Dateline: June 21, 2015 – San Diego, California
Some people get butterflies in their stomach. But I had them in my brain. This will make sense in about 15 minutes, longer if you read at Cousin Chuck’s level.
First off, let’s get this over with. I do not have a blue shark on my list. I know, I know – you do, and most everyone you know does. But how many of you have a Luther’s Shrimpgoby? I’m glad we had this talk.
In order to address this terrible wrong, I knew I needed to get to Southern California. San Diego has a very well-known shark fishery, and it’s on the ragged edge of a reasonable weekend road trip. (Eight hours when I was in college. Traffic has gotten worse since then, especially once the piston engine became popular.)
The crystal blue waters of San Diego, which are even crystal blue in the harbor.
First off, we needed to find a guide. As it turns out, that was easy. Old 1000fish friend Ben Florentino (See Korean Superman) had recommended a Captain James Nelson for San Diego, and James turned out to be the right guy. As soon as we got on the phone, he was talking about zebra perch and diamond turbot and all the other glamorous species that bring anglers to the area from all over the world. We set up three days in June, one to chase sharks offshore and two inshore to see what we could find in San Diego bay.
Lengthy road trips require a partner, and the partner for this one is a tried and true veteran of 25 years of such silliness – Mark Spellman. (See “A Glass of Milk“) The drive down was actually not too bad – until we got about 70 miles north of San Diego. There, it seemed, everyone had decided they were going the same place we were, and we were stuck in traffic for hours. I get grouchy in traffic.
It looked like this from Orange County to the border.
Day one began with the highest of hopes – I felt confident that I would finally put that pesky blue on my list. We met James in a foggy harbor at some ungodly hour, and we motored about an hour offshore.
James, Spellman, and “Woody’s Last Ride.”
Interestingly, or not, I have actually caught a blue, in San Diego in 1991, but I didn’t photograph the darn thing because I was too busy photographing the nice mako I caught that night, and the dude who got spectacularly sick on the bow.
Steve, circa 1991, with the biggest fish I had ever caught at the time. Note the dude barfing on the upper left.
This trip was with college buddy Ira Opatowsky, the Doogie Howser of our class who got into college at something like 16, graduated early, and then got through medical school in a similarly short time.
Steve and Ira, Circa 1989. Someone should tell Ira that Dr. Huxtable wants his sweater back.
Ira, although giving the appearance of an unassuming and studious sort, had a gift for adventure. Many of the stories are not past the statute of limitations, but one that comes to mind is when he and I, innocently trying to go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a tour, took a wrong turn and ended up doing a lap around the track in my Ford EXP.
I could have gotten in a lot of trouble for this.
It has been years since I have seen Ira. We need to catch up.
In any case, we got out to the shark zone and put out some chum. A small blue appeared quickly, and I thought this was going to be the day I wanted. But then things got quiet. Horribly quiet. Quiet like Spellman’s kid after you ask “Who broke the 18th century Ming vase?” We chummed and chummed, and scanned the horizon for fins, but nothing happened. This went on for hours.
I was just getting ready to put squid in Spellman’s hair when I spotted movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked down into the clear water, and staring back up at me was a decent-sized mako shark. I didn’t have time to argue the fact that we were supposed to see dozens of blues before a mako would show up, so I just pinned up a bait and cast, and the shark nailed it immediately.
Fish on. Wrong fish on, but fish on nonetheless.
What followed was the standard mako fight – long runs, some spectacular jumps, and unpredictable dives under the boat. I always get the feeling they are trying to out-think me. But with some great boat maneuvering by James, we got the fish up to the stern, where he was safely released.
The mako at boatside.
By all rights, I should have been thrilled. But this is the perversity of species hunting – I went out after something considered common, indeed, almost a pest, and couldn’t find one. Instead, I got something rare and highly sought-after, but I had already caught the rare thing before and got left high and dry by the supposedly common critter. We never did get a blue shark. James worked his tail off and tried everything he possibly could, but they just weren’t there.
The next two days were spent in San Diego Bay, and this was a very good thing. I knew there were several species awaiting me, but without question the coolest of these was the California butterfly ray. This bizarrely-shaped cousin of the bat ray is supposed to be common in the very southern part of the state, but I had only ever seen one – at the entrance to Newport harbor on a cold morning with Ben Florentino. I had been dying to catch one, doubly so because it is an open IGFA record. I had 15 records in the books for the 2015 season, and I knew a couple more would likely lock up the Men’s Saltwater trophy and give Marta decorating worries.
On that second morning, we motored out into the central part of San Diego bay and put down some slabs of mackerel. Spellman’s rig went off first – a screaming run against the clicker. It could have been a bat ray, or a leopard shark, but after a few minutes on the line, it was clearly something different, with a bobbing, diving fight. Mark wrestled it up, and James netted a butterfly ray – the first I had seen up close.
