Dateline: September 4, 2016 – Tomales Bay, California
This is the story of two teenagers growing up … or not, and we aren’t including me, because that’s never going to happen. This summer, I got to go fishing with the teenage sons of two great friends, here in in Northern California. One of them took a 100 pound bat ray, a 150 pound sevengill shark, and a world record rockfish. The other one took … selfies. The selfie kid reinforces my notion that the current generation leaves America little hope for the future – see “My Failed Weekend of Parenthood” – but the other kid, the one who paid attention and caught a lot of fish … he gives me some optimism. Best of all, I got to fish in Northern California – my home waters.
I don’t get to write about my home waters very often, because I caught most of the species well before I started blogging, but these are my own sacred spots. These are the places where I really learned to fish, starting in college at UC Davis many years ago … and it is with a college connection we begin this summer’s local fishing tales.
There are precious few new species left within a day trip of home, but one that has annoyed me for years is the hardhead. This unassuming relative of the Sacramento pikeminnow is supposed to inhabit streams in our central valley, but after years of fishing these areas, I still hadn’t seen one. I went to one of the Delphic Oracles of this type of fishing – Teejay O’Rear of UC Davis, and he advised that I fish Cache Creek, in a quiet part of our coastal hills. I have been going there for years, but with the recent drought, I was often looking at dry creekbed where the fish were supposed to be.
This summer looked to have better conditions, and I had a spare Saturday with my college buddy Mike Arnstein in town. Mike, an unassuming areospace engineer (almost all of my friends are smarter than me, except for Kerr,) agreed to make a day out of trying for this beast. Our first stop was to correct a six year-old wrong. In Hawaii in 2010, I had struggled for hours to catch what I had thought was a western mosquitofish, while Jamie Hamamoto snickered at me because she caught one in 30 seconds. As it turns out, these were not mosquitofish – they were a livebearer of some sort, and I still needed a western mosquitfish, which is ridiculous, because the central valley is positively stuffed with western mosquitofish. So we made a run to Lagoon Valley Lake, near Vacaville, and made short work of getting one of these creatures officially on my list. And shame on all of you for not knowing the difference between a western mosquitofish and whatever livebearer that Honolulu fish actually is.
Yes, I caught this on purpose.
With that out of the way, we headed for Davis, reminiscing the entire way about culturally important things like how we survived dorm life and how good Sue Schroeder looked in a swimsuit. We poked around Putah Creek for an hour or so, continuing to tell college stories, most of which involve me doing something stupid and Mike shaking his head sadly. Oh, and Sue came up again. With that, we were off for Cache Creek. The central valley is a desolate place, with long, flat miles between farm buildings and the irrigation stations that make the whole thing fertile. As we headed west, the bleak scenery changed to hills and tress, and we ended up parked at a remote bridge.
Mike at Cache Creek. I can’t explain the hat, but I want one.
I had been here before and gotten nothing but small pikeminnows and catfish, but I sensed that today would be different. Mike amused himself dropping worms into a deep hole, and I cast to the far bank and drifted some light rigs along the bottom. We caught a few pikeminnows, but these can be easily differentiated from the heardhead as they lack a premaxillary frenum. (Dr. Peter Moyle’s page-turner of a book – The Inland Fishes of California – contains this scintillating detail.)
Because I knew you would ask.
About 30 minutes in, I got a fish that looked different. I held my breath and looked closely, and there was the frenum I had been looking for all these years. Mike gave me a bewildered high-five, and we were off to dinner and an even more detailed discussion of Sue.
At last, the hardhead. I drove home singing the Alan Parsons Project song “Frenum.” And George Michael’s “Frenum 90.”
Then it was time to take some teenagers fishing. The first one was Mackie, who is the son of some of Marta’s dearest friends, Hugh and Lisa. (They host the single best Christmas party in the western hemisphere.) About four years ago, Hugh and Marta were chatting, and Hugh suddenly blurted out “I am a bad father.” This caught Marta by surprise, as Hugh and Lisa are model parents. Marta responded “What in the hell are you talking about?” Hugh responded “Mackie, my younger son, loves to fish. I know nothing about fishing. I am a bad parent.”
Marta smiled and said “I know someone who can help you.”
We got Mackie out on a couple of local trips, and he did well. (Aggravatingly well in one case, as he caught a rubberlip perch on his very first trip. It took me 30 years.) If he had been Cole Grossen, or Garreth Bowman, or even my nephew, I would have smacked him, but he is so unbelievably polite and respectful, so completely not like Jamie Hamamoto, that I just couldn’t bring myself to be that upset.
He is not smiling out of spite, like Jamie would have. He just had no idea how hard these things were to catch.
