in particular, has an extensive network of piers. Throughout the state, these public piers don’t even require a fishing license.

I have fished and enjoyed outdoor sports my whole life, but I admit I only had a vague idea these piers existed until a few years ago. My work travel had largely shifted from reporting on field research to meetings. Meetings take place in cities. Without access to wild nature, I felt confined, antsy and stressed.

I considered my options, and began seeing references to fishing piers. I wondered if such piers could really offer quality fishing, but decided it was worth a try.

Many colleagues questioned me. “You’re really going to fish there?” has become a frequent question. I’m used to the quizzical looks as I stroll out of downtown conference hotels with my fishing rod. Indeed, even many anglers look down on piers.

Ken Jones, author of the encyclopedic Pier Fishing in California, sometimes even receives hostile emails from fellow anglers. A typical one, he writes, wonders “Why didn’t I stick to boat fishing where the water was cleaner, the fish were healthier, and a nicer class of anglers was available? EXCUSE ME.”

I didn’t know what to expect when I strolled down to my first pier in the gathering dawn. And then I caught a new fish species, a walleye surfperch, within a few minutes. I’ve been, if you’ll pardon the too-obvious pun, hooked ever since.

Many Miami urban parks are along canals populated by exotic fish species, like this Midas cichlid. Photo © Matt Miller / The Nature Conservancy

Pier for the People

The sound of ocean waves and a steady bite make it easy to focus, to block the distractions and mind clutter that seem to accompany a work meeting. I admit that on my walk to the pier, I often wonder if I should be checking email, arranging a “side meeting,” or perhaps just enjoying a good meal in town.

But then I reel up a fish, and there is only this moment. I’m present. Each cast offers a realistic chance of catching a new species for my angling life list. Each cast offers the chance of some incredible weirdness, like the scorpionfish, with its calico coloration and venomous spines that would leave you writhing in pain (and probably useless for tomorrow’s meetings).

Fishing is one of the few times my mind is not racing, when I’m not writing stories in my head or planning the next day’s activities. It’s just the line, the fish, the water. Just here. I allow interruptions in the form of a passing marine mammal – a sea lion, dolphin or even whale – or the myriad of birds swimming and flying nearby.

And despite this serenity, a fishing pier is not a quiet place. In fact, I’ve come to cherish the camaraderie as much as the fish. A mix of languages floats in the air, all focused on the angling. Ken Jones argues that a fishing pier is one of the few places to see a city’s true diversity in one place. There are people fishing with a line attached to a Coke bottle. There are families holding bamboo poles that cheer every catch. Groups of teenagers with shark gear. Construction workers still in their dusty coveralls. All come for the fishing.

And while we may – often in a mix of languages and improvised hand signals – offer tips on baits and tactics, to others we’re mostly non-existent. In the early evening, many piers are awash in tourists who snap photos of surf, of the sea lions, of the sunset. They’re so focused on the photo op they barely notice the people fishing here.

Once a youngster asked his parents if he could fish here, and the father responded, “They never catch anything. We’ll go on a boat.” (False!). But most people just move on.

Later, more locals filter onto the pier. The murmur becomes quieter. Some text but others come to hang out. They sit down a few feet from me, and I can’t help but catch snippets of conversation: Couples falling in or out of love, with earnest conversations and declarations to match. Others sharing stories of bad bosses, back-stabbing friends, clueless parents. They’ll share any detail, as if I can’t hear.

The anglers are just part of the backdrop. Invisible.

California scorpionfish, caught on the Stearns Wharf pier in Santa Barbara. Photo © Matt Miller / The Nature Conservancy

The Great Outdoors Beyond Yellowstone

A persistent concern among conservationists is how to connect more people, especially young people, to nature. So often, the conversation turns to the lack of diversity in national parks, to the barriers to wilderness recreation. The solutions often involve environmental education, or programs that introduce youngsters to activities like mountaineering.

A recent episode of Joshua Johnson’s National Public Radio show 1A focused on nurturing the bond between African-Americans and nature. The host and many of the show’s commenters began by focusing on the familiar, the national parks and camping and wilderness experiences. And as the excellent panelists spoke, a consistent theme emerged: This conversation cannot just be about Yellowstone and Yosemite.