Of course, this meant that he got the species and world record before me, and yes, this upset my stomach. I wonder if he practices that look on his face.
But my upset stomach and I kept fishing, and after a couple of false alarms from leopard sharks, I got a decent ray on the line. They are strong fighters, and it took about 10 minutes to get him to the net, but I had finally gotten my California butterfly ray – a species and a record all in one, and yes, it was bigger than Spellman’s not this sort of thing matters to me. But it was a lot bigger.
It’s like Spellman and I have a contest to see who can have the dumbest look on their face.
These things are just so darn cool.
There was one other target we wanted to look at for the afternoon – bonefish. “Bonefish?” I hear you ask with incredulity. “In San Diego Bay?” Yes indeed – silvery, swimming evidence of climate change. These are Cortez bonefish – the same species that I caught in Puerto Penasco last year (details HERE,) and they just weren’t here 25 years ago.
James had told us the back bay was positively stuffed with bones, and when Spellman caught one on his first few casts, I was filled with optimism. Mark’s fish was just over a pound, and that meant he had added his fourth career world record. I was thrilled for him, although I would have been a lot more thrilled if I had also caught one, because he now had a second world record for the day. But despite hours of casting and about two dozen round stingrays, which are a pain for James to get off the hook, there were no bonefish for me.
Spellman’s fourth overall record. Of course, that look on my face is pure joy for him. I love being outfished.
Steve and Captain James Nelson. This guy is the real deal – contact him HERE if you’re in the area and want to catch stuff.
That evening, we had a dinner steeped in coincidence. One of Mark and my great friends, Lee, happened to be in San Diego with his family at the same time Mark and I were down there. Lee is a war history buff as much as I am, and we discovered that he was in San Diego when Lee started texting me photos from the USS Midway – while I was fishing about a mile away.
Lee is like a better-looking older brother to me.
Lee’s wife, Jennifer, gives the “Mom face” to son Drew, who had just said something he shouldn’t have. I’m not going to repeat it here, but it was darn funny.
I opened day three singularly determined to get that darn bonefish. Mark, James, and I were joined by an old buddy of mine, Mike Arnstein, a savage opposite-field hitter in his college days and the author of one of the greatest, if most unrepeatable, pitching mound pep-talks ever given.
We started the morning on the flats, and Mike stuck an impressive guitarfish.
Mike’s guitarfish. It was about five pounds shy of a world record.
I began tossing familiar bonefish baits – jigs and small pieces of shrimp. It isn’t sight-fishing like in Florida or Belize, but I figured they should eat the same stuff. James kept advising me to use bigger hunks of bait – “They aren’t shy.” But I stuck to it because I fear change, and I finally did get a decent bonefish – just enough to tie Spellman’s record. It was a record, and this was a good thing, but I hate ties. Especially paisley.
Ok, that’s more like it.
We then spent the rest of the day in deeper water, looking for assorted sharks and rays. The guys caught loads of spotted bay bass, and around lunch, I got into a bigger butterfly ray, breaking my record from the day before.
The bigger butterfly, but I still have that dumb look on my face. I can’t duplicate it without being in a fish photo. Or a wedding photo.
A moment later, I spotted a slight tap on my big bottom rod. I figured it had to be a small shark, and I waited for it to somehow get through enough of the whole squid to possibly get hooked. But I was surprised by a quick little run, and I reflexively set the hook. The fish was spirited to be sure, but on 50 pound braid and a two-speed Accurate reel, this was a mismatch.
A very ambitious bonefish.
It was a bonefish, and it had somehow eaten a whole squid on an 80# leader, proving James 100% right that they were not exactly picky. Yes, the fish was bigger than Mark’s so I turned that one in of course, but I must publicly shame myself for not only ignoring the guide but also for landing a bonefish record on tackle more suited to bluefin tuna. Either way, I was ecstatic – I had all but clinched my fifth IGFA Men’s Saltwater title. The ride home – some 10 hours in assorted traffic – was filled with discussion on how I was going to win over Marta and put this trophy on the living room wall. But as we pulled back in to Alamo at 1:30am, Spellman looked over at me and said “I’ve got nothing. You’re on your own, man.”
SPECIAL IGFA UPDATE
Congratulations to species hunter and 1000fish reader Daniel Gross on his very first world record. A student at CSU Monterey Bay, Daniel stuck a 6.5# thornback ray in Morro Bay, California to fill an open record. I can vouch for this one personally – I was there, and if you think it still somehow upsets me that I didn’t catch it, you’re probably right.
Yes, he does look like Justin Bieber.