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
More bad news. When I get to the end of the pier, my usual spot on the lower deck is occupied by hot-dogger Luis -- a true artist at coaxing the wily sand bass onto his hook. Natasha and I take up positions on the upper deck, infested with a record number of get-in-your-face lookie-loos flushed from the bowels of the city by 90-degree weather. My Salvadoran buddy Carlos comes over, gloating. "You missed the sargos," he says in Spanish with a wicked smile. I know, I tell him. Chino's already told me.
"Really?" Carlos says. "Did Chino tell you that two Fridays ago I caught 54? Fifty-four! In one day. And big ones. Three-, 4-pounders."
"Great," I answer glumly. "Any still biting?"
"No. All disappeared," he says, staring down into the water swirling around the pilings. "Don't worry. They'll be back."
Sure, I say to myself. Ten years from now, when El Niño returns.
In the meantime, a chance at winning the derby seems remote. Meño, as we call him, Manuel Lopez, has already decked a 10-pound shark. That's a helluva high hurdle. I notice that even Carlos has eschewed his usual delicate, fine-tuned approach to picking off chubby perch from around the pilings. This is, after all, a contest. The winners get some spiffy trophies and some nice tackle. So Carlos has tied up a huge mother of a hook on a wire leader and baited it with an apple-size chunk of mackerel. He's going for weight, for quantity, not for quality. He wants to bag anything big enough to swallow the hunk of flesh he's plopping into the water -- like a scale-tipping shark.
That leaves Natasha and me with our pantywaist clams. Something the Really Big Fish turn up their noses at. But then, as if it were a mirage -- no, make that a miracle -- I notice around me something I haven't seen since the '70s. Buckets of live anchovies on the pier. Live bait! For today's derby only, Yosh has cut a deal and brought in a tank of live 'chovies and even a few sardines. At a quarter a head, they are the bargain of the century.
I'm jazzed. I can already sense the walloping action these active bait are going to stir up. It's not exactly full-blown Bonito Fever, but it's a decent flashback. For the first time in I don't know how many years, I can show off a mode of pier fishing that we claim -- rather apocryphally -- to have invented right here in Santa Monica. It's an ingenious way of giving a live bait maximum swimming room while fishing from 20 feet above the water. First I cast out the line as far as I can. On the end of the line there is no hook, just a 3-ounce pyramid-shaped piece of lead to firmly anchor the line on the ocean floor. Then I take a 4-foot-long leader line that has a No. 4 hook on one end and a safety-pin sort of swivel on the other. You carefully hook the anchovy or sardine through the meaty part of its back behind the gill. Then you open up the swivel and hook it over your line, and let the leader slide down till it hits the water. The bait can now swim up and down the line, going as deep or shallow as it wants. It can't slide off the line, because the piece of lead blocks its exit.
I drop my first bait in the water and then repeat the ritual with Natasha. I show her the special slip knot used to fasten the sinker to the line and the swivel to the leader. As I was taught as a child, I teach her the right way to tie a hook -- bypassing the eyelet and tying a noose around the shank. She's been through these rigors before and insists on showing me she knows how to perfectly bait the hook, keeping the anchovy alive as long as possible. She slides her own bait down the line and waits. And we wait together and we wait some more. This is why the sport is called fishing -- not catching. There are no bonito boils. No barracuda strikes. This is a much quieter bay than the one I fished at her age. I look out at the sea reflecting the sparkling sun, and I remember the dire words of Rim Fay. I can only hope this place can hang on long enough for Natasha's children to experience its waning magic.
At 2:15, "Nica" -- Roberto Molina -- lands the Fish of the Day. A 25-inch halibut, about 5 or 6 pounds. A few minutes later, Luis hauls in a hefty sand bass. But not much else is being caught. These two fish and Meño's shark have as much as locked up the three top slots in the derby. As a whipping wind brews up, speckling the sea with whitecaps and churning the shallow bottom around the pier, I know that this fishing day is effectively over.
I apologize to Natasha for the weather that's crudding up and for bringing her out on a day of such uninspired fishing. We haven't even had one decent strike. Barely a few nibbles. But she lightly shrugs me off. She has had a great day, really, she says, a wonderful day.