Disclaimer – There are plenty of nice, flat days off the San Mateo coast, where plenty of fish are caught and no one even gets queasy. But those days aren’t much fun to write about, for the same reason no one writes about it when Paris Hilton goes 24 hours without getting arrested. So even though I may mention some of the more unfortunate events I have experienced chasing rock cod, like watching a teenager throw up in his down vest, this is just because these days make better copy.
The Fish Gods work in mysterious ways.
On this particular Saturday, I did not set out with any new species in mind. I merely set out to do some fishing that I have enjoyed for many years – jigging for rock cod on the California coast south of San Francisco. This area is loaded with various species of rockfish – the genus Sebastes for you fellow fish geeks – and also has some larger predators like ling cod. These fish respond well to lures and can be caught on fairly light tackle, so I go out whenever I can because I just love to do it, even though I’ve already caught most of the available species. I even left my copy of Eschmeyer’s Fishes of the Pacific Coast in the car – almost unthinkable. (It usually lives in my tackle bag … or under my pillow.) But still, once in a great while, something surprising comes up on the line apart from the regular rockfish.
Ling Cod and Vermilion Rockfish – what we’re trying to catch
The best way to chase these critters is on a local open charter, or “party boat.” A San Francisco Bay Area tradition, party boats, or what would be called “head boats” on the east coast, have plied the waters of northern California for several generations. My first trip on one was in the mid-70’s with my father and a friend of his named Keiji. Keiji is Japanese, and since I was fascinated by war history, Keiji and my father spent months trying to convince me that Keiji’s father was a kamikaze pilot who sank a US aircraft carrier but somehow survived his mission. I was young and still trusted adults, so I bought the whole thing. I met the old man several times, and I was dying to ask him about it, but they kept the lid on the story by telling me he didn’t speak any English. It finally all unravelled one day perch fishing at Point Reyes when my father and Keiji both fell asleep on the beach and I took my chance to approach the old man. He spoke perfect English and gave me a piece of ancient wisdom I treasure to this very day – “Don’t let those two clowns screw with you.” But I digress.
It works something like this – at about 6 in the morning, in darkness and fog, anglers from all over northern California begin straggling into Pillar Point Harbor. Some are regulars, some have never been fishing before. All of them have high hopes for a brilliant day on the water, filled with trophy-sized rock cod. Many of them dreamed the night before of a big ling cod, and certainly, none of these dreams ever include some of the occasional downsides of coastal rock cod fishing, like seasickness.
China rockfish, another very attractive species
There is a ritual familiarity to this that I treasure. Driving through the dark and the invariable fog, over the hills on Highway 92, then almost alone up the coastal highway, knowing anyone else out there is likely going to the same place I am. Stopping at the 7-11 to buy the kind of food that men buy when they are unsupervised. (This week’s example – 2 donuts, 4 Red Bulls, Beef Jerky, Fritos, and a can of that cheese dip that looks like bile.) Then, parking – carefully avoiding the two hour spots. Checking in at the Huck Finn counter, remembering to always get a burlap sack for the fish and some tackle item I don’t really need but that looks cool. I have no idea how Peggy, the owner, stays this cheerful at these unholy hours.
Then the roll out to the end of the dock with luggage cart and all the gear, socks always riding down in my rubber deck boots. (These boots may look silly, but fishing fluids rinse right off them. Regular shoes might have to be burned.) Picking a spot on the boat is crucial. The back corners are optimal for casting lures, and it’s important to seize these spots early, because cod fishermen, whether skilled or amateur, flock to the back of the boat like badly-groomed lemmings.
The cast of characters – Each group, of anywhere from 15 to 30 anglers, is certainly unique. I have had boatmates that were a trial, boatmates who turned into great friends, and groups who considered tossing me overboard. People have even approached me for Jaime’s autograph. But there are always some stock characters on every party boat; the cast changes, but the roles are the same each week.
The expert – There is always someone who manages to be more of an irritating know-it-all than even me. (Which is generally a relief.) This person provides loads of unsolicited advice and tends not to catch very much themselves. Other anglers often discuss throwing him overboard. His clothes match. No really, this isn’t me we’re talking about.
The good-natured really sick guy – “Oh, I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Blaaaargh.” This person was on the charter today – the kind of guy who gets sick in a bathtub. He barfed pretty much from the time we started the engine until we were back inside the breakwall, but he never stopped being positive, even when he was dry-firing bile into the Pacific. On one of his last trips to the rail, I could swear I saw his shoes go out with the rest of the load. They are often whacked out on Dramamine and say cute things like “I can’t feel my legs” and “Please kill me.” My brother-in-law Dan has been this guy.
Dan throws up things he ate in 3rd grade. Note the utterly flat water conditions.
The danger to society – This person swings gear and fish all over the deck. Rock cod have spines. The gear has weights and hooks. Do the math. Generally, threats of physical harm, delivered either by the deckhand or small groups of fellow anglers in the bathroom, help them see the error of their ways and things calm down.
The other guy in the photo is Mark Spellman. He does not practice safe fishing. Moron him in future episodes.
