By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I've decided to probe the waters from my favorite spot -- the southernmost corner at the very end of the pier. This is down on the mezzanine-level rear deck, barely 10 feet or so off the water and separated by a staircase from the rest of the world. My buddies are all here: "El Negro," the deaf-mute from Belize who makes a strange yelping noise as he casts his line out halfway to Catalina. Kitty-corner from me stands "Pog," the Vietnamese -- or maybe Chinese -- halibut stalker so intense in his work that at times it seems he's trying to will the fish onto his hook. Ernesto, from Mexico, who's still floating from ã his shark catch. "Nica," the Nicaraguan-born Roberto, who has somehow cut another day from his 9-to-5.
Fishing next to me is Carlos, a middle-aged veteran of the Salvadoran wars who treks in just about every day from Third and Rampart. His last name I know -- Herrera. Absolutely devoted to his mother, with whom he lives, he's willing to make the ultimate sacrifice: to not bring home the copious amounts of fish he masterfully extracts from these waters. "I take them over to my friends' house to barbecue. I cook them there, and we all eat together," Carlos says. "My mother complains that if we cook them at home she'll never be able to get the fish smell out of the curtains and carpets."
Leroy, the Jamaican who is an expert in snagging bait-size fish from the surface, stands at the railing opposite us cursing over a reel backlash. I don't know much more about him except for rumors that he sometimes sleeps under the pier. And then on my other side there's the sweet old Russian -- his English so rudimentary it took me weeks to find out he's from Kharkov. I'm still working on his name.
We are all conspiratorially bound by our love for what draws us here, and also by a sort of "otherness" beyond specific ethnicity. It's not something we discuss, it's just assumed. Race, class, profession mean nothing. Here there are simply those who know the rituals and can execute them faithfully, and those who are condemned to watch us from the outside. There are only those who must toil in sync with a ticking clock, and those of us united in an eternal game of hooky. (Much of my work as a journalist is putting out phone calls and waiting for them to be returned. Why not wait with a cell phone and a reporter's note pad in my fanny pack and a perfectly balanced Truline rod in hand?) In a city where being crazed for time is a mark of status, each one of us must have some dark little secret that allows us to spend four or five or seven days a week out here where our rhythms are marked only by the cycle of the tides.
As Carlos says: "What else should I be doing today? Where else should I be?"
I'VE FISHED AROUND THE WORLD, AND FOR much bigger stakes than those of Santa Monica Bay. I've hunted tuna off Key West, marlin in Havana, corbina out of the Chilean surf, salmon in the cold Oregon waters, sailfish in the simmering Sea of Cortez, yellowtail off Ensenada, halibut and albacore from the overnight boats around Coronado Island. But the Santa Monica Pier is my first and most enduring love -- an affair that has flourished for more than 40 years. For angling off the pier is the most democratic form of fishing. You don't need more than an hour or two out of your life. No plane tickets or boat charters. You don't even need a fishing license. Hell, you don't even need a fishing pole. An old Coke can, 30 feet of pilfered monofilament, a few earthworms from your front lawn, and you're hot on the tail of the always-hungry barred perch that mill around the clumps of mussels encrusted on the pilings. The nameless Russian fishing at my side actually uses an old spark plug as a weight. I wonder if he saw that as a child in some American cartoon.
On this late-spring morning that I meet up with Ernesto and Carlos and Chino, it is those big perch I'm gunning for. As Bobby says, "Most amateur fishermen have no idea what they're fishing for. A real fisherman knows exactly how to catch the exact kind of fish he wants." And what I'm focused on today are the granddaddys of the perch -- the huge 3- and 4-pound sargo that materialize around the pilings like gray-white ghosts.
The tide is high, and that's good. But the moderate chop that stirs and muddies the water works against me. I stake out my usual spot. From here I can face the beach and cast my line under the pier into the forest of pilings that lure the perch and sand bass.
My gear today is old-school traditional. Sort of like the Brooks Brothers of tackle. I've brought a sturdy but light-tipped and sensitive fiberglass rod -- a rather aristocratic 6-and-a-half-foot Truline with plated eyelet guides, colorfully and custom wrapped. As a teenager I would wrap these rods myself, content that I had learned an art as rare as smithing. Nowadays I ask others, more skilled and nimble, to do the job.