Who fishes from the Imperial Beach Pier

Poor people live over the water

Early morning, I.B. pier. “You Americans don’t like fish heads, but that’s the best part of them!"
  • Early morning, I.B. pier. “You Americans don’t like fish heads, but that’s the best part of them!"
  • Image by Joe Klein

There’s something about the hour before dawn at the pier. Out there in the dark, all you can feel is the ocean rollers hitting the long pylons beneath your feet, coming in to land after rolling their way across — who knows? — maybe the entire Pacific. Looking west, black nothing. No sea, no sky, and in the predawn fog, no stars. Just one great black spooky void. For all you know the great mythical sea monster from Baja might be opening his jaws in front of you at this instant, ready to chomp.

Honorata: “I will dry them,” she says. “For tuyo, a breakfast."

Honorata: “I will dry them,” she says. “For tuyo, a breakfast."

You hold onto the rail fast, even though it’s as cold as death. You try not to sway when each unseen roller below you strikes the pier.

A kind of vertigo hits you at the sense of movement. It troubles your inner ear — and your inner sense of wellbeing. It makes you want to react, to pitch yourself forward. It would be so easy to let go, to give in, to fly into the night, the ocean, the void…

Ruth. IB’s top-water fish are anchovies, sardine, perch, queenfish, Spanish mackerel, and bonita. The bottom-fish that come around the pier are croaker, sculpin, sand bass, a few small catfish, flounder, halibut, the occasional lobster, and crabs.

Ruth. IB’s top-water fish are anchovies, sardine, perch, queenfish, Spanish mackerel, and bonita. The bottom-fish that come around the pier are croaker, sculpin, sand bass, a few small catfish, flounder, halibut, the occasional lobster, and crabs.

“Ay! Huli!”

The words come from 20 feet away.

A whole string of words follows. It sounds like Tagalog, the Philippine language. “May na huli akong! Malaki kabayan!” It’s not until later that I’m told this means something like, “A catch! I have a big catch, countrymen!”

A little buzz of voices ripples out. The man who called out the first word, “huli!” — catch! — is shouting as he fights a mighty battle with an unseen force from below.

I move along the rail toward the sounds. One word keeps coming up: “pating!” — shark.

Now I can make out the shadow of a small man with a big pole that’s bent and twitching. Other shadows have gathered around, friends offering a string of advice. The voices rise to yells when the line screams out and the pole seems to leap from the man’s hands.

Suddenly it’s slack. Silence. Then shouts. They must be telling him to wind in. He starts frantically reeling, and there’s another jerk. He fiddles to release the catch on his reel, but the line twangs taut. He yells. In the graying light I see the silhouette of a knife blade swiping. The fisherman falls back. The end of his line dangles uselessly from his straight rod.

For the first time he sees me. “Too big,” he says in English. “Too big.”

This fall morning, months later, in broad daylight, IB pier looks more prosaic. The waves are as huge as they were on that summer night. They sweep along like logs under a carpet, sending a shudder through the pier’s timbers. And I hear those words again.

“Ay! Huli!”

Except this time it’s an old woman in a huge, wide-brimmed straw hat held down by a scarf tied under her chin. She’s just tall enough to see over the wooden railing. She reels in her line from the gray waters 20 feet below and brings up a five-inch perch, wiggling over the rail. She maneuvers the hook out of its mouth and tosses it to flap in a white plastic bucket on top of a half-dozen other diamond shapes gasping away.

She catches the swinging line, leans over to the lower rail she’d been using to chop up mussel meat. She stabs a piece onto each of the two hooks, then drops it over the edge and swings it back out into the surf.

This is one of those fresh, foggy, cool mornings that braces you. Life is worth living. The pier is busy with fishing people, mostly Filipinos. They haul out their grocery carts filled with plastic buckets and pipes (to hold their rods vertically) and head for their favorite spots. Local drunks lean over the rails contemplating life, lifted after the day’s first beer. Down in the water the waves are immense, ocean-sized. Surfers ride in under the pier, despite the sign telling them to keep 150 feet away. “Back off!” one fisherman yells down to them. He wants to toss his line.

The beach end of the pier is the end to be on right now. It’s a rising tide, and the old lady says that’s when the anchovies come seeking food around the pier legs, and the mackerel are coming in after them. And the blue-topped bonita are following the warm waters in to feed on the mackerel. And the sand crabs are coming in with the tide to eat the detritus collected on the bottom over the last half-day. And the perch are coming in to feed on the crabs…But the warm waters of summer are long gone; pickings are leaner this morning. People, mostly women, are catching only perch. Not such a bad fate. “The perch love those sand crabs,” says David Dubert, one of the few men here — and one of the few Anglos. “Perch have a good set of teeth on them. They can nibble through those shells, no problem. So when you eat a perch, you’re getting two meals for the price of one.”

