Posted by: 1000fish | February 29, 2012

Duking It Out

Dateline: February 30, 2012 – Newport Beach, California

“Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.” – John Wayne, in Sands of Iwo Jima

                The Duke. Great American and all-around inspiration.

Recently, I found myself out on a tough day of fishing. The location was known to be good and I had a great guide, but conditions had turned horrible. Some part of me was thinking “forget this” – but then I asked myself that all-important question – “What would John Wayne do?” This is not as non-sequitorial as it sounds, because we were fishing about 15 feet from the Wayne Estate in Newport Beach, California, and I could sense his quiet determination and I felt inspired or at least faintly patriotic.

                 John Wayne’s Newport Beach estate. Nice place.

So what WOULD John Wayne do if things went against him? The obvious answers – 1) Kill most of Santa Ana’s army 2) Beat up Maureen O’Hara’s brother or 3) Liberate Iwo Jima – didn’t really seem to apply here. But I was quite sure that he would stick it out, and that is what I did. This is the story of that weekend.

What was I even doing in Newport Beach? This is the closest a 1000fish episode will ever get to a psychological thriller. I may have been able to hide my obsessive/compulsive behavior about fishing until now, but discussing the mere purpose for this trip is going to let that cat out of the bag.

The cat getting out of the bag. You just know the cat got even with whoever took this photo.

As many of you know, I am something of a compulsive list-maker, especially when it comes to fish. I have a list of all the species I have gotten over the years. I keep track of how many fish I catch on each trip. I have a list of states where I have fished. (39 as of now.) I have a list of countries where I have captured at least one fish. (73 as we speak.) But perhaps the most pointless and indeed bizarre list I keep is the actual dates when I have caught new species, with the idea of catching at least one new species on all 366 possible dates of the year.

If we read Freud, I think this means I had a bad relationship with my cousin. So this is all Chuck’s fault.

Because you must be dying to know, I have caught new fish on 236 different dates. July has the most days covered, with 26, while November and April are tied for the least, with 17. In poring over this particular spreadsheet one night, it occurred to me that I had never captured a new critter on a February 29 – the leap day. Utilizing my handy “Semi-Hot Babes in Waders” calendar, I also noted that 2012 is a leap year. Challenge accepted!

Yes, it really exists. Cousin Chuck has one for each bathroom in his trailer, and he doesn’t even fish!

Hmmmm. Where to find a new species on that special day? Northern California is reasonably picked over, and while I occasionally drag a surprise out of San Francisco Bay, this is not something I would want to bet on with 4 years of waiting at stake. So I looked south – about 400 miles south, to Newport Beach, which is supposed to have a robust population of the savage Spotted Bay Bass, which I had never caught.

These critters, smaller cousins to the well-known Calico and Sand Bass, are enthusiastic predators and will take a variety of lures. So I made some calls. Robert Armstrong, my Shimano contact and all around superstar, connected me to Ben Florentino, a local guide who wins Southern California saltwater bass tournaments like Tiger Woods used to win golf events until that fateful night at Waffle House. (And Ben doesn’t like waffles, so he should be good to go for a while.)

The drive from my house to the Hyatt Newport Beach was exactly 400 miles. (Including a stop at Waffle House.) I fought through the LA traffic and worked my way south into Orange County. When I arrived, it was about 55 degrees, plenty nice enough, but everyone was wearing hooded sweatshirts and shivering. This might be nice weather for Steelhead, but this is Orange County, and the weather had been in the 80’s a couple of days before. Spotted Bay Bass shut down when it gets cold. (Remember the Rio disaster?)  This did not bode well for my project.

The boat ramp at dawn. I remember wondering how we were going to catch anything in this cold snap.

Still, I was here, and at 5am on the Leap Day, we hit the water. It hit back. We didn’t SEE a fish for hours. Ben tried all of his tried and true honey holes, and even went to the extreme of bringing bait. (He is a lure specialist and I doubt he has ever had squid on the boat before.) Oh, it was slow. But this is what happens when we go fishing to satisfy neurotic urges rather than paying attention to something approaching common sense.

