Noe Valley Voice November 2002

Are We There Yet? Family Adventures Close to Home
A Real Fisherman's Wharf

By Janis Cooke Newman

When I think of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I think of souvenir shops filled with poker-playing clam shells and museums displaying wax effigies of Michael Jackson (more lifelike than the original). What I don't think of is actual fishermen, or even actual fish.

So I was more than a little interested when I heard that Pillar Point Harbor, located a short ride down south in Half Moon Bay, is a real wharf with real fishermen (and women)-- a place where instead of "Alcatraz Swim Team"
T-shirts, one can stock up on freshly-caught albacore and Dungeness crabs.

On a sunny Saturday morning in October, my husband, our 7-year-old son Alex, and I decide to take the 30-minute drive down Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay. It's almost the end of salmon season, and our holy grail is a nice fresh oncorhynchus tshawytscha, Latin for king salmon.

We park the car and walk to Johnson's Pier, where the fishing boats dock. Coming the other way we spot two women lugging a cooler that has sprouted several silver-scaled fishtails.

"What have you got there?" asks my husband.

"Kingfish and tuna," says one of the women, stopping to tuck a wayward fin beneath the Styrofoam lid.

On the pier, we check out the chalkboards posted at the end of each dock to see which boats are selling what. Reelization has king salmon, Kandi Dawn's got albacore, Irene is pushing live halibut. We stop first at Reelization, where the fisherman on board is listening to a Bach sonata and wearing a T-shirt that reads, "My fish" and "My son's fish." The picture accompanying "My son's fish" is considerably bigger.

"Any salmon?" asks my husband.

"All sold out," the fisherman tells him. "Try Irene."

"I like your shirt," my husband says.

"It's not a joke," the fisherman replies. "My son owns the boat."

At Irene, Captain Dan Stuckey is coloring in the S on a sign that so far reads "Sal...."

"You want to see a barracuda?" asks Joe Robinson, Dan's helper.

"Yeah!" shouts Alex.

"Take a look in there."

Robinson lifts a trap door in a plastic barrel floating alongside the Irene. Inside is a sinister-looking fish with a very long and serious mouth.

"Remember Baron Barracuda?" asks my husband. "On Diver Dan?"

Robinson looks at him blankly.

"Must have been before your time," my husband mumbles.

Robinson shows Alex a dead sand shark, who looks as if he could take Baron Barracuda with one fin tied behind his back, and an enormous live halibut. Examining this bottom-feeding species, whose beady eyes migrate after birth to the top of its flat head, I conclude that the halibut wins for goofiest-looking seafood.

"Got any salmon?" my husband asks.

Robinson opens a cooler and pulls out a couple of clear-eyed, sparkling salmon, holding them by the jaws. "Four dollars a pound," he says.

"That's half what we pay at the market," my husband whispers in my ear, on the off chance the information will motivate Robinson to raise the price.

We choose the smaller of the two fish, which still weighs 11 pounds, and Robinson wrestles it into an ice-filled bag. Before we leave, Alex asks if he can see the barracuda again.

Now that we've scored enough oncorhynchus tshawytscha to fillet and freeze for several months, we stroll along the docks, passing old boats with painted wooden hulls and sleek fiberglass ships topped with forests of antennae. The air is filled with the brine of saltwater and the tang of old crab traps. We hear the breathy hum of a foghorn and the sinister creak of the mooring lines. Between the boats, pelicans with bills as long as swords splash into the water.

We stop at a boat with a cardboard sign advertising "Rock Crab" and a cooler stuffed with shiny, wine-colored crustaceans.

"Two dollars a pound," says the fisherman, holding up a stubby-clawed crab.

Although we were planning on an appetizer of salmon tartare, two dollars a pound is less than we've ever paid for crab.

"We'll take two," says my husband.

Back up at the harbormaster's office, we stop to ask when the boats will be selling Dungeness.

"The season starts on November 15," the harbormaster tells us. "So a couple of days after that."

"What do they get for Dungeness?" asks my husband.

"About four-fifty a pound at first," says the harbormaster. "But after a few weeks, they usually drop it to three-fifty."

"Three-fifty a pound?" my husband says. "That's cheaper than in Chinatown."

"Plus, you get to drive through Devil's Slide," says the harbormaster. "What more could you ask for?"

Getting Your Catch of the Day at Pillar Point Harbor

Directions: From Noe Valley, Pillar Point Harbor is about a 30-minute drive--not much longer than it takes to get to Chinatown. Take Highway 1 to the northern
end of Half Moon Bay. Turn right on Capistrano and make the first left into
Pillar Point Harbor.

What They're Selling When: From Nov. 15 through most of the winter, the boats will be selling live Dungeness crab. If the moratorium on rockfish lifts, expect to see rock cod after Jan. 1. Salmon season starts in May and continues until the middle of October. If the waters are warm, you'll see tuna. To find out what's being sold each day, call the harbor hotline at 650-726-8724, or the harbormaster at 650-726-5727.

Other Activities: Pillar Point Harbor is home to two companies that will take you out on the high seas to catch your own fish, Captain John's, 650-726-2913, and Huck Finn Sportfishing Center, 650-726-7133. Captain John's also runs trips to the Farallon Islands, while Huck Finn's offers whale-watching trips in season (December through April).

Pillar Point Harbor has three restaurants specializing in, not surprisingly, seafood. Ketch Joanne is the one most recommended by locals.

If the fishing boats don't have what you're looking for, you'll probably find it at the Princeton Seafood Company market located at the harbor. They have tanks filled with live fish and crab, as well as fresh fish on ice.

For more information, visit the harbor's web site at

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at