By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
As a teenager in the early and mid-'60s, I realized my dream of landing an irregular part-time job at Fisherman's Wharf. Located at the end of the shorter former pleasure pier, the Wharf, operated by a former Hughes machinist named Bill Stewart, charged a proletarian $1.50 a day and provided all the live bait you wanted. My mother would roll out of bed at 5 a.m. and drive me through the pitch dark the handful of blocks to the midcity bus station on Pico near Rimpau. I'd catch the 5:13 Santa Monica blue bus and disembark at the top of the Santa Monica Pier just before 6.
And when I would get to Fisherman's Wharf just as the sun was rising, and sometimes considerably before, the anticipation of getting that first line into the water was almost too much to bear. Before starting the day's work, I would fling my first cast with a live anchovy into the water and wait breathlessly. The 'chovy would paddle around in circles. If any bonito were around, they would mercilessly strike. First the dramatic boil, then a loud splash, a violent grab of the anchovy and the wonderful sound of the bonito ruthlessly peeling the line off your reel -- at least until you had the balls to clamp down the drag and see if your rig would hold this ferocious fish. A healthy bonito could fight like an aquatic tiger for five minutes or ã more and take you halfway around the pier before capitulating. Just as often it would humiliate you with a sudden snap of your line. Bill Stewart's son, a year younger than me, and a kid a year older, a legendary teen fisherman known only as Henry, would stand shoulder to shoulder with me for hours on end, cranking and horsing in what we were sure were the meanest, toughest bonies in the whole Pacific Ocean.
THIS WAS TRULY THE HIGH POINT of Santa Monica Pier fishing. In the mid-1950s, Versal Schuler had opened up Santa Monica Sportfishing on the municipal side of the pier. From renting out skiffs he soon moved to operating a whole fleet of sport-fishing boats. On the Bright I, we would drift for halibut off the Malibu flats near the old Getty. From the half-day boats Kiaoraand Indiana, we'd fill sacks with bonies and "barries" -- the toothsome, log-size barracudas. The New Sunbeamseiner would chug up to the pier, weighted down in the water, its tanks bulging with squirming anchovies, a flock of pelicans squawking on its rails. Versal would warehouse the live bait in nets fastened to the bottom of a wooden receiver anchored a couple of dozen yards off the pier. The predator fish would teem and froth around the receiver, eyeing the juicy 'chovies. Versal was no dummy. For a couple of bucks he'd let you stand on the cramped porch behind his bait shop, and from there you could cast right in front of the receiver. Our shoulders would ache at the end of a punishing day decking the bonies. Versal passed away just a couple of years ago, but he remains the patron saint of Santa Monica fishermen, who helped bury him at sea.
"The '50s and '60s were the golden days, the biggest days of my life," says Yosh Volaski, a wizened, sun-cured 59-year-old who nowadays runs the small bait-and-tackle shop at the end of the pier. Among the photos posted in his display case is one of Versal's waterborne funeral. "Back then you could walk on the barracudas. There were flurries of 60-pound white sea bass. In the '60s the bonito really roared through here. And did we have halibut! Eleven thousand, eight hundred and sixty halibut caught during one two-week period on Versal's sport boats. He had three deck hands doing nothing but gaffing the halibut. One day in 1959, I remember, we landed a thousand-some-odd log barracudas right off the pier."
Yosh's hat reads "Born To Fish -- Forced To Work." But he's found a way to merge the two. Over his entire life, he has worked just about every job that's ever been available on the pier. Even when he worked for the city of Santa Monica, he'd still come and moonlight on the pier that is the center of his life. Yosh's wife runs the Oatman Rock Shop at the foot of the pier. And stepson Mannie is his partner in the bait shop. "I'm 59, and I say truthfully I've been on this pier for 55 years," Yosh says as we sit basking in the sun outside his shop. "When I was 4, my mom took me here to the carousel, and that was it. I never left. Though I have to say it's only this part of the pier I know. The first half of the pier -- well, that's always been like another world.
"I've been fishing since the day I could walk. I went to Westminster Elementary School in Venice, and as soon as the bell rang I'd never even go home. I was so little I didn't really know how to get to the pier except to follow the Red Car tracks. I knew if I went far enough they'd take me to the pier. I'd break off a bamboo stick, tie on a line and go after the mackerel. I dunno, there's just something about sitting outside without a care in the world except to see if the pole of yours ã is going to start jiggling. I gave up school, I gave up everything for it."