Posted by: 1000fish | February 25, 2021

The Torrey Pines Epiphany


By the time Kam mentioned the beach was clothing-optional, we were already halfway down the path. I carried on, my obsession with catching a spotfin croaker outweighing whatever visual horrors awaited. In my youth, I imagined nude beaches as full of attractive women, but as I have grown – notice I didn’t say “matured” – I have accepted that the nude people generally look less like Kate Upton and more like me.

An overview of Torrey Pines Beach, before I discovered that there was going to be awkwardness.

I was thrilled to be heading back to the San Diego surf, on what looked like a perfect day – reasonable waves, not too much floating kelp, inbound tide. I had planned to fish with old friend Ben Cantrell, but he had gotten tied up, hopefully at work. Ben kindly connected me to Kam, a wild-haired UCSD marine biology student reputed to be quite the light tackle surf specialist. Kam and I met in the gliderport parking lot. When I saw his idea of a surf setup – a trout rod spooled with four pound line – it hit me that my 10 pound stuff was much too heavy. I tied on a long six-pound fluoro leader, and we headed to the beach.

When we got down there, and after I accepted that those weren’t flesh-colored speedos, we dug up some sand crabs and started fishing. I waded out as far as I could, but Kam barely put his toes in the water. I thought maybe he just didn’t like to get his feet wet, but then he hooked a fish – in six inches of water – and the fight was on. Kam was spectacularly nonchalant about the whole thing, but it was clear he had something big. After about 30 minutes, he landed one of the bigger corbina I have ever seen, quietly asked me to take his picture with it, and went back to fishing.

I’ve never gotten a corbina this big. Ben has. Even Spellman has.

I walked back out to knee-deep water and kept casting. Somewhere in there, it occurred to me that Kam still wasn’t wading. He was casting to the very edge of the wash, and he was catching stuff. He had even suggested to me, in that cautious tone you have to use when someone a lot older that you is doing something completely wrong, that I try to fish more toward shore. I had an epiphany. I was standing on the fish.

Sheepishly walking back to the edge of the wet sand, I continued casting a sand crab and a light egg sinker. I was quickly rewarded with a couple of taps – I presumed these were small corbina, but I was also not used to fishing with the long leader this approach requires. After a few missed strikes, I stayed patient, let the fish run the line tight, and the circle hook did its job. I had a fish on – I could see a decent-sized shape swimming hard back into the deeper water as the wave receded, and when it got past the first roller, it took off for Japan. With only a six-pound leader, I backed off on the drag and let the fish run as long as it wanted to. Whatever it was, it was relatively big. I was certainly hoping spotfin, but a big corbina, defined as bigger than Spellman’s, would also be rewarding.

The battle went on for around 20 minutes before I could see what I had. It was a good spotfin. Every lift, every drag adjustment, every give and take with the rod became pressure-packed. I wanted this one bad, and I managed not to screw it up. Perhaps 10 minutes later, I surfed it on to the beach and Kam landed it. The trip couldn’t have started better.

At last, a spotfin.

The triumphant anglers.

Moments later, that spectacularly awkward moment that I feared would happen, happened. We kept the fish for Kam to eat. So, we left it by our equipment bags. It’s natural that people on a beach would stop and look at the fish or ask questions – heck, I love to talk to strangers about fish. But generally, these strangers are not naked. It was a very nice chat otherwise, but you try to talk to someone for 15 minutes without acknowledging that they are not dressed. I briefly considered taking my own clothes off to level the playing field, but I’m not sure that Kam would have gotten through that without serious therapy.

Torrey Pines – great fishing, but be aware of the beach rules before you consider bringing the kids.

Kam and I kept at it until dark, and the fish kept biting. I caught half a dozen corbinas, a few perch, some yellowfin croaker, and an ambitious guitarfish.

These things are so cool.

Just as I was thinking about packing up and finding a pizza, Kam hooked into another big fish, again from just a few inches of water. I sat back and watch him battle it on the ultra-light tackle, and again, after a skilled fight on both sides, he beached a beautiful spotfin – bigger than mine, dammit. It was a perfect evening, except for the seemingly vertical half-mile up the trail to the cars.

Thanks again, Kam.

