For many fishermen, the thought of saltwater angling draws up visions of wave-busting boats running miles offshore to deep-water haunts where giant leviathans wait to test your serious gear. But for huge numbers of coastal residents, the reality is something quite different. For them, a saltwater excursion means a short walk to fish off rocky shorelines teaming with a wide variety of ocean fish. Their destinations are the hundreds of rock jetties that guard harbors and moorings from the northern tip of Washington State to Baja Mexico. Their gear often consists of trout rods, some bait and a bucket, and maybe even a good lawn chair. Their quarry can be anything from a six-inch rockfish to a chunky lingcod, crabs or maybe even a shark. The possibilities are endless.
Jetty fishing is easy, it’s fun, and just about anybody can do it. It’s also inexpensive and requires only simple fishing skills, making it a great way to introduce kids to fishing. Basically, if you can cast a rod and reel, you can fish off jetties. It’s also a social gathering were regulars and locals get together to swap stories as they catch fish. For these reasons, as well as the chance for some very tasty table fare, the sport attracts a huge following of anglers of all ages.
Spring marks the season when the ocean lays down and fishermen can once again get out on the jetties and fish, and it also marks the spawning season for many rock-loving fishes. This one-two punch of good weather and active fish can make this the best time of the year to enjoy this popular sport.
Fish are drawn to jetties for the same reasons they are drawn to natural rock reefs. They can find everything they need — food, shelter and currents. These man-made structures are built from rock and rubble to protect bays, boat docks and harbor entrances. Along the northern coast, where the storm winds are stronger and the ocean is rough, they are built of huge boulders that are sometimes bigger than a car. These jetties can be difficult to get around on but, as you move further south and the climate mellows, smaller stones are used.
In addition to the large jetties that guard our ports, there are numerous smaller jetties and finger jetties that offer safer, mellower water and easier walking for youngsters. These smaller structures are perfect for introducing kids to the simple fun of jetty fishing.
WHAT’S ON MY LINE?
Set the hook on a jetty fish and there’s no telling what you might reel in. While each area of the coast has fish that are common to jetties, there are plenty of surprises, too. Sharks, halibut, ling cod, bonito and more are some of the larger fish you might encounter, although the majority of fish taken from jetties are smaller than what you usually catch from a boat.
The most commonly caught fish from Washington through northern California are rockfish such as black rock bass, blue rock bass, Cabazon, and kelp greenling. Other fish you might encounter include pile perch, surf perch, lingcod, sole, flounders and even salmon. The warm waters of southern California produce other kinds of fish, such as opal eye, buttermouth, croaker, corbina, calico bass, sharks, rays and striped bass.
Outdoor writer Larry Ellis has fished jetties from southern California to northern Oregon, and he says not all jetties are created equal. “The best jetties are the ones that are closest to natural reefs,” he says. “The fish move in from the reefs and stay.”
A reef is a reef to a fish, and they care not whether it was made by man — it’s all habitat to them. If it meets their needs, they will make it home.
Usually the better fishing occurs during the two hours on either side of the flood tide, and the smaller tides can sometimes be best. The fish are hanging out in the rock crevices waiting for the tidal currents to carry them food, but if the current is too strong they just hunker down and wait it out. Likewise, rough weather and heavy waves can also force the fish to “hole up.” Rough weather also usually means snagging a lot of terminal tackle. And, then again, there are safety issues when the ocean is rough. Every year fishermen are swept off jetties by sneaker waves, so it’s always good to go with a buddy. Better yet, stay at home when the conditions are rough.
NORTH, CENTRAL COAST
Patrick Mirick, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), spends a lot of his free time shore-fishing saltwater, and he says the most commonly caught fish taken from Oregon jetties are black rockfish, also called black bass. Other commonly caught fish include kelp greenling, pile perch, and lingcod. Anglers after lings are fanatic about springtime jetty fishing because that’s when the big, hungry fish come in shallow to spawn. “They aren’t as big on the average as ocean-caught lings,” says Mirick, “but they catch a lot of nice keepers.” In Oregon and Washington, lingcod must be 22 inches or more to keep. In California, it’s 24 inches.
Throw Soft Plastic Baits For Rocks, Lings
Mirick and most fishermen are throwing soft plastic baits when fishing for both rockfish and lings. A 3/4-ounce jighead tipped with a 2- or 3-inch twist-tail grub will take most rockfish, and for lings a 4- to 6-inch bait works best. “White is by far the most popular color,” says Mirick, “but darker colors will also work at times.” Greenling and perch can be taken on bait, so anglers fish sand shrimp, clam necks and muscles on the bottom with a drop-shot-style rig.
