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.
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.
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.
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.
I am as satisfied with my pan-size sargo as if I had decked a 30-pound albacore. The day is a complete success, and my celebration will be enhanced later that evening with some onions, garlic and lemon juice.
THE 1,600-FOOT-LONG SANTA MONICA Pier opened to the public in 1909 charged with tasks somewhat more inglorious than providing a fishing and entertainment platform. Two years earlier, the Santa Monica electorate had voted 591 to 80 to allocate $160,000 to build a Municipal Pier. The small city had been dumping its sewage beneath the nearby and now disappeared Ocean Park Pier. But the agreement with Ocean Park ran out, and for sanitary reasons Santa Monica needed to run its outfall pipe far enough from the shore so that the sewage would be carried out to sea.
Small businesses and fishermen alike soon found other potentialities for the pier. By World War I, an adjacent “pleasure” pier was constructed on the southern edge of the Municipal Pier (today it houses the parking lot and the small amusement park). First came the Blue Streak Racer and then the Whirlwind Dipper, world-class roller coasters, and the La Monica ballroom would host as many as 2,500 dancing couples on a Saturday night. By the 1930s, power launches were making the run back and forth to the gambling boat Rex, anchored exactly 3.1 miles offshore. A newly constructed breakwater provided shelter for a small harbor full of yachts and other pleasure craft.
But this gilded scene went through a sea change during World War II. The pleasure pier went bankrupt, and soon the harbor yachts were replaced by dingy commercial fishing boats. “I was a punk kid who'd ride my bike down to the pier every day during the war,” says 70-year-old former Santa Monica lifeguard turned marine biologist Rimmon Fay. “All I can remember is dodging those damn commercial fishing trucks rumbling up and down the pier. They put anti-submarine nets across San Pedro Harbor because of the war, so commercial fishing moved to Santa Monica. There were three hoists working 24 hours a day offloading tons and tons of fish. Imagine — 350 boats parked right off the pier brailing mackerel 'round the clock.”
And it wasn't just commercial fishing that was cashing in. My father, now 82, has shown me pictures of the huge loads of 40- and 50-pound white sea bass he hauled in off the front of the pier in the '40s. Rim Fay has similar memories: “I remember my dad going out in a skiff with set lines right off the pier and bringing in barn-door-size halibut. I'm talking about 200-, 300-pound black sea bass off the pier in the '30s and '40s. One of my most vivid memories is standing in the surf between the Venice and Santa Monica piers sometime during the war and watching some guy catch a wave so clear you could see through it. Then I looked down and could see not only my feet in the transparent water, but you could see the spot-fins and the yellow-fin croaker just teeming around you.”
My personal history with the pier intersects with a fateful moment for all of Santa Monica Bay. As a literal toddler, I was taught to fish in the gentle surf at the south end of the Venice Beach parking lot. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my father sift for sand crabs by dawn and shivering in wet clothes in the dying light of a summer evening as I gaped at the paint buckets we had filled with surf perch and corbina.
By the mid-'50s, as I entered kindergarten, my father started to prefer the more comfortable, drier environs of the Santa Monica Pier. But just as I started fishing there, the food chain of the bay was being forever altered. The once-prevalent sardine, the basic bait fish, began to disappear, and with them their heftier predators. Not only were the sardines being overfished by commercial fleets, but — as we would later find out — the entire bay was being slowly poisoned by chemicals, sewage and runoff from the ever-expanding city beyond it. “By 1955, L.A. County sanitation was dumping up to a thousand pounds a day of DDT right into the bay,” says Fay. “And you could see a direct correlation between the DDT dumping and the demise of the sardine. The DDT castrated the catch.”
Not that I noticed as a youngster. The decline in pier fishing was gradual enough to be barely perceptible — at least in its initial stages. The sardine, for the moment, had been replaced by the anchovy, and the fishing was still sizzling.
For years, I was fully possessed by a case of bonito fever. Pound per pound, no game fish fights harder than this 4- or 5-, sometimes 7- or 8-pound cousin of the tuna. I would literally dream bonito. When not fishing, I would fantasize about catching bonito. Before they attacked their prey, the turbocharged bonitos — or bonies, as we would call them — would usually make a swift reconnaissance pass by swimming sharply up toward the bait and then making a sharp turn away. This would cause the water around the target anchovy to “boil.” So there I'd sit in our family swimming pool hours at a time and, as a 12-year-old will, run a whole fishing narrative in my head while I pumped my swimming fins to create a ring of “boils” around me.
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 Kiaora and Indiana, we'd fill sacks with bonies and “barries” — the toothsome, log-size barracudas. The New Sunbeam seiner 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.”
