A ten-year-old kid perches atop the green wooden railing, his leg partially obscuring the “No Sitting on Rail” warning sign stenciled below. By late afternoon, this railing has become encrusted with fish scales and entrails, mush bits of mussel and squid, French-fries, and bird droppings congealed like chalky plaster in the sun. The fishermen scattered about stand, sit on beach chairs or benches and read paperbacks, chat with their neighbors, fidget with bait. The aroma of Sea & Ski wafts with the breeze, while everpresent portable radios blare that particularly Summer Southern California AM beat of Carpenters, Elton John and Beach Boys (“All right now, kids, a SUPER-golden-oldie! Bruce Springsteen!”). Even on a sunny day, the wind is brisk and blows froth against the pilings below, carrying shoreward the occasional purplish pulp of a dead jellyfish.
Here, almost half a mile into the Pacific, off the crowded sands of Ocean Beach, is an unusual community – the fishermen’s society of the O.B. Municipal Fishing Pier. Shaped like a draftsman’s T-square, and seemingly a 2500-foot extension of Niagara Street, the pier for ten years has been a favorite gathering spot for tourists, strollers, lovers … and fishermen. Many of the people out here are only transitory visitors, some strictly fair-weather sightseers. But there is a dedicated segment, the pier “regulars,” who come here every day, or nearly so, to fish, but also for the guaranteed companionship. Fresh air, and sense of community which a day on the pier can provide.
The Ocean Beach pier, longest fishing pier on the West Coast, was built jointly by the City of San Diego and the Wildlife Conservation Board of California in 1966 for slightly more than a million dollars, and is now administered by the County Parks and Recreation Department.
Charlie Young, badge number 103, has been a pier guard since 1969, one of the three guards who keep the pier clean, maintained, and free from bicycles, skateboards, and dogs. Young works the weekday 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, and knows most of the pier regulars by sight, if not always by name. He can reel off a list – “There’s Betty Harms, she comes down every morning, and Bob Trantham and his buddy Thurston Field; ‘Halibut Harry’ over there; Joe and Emma; John Reagan the ‘Bonito Man’; Joe Silva…” They all come to the pier regularly, says Young, along with legions of kids who seem to spend every free day of their summer here. There are others, too – the “buffalo Kid,” Al from El Cajon, a bearded guy who always wears a C.A.T. cap and fishes off the end for sharks. The picture board hung inside the Sea Dog Restaurant is replete with photos of most of these people displaying their catch. There is also an elderly Italian woman who comes often, short and plump, carrying only a shopping basket for her tackle, fishing with a hand line. “I don’t know her name,” Young admits. “I just call her Mama.” Perched on a light post overhead, two scruffy seagulls wait patiently for any unwanted bait to be cast into the water. Sometimes, when the fishermen aren’t looking, one of these feathered rip-off artists sneaks up and grabs bait right off the rail.
According to Young, on a pleasant summertime Sunday as many as four thousand people come out to stroll the pier or fish, and maybe a third of that number comes on a sunny weekday. “Ninety percent of the regulars down here are retired” says Young, who will himself retire next year. “Most probably retired from 9 to 5 jobs, and I guess they feel they can substitute their lost activity by coming down to the pier and fishing for six or eight hours. Other just like the fresh air.” Young braced a foot against his official vehicle, an orange electric cart. “I don’t know many of their last names,” he continued, sipping coffee. “People can fish together for years down here, never see each other off the pier, and never know more than each other’s first name.”
Emma and her husband Joe come every day no matter what the weather. “The fish don’t know if it’s a nice day or not,” she reasons. The couple retired here from New York, and they have been coming out to the pier for two years. “I can’t think of a nicer place to live than San Diego,” Emma says with a Brooklyn accent, sweeping her eyes along the La Jolla coastline. She is soft-spoken and smiling, with sun-washed hair. She and her husband fish “just for the fun of it. There’s a lot of folks come here every day, like us – it’s good recreation for old people and kids.”
Another refugee from New York, the middle-aged “Buffalo Kid,” is on the pier every day too. Usually, he wears shorts, cap, Adidas, and a T-shirt stenciled with his nickname. “I used to live in Buffalo,” he explained. “But I moved near the pier so I can go fishing anytime I want to!” Just then, a school of hungry bonito cut through the water below the “Kid” and another of the regulars, Al. The fish rocketed after the smaller, panicked smelt, slashing at them, flipping them from the water in a silvery burst. Within 30 seconds, the bonito were gone. No one had hooked any, and an elderly man with a broad-brimmed hat and no rod of his own chastised the fishermen. “You guys blew it! You should have tossed a jig, anything out there. You’ll never get another chance like that,” he moaned, then launched into an unsolicited explanation of The Feeding Habits of the Bonito. People moved away.
The fishing slowed after the bonito attack. The pier is littered now with a day’s worth of pearly fish scales and papery brown seaweed, the concrete stained dark with blood and melted ice-cream bars. Shimmery webs of monofilament swirls about, as though spun forth by some beserk nylon spider. A pint-sized fisherman, armed with ten-inch machete, hacks away happily at the rail, all while checking over his shoulder to see if Charlie the Guard notices. It wouldn’t matter – the rail-top is covered with ancient and recent carvings, notches, lovers’ initials, graffiti. “Hutch & Sue ’74,” “I Love Maria, ’76,” “Perry Loves Roseanne.” Or, for the non-romantics, “Virgil M. ’69,” and simply, “O.B. Rules!”
