Posted by: 1000fish | September 3, 2022

The Graduation Trip


Life happens a lot faster than we want it to. When my nephew Charlie graduated high school four years ago, I gave him a fishing trip with me anywhere in the world. (This makes me the best uncle ever.) The consensus destination was the Amazon, targeting peacock bass on surface lures. Then, stuff happened. My sister freaked out at the idea of yellow fever and unpronounceable snakes. Summer schedules got busy. Oh, and Covid happened. 

Still my favorite picture of Charlie.

My other favorite picture of him. He still has that rod.

Four years later, the trip still hadn’t happened, but Charlie had managed to graduate college, from Virginia Commonwealth no less. Naturally, I gave him a graduation present – a fishing trip anywhere in the world. (To run concurrently with the other trip.) After lengthy negotiations, it was decided that we would meet in San Diego and do a few days with old friend Captain James Nelson. This would allow us to hit all the San Diego staples, eat reasonable meals, and not face any unpronounceable snakes, especially the ones with yellow fever.

The whole family visited California in July, and then Charlie came back to fish in August. 

I don’t usually fly on American Airlines, and Charlie reminded me why. The original flight I gave him, business class direct to San Francisco, was cancelled and morphed into a dumpster fire of middle seats and multiple stops. Still, he eventually got here, and the next day, we were off on the eight hour road trip to San Diego. Yes, I could have flown him directly to San Diego, but where’s the fun in that? The idea was to spend quality time together, and what more quality time could anyone have than eight hours trapped in a car with me?

Somewhere in Los Angeles.

Nephew or not, he’s 22 years old and lives on the other side of the country. We don’t see each other that much, and while I was looking forward to it, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I didn’t know what was cool for 22 year-olds even when I was 22, and I certainly don’t now, but I prayed the fishing would be exceptional so no one would have time to share any feelings. We don’t need to discuss feelings, for God’s sake. Fishing is enough. 

We spent the first evening soaking baits off Harbor Island – a hotbed of assorted sharks, rays, and bay fish. Charlie’s first catch of the trip was a round stingray, which he was thrilled with, until he caught about eight more, especially when I made him unhook them.

Every location has a dominant pest, and in this case, it can put you in the hospital.

When did he get taller than me?    

We headed in for dinner and Charlie’s first legal drink with me. We kept it to one – we had an early day coming up.

Five AM came quickly, and we were off to meet Captain James at Mission Bay.

You can find James at He costs less than Sea World and you’ll see more fish.

We had a look outside the bay, and ocean conditions looked calm. Charlie does get seasick, but not at the Olympic level like his Dad, so we figured we would give it a shot on the open water off La Jolla. We could get Charlie some rockfish or maybe a stray yellowtail, and I could sadly cast a sardine and not catch a pelagic ray again. 

Charlie and James bonded quickly.

Charlie started catching fish the minute we stopped the boat.

Charlie’s first ocean whitefish. And … let’s get this out of the way now. Charlie does not have a pointy head. It’s just a bad combination of hat and sunshield.

I got a few rockfish and balefully stared at the ray rod. This was reaching spearfish-level futility. I complained loudly about how pelagic rays will show up for some kid from Indiana, but they disappear the minute I get here. I hate that kid from Indiana.

At 9:36 AM, the sardine rod folded over hard. I stared at it like an idiot. James had to gently suggest “Grab the rod, dude.” I lifted it out of the holder and hooked the fish. It ran quickly but not yellowtail quickly, and it changed directions constantly. I knew what it was, but I didn’t want to say anything out loud and hex myself.

James whispered “No pressure, dude. But that’s a pelagic ray.” I did not find this helpful.

Moments later, we could see the dark purple of a small pelagic under the boat. It was well-hooked, and James made short work of it with the net. The trip was now officially worth it. 

Species 2026. I finally was that kid from Indiana. And I actually was born in Indiana.

Charlie continued to load up on rockfish.

A nice bocaccio from deeper water.

That’s a starry.

We both got some solid reds.

Later on, we moved to the kelp and got a few cool inshore staples, including Charlie’s first sheephead and first calico bass.

It took me years to catch a three-color sheephead. Honestly – he does not have a pointy head.

The calico. He liked these a lot.

That’s not gray hair. It’s sunblock in my beard that just looks like gray hair.

We fished the shore that evening, and in between round rays, Charlie did something that astonished me. He caught a halibut. A decent one. From shore. By himself.

He will never have any idea how hard this is to do.

A halibut from shore deserves fireworks.

The next day, we pounded San Diego Bay, looking for an IGFA world record gray smoothhound for 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 member on the IGFA scoreboard. Plus, this would reclaim Charlie’s dignity from the fact that his sister has caught a much bigger fish than he has

Elizabeth, who is in the middle of college now, also has an overdue graduation present. (A concert of her choice anywhere in the world. As long as it’s near some decent fishing.)

Yes, I know you are all thinking this was more important to me than him. Stop already. The record, by the way, was a very doable at 3.75 pounds, and best of all, it was Spellman’s. 