Ben is a great guide. He knew every dock, every piling, and which ones would hold fish and which would not. We went everywhere. Inside the harbor, then outside to the kelp beds, then back to the jetty, all within sight of John Wayne’s beloved bay home. I gained strength from the Duke’s steely presence, and hoped I had the true grit to persevere.

                                  As if you didn’t see this coming.

The day was supposed to end around 3, but without a “Spotty” in the boat, Ben kept at it, marvelling that his favorite docks had yet to produce. Around 5:30, which is pretty late in the day, our luck slowly began to change. I missed a couple of strikes, then landed a small Halibut. At around 6, I got a solid hit followed by a tough fight in the pilings – like a Smallmouth Bass on Red Bull. I wrenched it out of the cover and Ben swung it aboard. I had my Spotted Bay Bass.

The Spotty. This was a very welcome fish, because now I won’t have to try to plan another Leap Day trip.

Steve and Ben with The Spotty. Yes it’s the same fish. I didn’t have a lot of content to work with here. I strongly recommend Ben if you’re in LA –

Ben and I high-fived, and the day suddenly felt like a success even though he couldn’t remember catching just one spotty ever in his life. I also quietly thanked The Duke for inspiring me to persevere.

The second day, I brought a friend out to fish with me – Cristiano Bernarde – the guy I got in trouble with his HOA and his local environmental mental – see Cris and his wife were passing through Los Angeles and he arranged to stop in for a day on the water. The day had a difficult start when it turned out that the dropoff area at the Hyatt was too narrow for Ben to pull his boat through cleanly.

Oh, did this take a lot of backing up and moving other cars. We estimate it was a 83-point turn.

Conditions had not changed. Ben tried and tried to put us on fish. We went outside to the kelp beds, inside on the jetty, and to every possible dock, rock, and piling in Newport Bay. The fish ignored us.

                  Cris and Ben as we head out for a day of futility.

Somewhere in this frustration, a small hook and a piece of sandworm produced a very welcome surprise for me – a Spotted Kelpfish. (A close relative of the Crevice Kelpfish – see

                        Ooooh – another new species and date!

As we poked around the docks casting plastics, I stumbled into another unexpected catch – a Yellowfin Croaker. This is a common Southern California creature which I had never caught, so another one for the list!

A Yellowfin Croaker. Cousin Chuck will email and ask me why it is called that. I will tell him it is because the species was discovered in Yellowfin, Ecuador, but between us, it’s because the fins are yellow.

Nothing would bite for Cris. While it would have been fantastic poetic justice if I had caught another Snook, Cris had to listen to me make more Snook jokes, and he found new ways to politely point out that I was not as funny as I thought I was. ( is a solid fisherman and made cast after cast to the right spots. The Fish Gods did not reward him, making me wonder if Jaime hates him too. Still, he retained an annoyingly good attitude.

It was, after all, a lovely day on the southern California waters, and we got to enjoy the sights of Newport Beach largely undisturbed by fish. But what I was disturbed by was discovering, while researching this post, that John Wayne was once miscast as Genghis Khan. Which is sort of like Bruce Lee playing Davy Crockett. Or Charlie Sheen playing Desmond Tutu.

Yes, that’s John Wayne. I can just hear the dialogue – “Heaven has appointed me to rule all the nations, for hitherto there has been no order upon the steppes … Pilgrim.”

The day came to a beautiful if fishless sunset. In the evening, I enjoyed a bayside seafood dinner with Cris and his wife Fabia, while I mused about Cris’ lack of fish and made Snook puns. You will be pleased, by the way, to know that Cris’ situation with his Homeowner’s Association was finally resolved this spring with no fine or nasty note in his permanent file. Perhaps it’s time to go fishing there again?


It was even a big hit in Poland. Translation – “John Wayne’s Beach Party.”


  1. John Wayne should have been on your mind when you saw the big barracuda.

    • Aren’t you the funny one.

  2. […] Wayne” excursion in February. We would again be hosted by ace guide Ben Florentino,  see  If you want to catch any type of saltwater bass in Southern California, Ben is the man – […]

  3. […] good buddy and he moved his schedule around to accommodate both trips. You might remember Ben from or […]

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