The quiet chick – This is usually her first fishing trip. Her boyfriend is there and loudly gives her reams of useless advice. But long after he is launching his breakfast burrito into the sea, she will be at the rail, catching fish after fish. She sometimes wins the pool. No one ever gets her number. Marta is often this person.
Marta with pool-winning ling cod. “The Old Chinese Dude” – see below – can be seen just under her right arm.
Martha Stewart – Somebody always brings enough food for everyone, but the question is always – enough WHAT? Sandwiches, burritos, homemade beef jerky – all good. Unidentifiable pastes, not so good. “I fermented these myself” even less so. When they say “I got this recipe from a proud band of hill people”, head the other way.
The co-workers – A group of people who have never fished before decide it might be a nice idea to spend a day on the water. A picnic lunch is packed. A picnic lunch is eaten. A picnic lunch is thrown up. Sometimes, they don’t quite make it to the rail. An example of this phenomenon led to one of the most memorable yet disturbing photos I have ever taken.
Insert your favorite plumber joke here
“Party guy” – It’s one thing having a few beers out on the water. It’s another thing having a few beers before we untie the boat. This guy usually ends up asleep in the cabin, asleep on the deck, or asleep on the deckhand. Interestingly, he always wears shorts. Those of you who have only seen California on TV may think this is OK, but Half Moon Bay is not Los Angeles – the mornings are cold and foggy, and drinks don’t cost $20.
The Practical Joker – It’s funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s hilarious. I could write a separate entry on the awful things people have done to each other on these boats, but whether it’s putting squid heads in the salsa (“Kind of tangy, guys”) or leaving a dead sardine in the sweatshirt hood (“Someone needs a shower”), it’s a tradition. This harmless fun should be differentiated from things like leaving a dead crab in my tackle bag, which is a vile act of terrorism.
Digital photography and sleeping comrades – a volatile combination.
The old Chinese dude – He’s quiet, he catches a ton of quality fish, and he never shows them off – he just slips them silently into the bag. The deckhand knows him by name, and his name always starts with “Mister.” At the end of the trip, he never has the deckhand fillet his fish, as he will gut them himself and steam them whole, which is still one of the best dishes you can get at a Chinese restaurant. His gear is never flashy, he never gets sick, and he never takes photos, but he collects the pool a whole lot.
The Deckhand – This is a topic all unto itself. Deckhands come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability. Some are pretty much the inmate running the asylum, but most are incredibly patient and helpful, even when you’ve swung a weight into their temple and dropped a cod on their foot, spine-first. This person also has to practically be a lawyer to understand all of the regulations, and is often in the unfortunate position of telling anglers they have to release fairly large fish that are either protected or undersized. Their skill with a gaff can make the difference between a good day and a bad day for you. And they work basically for tips, so please hand the guy 10 or 20 bucks next time. At the end of the day, it always seems like the person who needed the most help always skulks away like Lindsay Lohan skipping an AA meeting. (I don’t know why I’m bashing the Drunkeratti today; let’s hope I can make it through the rest of the entry without taking a cheap shot at Amy Winehouse.)
The Skipper – Before we start thinking warm thoughts of Alan Hale, remember he was the one responsible for shipwrecking the entire group. Counting syndication, they’ve been stuck for something like 40 years, and we were cursed with the agonizing philosophical question – “Ginger or Mary Anne?” *
Learn to read a weather report, big guy.
In any case, it was a decent day of fishing, a bit bouncy on the water but I got a nice limit of cod. On one of the last drifts of the day, several of us got small bites and reeled up hand-sized flounder called “Sand dabs.” I had one on that was a bit larger – Charles Barkley’s hand size. Sand dabs are often considered the “canary in the coal mine,” because as soon as you start catching them, it means you’re likely off the productive rocky reef and into the sand and should reset your drift. They are delicious to eat but are considered a pest by many; I tend to pat them on the head and throw them back. But something struck me as amiss about this particular sand dab – it was a bit too big, a bit too elongate, and the color seemed wrong. And so I took pictures. I could hardly wait to get back to the car to my heavily-worn copy of Eschmeyer’s Fishes of the Pacific Coast. Flipping by memory to plate 43, I followed down the page past all the usual suspects – California Dab, Longfin Dab, Petrale Sole. Nope, lateral line wrong. Nope, fin too short. Nope, mouth too small.
The Sand Sole – species # 1008
Next page … no, no, no, wait a minute. Could it be? It was a Sand Sole! A Sand Sole! A fish I had thought I had caught many times, only to have it always turn out to be another sand dab. But there was no mistaking this – detached rays, black spots, straight lateral line! I yelled “Woo-hoo!” and onlookers must have been concerned to see a man yelling “Woo-hoo” in the front seat of his car looking down at his lap, but this was a moment of triumph. A new species on a rock cod charter! Who’d have thunk it? I texted Marta to tell her; she responded “Did you need advice from Jaime?” Sigh. Is there anywhere on earth I can find peace from that competitive, evil little girl? Reflexively, I checked my bag for dead crabs, then headed home.
Huck Finn Sportfishng (www.huckfinnsportfishing.com/) is the place to go out of if you are considering a Half Moon Bay trip. Call Peggy Beckett at 650 726-7133, and for God’s sake don’t tell her I sent you or she’ll probably hang up.
* The correct answer is “Mrs. Howell.”