Posted by: 1000fish | January 21, 2022

The Wild Zebra Chase


If you get nothing else out of this blog, zebras are black with white stripes. In a bizarre but not impossible set of circumstances, this information could save your life, or at least win a bar bet, so make a note of it. 

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.

An attractive relative of the opaleye, zebra perch are mostly vegetarian. Whereas the opaleye will occasionally eat shrimp, the zebra perch seem much more dedicated to their diet, so even though they are loudly visible inshore, they are very difficult to hook. This sort of thing keeps me up at night. 

Sure, San Diego is filled with other great fisheries – we would also try for some deep-water rockfish, general bay species, and the elusive pelagic ray, but that fiendish Kyphosid had stared me in the eye for too many hours and it was time to stop the humiliation. (You all remember, of course, that I caught the Australian version of this creature on my first try.)

It’s a long drive from Alamo to San Diego, but with Spellman in the car, 8 hours flies by like 480 minutes. On the way to any fishing destination, the number one topic will be what you are hoping to catch, unless you’re over 30 and unmarried, in which case it will be Kate Upton, or under 30 and unmarried, in which case it will be whoever is trending on TikTok.

Mark and I have been fishing together almost 30 years, so there was plenty to talk about, starting with those 1993 bat ray trips and on up to how we were finally going to outwit the current target.

A very young Mark and Steve, Bodega Bay, 1993. One has to wonder who did that to his hair.

A classic Spellman photo from 1994. That is the first and only albino leopard shark I have ever seen.

We built the schedule around some daytime minus tides, aiming to unsportingly corner a small zebra perch in a tidepool and aggravate it into biting. This pattern, however gauche, worked for several friends of mine, and if you’re waiting for me to have shame, you must be a new reader. Welcome! 

We found ourselves at Sunset Cliffs the next morning, October 16. This is a wonderful tidepool spot, but I would offer two pieces of advice – get there well before your tide if you want to park, and be very, very careful on the stairs. They are slippery and do not facilitate passing.

Spellman navigates the stairs.

It didn’t take long to find the fish. It never takes long to find them. They have bold stripes and live in shallow, clear water. But that’s where the fun ends, because the minute you put a bait near them, they panic, and then, while eyeballing you the whole time, zip nervously back and forth. But I had the aforementioned plan. I looked for the smaller, utility-tub sized pools that appear at very low tides.

There are dozens of zebra perch in those tidepools.

After about half an hour of searching, and an encounter with a surprised moray, I found what I wanted. A single zebra perch was peering out at me from under a rock. We sat motionless for a moment, sizing each other up. I then slowly, carefully eased a micro-offering in front of him, and while he showed absolutely no interest, he didn’t freak out. This felt like progress. 

While Spellman happily caught an assortment of perch and rockfish, I continued my zebra staredown. The fish would back up a little, then ease out a bit, and after about 45 minutes, he showed some acknowledgment of the bait, although it was unclear whether it was food-driven interest or just annoyance. I was fine either way. After an hour, he ventured at least 2 centimeters out of his hole and nosed at the bait. There were 15 more minutes of fits and starts, and then, finally, he bit. I swung him up onto the rock and bellowed in primal triumph, which got the attention of Spellman, at least 7 surfers, and a family of tourists up on the cliff. 

I love it when a plan works out.

Spellman casually released a big black perch and wandered over. “About time.” he said. (Mark, I have to honest that you didn’t meet my emotional needs at that moment.)

Species 1965. My sister was born in 1965. Things haven’t been right since.

The next two days were a blur of excellent local taco stands and shore fishing for whatever would bite off Harbor Island.

And so it begins. Shortly after this photo was taken, I sneezed in my mask. Don’t do this. It’s like crapping your face.

Spellman led off the catches with a light-tackle guitarfish.

We were joined by old friend Ben Cantrell, who would soon be moving to Florida. It was nice having him a day’s drive away for a couple of years, but it will be great having another contact in Florida. 

This photo is so Ben.

We caught an assortment of sharks and rays, headlined for me by my second-ever banded guitarfish. 

It took me years to catch my first one of these.

We were also joined by the Moore family, none of whom had caught a banded guitarfish. My heart ached for Chris and Carson, but not so much for The Mucus

L-R: Steve, Carson, The Mucus, and Chris.

On the 17th, we kicked off the day exploring the La Jolla tidepools. Spellman, again the bright one, went off on his own and caught nice perch and rockfish while Ben and I searched fruitlessly for reef finspot. 

That’s Ben, snorkeling the far end of the pool.

Ben dressed up as Gerry Hansell for Halloween.

A teachable moment for those of us who like to poke around tidepools – Ben, who is smarter and more cautious than the average bear, was carefully investigating some rocks and came face-to-face with a solid moray. (Not as big as the one I got with Captain James Nelson a few years ago, but big enough to rearrange your fingers.) Ben stayed calm and got some nice underwater photos.

Ben’s eel shot. Think about this the next time you want to go naked in a tidepool.

I then went ahead and caught it just for fun. Mind you, this was in less than a foot of water, right where people splash around with their kids. 

So be careful where you put your extremities.

I also randomly caught a zebra perch. It darted out from under a rock and grabbed a bait intended for a mussel blenny.

Go figure.

Then it was back to Harbor Island. I managed to break my own gray smoothhound record that evening, but before anybody gets all worked up about this, we are talking about a 28 ounce fish. Every single person I know who fishes a lot in San Diego has caught a much bigger one. Turn them in!! If you don’t know how, get ahold of me ( and I’ll take you through it. 

Yes, world records can be this small.