I am an ardent fan of the U.S. national park system and wilderness. But the panelists are absolutely right: connecting people to nature cannot just be about these vacation experiences. There are significant barriers to many people visiting national parks. They are often far from urban population centers and too expensive and time consuming to reach.

Wilderness travel requires significant outdoor skills, planning and training. Many wilderness proponents suggest that expensive gear is necessary.

But more than these barriers, there’s this: Focusing solely on national parks, on wilderness, suggests that nature is only “out there.” That nature is a vacation, an adventure, not just part of daily life.

I am convinced that even among the most ardent conservationists, most of us didn’t fall in love with nature on a backpacking trip in a remote stretch of the Rockies. For most of us, it was our backyard, or the local woods, or a city park.

For me, it was the little wood lots, farm ponds and fields near my home. The chance to explore, to see wildlife, to hunt and fish and track and roam freely shaped my life.

The wild is still there. Conservationists ignore this at their peril.

The ocean still contains great beasts within reach of even the largest cities. You will not see a grizzly bear in California. But you can see a whale. It may sound odd to suggest that a hunter-gatherer could still roam in the shadows of San Francisco or Los Angeles, but they do. They are not chasing elk, but rather fish, including leopard sharks and monkeyface pricklebacks.

The wild is still there. Conservationists ignore this at their peril. Rather than just focusing on nature “out there,” we need to be protecting and expanding the opportunities to experience nature right here, wherever people live. This means more urban parks, more community gardens, more unmanaged spaces in the city limits. And more fishing piers.

Mangrove snapper, a common catch from Florida’s urban fishing piers. Photo © Matt Miller / The Nature Conservancy

Holy Mackerel

The fishing is slow the evening I catch the octopus. As darkness settles, many groups pack up and leave, including the enthusiastic boy and his father. New anglers begin to show up, some carrying heavy rods for larger game. A few drop crab traps and seem to be having good luck.

Just as I contemplate packing up, I can see fellow fishers begin to stand up, give excited whispers and reel up fish. Mackerel.

I am no pier fishing expert, but I tie on a rig that resembles those I see the successful anglers using. It’s called a sabiki rig, several hooks decorated with flashy tinsel that almost resemble flies. I tip each hook with a piece of raw shrimp.

I cast out and let my line drift to the bottom. Almost immediately it goes taut and I set the hook. My light rod bends and throbs, and I bring in a nice mackerel. I give it to a group next to me keeping the fish for food. They offer me a cerveza in return.

I am now getting bites on most casts, and sharing the bounty. A man comes over and asks me for something in Spanish. We struggle through the conversation and I realize he’s run out of bait. I hand him several shrimp and he hands me a few bucks, but I have more bait than I need.

For a moment, it’s just waves, and sea lions barking, and fishing talk. One more cast, I tell myself, knowing it will be more.

But finally it’s time to pack up and head back to the hotel. I walk off the pier and step back into the city, people coming and going, walking out of bars, dodging traffic. But the wild is right there, free for all to enjoy, if we just can open our eyes.

Walleye surfperch, caught in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo © Matt Miller / The Nature Conservancy
Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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4 comments

  1. I haven’t cast a line in years, but always enjoy reading your posts. This one was superb. Thank you!

  2. Many years ago when I worked for the COE and USFWS around SF Bay I was involved in the review and permitting for some public fishing piers. Walking around the sites for the piers I would find residents fishing from the shore or launching small boats nearby. This was a largely a multinational and minority population. Because I would be carrying plans etc., sometimes someone would ask what was going on? When I would tell them about the proposed pier they were sometimes disbelieving that the “government” was actually going to do something for them. I realized that their fishing had several goals. They included; the fish which the protein element of their and their neighbor’s dinners, the recreation-getting outside for a few hours, the community of their friends. I started referring to their fishing as “blue collar” subsistence. It was, and remains, important. I would add that these piers are great places for birding, photography, community interaction, and just getting outside in an urban area.
    Government at every level should support public fishing piers. No one should turn their nose up at public fishing piers or the people using them.

  3. Here in Arlington VA we have the sewage treatment pitfall. Always interesting to see a half dozen fly fisherman in full Orvis get up jockeying for the best spot while the Hispanics are bank fishing. Panfish, largemouth bass andbrhe always hoped for striker.