Al drives all the way from El Cajon to fish free several times weekly. Reclining in his patio chair, he explains why he sometimes gives his fish away. “Lots of old people down here have to keep every fish they catch. They have to – some of ‘em on just a little pension or Social Security. One lady told me she didn’t know what she’d do if she couldn’t catch fish down here to eat.” Though he lives near Lake Jennings, Al never fishes the county lakes. “I tried that exactly once, just once. I caught one little fish about so long, and for that I paid $2 to get in, $7.50 for a damn license, plus gas, plus about $10 for bait, hooks, and all the other stuff you need for trout. Never again. Me, I come down here and have better fishing for free. Let the suckers go out on the lakes. I’m no sucker.”
The fishermen’s dialog drifts up and down the pier, vying with Brian Wilson singing “Good Vibrations.” “Took my bait,” shrieks a stout woman, holding up a bit of nibbled clam for all to marvel at. “See that? Just took it right off!”
A rod bends over the side as a fish strikes another line. “Whataya got there, Max?” “Barracuda! I got a barracuda!” The line goes slack almost immediately. “I let it go,” say Max magnanimously. “Too small to mess with.”
One novice, using clams for bait, laments to his partner, “Why am I wasting clams for bait? I love clams. I ought to take them home and eat ‘em. I hate fish!”
Further down the railing, one of the regulars, a short, chunky man with a white stubbly face and a stained cap, pulls up a tiny, foil-colored queenfish. At once, the little boy fishing next to him bursts out “Whadjauseforbait?” No reply. The fisherman flips the fish off the hook, tossing it into a bucket. Again, the voice, more plaintive. “Whadidjacatchiton?” “A hook and line, of course,” says the regular. Apparently satisfied, the kid returns to his own rod.
Across the pier from this pair, a mustached man speaks to a teenager who has just thrown back a small fish. “Say, next time you get a fish, give it to me,” says the man. “We’re from Ohio, and my friend over there has never caught a fish. I want to sneak it on his line when he’s not looking.”
The signs at the end of the pier inform visitors of both the distance from shore and the depth of the water. It is 2000 feet to the “T”, the point at the end where the pier splits into two arms, each arm about 500 feet long. The water, gray-green a half-mile out, is about 25 feet deep. People catch sharks right here, just a clam’s throw from the swimmers and surfers off Ocean Beach. Point Loma, wedge-shaped, tapers to a tip that almost kisses the murky silhouette of Mexico’s Coronado Islands. To the north, at an angle to the pier, the Mission Bay channel juts out, regularly emitting sailboats and other craft to the open sea.
As usual, Bob Trantham is out jigging on the north corner of the “T”. He wears a white cowboy hat and fringed buckskin jacket. His bark glasses come nearly to the ends of his curly waxed mustache. Young, the pier guard, says he calls Trantham “Whiskey Bob” because the fisherman carries his tackle in a Hiram Walker-Ten High whickey box secured to a cart. Often Trantham is joined by his friend Thurston (“We call him ‘Thurstie,’” remarks Emma) Field, who also sports a waxed mustache, dark glasses, and a cowboy hat. Field’s bucket is plastered with “Padre Power” stickers, and he bets with Trantham on the Padre games. On days after the Padres win, Field wears his Padre cap in place of the cowboy hat. He’s been wearing the cap pretty often, lately.
One of the pier regulars everyone knows by sight. Slight, with short white hair tucked beneath a floppy straw hat, wearing white shoes, a print dress, and a blue windbreaker, Betty Harms is the grand old lady of the pier people. She celebrated her 88th birthday in the past month, but in spirit she isn’t old. Mrs. Harris still tries to come fishing every morning, walking the three or four blocks from her home in Ocean Beach through fair weather or cloudy.
“I can’t stand to be cooped up in the house,” confides Mrs. Harms. “So, every morning, I get my work done early and get out. Staying at home gives me a headache. I hate to do things like sewing.” Like many of the regulars on the pier, Mrs. Harms fishes with a “Lucky Joe” rig, a string of four flies connected to a flasher on the end. “Boy, I catch fish with this,” she says, in a tone that is not bragging, but merely telling things as they are. She has the softest trill of a British accent. Does she keep the fish she catches? “Nah!” she says, grimacing. “I hate to clean ‘em. I hate the smell. I hate the mess afterwards. When I want fish to eat, I go to Anthony’s. I just come out here for the fresh air and exercise. I like being out in the open spaces, out on the ocean on a clear day. My late husband and me, we’re from England – outdoor people.” Mrs. Harms has probably been coming to the pier as long as, or longer than, any of the other regulars. “I watched ‘em build this pier ten, twelve years ago. I was the first person down here with a fishing pole in my hand,” she says, twitching her rod up and down between leathery fingers, as she tries to entice the fish to bite. She’s very good at it. She has caught four bonito at once, snatched large halibut and barracuda from the deep, and once landed a thresher shark. “It was either him or me. I was either going to pull that shark up, or he was gonna pull me in after him,” she recalls with a wide grin. “Well, I won.”