Fast forward a few years. Mackie was now Mac, and he was around for the summer and wanted to go fishing. What better excuse to visit my local haunts? We had a good tide for Tomales Bay, an estuary north of San Francisco that has been one of my favorite shark spots for over 25 years. Tomales is a long, narrow inlet, typically shrouded in fog and blasted by wind, set into the farmland of Marin county. I treasure everything about going there, from packing the rods the night before, to the predawn drive through the back country roads, to the horrible food we end up eating because there is no adult supervision, to the stop at the Petaluma bait store that always seems to have something I need.
Dawn at Lawson’s Landing, Tomales Bay. Of course, it pretty much always looks like this.
There is no better way to relive your youth than through the eyes of a youngster, and judging from the 9000 questions he texted me the night before, Mac was wound up to get onto the water. He had seen my Tomales pictures, and I always try to warn people that the fishing is probably not going to be as good as it was in the photos, because, of course, I will generally show pictures of the really good days. (Scott Perry seems immune to this rule; he always seems to get a good day.)
There was additional motivation on this trip – a doable, even likely, shot at a world record. Our spiny dogfish, which for years had been lumped under Squalus acanthias, had been reclassified as Squalus suckleyi and was hence wide open. (If you aren’t yelling “Fish nerd” by now, chances are you are Martini. Or Ben.) This seemed like a slam dunk to me, but seemingly common fish can disappear once you actually start trying to catch them. (See “Trout Blasphemy.”)
This was one of those days where the plan worked. With a bit of outbound tide left, I anchored us in 20 feet in the north part of the bay and hoped to get a big ray for Mac. (As opposed to a Big Mac for Ray.) It didn’t take five minutes for a screaming strike, and from the length of the first run, I knew Mac would be on a long time.
I took this about 30 minutes in, and the fish had just started running again.
I knew the fish was nearly as big as him, but he played it patiently for close to an hour. That’s the other good thing about bringing a kid bat ray fishing with you – they can fight all the bat rays. It made me remember, not too terribly long ago, when I first discovered the wonder of this place, and the humble majesty of the bat ray – the “mud marlin.”
That’s a whole lot of bat ray, and they fight like an enraged car hood. Remember that the tide is going by at six miles an hour.
As the tide changed over, we moved down the bay to some deeper water. Just as the water started moving in, taking the boat in line so we faced Inverness, Mac’s rod jerked down again. He leaned back on it, and I could tell from the strong, head-shaking fight that he had a leopard shark – and a nice one.
These fight hard.
Yes, they can bite.
And I got one too.
We got a few more, then things went a little quiet. When things go quiet at Tomales, one of two things is happening – either the fish have just stopped biting, OR, the fish have stopped biting because a big sevengill shark has moved into the area. Fishermen convince themselves of the most amazing things to keep their spirits up.
Moments later, Mac’s rig started the hard bounces that usually indicate a sevengill bite. He set the hook hard, and I knew right away he had one – not a monster, but a sevengill. He landed it efficiently, and he now had one of the more difficult to catch Tomales species on his list.
Mac and his first sevengill. I tried for a year before I got my first one.
Once in a while, someone writes in and says something like “Don’ t be dramatic! A small shark like that can’t hurt anyone!” These people are idiots.
Then I got one about the same size. This was shaping up into a really good day. We had just gotten settled back down from photographing the sharks when Mac’s line started clicking out in short bursts. He picked up the rod, fed the fish some line, let it pull tight, and set. Whatever was on the other end was not pleased, and took off down the bay, slowly but powerfully.
I knew it had to be a big sevengill. Mac did a good job with it, staying patient and letting the drag do the work, and about 45 minutes later, it surfaced right beside the boat. I had guessed it at a hundred pounds, but it was a lot bigger than that. I didn’t want to kill it, so I was left with the unfortunate option of lifting the thing into the boat by hand. (Phil Richmond, of course, would have tried to net it.) In a scene reminiscent of Cousin Chuck’s wife carrying him across the threshold, I managed to drag the struggling beast onboard for a few pictures. Unusually for a teenager, Mac has a sense of self-preservation, and he was not comfortable having this put in his lap, but make no mistake about it, it was his fish. Mac had joined the club.
We had a couple of hours left to try to get a spiny dogfish – I was rather surprised we hadn’t seen one yet. We split up two rods each, used medium-sized baits, and watched the tips intently, but this creature, which usually makes a pest of itself, had become inexplicably scarce. Perhaps half an hour before we needed to head in, my light setup had a bite, and I reeled up what I thought would be a small leopard. Of course, it was the one and only dogfish we would get that day. So I got my record, but I would have much preferred that Mac got one too.
Don’t ask that awkward question about whether I would have preferred he had gotten it instead of me, because I know the right answer but I also like to tell the truth.
On the way home, it hit me that I had not seen Mac look at his cell phone even once while we were on the water. This gave me hope for America’s future.