The 18th was laid back – I had to work the first part of the day, and Spellman toured some of his old haunts from when he lived in San Diego as a kid. That evening found us back at Harbor Island, with a dashboard full of tacos and a cooler full of sardines. My personal highlight was another record on the gray smoothhound, this time two full pounds.

Photoshop needs a “get that stupid look off your face” filter.

A little while later, Spellman put an end to my silliness with a gray that was almost twice as big. This was Mark’s fifth world record, and his second one that I hadn’t broken. As a matter of fact, he had broken one of mine, so touché.

Spellman and the beast.

Fireworks for Spellman’s fish. 

The 19th would be our last full day in San Diego, but it promised to be an interesting one. We connected with Captain James Nelson, ace local guide, luthier, and purveyor of an astonishing assortment of Dad jokes, all of which I think are funny. We planned to go offshore outside Mission Bay, with targets as diverse as the elusive sharpnose surfperch, the elusiver sunset rockfish, and the elusivest pelagic ray. We brought Ben along because he could go, and because he had worked hard to discover good locations for several interesting rockfish, including the aforementioned sunset, on his many local kayak expeditions. 

Our first stop was a nearshore shipwreck, where I expected to drop a sabiki, catch about 40 blacksmith, and then move on to not catching something else. Despite my poor attitude, and to my great surprise and Ben’s greater surprise, I instantly caught a sharpnose. 

I’ll be damned.

I want to play poker with Ben. He does not do a good job of hiding his reactions. It’s not like we’re competitive with each other, but I do think he was astonished that I caught one that quickly.

While I was doing this, Ben was hoping for a cabezon – he had not gotten one at this stage. Needless to say, Spellman immediately caught a nice cabbie, and Ben did not.

To all of our great relief, Ben got one a few weeks later.

We also got some nice, colored-up sheephead – this is one of my prettiest. James wanted a photo of me in the stern, but I was too prowed.

Ben’s photos are always nicer than mine.

We then set up on Ben’s numbers to do some deeper drops, looking for sunset rockfish. This creature was relatively recently split from the vermilion rockfish, and was a species and open record that I had missed on a previous San Diego trip, because I didn’t have Ben with me. We started getting bites as soon as we hit bottom, and along with assorted greenstriped and rosy rockfish, I pulled up an unanticipated new one – the pinkrose.

Species #1967. And #2 of the day. But wait – there’s more.

Looking at how far offshore we were, it gave me major respect for the fact that Ben had kayaked out here, many times, and survived. The guy is a serious athlete.

Captain James moved us around Ben’s deeper reefs, and on the 4th stop, everyone got solid bites right away. I could tell my fish was much bigger than anything I’d gotten so far, and I had a lot of time to consider this while reeling up 500 feet of line. When it finally surfaced, the fish was bright red, and I knew right away it was a sunset – it matched the new species description perfectly. I was ecstatic with species 1968 and a potential world record. (This ended up much more complex than I could have imagined – see postscript.)

#1968 – My beloved Detroit Tigers won the World Series in 1968.

The rockfishing petered out, and we decided to drift some baits for a pelagic ray. Pelagic rays are easy to predict – they show up the week after I am in San Diego, so some kid from Indiana can catch one and James can send me a photo. 

While we were doing this, Ben had the bright idea of trying sabikis on the bottom (some 400 feet down) to look for longfin dabs, which I had not caught. So the three of us proceeded to catch dozens and dozens of Pacific sand dabs. And there was not a single thing that wasn’t a Pacific sand dab … until I somehow brought up a longspine combfish. 

Species 1969.

My family moved from upstate New York to West Trenton, New Jersey in 1969. I developed my lasting love for exploring small streams while I lived in West Trenton, spending hours and hours exploring Jacob’s creek, a Delaware tributary that was a short walk from our house.

Captain James marvels at the combfish. Betcha that kid from Indiana hasn’t caught one, so there. And neither has Jamie Hamamoto.

Ben was again astonished. There were three of us fishing, and, to be clear, there was no skill involved in this. I just got lucky. But keep a bait in the water as much as you can and it’s amazing how lucky you can get.

Just to show us he was paying attention, Spellman got a nice halibut back inside the harbor to close out the day. 

Oh yes he did.

The group back at the landing. 

I recommend Captain James anytime you are near San Diego. He can help you catch anything, especially if you are a 12 year-old kid from Indiana.

I had added five species in a pleasant getaway, seen some dear old friends and Spellman, and added three world records to my total. (Which is now 211, if anyone asks.) It was, by any measure, a great trip. But the wonderful thing about San Diego is that there always seems to be something else to get – the reef finspot and the pelagic ray were still waiting for next time.


Scientific Postscript – Those of you who went to college with me know that I am allergic to science. So it was to the amusement of many that the Sunset Rockfish, because it was a very recently split species, required a DNA test to be officially confirmed as a Sunset and not just a colorful and deep-dwelling vermilion. A big thanks to Ben Cantrell, who stored the samples in his freezer and then shipped them, thanks also to Dr. Milton Love, who introduced me to Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, and of course thanks to Dr. Dan Distel and Rosie Falco at Northeastern, who performed the tests confirming that a) I was not the father, and that b) it was indeed Sebastes crocotulus. It should be noted that once the samples were sent and the fish identified, that the remainder of the fillets made what Ben assures me were excellent fish tacos. 










  1. Early ’90s photos – Lesson learned, working for a small software start-up at that time, did not leave me much time to be concerned about appearance.

  2. […] Charlie. (You are all of course familiar with this small and hard to identify shark from the “Wild Zebra Chase” episode.) Not that I would turn a record away, but it would be very cool to have a family […]

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