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The Allure of the Pier : Sometimes the People Outnumber the Fish, but There's More to Catch Than Dinner--Like Peace of Mind


LONG BEACH — On good days, when the bonita or halibut or mackerel are running, the fishermen line Belmont Pier like horse players who crowd the rails of a race track.

On slow days, when it's a good bet not much will be caught, the pier is less populated. The regulars will be there, though, sitting in lawn chairs and, regardless of their success, enjoying the scene.

Early on a recent Saturday morning, the scene was timeless:

The moon was still out. The sun had just come up, setting apartment tower windows to the west ablaze with orange. Gulls cried, and were chased by little girls. The sea was pale and still, and people of all ages were dropping fishing lines into it.

If only more fish had been taking the bait.

"I've been out here since 5," said Harry McFerren, who was feeding pigeons. "If you don't get 'em early in the morning, you don't get 'em at all."

There have been two Belmont Piers that have jutted out over the beach from near 39th Place. The current concrete one--1,450 feet long and capped by a 336-foot Y-crossing at the seaward end--opened in 1967, replacing a shorter, wooden pier that was 50 years old.

McFerren, 81, had more luck off the old pier. "There used to be a lot of fish," he said. "Now there's more fishermen than fish. It's the pollution in here."

And the seals. He looked down in the water and saw one eat a fish.

"But if the sardines come through here," McFerren added hopefully, "you can catch any number of fish."

Some of the anglers marched onto the pier carrying their poles like guns. Others came overloaded with enough paraphernalia for a weekend camping trip: buckets, tackle boxes, plastic bags full of food, coolers, blankets, radios--all of this piled atop carts.

Out on one of the seaward wings, a woman was prepared for the weather that changes as the day progresses. She wore a straw hat, a red kerchief, a plaid shirt over a blue sweat shirt, a skirt over long pants, and tennis shoes. She drank coffee from a paper cup and fished for dinner.

"This pier has fed a lot of people," said Frank Hale, 80, the former manager of the pier's concessions and a fixture there for 35 years.

His wife, Willi, a semi-retired pediatrician, now runs the concessions. She works at the end of the pier out of a two-level building whose copper roof the salt air long ago turned green. The building contains a snack stand (hamburgers, fish sandwiches and crabs are the popular items) and a bait-and-tackle shop. At the bait shop's window, arrangements are made for trips on three fishing boats the Hales operate.

The pier is under the jurisdiction of the Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine, and the city gets a percentage of what the Hales take in, which they say is about $1 million a year.

Most of the money is made in the summer. "When school starts there's a big drop-off," Willi Hale said.

Some of the pier's trappings have vanished over the years. The Buoy restaurant, which once sat atop the tackle shop, never was successful, according to Frank Hale. "Women didn't like walking down the pier to get there because their hairdos got blown all apart," he said.

Electrical outlets were taken out years ago. Frank Hale said they encouraged all-night camping, and the campers were inclined to build fires.

Hale used to operate his flatbed truck as a tram, ferrying fishermen along the pier for a dime. But high insurance costs and vandalism (the truck's tires were often slashed) brought an end to that venture.

A building that housed restrooms also became a target of vandals and was taken down. Portable toilets now sit in the middle of the pier for those who don't want to make the long walk to the restrooms in the bait shop.

McFerren recalled when "they had nice orchestra and big-band music" playing over loud speakers strapped to the light poles. But most of the speakers are gone; over the few that are left come only announcements, such as the time of departure of the next boat or reminders that bicycles are not allowed on the pier.

The pier was open all night until the early 1980s when sleeping transients became a problem. It is now fenced off from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Willi Hale said the pier has become more family-oriented in recent years, and, as a result, is more peaceful. "We haven't had any break-ins in the tackle shop or snack bar in a couple of years," she said. "We do have a good alarm system, however."

Later on that recent morning, on the side of the pier that faces the downtown skyline, J.C. Hanks, 64, of Carson baited a hook with salted anchovies. He wore blue overalls and a cap that read: "Old fishermen never die, they just smell this way."

"Not much luck," he said. "Fishing ain't what it used to be," he said. "I guess nothin' is."

His two poles were stuck into holes in the wooden railing, allowing him to sit in his lawn chair and wait for a bite. He nibbled on nachos, then he yawned.

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