Dateline – September 21, 2011: Tiburon, California
Where, I ask, is kindness rewarded? I try to be gracious and hand off a fish to a kid, and it turns out to be a neat species I had never caught. Sometimes, the Fish Gods can make up for past injustices, but not very often. In this case, justice did eventually come, but it took 17 long years.
It was late summer 1994, and I was fishing at Blackie’s Pasture in Tiburon. (On the other side of the peninsula from the fabled Elephant Rock pier.) This is a magnificent summer evening spot, introduced to me by one of my great friends and long-time fishing buddies, Mike Rapoport. (I should also mention that it was a manly competition with Mike years ago that started the species list; please don’t send him hate mail.) Mike grew up in Tiburon, and he knows the area pier by pier and rock by rock. We would go out there on summer twilight high tides, watching the fog roll in over the hills as the sun set, and casting squid out as far as we could. (Mike’s far was a lot farther than my far. I was always worried he was going to break windows in Sausalito.) We would catch Bat Ray after Bat Ray – the mighty “Mud Marlin” of San Francisco Bay. These rays are a wonderful and sustainable gamefish – they fight hard, are fairly easy to find, and are completely inedible.
Mike Rapoport and a Bat Ray, early 1990s. How does he manage to make a simple fish photo look so epic? As I work my way into fishing stories from the 1990’s, Mike will become a familiar character. He is as insane a fisherman as I am, and every bit as unhealthily competitive, so I should point out that, no matter how tall and good-looking he might be, I have caught a lot more species than he has. So there.
I was fishing with Mike and my former brother-in-law, young (and bratty) Henry, who was something like 10 at the time. He was a bit small to handle the rays, so every time we hooked a small shark, we handed it off to him. Just before we were going to leave, I hooked what I thought was a small Leopard Shark and gave it to young and bratty Henry. When the fish came near shore, Henry spotted it first – “What the heck is that?” he said. It was a Shovelnose Guitarfish – a sort of shark/ray hybrid that is very rare this far north. And that is why I mention Henry was bratty – because he obviously deliberately caught something I hadn’t – just to annoy me. Those of you who have been reading 1000Fish for a while know I would never blame an innocent child for my shortcomings. (Go to main page 1000Fish.Wordpress.com and search “Jaime Hamamoto.”)
Young (and bratty) Henry on that fateful night – September 16, 1994.
Even then, before my species mania was fully formed, I was still irritated that I had not caught this creature myself. Inevitably, the wheels were set in motion for me and his sister to divorce a few years later.
As the years have gone by, I have always tried to make it back out to Tiburon at least once each summer. I recognize I will probably never get a Guitarfish, but it is a wonderfully pleasant place to enjoy a summer evening, with great views of San Francisco and non-stop fishing. All we need is a few Pepsis, a gas station burrito, a box of squid, and a surf rod. The squid is for bait, by the way. The burritos are more multi-purpose.
It’s a great place to bring friends. Two years ago, I actually ended up out there with a large group of French children. I know this sounds like my worst nightmare, but it was actually OK – one of my co-workers gave her son a day of fishing as a birthday present. Her husband is French. Their friends are French. So the whole group was pretty much French. I was worried they were going to surrender to the first meter maid they saw, but it actually was a good time.
The French kids. Sure they’re cute, but the one on the left was downright scary. He disagreed with everything everyone said, and he did this with such confidence that I kept wondering if he knew something I didn’t. I would say “That’s a Leopard Shark.” and he would calmly say “No. It is not.” I would say “The tide is coming in.” and, deadpan, he would respond “No. It is not.”
This September, I found myself with a welcome visitor and fishing partner – Stefan Molnar, a co-worker from Germany. Stefan is one of our senior technical types – a smart, polite guy, ace volleyball player, father of a ridiculously cute toddler, and quite a keen fisherman.
Stefan with his wife Susi and daughter Lisa.
Stefan asked me if we could fish for a day, and of course I offered to spend the whole weekend with him. This is not because I am a good host – I am not – but merely because I was going fishing anyway and this way I could charge him for half the bait. Stefan had seen many of my fish photos, and he was especially interested in catching a big stingray. So on Saturday, we hit my old favorite Bat Ray spot, Tomales Bay. We got some nice sharks, but the rays were not biting.
Stefan’s big Leopard Shark from Tomales Bay. Tomales will be a topic for its own blog someday – it is one of my favorite fishing spots anywhere.
We were often troubled by crabs eating our baits, and from time to time, we would reel up one of these little beasts. This was exciting for Stefan due to the novelty, and he proudly announced “I have crabs.” I thought long and hard about not saying something and waiting until he said this in front of others, but I took the high road and mentioned that he should come up with a different phrase.
Stefan befriends a Tomales crustacean and learns come colloquial English.
Early Sunday, we boarded a coastal rock cod party boat. For those of you unfamiliar with this sort of thing, see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/im-a-sole-man/ We caught some nice cod, but it was a tough day for Stefan.
Stefan with a nice Canary Rock Cod early in the day, before it got really rough.
Stefan had seen photos of others who had gone “rail bunny” on the party boats. He definitely knew the risks, but still he refused to medicate. It was a sloppy day on the Pacific, and as time went on, he went from pale white to pale green to a more robust pea soup shade. I knew it was only a matter of time. Late in the day, after a few particularly tough swells, he gave up.
In a magnificently German way, he faced the issue head-on. “Steve – I am going to be sick now. Do you have your camera ready?” With that, he strode to the rail. He barfed thoroughly but bravely and with great dignity, a tough thing to do when you’re making a noise like someone gargling Frosted Flakes.
Stefan plays rail bunny. Note the look of compassion on the fellow angler’s face. I am obligated to point out that, ironically, Stefan served time in the German Navy.
Stefan professed to be thrilled with the weekend, but I still wanted to see him catch a big ray. Then I thought of Tiburon. I quickly checked a tide chart, and the next Wednesday evening was perfect. So we raced out after work, got the aforementioned Pepsis, squid, and burritos, and headed for Blackie’s Pasture. It was a perfect summer afternoon on the bay, and I wouldn’t have to listen to Stefan barfing. (Or was he yelling at me in German? It’s so hard to tell.) We were joined by another friend and co-worker, Scott Demai.
Just as the tide began topping out, the rays started biting on cue. They weren’t monsters, but they were certainly big enough for a solid fight. Stefan was very pleased with finally catching this fish I had spoken of so often, and there was no little French kid there contradicting everything I said.
Interestingly, at least to me, Stefan is wearing an American football hat and I am wearing a German football hat.
We also got some nice Leopard Sharks, which are a great battle and one of the most beautiful creatures in the bay. The sun was shining, the views were postcard-perfect, and the gas station burritos were even better than usual.
Stefan and Scott with a nice Leopard Shark. This gives you an idea of how big the one from Tomales was.
The sun begins to go down over Richardson Bay as the fog creeps in from the Pacific over the Marin hills. It was around 70 degrees when this photo was taken, but as soon as the sun set, it dropped to around 50.
Just as the sun was setting, one of the rods started rattling. I offered the fish to Scott. He said “Naaaah, Steve. You take it.” Scott has earned himself a lot of karma points and a lot of free fishing trips, because when I got the fish to the shore, it was indeed a Shovelnose Guitarfish.
Yes, it is in the ray family. It’s not a world record, but at least I have my clothes on. (If this statement seems strange and confusing, see https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/the-countdown-to-1000-the-naked-truth-of-day-three/.)
They seem to bite every seventeen years, so I can’t wait for the next one in 2028. And Henry, wherever you are, I forgive you.