David Dubert knows about food values: he’s lean, short, muscled, 52, and runs a Pizza Hut not far north of here. Today, as on most of his off-days, he’s strolling down the pier with a brown-bag beer in hand.

He’s so mad that IB authorities are about to make this illegal, he’s considering leaving town — after 40 years.

But mostly he’s mad that more people don’t live the pier life as fully as the Filipinos do. “I’ve been fishing off the pier for all this time,” he says. “I’ve seen fish get fewer and most Americans give up on them. But not these people. I’ll tell you, it was these wonderful, generous people — the Filipinos — who taught me everything I know about saltwater fishing. I came from the Great Lakes. Freshwater fisherman. These people, they know the life that’s going on underneath, what the fish are doing, who’s eating who. Just look up here: 80 percent Filipino! That’s because they use this pier. This is not sport for them, this is food-hunting. You can just about live without ever visiting a supermarket from what you can catch on this pier. The fresh air, the quiet — this is a social center, but see? Most of them are old. They were brought up in the Philippines, on the fish they had there. They had to learn a whole new ball game here. And I got it all from them. Others could learn from them, too.”

A man walks by and tosses his Crown Cola can into a trash bin. He takes a few steps, then turns back. He reaches down for the can. “Sorry, Honorata, I forgot.” The little lady who’s been catching the perch laughs as he leans down and puts his can into one of the three buckets she has on her cart.

“Nothing wasted, right?”

Honorata Asilo Magsino, known to everyone by her Tagalog name, Aling Atang, has been fishing right on this spot for 13 years. She’s 75, and before 1982, she was in a wheelchair. She couldn’t go anywhere on her own. She was depressed, stuck at home — and home wasn’t even in the Philippines. So one day she got up, hobbled down to the 933 bus, and came to the pier. She hasn’t missed a day since. She leans on the railing all day long, from nine till four, when she catches the bus back home. “This has saved my life,” she says. “I eat fish, good for my arthritis. The fresh air, the company, the excitement catching the fish. And now I am useful; I have something to give my family to eat, too. That’s why I come.”

I ask her what she’s going to do with these fish.

“I will dry them,” she says. “For tuyo.”

Tuyo is a breakfast. “Rice and fish,” she says. “Poor people in the Philippines have rice and fish — three times a day, if they’re lucky. They eat less, but they are healthier than people here. They don’t like sweet things, except for fruit. And making tuyo is very easy.”

Tuyo or Daing

Catch a fish (say, perch or mackerel)

Slit it open (if it’s mackerel, down the backbone)

Clean, sprinkle with salt, pepper, soy, vinegar

Lay out in the sun, leave two to eight hours (depending on the sun’s strength)

Fry in skillet Creates a crispy fried fish that lasts a good, long time

Break up and mix with rice (or scrambled eggs)

Add vinegar sauce (vinegar, chopped onions, and garlic)

We’re further out now, on the “T” section of the pier, the part with the cold metal rails. Rita is standing with her pole against the rails. She has the line in her hand, and as she watches the sky and the waves, her arm is lifting and lowering, up and down, up and down.

She has a can of bait: anchovies. “I bought it,” she says, as though she’s done a terrible thing. “$2.41. Commercial bait, fishing pole — I’m fishing the American way.”

Well, not quite. The lifting and lowering is part of the technique for catching surface fish like Spanish mackerel or anchovies. Like humans or ostriches, the mackerel’s wide-angle eyes are attracted to shiny, moving objects. “Mackerel are top-fish. They’re hunting, they bite. Not like bottom fish, which have lips and suck, looking for dead stuff or leftovers,” says Rita.

Today she’s interested in opal-eye perch and buttermouth, but she’s here seven to eight hours every day. If it looks like a job, she says it’s one she loves. She’s a grandmother (though she looks too young, as Filipinas often do). Today her three grandchildren are with her so her daughter can work. Together they usually catch enough to make a couple of meals. One of her favorites is pinakbet.


Chop up eggplant, bitter melon, squash, okra, oriental beans (string beans)

Add sliced onions and garlic

Toss into skillet with bit of oil, sauté

Slice (any) fish, cook ten minutes

Add bago-ong (fish or shrimp sauce)

Eat with rice

Rita says she didn’t actually start fishing till she came to the States. But she has a fishing background. “We lived over the sea. In a stilt house, a nipa hut. Poor people mostly live on the coast. They can’t afford land, so they live out over the water,” she says. “I never fished. The men did that, from boats, with nets. But we ate fish. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. We had a garden plot on the land behind. We grew vegetables, poultry, kept goats and a cow.

