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A Pier With No Peers : A Near-Record Salmon Run Is Creating a Virtual Mob Scene Among Enthusiastic Bay-Area Anglers on L-Shaped Structure

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a pilgrimage that begins every day at dawn and continues until dusk.

They come to this quiet, coastal city from such places as Modesto, Stockton, San Jose, Sacramento and nearby San Francisco.

Young and old, they come from all walks of life to partake of what has become an absurd sort of ritual: fishing for salmon on what must be the world’s busiest pier.

Since chinook, or king salmon, took this region by storm earlier this month, showing in what some say are record numbers, the situation has become downright ridiculous. Surely, when it comes to crowds, Pacifica Pier has no peers.

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They pack the L-shaped concrete structure like sardines: hundreds upon hundreds of them, standing shoulder to shoulder. Those arriving late try to nudge their way to a spot on the rail. Those who can’t find a spot bide their time waiting for one to open, watching the salmon, and the occasional striped bass, come over the rail in a net.

Fishing poles, long and short, fat and thin, old and new, protrude from the rails like quills from a porcupine, weaving a sometimes tangled web of monofilament down into the greenish sea.

Salmon floats, small foam balls, markers above the baits, bob on the surface like pastel and neon polka dots.

When a bait is taken, tangles are inevitable. Tempers often flare and fights occasionally break out.

“It’s mostly just about having fun,” said Rodel De La Cruz, 30, a regular from San Francisco. “It’s people who cross lines and don’t give a sweet nothing who cause all the trouble.”

Curt Rosanger, who helps out behind the counter of the bait and food store at the base of the pier, said fishermen have gone swimming with the fish for causing such trouble, but added that mostly people get along and in fact have come to accept the madness as part of the fun.

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The whole scenario, this fantastic salmon bite included, has been reported by local newspapers and TV stations, attracting even more people. It’s a wonder the pier, about 120 yards long and 30 feet wide, is still standing.

“People see it on TV, hear about it, and more and more people come just to see for themselves,” said Eddie Susbilla, 54, a twice-a-week visitor from San Jose.

Said an exasperated Joanne Ferguson, taking a short break from the pier store: “When it started after July 4 or 5, it used to be just on weekends, but in the past week they’ve been coming like this even during the week.”

Such an experience is not for everyone, however. Some avoid the pier like the plague.

“The pier is ridiculous, your worst nightmare,” said Craig Stone, owner of nearby Emeryville Sportfishing, which runs a more civilized operation, using party boats. “I’d have to be the most desperate man in the world to go fishing on that pier.”

Pier regulars, however, insist it’s not that bad.

“The pier is just like a big cement boat,” Susbilla said. “I just tell people not to get upset about the crowds and to be careful not to overhead cast, because you can hurt somebody, and the fine is something like $200.”

Susbilla then reached into his gunny sack and pulled out a 19-pound salmon he had caught moments earlier. Another fish then came over the rail in a net, drawing the crowd away from Susbilla. The pier was producing.

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“You can catch your [two-fish] limit every day out here, easily ,” Susbilla said.

True enough.

Salmon have graced not only Pacifica, but the entire Bay Area and beyond, with limits being the rule from Monterey to Bodega Bay.

“The salmon population available to fishermen is quite large, obviously,” said Alan Baracco, a biologist and salmon expert for the Department of Fish and Game. “I’d say it’s going to play out to be one of the best two or three seasons in 50 or 60 years.”

For comparison, the highest catch rates of salmon from the Sacramento River system since the turn of the century were recorded in 1988. The run was partly because of the good river conditions in 1986, when many of the fish were spawned. Commercial fishermen accounted for the take of 1.4 million fish and recreational anglers caught 192,000.

Through late June this year, estimates placed the commercial catch at 500,000 and the recreational catch at 150,000. And the season doesn’t end until October.

Baracco cautioned, however, that such runs can’t be expected every year.

“Each year’s class has its own history, so to speak,” he said. “For example, the 1989 year class, produced that winter and in the spring of 1990, was very poor. That year’s class produced a commercial catch of only 163,000 fish and a recreational catch of only 73,000. So that’s 200,000-plus fish from that year’s class and they had poor river conditions, lousy ocean conditions, so [it varies from year to year].”

Most of the salmon currently being caught by pier and boat fishermen--and in some instances even surf fishermen--were spawned in Sacramento River system hatcheries in the winter of 1992 and spring of ’93.

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Again, river conditions throughout the Central Valley were very good. “In fact, the water flow and habitat conditions were the best they had been since 1986, and that year led to an excellent salmon season as well [in 1988],” Baracco said.

A total of five hatcheries produce about 30 million juvenile salmon a year. And whereas they used to be released at the hatcheries on the river and its tributaries, and had to survive both predators and diversions on their long trek to the ocean, they are now being trucked to the bay, vastly increasing their chance of survival, notably by keeping them from the deadly diversions of the State and Central Valley water projects.

“These fish want to go to the ocean, not Los Angeles,” L.B. Boydstun, DFG deputy chief of marine resources, told the San Francisco Chronicle last week. “I think it shows you what can happen if we get the fish past the hazards and into the ocean.”

Baracco said that excellent oceanic conditions this spring and summer, notably the lack of a strong El Nino current, are another major reason for this summer’s remarkable run. They have resulted in cooler water and constant upwelling, which has generated a nutrient-rich environment essential for the entire food chain, from plankton to baitfish to predator.

The salmon are taking advantage of such conditions, gorging themselves until it is their turn to enter the river system to spawn, this fall or next.

Thousands of them won’t make it, however, ending up on backyard barbecues instead.

Surely, anglers are making the most of the situation.

On Pacifica Pier, more than 1,000 salmon were caught in a single day earlier this summer, the most ever recorded. On any given day, at least 300 are being caught.

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Fishing has been so good and the scene so chaotic that those with little regard for the rules or for conservation of the species are taking home more than their two-fish limits.

One day, DFG wardens arrested more than 20 anglers for over-limits, including one man with 17 fish.

“We’ve also got people who are catching their two fish, putting them in their car and going back to catch two more,” Rosanger said.

Asked how many salmon he has caught this season, Susbilla was vague. “Let’s just say it’s been a good season,” he said.

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