When fishing was fun…and plentiful


Fun Zone Boat Co

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Submitted photos

Albacore caught off Balboa Pier

In its early years, Newport Harbor was one of the premier small fishing ports on the west coast. With a relatively large and protected harbor, Newportʻs “Gospel Swamp” became a perfect home for the thriving fishing industry. The Southern California bight, a top-notch location for sports fishing and fishing fleets, created vibrant marine and cannery industries.

Local Indians were the first to discover the treasure of life in our Pacific. Sea otters and salmon once ranged all the way to San Diego. Corona del Mar had a large kelp forest, and was home to myriad species of fish, many of which disappeared with the kelp. Seaweed was used extensively in cosmetics and ice cream in the 1950s.

Gabrielino Indians, living in one of the worldʻs most moderate climates, had endless amounts of fish. Native Americans living in local villages, Genga and Moyo, used spears, nets and sculpted wood or shell hooks to catch shoreline fish. This was supplemented by a plethora of lobsters and clams.

man holding a halibut

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A large catch…halibut!

Fishing became a part of everyoneʻs life in pioneer Newport. John Sharps, “Big Jim” Stauus, Robert and Alberto Duarte, Indian Joe, and others fished when not working around McFaddenʻs Landing. It was a way of life.

Decades later, kids in row boats dropped lines all around Shark Island in search of some tasty halibut. Elsewhere, others fished the many harbor docks hoping to catch butter-mouth perch, all the while, trying to avoid the dreaded sculpin.

Adventure fishing boat

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Adventure, an early fishing boat

Access to “sport fishers” like the now-vintage wooden Christ Crafts or the more sophisticated Rybovich designed “fishkillers,” placed the 14-mile bank and Catalina close enough to catch every imaginable pelagic fish. From mackerel and marlin to bait and broadbill, the waters off Newport were simply full of fish.

Extraordinary fish, including sea bass and tuna, were caught off the cityʻs two piers and three barges. On special days, families caught and cooked grunion by hand on many sandy beaches.

grunion hunt

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Catching grunion by hand

Fishing clubs, team tournaments and deep friendships grew during these dark to sunset sessions. It was the ultimate “rite of passage” for young Newporters.

Sailboat racers throughout the bay paid close attention to powerboats as they returned flying their fish burgees. There was a sense of security among Newport residents knowing that their oceans abounded with tuna certain times of the year. Young boysʻ adrenaline peaked when boats displayed multiple marlin or swordfish flags. The love of the ocean was strong to these small town and carefree kids. Life was good!

Western Canners CoLRG

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In 1934, Western Canners Company was founded to take over the first commercial fish cannery built along the Rhine channel between 30th Street and Lido Park Drive. Today, it is where The Cannery Seafood of the Pacific is located.

Organized sport fishing businesses like Port Lido, Artʻs Landing, Norms Landing and others promoted fishing. Fishing was a boom to tourism, and in struggling years tourism helped the town grow.

However, this “endless” supply of adventure and food did not last. The balance of life within the sea was forever disrupted starting with the arrival of the Russians and Europeans. Populations of marine life were ruthlessly hunted beginning a centuries-long decline. By post World War II, technology and an increased human population killed kelp forests, while “organized sport fishing” harmed larger species, then nets and long lining and airplane spotters decimated the rest. Competition was keen and life in the oceans fell under assault.

teeming with fish men

Teeming with fish

In those early days it was not a matter of catching enough fish to eat. Fishing was a matter of how many fish could you catch. Environmentalism and protection of species were still decades away. The frenzied killing of fish was considered normal for this generation and their offspring. Today, we have removed at least two-thirds of the large fish in the ocean, and one in three fish populations have collapsed since 1950.

Put simply, there are too many boats chasing too few fish.


Duncan Forgey, who made his home here in Newport Beach for many years, now resides in Hawaii. He is a monthly contributor to StuNewsNewport.