Dateline: January 22, 2011 – Tiburon, California
Although the Otis Redding song is a perfectly good reference for this San Francisco Bay adventure, I was very close to using “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. Obscure? Perhaps, but I promise it won’t be, dear reader, if you make it through the pages below.
I have suffered some ridiculous indignities to catch a fish. But all the hours in airports, all the food poisoning, all the storms, mosquitoes, leeches, the unintended nudity, even the constant abuse from Jaime Hamamoto, pale in comparison to the events on a sunny Saturday this past December. My quest for a documented catch of a rubberlip surfperch, which spanned some 28 years, took me into one of the most awkward situations I have ever encountered. More awkward than the naked stingray story. And even more awkward than when I sneezed and my temporary false front teeth flew out into a date’s lap.
The rubberlip surfperch is a denizen of inshore areas on the central Pacific coast. They do not usually live right in the surf like many other of their kin – they tend to be more in pilings and rocky areas. They are considered one of the larger surfperches, but are not considered to be especially difficult to catch. Except, of course, for me.
I take you back to the summer of 1983 or so. My father, in an effort to keep me out of the house and have me provide fish dinners, had equipped me with an Abu surf rod setup and a pound of grass shrimp. And on a warm summer afternoon, my sister and I went down to Fort Point pier in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. I caught a decent size perch – the people there told me it was a rubberlip. But I didn’t think to photograph it, and some years later, when the species quest began in earnest, this became one of those species I thought I had caught but couldn’t prove it, and my rule is – no photo, no species. So ever since I have moved back to the SF area in 1990, I have made occasional efforts to get one.
This was a fish I had even thought of on the day I caught my 1000th species – July 21, 2010. https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/countdown-to-1000-the-nordic-cliffhanger-part-2/ And as 2010 wound down, I began to get very serious about catching one. I read up on local websites. I bugged the guys at Hi’s Tackle Box to death. And I started getting some leads. Mind you, almost any pier in the Bay Area could eventually produce one of these beasts. I had spent many hours, most of them very pleasant, poking around favorite spots like Red’s Java House, Aquatic Park, Fort Point, and the north side of the Golden Gate. So I couldn’t complain about the scenery, and these adventures did yield some interesting if unmammoth new species, such as the Crevice Kelpfish, the Stripefin Ronquil, and the Blackspot Goby, as well as some very beautiful new catches like the Rainbow Surfperch.
Rainbow Surfperch, caught 3/6/10 at Fort Point in San Francisco
But no rubberlips. Not even a hint of a juvenile rubberlip, which likely meant that I was fishing in entirely the wrong places. But I persisted, because that’s what I do. Over the years, fisherman have engaged in the vanity that fish were somehow placed here just to challenge us. I have even been tempted to believe that the rubberlip was placed on earth specifically to piss me off. But this would be ridiculous philosophical folly. Fish were here before us and will likely be here long after us, and we may have possibly even evolved from them, especially the French.
But my inside sources told me two things – that winter was the time and that Marin county was the place. And so, on almost any weekend I could get there, I was out at Elephant Rock pier in the upscale bayside town of Tiburon. It’s certainly a scenic place, so at least I had a lovely view while I wasn’t catching the rubberlip. I would stare at the rod tip for hours, waiting for that tell-tale rattle, and now and then Jaime would send me a text announcing that she had caught some new exotic fish.
I made three trips to Tiburon in December/January. Each of them was notable in its own way. On the first, a glorious sunny day which would pass for May in the midwest, I caught loads of various perch and actually witnessed someone catching a rubberlip – one of the regulars from Hi’s showed remarkable expertise in casting for and hooking a nice fish over a pound. And using this knowledge – live grass shrimp, single #4 hook, I felt much more prepared for the second trip. Again, it was a beautiful day – we had a remarkable run of spring-like weather in January, but it was a bit breezier. This breeze was the main factor in what would end up as a day gone horribly wrong.
Elephant Rock Pier, Tiburon, California.
The people in Tiburon are very friendly, and tend to stop by and say hello while they are out walking the dog or taking a stroll along the waterfront. I’ve struck up many pleasant conversations there, and met people from all over the world. I’ve met former co-workers and friends of friends, and everyone always seems to be in a good mood there. Which is why these two women who walked up at about 3pm struck me as odd – even from a distance, they just looked unhappy. They were walking together, likely a mother and daughter, carrying a large white “Bed, Bath, and Beyond” shopping bag between them. I nodded a hello to them, and they looked right past me, and they seemed quite uncomfortable that I was even there. I eased over to the other side of the pier, but it isn’t a big place, and they looked at me sideways a couple of more times while they started opening up the bag. I was about to ask them if anything was wrong when I saw the package – a plastic bag about the size of two shoeboxes. I flashed back to my grandfather’s funeral in 1995 and remembered seeing the same small bag, filled with white, powdery grains – it was a set of cremated human remains. They were here to scatter someone’s ashes.
