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
My reel like all my reels: a conventional Penn. This one the ball-bearing-driven Squidder, which my father taught me to use in the 1950s. Penn conventionals are to fishing reels what four-speed stick shifts are to transmissions. Nothing automatic about them. These aren't the made-for-idiots spinning reels that some genius designed to sit upside down on your rod. If you haven't been taught to cast one, don't even click it open. If you haven't mastered controlling the speed of the unspooling reel with your friction-burned thumb, then get ready to piss your day away picking through a heart-numbing bird's nest of nylon line.
As I loosen the drag on the reel to start rigging up, I lapse into a sort of Zen routine. All of the decades of fishing knowledge passed on to me from my father, my older cousin Murray and my uncle Charlie -- a pioneer in the design of split-cane fishing rods -- seems to flow into my fingertips. I thread the rod with military precision and crispness. Everything must be tied just right. Fishing is only 50 percent good luck. The fish have to be there to catch them -- but you have to know how.
The lead weight must conform to water conditions. A flat 2-ounce weight for smooth bottom trolling. Or a pyramid for rough waters. Today I choose something in between -- a round 2-ounce for a fine balance between stability and agility.
I make a similar judgment on hooks. Too many inexperienced fishermen think a bigger hook means bigger fish. But I've learned that a smaller hook is easier to swallow. For today's quest I go with my favorite -- a laser-sharpened No. 6 Mustad. I tie a single hook with a fisherman's knot onto a leader precisely 3 feet long. The other end of this line is tethered to the main line about 8 inches above the weight. This classic sort of surf leader allows the bait to float alluringly free but still gives the fisherman necessary control over the line.
As to my bait, I admit I'm cheating a bit. Carlos and Chino wait till low tide and chip clumps of fresh mussels right off the pier pilings. I've grown too comfortable for such authenticity. I've started buying fresh cherrystone clams from the supermarket. They're dynamite bait, but pricey. No wonder my nickname is "El Hombre de las Almejas." The Clam Man.
To fish for sargo I cast my line repeatedly right in between a row of pilings in front of me. After the line hits the bottom, I close the reel, wait a moment, and then keep the bait moving. Fast enough to catch attention, slow enough to be caught. I maneuver the bait to within inches of the mussels, hoping the fish will think it to be a morsel that has broken free.
In minutes I hook up. It's not much of a fight, but I have fooled one of the shrewdest of species: a midsize, dark-brown buttermouth perch. Not huge -- about a pound -- but I'll take it. Fishing is slow this season. The extra-cold waters of La Niña have doused the angling blaze set off a couple years back by her brother, El Niño. In the summers of '97 and '98, El Niño's heated currents brought uncanny numbers of fish into the bay. "The fish would line up to be caught," Carlos says as we reminisce one more time about that brief moment two years ago when even the long-lost yellowtail were schooling just a half-mile offshore.
But today I have to earn my catch. After that first, I'm getting skunked. I have to patiently troll up from the bottom. I lose several setups as they snag on the pilings. But then, two hours deep into my toil, just as I'm about to reel in another cast, there's that unmistakable strike from a sargo. It's a sharp, deep yank, a tug that bends the Truline in half. Line begins to slowly peel off the reel as the sargo frantically streaks simultaneously downward and toward the nearest piling. If it can wrap the line around the post, it can probably break free. I slowly lift up on the rod, increasing the tension and twisting down the ã chrome-plated star drag on the reel, bringing the spooling to a halt. Now comes the moment to set the hook. The moment in which one is revealed as either a skilled fisherman or a clumsy "farmer" -- one who knows the earth, but not the sea. Carlos stops his own fishing to watch. "Cuidado!" he admonishes. "Don't rip out its lungs!" I pull up firmly on the rod, enough to set the barb but not so much to yank it out of the sargo's mouth. The rod comes up and bends like a bow; the line grows taut and strains for a moment, but holds. The sargo pulls two or three times very sharply, to no avail. Its fight is dignified but not extended. Within less than a minute it is on the deck. A fine catch at maybe 2, 2 and a half pounds. The tourists looking on from above are stupefied that such a huge creature can be offered up from the less-than-pristine waters of Santa Monica Bay.