We caught all kinds of local standards – bay bass, croakers, and mackerel – but the sharks were making themselves scarce. It was a very hot week, and this can sometimes put the bite off, but James kept looking for deeper water and different patterns and we kept ourselves busy. 

In the meantime, Charlie landed a solid bay bass, and then got a California scorpionfish, which I explained he should not put in his pants. 

I tried to suggest that the hoodie goes on after the hat, but it’s apparently cooler this way.

They call these “sculpin,” but they are actually a scorpionfish.

That evening, Charlie and I fished the shore a bit, and in the middle of the round ray parade, he got a big guitarfish. Things were going well so far – we were keeping busy enough where no one had tried to talk about feelings.

Finally, a decent smile.

But not like he smiled for his first bluegill.

We had another couple of legal drinks that night and discussed strategy for the next day – pounding the deeper sections of the bay for whatever sharks and rays would bite. 

Our last day with James for the trip broke absolutely beautiful – clear, sunny, hot, and completely still. I felt confident that James could get us something interesting, and I told him so. “I feel confident you can get us into a world record. Or two.” I said. “But no pressure.” As I recall, he responded with something like “Well aren’t you the easiest client I have ever fished with.” (That quote may not be exact.)

It got interesting very quickly. We were drifting near some big docks, and I noticed fish flipping on the surface. They didn’t look like sardines, so I asked James what they were. “Needlefish.” he responded. “California needlefish?” I asked breathlessly. “Yes.” he responded. I had never caught a California needlefish.

I quickly set up and cast a float rig. The needlefish attacked immediately, and I had an unexpected second species for the trip. The idea was to get Charlie some fish, but I’ll take these with no complaints.

Species 2027.

A closeup of the teeth.

Oh, and I caught a black croaker, which Chris Moore still didn’t have at the time. He finally got one in September of 2021 – but he still hasn’t gotten a barred pargo.

The sharks continued to be slow – we got a few round rays, which are horrible, and then a guitarfish. James decided to try some channels he knew in the back bay, and invest some time with big baits on the bottom. 

In between the round rays, Charlie finally had a solid run and set the hook on something that pulled back hard. The fight was all head shakes, and I knew it was a decent shark. James and I exchanged looks, and I stood behind Charlie shouting gentle advice like “Don’t #$%@ it up, Chuckles!” Charlie stayed calm, fought the fish well, and James boated a solid Mustelus. (Fish nerds unite!)

But would it beat Spellman’s record?

A quick look at the scale showed us it was six and a half pounds – well over the record, and Charlie smiled. I warned him we would need to do a lot of measuring to verify it was a gray for sure, but that things looked pretty good. He doesn’t get as publicly demonstrative as I do, and he certainly is quiet, but around me, almost everyone is quiet. 

We officially weighed and identified the fish about an hour later – it was gray and it was a record. I was so proud of him.

The afternoon, I stumbled into a gray smoothhound that weighed in at 4.5 pounds. This also topped Spellman’s fish – and would actually count as a world record for me, although one that would be immediately retired by my nephew’s fish. (All catches in the same day that top a previous record are counted as new records, regardless of order.)

Take that, Spellman. No record has ever been more thoroughly broken.

We got quite a few more fish – James had used every bit of his extensive San Diego knowledge and found us a day full of action despite the hot weather. Late in the session, Charlie, casting a light rig for bonefish, got another decent smoothhound – an intense battle on a trout rig.

I hadn’t seen him this happy since Santa brought him the All American Buzz Lightyear one Christmas. But that was at least three years ago. 

He wanted this more than a BB gun.

After James dropped us off, we tried light tackle surf a bit, then headed back to Harbor Island. 

The surf was a fail.

It took Charlie a couple of hours to figure out it was a nude beach.

Waiting for a bite at Harbor Island.

The fishing was reliable as always – this time, we got thornback rays.

We never did find out what this one was.

We went home the next morning, which was eight more hours in the car with me, which we passed by sharing family folklore and getting Charlie to volunteer terrible secrets about my sister. (I am SO ready for story time at the next family holiday.)

I also chewed Charlie out for buying block ice instead of crushed, and yet, three days later, the block was still frozen in the Yeti. So I learned something.

We reviewed such family gems as the full facts of the time my sister wrecked my rental car, the time the Christmas cake had concrete in it, and the real reason the basement carpet ended up covered in cranberry juice.

For lunch, we went to the Willow Ranch Barbecue, a place I had been introduced to by an aunt and uncle who live nearby.

The famous Willow Ranch menu.

It was that uncle who spent hours fishing me when I was a kid, and hopefully I have spent just as many with Charlie. I never did reproduce (you’re welcome, society) so this will be the best I can do passing things on in the family.

We got him to the airport the next day, and American eventually got him home. It might be a while until I see him again – he is starting his first job and lives on the other side of the country. I’m still not sure what the relationship is or is supposed to be, but I know we’re fishing buddies, and that’s all I could ask.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: