By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I am as satisfied with my pan-size sargo as if I had decked a 30-pound albacore. The day is a complete success, and my celebration will be enhanced later that evening with some onions, garlic and lemon juice.
THE 1,600-FOOT-LONG SANTA MONICA Pier opened to the public in 1909 charged with tasks somewhat more inglorious than providing a fishing and entertainment platform. Two years earlier, the Santa Monica electorate had voted 591 to 80 to allocate $160,000 to build a Municipal Pier. The small city had been dumping its sewage beneath the nearby and now disappeared Ocean Park Pier. But the agreement with Ocean Park ran out, and for sanitary reasons Santa Monica needed to run its outfall pipe far enough from the shore so that the sewage would be carried out to sea.
Small businesses and fishermen alike soon found other potentialities for the pier. By World War I, an adjacent "pleasure" pier was constructed on the southern edge of the Municipal Pier (today it houses the parking lot and the small amusement park). First came the Blue Streak Racer and then the Whirlwind Dipper, world-class roller coasters, and the La Monica ballroom would host as many as 2,500 dancing couples on a Saturday night. By the 1930s, power launches were making the run back and forth to the gambling boat Rex, anchored exactly 3.1 miles offshore. A newly constructed breakwater provided shelter for a small harbor full of yachts and other pleasure craft.
But this gilded scene went through a sea change during World War II. The pleasure pier went bankrupt, and soon the harbor yachts were replaced by dingy commercial fishing boats. "I was a punk kid who'd ride my bike down to the pier every day during the war," says 70-year-old former Santa Monica lifeguard turned marine biologist Rimmon Fay. "All I can remember is dodging those damn commercial fishing trucks rumbling up and down the pier. They put anti-submarine nets across San Pedro Harbor because of the war, so commercial fishing moved to Santa Monica. There were three hoists working 24 hours a day offloading tons and tons of fish. Imagine -- 350 boats parked right off the pier brailing mackerel 'round the clock."
And it wasn't just commercial fishing that was cashing in. My father, now 82, has shown me pictures of the huge loads of 40- and 50-pound white sea bass he hauled in off the front of the pier in the '40s. Rim Fay has similar memories: "I remember my dad going out in a skiff with set lines right off the pier and bringing in barn-door-size halibut. I'm talking about 200-, 300-pound black sea bass off the pier in the '30s and '40s. One of my most vivid memories is standing in the surf between the Venice and Santa Monica piers sometime during the war and watching some guy catch a wave so clear you could see through it. Then I looked down and could see not only my feet in the transparent water, but you could see the spot-fins and the yellow-fin croaker just teeming around you."
My personal history with the pier intersects with a fateful moment for all of Santa Monica Bay. As a literal toddler, I was taught to fish in the gentle surf at the south end of the Venice Beach parking lot. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my father sift for sand crabs by dawn and shivering in wet clothes in the dying light of a summer evening as I gaped at the paint buckets we had filled with surf perch and corbina.
By the mid-'50s, as I entered kindergarten, my father started to prefer the more comfortable, drier environs of the Santa Monica Pier. But just as I started fishing there, the food chain of the bay was being forever altered. The once-prevalent sardine, the basic bait fish, began to disappear, and with them their heftier predators. Not only were the sardines being overfished by commercial fleets, but -- as we would later find out -- the entire bay was being slowly poisoned by chemicals, sewage and runoff from the ever-expanding city beyond it. "By 1955, L.A. County sanitation was dumping up to a thousand pounds a day of DDT right into the bay," says Fay. "And you could see a direct correlation between the DDT dumping and the demise of the sardine. The DDT castrated the catch."
Not that I noticed as a youngster. The decline in pier fishing was gradual enough to be barely perceptible -- at least in its initial stages. The sardine, for the moment, had been replaced by the anchovy, and the fishing was still sizzling.
For years, I was fully possessed by a case of bonito fever. Pound per pound, no game fish fights harder than this 4- or 5-, sometimes 7- or 8-pound cousin of the tuna. I would literally dream bonito. When not fishing, I would fantasize about catching bonito. Before they attacked their prey, the turbocharged bonitos -- or bonies, as we would call them -- would usually make a swift reconnaissance pass by swimming sharply up toward the bait and then making a sharp turn away. This would cause the water around the target anchovy to "boil." So there I'd sit in our family swimming pool hours at a time and, as a 12-year-old will, run a whole fishing narrative in my head while I pumped my swimming fins to create a ring of "boils" around me.