I retreated like the French army and tried to make myself as inobtrusive as possible, despite the fact this was a small space and I was about 12 feet away from them. The gentle zephyr that had played across Raccoon Strait earlier in the day had built into a solid 25mph breeze from the south. When they went to the south edge of the pier, I thought surely they would notice the wind and not do anything disastrous. I saw the Mom kneel down, and, with a Swiss Army knife, open up a small hole in the bag. She then held it over the rail and began shaking. A small bit of material came out and blew back on them, so they stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief. They had figured it out. Mom and daughter both knelt down this time, and with the knife, opened up the bag from end to end. I waited for them to switch sides on the pier. The Mom picked up the bag and stared out into the evening.
No way, I thought.
In horrible slow motion, before I could even yell “Noooooooooo,” she snatched up the full bag and half-shook, half-threw it as hard as she could into the stiffening breeze. I could only duck as the bag exploded into a white cloud that swirled back across them, the pier, my equipment, and my shoes. I dared to look back up after a few long seconds, and they were still standing there, covered in ash, stunned and upset. The younger woman looked over at me for a brief second and mouthed “Sorry.” I looked at her as kindly as I could, but not having been in this situation very often, I really didn’t know whether it would be better to offer help or to let them have their privacy. I certainly figured it would be rude to offer my Dust Buster from the car, and so I sort of sat there and tried to casually brush off a bit while they got on their hands and knees and painstakingly swept their loved one into the bay. This took about 15 minutes, and was all done in complete silence, because, let’s face it, there’s not much you can really say at that point. I just looked out on the bay like nothing was happening, and hoped they would finish before any unsuspecting pedestrian wandered down there, tried to be friendly, and stumbled into a situation that could only be described as world-class awkward. I waited a few minutes after they left, then drove home in stunned silence. I had caught plenty of fish, albeit not the right one, but it all seemed unimportant compared to the difficult moments of that afternoon. Fishing really is sometimes about the cycle of life, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this literal.
Sunset in Tiburon on that fateful night.
It took me a few weeks to get up the bravery to face Elephant Rock again. But on January 22, the tide and weather were perfect, and I had a feeling this was going to be the day. Was I gun-shy? You better believe it. I was very skittish about anyone who came out there holding a bag. For moral support, I brought a buddy out with me, Kevin Riley, and to keep things exciting, he brought his 6 year-old son Jake. I was well-armed with live grass shrimp from Castro Valley Bait and Tackle (510 537-8191), who always stay open late for me to pick up fresh bait and whatever else I need. (Thank you Abdul and Vanissa!)
On my very first cast, I had a decent bite and missed it. On my second cast, wham – the classic rattling bite followed by a steady run. I slammed the hook home, and the fish exploded toward the pilings. I knew it was big right away, and it took me about a minute to steer it away from all the structure in the area and bring him to the surface. It was the rubberlip I had been waiting for. He was beautiful – bronzy, white speckled, huge white lips. And according to the IGFA record book I always carry for just such an occasion, he was big – record big – 1 pound 11 ounces. I smiled to myself and wondered what the 19 year-old me would have thought to know that 28 years later I would be applying for the world record for this fish. Or that my waist size wouldn’t still be 32.
The pending world record Rubberlip Surfperch. At least when it finally happened, it happened in a big way.
It was all good from there. We fished some more, the kid got a few nice perch, and we enjoyed the weather. All was right with the world. Kevin and Jake had to leave around noon, but I stuck it out for the afternoon, basking in the glow of finally catching one the darn things.
Jake Riley and a beautiful walleye surfperch.
But wait, it gets even better! Around 2, I was fishing a live shrimp on the other side of the pier and got another solid bite. As the fish surged around the pilings, I predicted it was another rubberlip, not quite as big as the first. But I was wrong. It was a black surfperch, and it was huge – over a pound. I dug into the IGFA record book I carry for just such an occasion, and indeed, there was no record for this species either. One new species and two world records in one day. Forty five minutes from my house. In January. In shirtsleeves. This is why I live in California.
A beast of a Black Surfperch. Two pending records in one day. And this time, no one threw anything on me.
This blog episode is dedicated to the departed guy. Whoever you were, your loved ones certainly tried their best to give you a nice sendoff in a beautiful place that was probably very special to you. I’m sorry some of you ended up on my shoes, but life doesn’t always go like we plan it. I hope you have a good sense of humor, and can look down on this and chuckle a bit.
The Tiburon waterfront looking toward the Golden Gate.