I spent the next morning hunting zebra perch in coastal tidepools. This is a fool’s errand. Zebra perch are a prank pulled on us by the Fish Gods – an attractive creature that is easily seen that does not EVER EAT ANYTHING. Oh, did I see them. Oh, did I cast to them. And oh, did they spook and run away.

These crevices were jammed with them.

I caught plenty of wooly sculpins, but tiring of the zebra perch abuse, I moved over to Harbor Island for the afternoon and got a few rays and sharks. There was no banded guitarfish, but it was nice to catch something and even nicer not to hear the teeny giggles of the zebra perch.

I did catch a starfish. Marta loves starfish.

That evening, one of my best friends, Scott Perry, donned his Captain America face mask and flew down to San Diego to spend a couple of socially-distanced fishing days with me. San Diego was allowing indoor dining at the time, and it was wonderful but weird to sit down in a nice restaurant and eat. I met Scott at my first startup job, in 1992, and astonishingly, almost 30 years later, he is still speaking to me. It always amazes me how hard we worked for that startup – Macromedia – and still had more fun than either of us has had at a job since.

The following morning, we caught up with old friend and ace guide Captain James Nelson. Kam joined us, and I am happy to report there was no nudity. We had several realistic targets, like sharpnose surfperch and sunset rockfish, and and some aspirational targets, like pelagic rays, and even some ridiculous stretches, like thresher shark and bluefin tuna. We motored out of Mission Bay on a foggy morning and set up over a coastal reef. I caught stuff, although not any of the target fish. A few moments later, Scott did something unexpected and not at all consistent with his personality – he stole the show.

On my treasured Phil Richmond custom rod, Scott went ahead and caught a positively massive Treefish. At 2.25 pounds, it would be an easy world record – Scott’s first. Part of me was thrilled for him, but that other part of me, the one people call “Steve,” was thinking “WTF? Why am I catching nothing of note?”

Scott and his beast.

Kam observes quietly. Yes, I have hair envy.

Sure, I caught some fun stuff. But no world records. At least I didn’t get outfished by Spellman.

Damn that’s a big treefish. For those of you who are thinking “Gee, that looks a lot like a rock cod” – you’re right. It is in fact in the Sebastes genus.

The group in a proper Covid configuration. You can book James at He’s awesome.

Naturally, when we finished with James, we raced right to Harbor Island, got caffeinated, and started fishing for banded guitarfish. We didn’t get one, but we did catch a few butterfly rays.

These are still one of the coolest fish I have ever seen. 

It’s always a good thing to be sitting on the shoreline in San Diego Bay.

The following morning, Scott caught up on a little bit of work while I went out goby hunting with Ben. There are two target goby species in Mission Bay, the cheekspot and the shadow. Both are small and shy, requiring windless conditions on a high tide, so this is usually an early morning thing. It’s like a saltwater darter hunt and requires wading. Even though it’s in San Diego, the water can be a bit chilly at dawn, and the fish are always just deep enough where the bottom half of your swimsuit is going to get wet.

Ben didn’t seem to mind the cold water.

After 15 minutes, it was clear that the gobies were tough to find and that my groin was cold, so I was about to give up. A moment later, Ben spotted a solitary cheekspot and let me take a crack at it. It took quite a few tries, but the thing eventually bit and joined the species list. I was relieved to get out of the water.

The beast.

Once this Herculean task was accomplished, I thanked Ben, jumped in the car, and headed over to Shelter Island, which is supposed to be a hotbed of chameleon gobies. The trick here, again, is getting low, undisturbed water that allows sight fishing. I had been here several times, and had even seen a few gobies, but even slight ripples on the water frustrate the process. Well, this was the right morning. It was dead still, and I could see dozens of the little fellows on the rocks. I caught several in less than five minutes, and was up to three species on the trip.

The chameleon goby, which is supposed to live just a few minutes from my house but won’t bite unless I drive eight hours south.

We then all made another pilgrimage to Harbor Island. It was great again to be on the shoreline with a chance for something epic, but alas, the “bandito” did not make an appearance. I passed the time calculating how many hours I had spent trying to get one, but once I hit three figures, I didn’t like that game any more.