“Sometimes the only thing we bought was rice. Fish was everyday. Meat was for special occasions.”

Not far away a young Filipino boy is hauling on a rope. I look over. He has a four-fluke grappling hook down at water level. He swings it against one of the pier’s pylons. It scrunches into a colony of black mussels and rips off a clump of the smaller, younger ones on top.

“See?” says David. “Free bait. It’s the same for anchovies. Anchovies make great bait or great food. People here taught me what they call ‘The Lucky Joe.’ They set seven to eight tiny hooks on a very fine line, put a small weight at the end, and tie tiny feathers to each hook. No bait. You drop the line in just below the surface, where the anchovies swim, and just keep that line moving up and down. Pretty soon you’ll be catching eight at a time. Catch about 300 and you’ve got a great meal. Just break their heads off…”

“No…” says Rita firmly. “You Americans don’t like fish heads, but that’s the best part of them! My grandmother always told me you get smarter if you eat the head. Because that’s where the brains are. At my home, when the fish came on the table everybody wanted the head.

“Any size fish, it was the tail nobody wanted. You just take the head and suck out the brain. And the eyes! They taste great, and they’re full of protein, too.”

David shakes his head. “Can’t do it,” he says.

“But I can,” says David’s Filipina wife, Laura, who has turned up.

“When David’s away, I ask my girlfriends to come round and bring some fish heads. Especially bottom fish, like croakers, or sand bass, because they have lips! The lips are the nicest part of all. So tasty! Americans miss so much! David, he only eats fillets of fish.”

“Well it’s better than meat, hamburgers,” says Edith, a Filipina RN and Rita’s friend. “This food is so much healthier. I tell my patients, it’s good for high blood pressure, for cardiovascular health.”

“And the bones of the smaller fishes, like perch,” says Rita, her arm still moving slowly up and down like an oil rig. “They’re so good for you. And you can fry them and eat them whole.”

“Or you can put them with what we call deninding,” says Laura.


Fry fish

Boil water

Add onions, eggplant, bitter melon

Add jute leaves, horseradish leaves (buy from Filipino stores in National City or Chula Vista)

Mix in two tablespoons of fish sauce (bago-ong)

Simmer till water evaporates

Flop fish on top

Eat with rice

A boy and his dad come up with a brown paper bag. Dad tips an angry, brown-red fish onto the deck.

“What is it?” he asks.

“Don’t touch it!” says Rita. “It’s a sculpin. It has poison quills.” “I’ve been stuck by these ten times,” says David. “My whole hand swelled to twice the size. I got headaches. My stomach hurt. It lasted hours. Last time they had to bring the ambulance.”

“You’ve got to be real careful,” says Rita. “But if you cut the two spines off behind its eyes, you can eat it. But they take a long time to die.”

The father pushes the bag back around the fish and takes it away. On the other side of the pier, an Anglo man has a crossbow with a fishing line attached. He’s trying to unravel the line so it doesn’t take him with it when he shoots it out. Nearby, fishing on her own, lifting and lowering her line by hand with hypnotic regularity, Serafía Castillo, who says she’s 66, is catching anchovies for drying and sending to her relatives in Arizona. “Best time for the bigger ones,” she says, “is when the tide is coming in, when the moon is full.”

She rubs her tummy. “I can’t eat mackerel or barracuda any more. My body’s no good. My stomach gets tight when I eat mackerel. I found it harder and harder to move. So I have stopped eating oily fish. Now I eat other fish that swim at the top, like perch. I think I feel a little better.”

“Knowing where to catch what, that’s the thing,” says David. “You’ve got top-swimmers, bottom-swimmers, and scavengers. It depends on the time of year — and June, July, August are the best months because the waters are warmest. What you have to decide before you put your hook in is which you’re going for — top, bottom, or scavenger.”

IB’s top-water fish are anchovies, sardine, perch, queenfish, Spanish mackerel, and bonita. The bottom-fish that come around the pier are croaker, sculpin, sand bass, a few small catfish, flounder, halibut, the occasional lobster, and crabs.

“Then there are the scavengers. Best time for the scavengers is nighttime,” says David. “Ten p.m. to six in the morning. The tiger shark, sand shark, stingray — they’re all fighters. You’ve got to have 100-pound heavy line. You’ve got to be prepared to have large reels and poles. And you’ve got to be prepared to be out all night. They can reach 40 to 50 pounds.”