The following weekend, I was looking forward to getting out on a Half Moon Bay rock cod charter. These coastal boats take anywhere from 10 to 30 anglers out to the reefs along the San Mateo coast, and while it’s a different group every time, you tend to have the same core of stock characters. These trips are an important part of summer for me.
Just when all seemed good, I got a call from Cole, the teenage son of a hockey teammate. “Uncle Woz! We gotta go fishing!!” You have all met Cole, in the heartwarming “Blue Suede Sturgeon” episode. He’s a good kid, or so his mother tells me, and I truly enjoy taking him fishing, but Cole, like many teenagers, has not yet figured out that life isn’t all about him. (It’s actually all about ME.) Since it was only Tuesday, I knew there would be a bit of drama. Cole is known for stunts like calling on a Tuesday and saying he is free to go fishing Saturday and then calling Wednesday and asking if a friend can go and calling Thursday and saying the friend can’t make it and then calling Friday and saying it turns out he has a ballet lesson on Saturday and wants to go fishing on Sunday. I, of course, was completely reliable as a teenager. (I am hoping that most people who are old enough to contradict this don’t use the internet.)
Somehow, we got the trip worked out, but I knew in my heart I would be yelling “Put the phone down!” all day. This generation has no hope if they can’t devote more than 30 uninterrupted seconds to a problem, and that seems to be about as long as they can go without checking Instagram.
So it was than on a day that the rock cod fishing was ridiculously, stupidly epic – I don’t ever recall getting that many quality fish on light tackle – Cole only managed to stumble his way through to a limit of small school fish. But he did get some really nice selfies.
That’s a nice photo, but if you’re doing this, you’re not fishing …
Meanwhile, the fish were biting.
And he posted them on Facebook. (While I was catching nice vermilion cod.) And people “liked” them – even though the only think I liked all day was the fishing. If these kids end up in charge, we are doomed.
He got this look from “Zoolander.” The other guy is a deckhand, who offers expert de-hooking and photobomb services.
Meanwhile, I was catching these.
Even when he got seasick, he never let go of the phone.
I generously allowed him to be photographed with fish at the end of the day.
I was discouraged all week. I could not imagine a world in which photographing ourselves doing something had become more important than actually doing that thing. My friends might actually read this blog, but I can’t imagine that they want to know what I am catching at the moment I am catching it, let alone what I am eating for breakfast. (Sample Tweet from Cole – “Donuts for breakfast. Yum!” And someone actually “liked” this, which tells us that both people do not have enough homework.) Still, he’s a good kid and I’ll take him out any time, but sooner or later, I plan to accidentally drop his phone in the Pacific.
Just a day later, the universe gave me a positive sign. Mac texted that he wanted to go cod fishing that next weekend, and I knew he wouldn’t do this without checking his schedule first. There would be no last-minute discovery of a crochet class, and I knew he would pay attention the whole day and likely do well. Again, we had 9000 questions texted the night before, and I answered every single one of them because someone did the same for me when I was his age, and I started feeling better again. We made that long, early-morning run to the Pescadero reefs, watching the rocky coastline appear and drift back into the fog. When we got there, the fishing was steady. My jigs and swimbaits were getting some solid fish, lings among them, and Mac was listening and watching and catching some nice fish of his own.
Mac’s first ling of the day.
My fifth ling of the day. It was good out there.
The water was calm enough, the fish were biting, and talk turned to one of Mac’s favorite subjects – world records. We discussed, for the umpteenth time, the possible records we might get on this trip. There were certainly a few open rock cod species, but these were unlikely to appear where we were fishing. I was just emphasizing this point when I reeled up a black and yellow rockfish. (It is actually called a “black and yellow rockfish,” because, well, that’s what it is.) It was clearly over a pound, and somehow, I had nailed a rather unlikely world record. Mac was a good sport, but I could tell he was dying to get one. He knew they were down there.
Yes, that’s a world record, and yes, many of you have caught a bigger one. Submit them!
I was giving him a high five when his rod got a bite, and Mac reeled up the same species, so, thank goodness, he had his world record. (For posterity, Mac’s was bigger at 1.25 pounds so his goes in the book as the current record. Don’t think this didn’t bother me.)
He does get Spellman face when he poses for record photos.
The triumphant anglers and a friend.
And we managed to do all of this without checking our phones or posting any photos. Interestingly, we did eat donuts, no one was told about this until just now. Yum!
Even with this unexpected world record, I wanted to give Mac one more shot at the dogfish, so we did another run to Tomales on the following weekend. We didn’t get the target fish, but the kid did get into another batch of bat rays, and there is something about watching a teenager catch a quarter-ton of hard-fighting fish in an afternoon that just makes me happy. We met his parents for dinner that night, and made sure our address was correct for the Christmas party invitations. Quietly, I began to worry abut how I was going to keep Marta from having more than one cup of egg nog, because she is a complete lightweight – but no matter what happens, at least she won’t put it on Twitter.