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Hooked 

40 Years of Fishing Off the Santa Monica Pier

Wednesday, Jul 28 1999
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Photo by Slobodan DimitrovWHAT A NIGHT IT HAD BEEN. AND A SCARLET streak of congealing blood on the ground confirmed the fish story that Ernesto was telling me. After the moon had risen the night before, he had hooked a whopper. The chunk of mackerel he had pushed onto his titan-size 4/0 razor-sharpened hook was evidently the right bait. After muscling his catch up from the bottom and then hauling it up from the water with a hooped net, Ernesto ogled his prize: a fearsome-looking (but very docile) 4-foot-long leopard shark. "It's been a long time since I've got one that big," Ernesto said in Spanish.

But there was more excitement. An hour before I showed up that morning, a huge gray whale buzzed by and wrapped up at least half a dozen lines in its flopping flukes. Without breaking its stride, the whale torpedoed out to deeper waters, running bare the reels of the stunned fishermen.

And for anyone who might doubt the stories Ernesto was telling, a small act of magic transpired in that moment to prove otherwise. Our vision was caught by the spectacular sight of a trio of arcing dolphins, no more than 50 yards out.

Well, this last is a bit of a fish story. Sighting the dolphins was hardly magical. Their water ballet is actually quite a common sight -- something so regular out here on the Santa Monica Pier that you can just about set your watch by it.

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IT IS A SMALL PIECE OF PARADISE THAT ONLY elusively reveals itself. On any sunny day, like this one in late spring, the crowds surge down the ramp past the classic carousel and toward the action in the middle of the pier, where the old ma-and-pa places -- the pottery shop, the fish market, the thrift store -- have been supplanted by Rusty's Surf Ranch and salt-box cafés selling overpriced burgers and fried fish. The biggest crowds today mill in front of the disappeared Penny Arcade, now a noisy room of blinking video games. Young truants escaping the confines of the city fork over their cash to street vendors hawking henna tattoos, hemp jewelry and handwriting analysis. Other kids lean over the rails and gaze north toward the forbidden borders of Malibu, breathe deep, embrace their lovers and light up some smokes. A few yards down, a knot of Asian tourists stands transfixed as a kneeling artist uses techniques imported from the streets of Mexico City to evoke multihued moonscapes from a battery of splattered spray-paint cans.

The licensing of these few vendors and artists -- and the opening of the rather tame amusement park right off the parking lot -- is the city of Santa Monica's idea of economic rejuvenation of the pier, an attempt to attract the sort of crowds that cruise the Promenade a few blocks away. But it's all just a distraction from the real allure of this pier. In a word, fishing.

Indeed, just about midpoint on the pier, where the parking lot ends, where what are actually two side-by-side piers meld into one elongated stretch, right at the spot where the venerable Tides Café with its misty and fogged windows once stood as the central watering hole of pier life, it is an alternate universe. This is where the dedicated begin to unpack our chairs and open our tackle boxes. Some of the day-trippers eventually wander out here. But not many. And that's fine by me. For even on the hottest summer Sunday, even though some 10 million people live within a 45-minute drive of the pier, there will never be more than 40 or 50 of us hunched over the rails and drifting. No tangled lines, no annoying small talk, no pain-in-the-ass tyro asking you how to bait the hook or cast the line.

"It's magic just to be out here breathing the salt air," says 50-year-old Hamilton High alumnus Bobby Carvel. Some part-time work, some wise investing, and Bobby is here six or seven days a week. Fishing, helping out the guys in the bait shop. Or just sitting back in a patio chair spinning stories with the rest of us. "This is absolute therapy," he says. "I defy anyone who is out here seriously fishing to even try to think about their troubles. It's impossible."

Today I find a comfortable group of regulars, men I've come to know since I started, about five years ago, once again fishing from the pier. Few have any last names I'm aware of. Most have only nicknames. "El Chino," the Honduran, is staking out his usual spot on the south side of the pier. Parked next to him is a rusty beach-cruiser bike that he's rehabilitated as his primary form of transportation. He tells me only that he lives "far away." And once again Chino has conjured up a killer-size croaker, now slowly churning in his bucket. "I caught that two hours ago. Tide's too low right now," he says, looking out at the surf. "Nothing's going to start biting again until 4, 5 o'clock." That's Chino's way of announcing that he will spend the next several hours concentrating on the most important rite of fishing -- goofing off. He's already broken out a deck of cards, and with a group of friends I don't recognize he's deep into a heated game of whist fueled by swigs from a bottle in a brown bag.

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