Meet Me in the L.A. Surf: Bring Your Rod
Whenever a tourist cruising some stretch of Santa Monica Bay catches me on the sand with rod and reel in hand, Im always dumbfounded by that most predictable of questions: Do you really catch anything here? The tourists seem even more shocked when I answer in the affirmative, no matter if he or she is from Wisconsin or West Hollywood (the latter apparently believing that all local fish derive solely from Santa Monica Seafood).
Our local bay has seen some tough times, and several generations of its denizens have braved everything from PCBs to Pennzoil runoff. There was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when things looked terminal. But thanks to the hard work of environmentalists, regulators and conscientious sport anglers, theres been a slow comeback. A surprisingly few Angelenos take advantage of the bountiful sea just outside their door, and consequently, we fishermen (and -women) often enjoy some wide-open spaces. The local surf teems with perch, corbina, croakers, even some keeper-size halibut, all for us. And before you ask, yes, you can even eat most of the above, especially the flatties. Just dont make a regular diet from them.
You can find these fish almost any place theres salt water and somewhere to cast from. Anglers are pretty secretive about revealing their favorite holes. But let me share with you, at least, some rather open secret spots, all within a few minutes of the urban tangle.
WILL ROGERS STATE BEACH, Santa Monica
Get yourself some light tackle, an 8-foot spinning rod with 6-pound test line and some No. 4 hooks. Rig up a Carolina leader with a half-ounce sliding sinker. The sand crabs started to bloom in early June, so bring a trowel or use your hands to dig them up; theyre all around. I like the fingertip-size ones. Soft-shell is better than hard-, but both work. Stick one on your hook, look for rip tides, sandbars and darker-colored holes, then lob the crab out 10 yards or so into the waves. Use a slow retrieve and youre likely to pick up a hungry barred surf perch, maybe a chunky foot long. Keep your eyes open right at the shore-break line for hard-fighting corbina (beans, as we like to call them), which love to suck up the crabs. Plastic grub bait and, especially, scented artificial worms work like magnets on this strip of the surf. Toward twilight, expect the yellow-fin-croaker bite to open up. These are tough-pulling cousins to the corbina that are fun to wrestle in. Unzip them right away and release them. Unlike the perch or corbina, the yellow-fin are not for your dinner plate. My biggest surf catches this season came from Will Rogers: a 26-inch halibut and a 20-inch spot-fin croaker.
P.S. If you can avoid the sunbathing and boogie-boarding crowds, try the stretch of beach between Santa Monica and Venice (early morning, sunset and overcast weekdays are the best times). Perch, croaker and the much-hunted corbina are found all along this beach. When the water warms up in midsummer, it could be a wide-open bite.
PCH, between Temescal Canyon and Chautauqua Boulevard.
THE PIPE AT EL PORTO, El Segundo
Just below Marina del Rey, youll see the twin smokestacks of the Hyperion power plant. A hundred yards north or so is the old pipe from, um, the shitworks. I repeat, its the old pipe, out of use, a relic. Its attraction to fish is not what you fear. Rather its the clinging barnacles and mussels that act like an artificial reef. What can I tell you? Fishing here is very, very good, with some toad-size perch and lots of beans as well and the fish are just as clean as they are up or down the coast. The greatest danger isnt the water chemistry. Schools of wet-suited surfers, including L.A. Weekly deputy editor Joe Donnelly, love the break at El Porto. Keep a legal 100 feet away from these board masters, as they generally seem oblivious to the anglers.
Vista del Mar, a half mile south of Imperial Highway.
WESTWARD ROAD BEACH, Zuma
Up here at Point Dume, the water is clearer, the surf is higher, and the falloff from the shore-break can be precipitous. Kelp can be also a problem, but fish love kelp. I had my best overall day here one Saturday this past spring. The always-present porpoises were actually surfing the waves; a couple of humpbacks were spouting only 50 yards offshore; the sun was shining brightly; and the water was a Caribbean blue. Better yet, monster-size barred perch were on the chew, gobbling up just about every artificial worm I tossed out. The only thing missing that day was a unicorn on the beach, quipped an angling partner. Its not unusual to tie into a lurking halibut along this beach. And Ive seen keeper-length calico bass pulled up on strips of cut squid, especially around the rocks. Last time I was there, a few weeks ago, the sand crabs had moved in and fishing was good.
PCH, just north of Kanan Dume Road, left on Westward Road. Take Westward to the end, where it becomes a state park. Drive to the back of the parking lot up against the cliffs. If youre lucky, they wont be filming a car commercial when you show up, and youll be free from harassment by walkie-talkie-toting grips.
THE PIER, Malibu
This is the lazy mans version of surf fishing. Its completely dry, and you can sit on a bench and snooze. The end of the pier is still under reconstruction for the umpteenth year, and the only restrooms are porta-potties just outside the entrance. But this makes Malibu Pier an under-utilized and under-appreciated classic with none of the horrific crowds that swarm Santa Monica Pier. Theres a regular gaggle of old-timers (including yours truly) who can tell you about the Old Days when yellowtail, white sea bass and 8-pound bonito were among the fare. Things are slower nowadays, but more-experienced fishermen are still unlocking the piers treasures. Halibut top the local list. Best bet is to bring an extra trout-size rod with little sabiki jig hooks so you can catch your own sardines or smelt for bait and drop them in a bucket with a $10 aerator to keep them alive. Nose-hook one at the end of a 3-foot leader with 2 ounces of lead, cast it out and wait for the telltale tug of the halibut. Butter-mouth black perch haunt the mussel-laden pilings that hold up the pier and love to eat, well, fresh mussels. Malibu is also the place for shark hunters. Banjo sharks and shovel-nosed sharks in the 3- to 10-pound range are about the most common fish taken from the pier. Leopard sharks up to 4 feet long have also been caught recently. Even when theres no fish to be had, Malibu Pier is worth an afternoon. Look to the north and watch the gentle action over at Surfrider Beach. Cast your glance to the south and see if you can pick out David Geffens mansion. When all is lost, go across the street to the Malibu Inn and have one of the best hamburgers in all of Southern California.
22900 block of PCH, across from the Malibu Inn.
FOR BAIT, TACKLE AND TLC: Wylies in Malibu; Purfields in West L.A.
Lets face it. Fishing, at least fishing the right way, can be intimidating. You need the right tackle, the right bait and the right technique. Either all of that or a whole lot of good luck. The privately owned bait-and-tackle shop squeezed by Wal-Marts and Sport Chalets has almost disappeared from our landscape, with no more than a dozen good ones in all of the metro area. Two of the best specialize in surf fishing, and before you hit any of the above spots, make sure you visit one and get what you need (in any case, you have to buy a California state fishing license, which these stores can provide). For those looking to fish the northern part of the bay, say from Topanga Canyon northward, check in with Ginny at Wylies. Its a one-stop crash course right down to which rock you stand on. For points southward, Dick over at Purfields will set you up with what you need and is always more than happy to share his insight and expertise.
Wylies, 18757 PCH, Malibu. (310) 456-2321.
Purfields, 12512 Washington Blvd. (310) 397-6171.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly guide to events in Los Angeles, and never be bored again. With suggestions for every day of the week, our recommendations will keep you busy on any budget.