Ben did get a nice butterfly ray, and on very light tackle.

The next morning, Scott and I visited Sunset Cliffs and made another foolish try for zebra perch. Yes, I saw them.

There were 20 zebra perch at my feet. They were looking right at me.

No, I didn’t catch them, and the while I was not catching them, some dude walked down on to the rocks and writhed around in what was either a yoga ritual or a seizure, so we had to pretend we didn’t see that.

There was a lot I pretended not to see on this trip.

Speaking of things I wish I could unsee … We saw this in Safeway when we were picking up bait. Wade and Jamie would actually eat this.

Then, it was back to Harbor Island. It started well, with a few rays and a big spotted bay bass.

The secret – fish for rays. Bass can eat a whole squid no problem.

We went through a few more sharks and rays. The round stingrays seemed to have moved in and taken over, but every bite could be something awesome, so we kept at it.

Around 4pm, one of the rods started bouncing. It was well past Scott’s turn, but he had a look and said “You better get this one.” Never one to pass up an opportunity but moved by Scott’s constant generosity, I picked up the rod. Something was banging on the sardine and slowly swimming off. I said a quick anti-round stingray prayer and set the hook. At first, I felt substantial weight but no movement, but as I continued reeling, whatever it was started pounding hard. It didn’t feel like a ray, and it was too big to be a smoothhound. I had visions of an exceptionally large thornback.

The fish got heavier and started another short run. Just in case, I started working my way down to the water. Moments later, I saw a shape in the water – it did look like a big thornback, and I had thoughts of breaking Daniel Gross’ record. It wasn’t until I had the fish at the water’s edge that I realized it was a banded guitarfish – and a big one. I bounded down the rocks and grabbed species 1947.

I waited a long time for this.

Hugging isn’t part of social distancing, but I couldn’t help myself. (Scott, not the fish. Well, maybe both.) This was a big deal to me. This is a fish that took me over 100 hours of shore fishing to catch. This is the fish that some rotten little 10 year-old from Indiana keeps catching on his first trip with Captain James, and it was high time I got one. And as an unexpected bonus, it was a world record. So, whoever that 10 year-old is, and I am certain he is friends with Jamie, but wherever he is, nyah nyah nyah.

I feel much better now.

We fished past dark. It’s a great place to watch the world go by.

We had one more evening to eat and drink indoors, so we enjoyed an epic seafood meal at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse restaurant and reflected on a very successful trip. There would always be something new to catch in San Diego, but I had gotten two of the big targets added to my list.

On the way home, Scott put up with me stopping in an LA creek to look for Santa Ana suckers. I found none, but I did catch a nice speckled dace. My UC Davis contacts tell me that this species will eventually be split from the main group, so stay tuned.

In 2023, my heroes at UC Davis finally split this out as a new species, the Santa Ana Speckled Dace, Rhinichthys gabrielino.

Oh, and Scott accidentally left his Captain America mask in my car. Naturally, I washed it, folded it nicely, and returned it to him. I would never have considered taking compromising photos with it and showing those to him months later.





  1. Congratulations Mr Steve Very nice report and a lot of different fishes !

    On Thu, 25 Feb 2021, 23:17 1000fish’s Blog – Steve Wozniak’s hunt for fish species, wrote:

    > 1000fish posted: “DATELINE: JUNE 29, 2020 – SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA By the > time Kam mentioned the beach was clothing-optional, we were already halfway > down the path. I carried on, my obsession with catching a spotfin croaker > outweighing whatever visual horrors awaited. In my” >

  2. […] a bunch of chameleon gobies – the fish I had hoped to get in Suisun City on 8/18/18 and eventually got in San Diego, but the Shokihaze was nowhere to be found. There is a Jimi Hendrix song in here […]

  3. […] It was time for a road trip. Mark Spellman’s wife was dropping unsubtle hints that he needed some time off, and you all know Marta’s position on getting me out of the house. Halloween was right around the corner, so we had act quickly – fishing weekends get scarce between the cooler weather and Charlie Brown specials. Looking at my constantly-diminishing California opportunities, San Diego always seems to beckon. After substantial discussion, we decided to focus on the Zebra Perch. […]

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