I immediately think back to that predawn morning last summer…It might have been a tiger shark.

Serafía is telling me that one of the great delicacies is the head of a tiger shark, baked and stuffed with vegetables and spices. “Not many are caught,” she says. “They fight so hard.”

She jerks her hand at last and hauls up a shimmering pearl-string of anchovies.

I ask Serafía if she isn’t worried about the sewer pollution around here. Maybe that’s what’s bothering her stomach. “I’ve seen the insides of fish here and at other piers,” she says. “They are whiter and taste better here. I think this water is the cleanest. Better than Shelter Island. Better than Ocean Beach.”

A couple of days later I happen to be in Ocean Beach. I can’t resist moseying out on its concrete pier to see if the story is the same here.

“Peas. I use peas for bait,” says Al Gil, a middle-aged Filipino I find halfway out on the pier. The atmosphere’s different here than in IB The ocean is more...roistering. There’s more arching surf, smashing in front of cliffs near the beach, and the place is crisscrossed with pelicans making low cruises right over your head in dignified, determined lines of 12. In the water, ranks of surfers, of course, and regular clumps of sea lions bouncing out of the water, looking around, then confidently rolling back under.

On this pier there seem to be more Koreans and Vietnamese fishermen than Filipinos. And more nonfishermen with hard liquor bottles lounging in the postfog sunshine giggling at the “Crime Watch” column from the Union-Tribune.

I came across Al next to where a Filipino family of three was fishing, the son dropping a large parachute net in between his parents, catching bait, hauling up maybe a dozen anchovies in each lift. His bucket was already half full.

The peas must be working: Al has three or four perch in a plastic shopping bag. “I give them to the neighbors,” he says. “They love it, and I feel good. We Filipinos, we don’t like processed food. We like it fresh. Vegetables, fish…” He’s hauling up a fish, a queenfish, about six inches long. But it slips as he takes it off the hook. It bounces once on the rail and dives down to smack into the water.

“Have a great life!” Al yells after it.

“Those ones are kind of strong-tasting anyway,” he says. “Fishy aftertaste. Not that that’s a problem. What we do is, first we cut them right down here.” He draws a line down my backbone. “I put in garlic and ginger and salt and pepper. Then I put the fish in some vinegar and the whole thing goes into the fridge for 30 minutes, and that fishy aftertaste and smell is gone.”

We stand leaning on the rail, watching the sea lions cavort. I can’t help feeling it’s not just the fish that bring so many Filipinos down to the ocean. “I think a lot do find it a kind of bridge with the old life,” Al says. “Me, I fish because it’s better than dying in front of a TV set.”

He says he’s grateful for the health system in the US; he looks like a man who might need it. “It’s good, great for medicine and doctors here,” he says. Then he stands up straight. “But for happiness — there! The Philippines. At night sometimes I think of the smell of the mangoes, of the fresh pandec in the morning. The pandec man comes around the streets at 4:00 a.m. on his bicycle with a big, shiny, covered can at the back. He hoots his hooter and calls out, ‘Pandec!’ and the pandec — round bread — is still hot. Fresh! It’s great with eggs. And then there’s salavat. A great breakfast drink.”


Heat water

Cut up and squeeze ginger root into the boiling water

Add brown sugar Great for soothing throat, smoothing out voice in morning

“And then we have a cigarette!” Al says, laughing. “If I went home tomorrow, my children would all be there. They would take their papa straight home. We’d sit down to a big round table, and they’d serve up my favorite dish: baked bass.”

Baked Bass

Clean a sea bass

Steam in clay pot

Splash on mayonnaise, tomatoes, onions, garlic

Steam a little more to absorb flavors

Serve with rice

“And of course we’d have pancit — noodles. On any occasion — like Christmas, birthdays, homecomings — we must have noodles because they symbolize long life. Every home must have nice, long noodles ready.

We’d pray together and thank the Lord for the food — and I’d know I could stay there till I died. They wouldn’t send me anywhere. That’s our way. And the fiestas, when each house on a street cooks something different and you go from house to house eating chicken, fish, fruits. Yes, I think of these things. This country is very advanced, but some things it lacks. I miss them.”

“I would go back, too,” says Laura, a few days later in IB “If we have enough money, we’ll go, to stay over there. It’s a nice living over there. Very nice life, as long as you have enough money. That’s what I told David. My family has a cottage near the sea. The only problem is, David would want to fish.”


“I won’t let him go fishing if we go over there. It’s embarrassing! There’s no American people doing things like that back home. My brother won’t let him. He’s putting me down if he does something like that. Fishing? There are no Americans go fishing over there! Only Filipino people.” n

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