MUCH OF THE '70S AND '80S I SPENT outside of the United States, and my visits to the pier became less frequent. Fisherman's Wharf closed, and fishing was in sharp decline. Only an energetic citizens' movement saved the pier from being torn down by the city of Santa Monica in 1973. The mackerel fleet had long disappeared, and so had a lot of the big fish.
Then came the two killer storms of January and March 1983. The first pushed 30-foot swells over the pier, and as hundreds watched from the palisades, the northwest corner tumbled into the roaring sea. No sooner had the city decided to repair the damage than an even more powerful storm screamed ashore on March 1. Fifteen-foot waves pushed by 40-mph winds ate away at the already weakened pilings. As destiny would have it, a 30-ton pile-drive crane had been parked at the end of the pier as part of the earlier repair efforts.
“I remember hearing the news of the storm that night over the Coast Guard radio,” says Yosh. “I rushed around telling people to get ready for the worst. I made some calls telling them to move that darn crane back off the end of the pier. But they moved too little too late.” Shortly after 10 that night, the crane collapsed off the end of the pier, and the huge waves drove it like a battering ram again and again against the pilings. The fall of the pier is vividly rendered in Jeffrey Stanton's published history. He describes piling after piling cracking and collapsing. Yosh tells me: “My supervisor called me around 10 that night and said, 'Come on down and watch the pier go down.' It just ripped me apart. I'll never forget seeing the handrail buckle and go down. Before I knew it, it had all gone down. I felt like I was crushed with it. In the end, we lost almost the whole thing — nearly a thousand feet had collapsed.”
This horrifying near-death of the pier coincided with the low point in the health of the bay. Several environmental campaigns, many led personally by Rim Fay, helped curb and end toxic dumping. But the accumulated damage was devastating. In the 1980s, some bay fish were tested and still showed industrial amounts of DDT. “We were seeing fin erosion and tumors in the croakers,” Fay says in an interview at his cluttered Inglewood warehouse/apartment. Inside, he maintains several tanks of living sea creatures that he sells to university labs and shows off to touring groups of young students.
But with radical improvements in sewage technology spurred by such groups as Heal the Bay, with heightened environmental consciousness seeping into public policy, things in Santa Monica Bay got better as the pier was being reconstructed. “I'm excited by little victories like once again being able to see my feet in the water — something I couldn't do for 30 years,” Fay says. He adds that, generally speaking and with a few exceptions around Palos Verdes, most of the fish now taken from the bay once again meet prevailing health standards.
But Fay's long view is grim. “In grand historical terms, we are still losing the battle. All the beaches are at record widths. The bottom is rising. The seaweed has all but died off, and when it goes it takes with it starfish, abalone and so on. There's no real presence of forage fish, of sardines, anchovies, squid. Global warming eats up more and more of our habitat. And we have more and more sediment buildup, runoff from the city, eradication of wetlands. Do I make my point?”
Fay pauses. He wipes his hands on his stained sweatpants and then wipes away a visible tear from his left eye. “This,” he says, “this is my burden. My burden is having dived this bay for more than 40 years and knowing what it once looked like and knowing what it looks like today.”
ON FATHER'S DAY, I RETURN TO THE pier after nearly a month's absence. Yosh has organized his Third Annual Father's Day Fishing Derby, and I can't miss it.
The night before, I stock up on tackle and re-spool and clean a couple of my favorite Penn reels. For this derby I will use one of the newer-generation fast-gear-ratio jobs. I reserve my beloved and classic Squidder for my 15-year-old daughter, Natasha.
Trouble with a flat tire gets me to the pier after lunch. But I wasn't planning to arrive very early in any case. The chart tells me that high tide will peak at 5:02 p.m., just two minutes past the derby cutoff. This fact, and the phase of the moon, says fellow pier junkie Bobby Carvel, should guarantee a bodacious late afternoon's worth of fishing.
As I get to the midway point on the pier, I get the worst kind of news for any fisherman. Chino, who again has got a single keeper-size croaker in his bucket, razzes me by informing me that during the past three weeks I have missed the all-time blowout run of sargo. “Hundreds of them, hermano. Hundreds and hundreds. Too bad for you.”
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.
I stand back behind the bench and watch her reel in her last cast of the day. Here's my 15-year-old daughter in her wide-legged pants and with the back of her hair in a buzz cut. The headphones clamped over her ears are pumping out the latest tune from Orgy or Ozomatli. She knows virtually nothing of the rich fishing history of this pier. But it matters not. For she's holding the Sabre rod with all of the self-confidence and readiness of Yosh himself. Her right hand firmly grips the crank of the Penn Squidder, and she slowly and deliberately takes a few turns, pauses and lets the bait troll through the water before starting up again. If a fish should bite, she will be ready to set the hook, batten down the drag and fight it out. I don't know exactly when I taught her this. I can't remember exactly when my father taught it to me. But Natasha has learned it well.