Just about any light or medium gear will work for rockfish. According to Mirick, the average rock bass will run from 8 to 14 inches, so a light or medium spinning rod and reel spooled with 8- or 10-pound test will work just fine. For ling cod, something heavier is in order. Try a medium-action rod and a reel spooled with 12- to 20-pound line.
WORK CLOSE, FISH THE ROCKS
According to Ellis, most of the fish are taken right on the rocks themselves. For that reason he cautions against fishing too far out. “Beyond the rocks it’s just sand bottom,” he says. “The fish are hanging out in the holes between the rocks waiting for the current to bring them food. That’s why you want to bounce the bait right along the rocks.”
Lings are often found right along the edge between the rocks and the sand, and that is the zone you should work with your offering. Bait such as herring or chopped anchovies will also take lings. They can be fished on the bottom or worked just off the bottom with a slip-bobber. According to Mirick it takes a little more expertise to catch the lings on a regular basis. “You have to be a little more knowledgeable to catch them,” he says.
Another way to get rockfish is by poke-poling. This is basically like jigging for crappie. Anglers use long poles to drop baits vertically into the holes and crags in the rocks.
Salmon are increasingly being caught off jetties in recent years, but most of that fishing takes place during the late summer and fall when the fish are moving in to spawn. Bait such as herring is fished below a slip-bobber, just off the bottom for kings; silvers are taken with Blue Fox spinners.
NORTH COAST JETTIES
The north jetty at Gray’s harbor is a very good jetty fishery, and it is easier to walk than some others. Other popular jetties include the north jetty at Ilwaco, the Columbia River jetties, the south jetty of la Push and the Westport jetties.
Oregon has some very good jetties, including the Barview jetty at Tillamook Bay, which is exceptional for lings in the spring. The Newport south jetty is very popular, and Ellis reports that the Brookings jetty provides some excellent fishing.
Good jetties near San Francisco include the Pillar Point Jetty and the Half Moon Bay jetties.
Softer seas and milder weather make Southern California a great place to get in on the jetty bounty. While the jetties near the population centers do get pounded, the fact that Californians can fish public piers without a license draws away many would-be jetty enthusiasts. The south coast offers a much greater diversity of fish species close to shore, as well as many different methods to take them. What follows are just a few ways to fish these southern jetties.
Because there are so many larger fish caught from jetties in Southern California, most fishermen use somewhat heavier gear than in the north. Common big fish taken along jetties include sharks, skates, rays and striped bass, all of which require a medium-heavy rod and reel spooled with 20- to 40-pound test.
According to Ellis, other than throwing spoons for bonito or soft plastics for calico bass, many fishermen in these southern waters are throwing bait. “Fresh mussels are the best bait, hands down,” he says. “Even the opal eye will bite the mussels, even though they are vegetarian feeders.” The opal eye is a common, popular and tasty fish on California jetties, and some fishermen catch them with small hooks using peas for bait.
Bait fishermen also take croakers, many different kinds of perch and rockfish, California halibut and much more.
SHARKS, RAYS AND STRIPERS
Thresher sharks and shovel-nose sharks are commonly taken, as are dozens of species of skates and rays. Fishing at night for striped bass can be excellent at the Seal Beach Jetty, which a good spot for halibut, as well.
Other good jetties in Southern Cal include those at Mission Bay, the Oceanside south jetty, the Long Beach breakwater and the Imperial Beach jetty.
In the mellow waters of Southern California, a lot of fishermen use boats to fish the jetties by working along them and casting to the fish.
Jetties are a great place to go crabbing, and fishermen now have a new tool for jetty crabs beyond the old tangle-line traps. These new traps are cast out with a stout surf rod and they lay flat and open on the bottom. When you retrieve them they snap shut, holding the crabs. Mirick has used these new devices and he is really impressed with how they work. “They are so much better than the old gears,” he says. Most fishermen are after Dungeness crabs, but all kinds of common crabs can be caught this way.
Limits and license requirements are different from state to state, as are open areas, so check the state regulations where you plan to fish before you go. Also, California residents should be aware of closures due to unsafe water and check the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) Web site for closures and warnings.
For more information, contact the ODFW, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) or the California DFG.