Monday, June 1, 2020

The Ghost of St. Stanwyck

      As we begin to creep about from our Covid sheltering, we have to be careful about our choices regarding with whom we share our space.  Fortunately for your narrator, Secret Skipper has designated me as his only permitted first mate for weathering this crisis in an offshore environment.

     On May 30th, I left my home a little before 2 am to head up to 'Pedro for another nocturnal mission to the Channel Island chain of fools.  We hit the San Pedro bait barge and obtained some early-morning entertainment and a nice scoop of sardines from Mike the Master-Baiter. We then traversed the channel to Avalon in order to provision ourselves with the Magic Candy bait (live squid) from the Long Beach Carnage, which  had just radioed its success in  rounding up a passel of those scrumptious cephalopods.

     Our destination was St. Stanwyck Island, a topic of prior reporting.  Because we had an opportunity to get live squid at Avalon, that meant an initial world-class detour all the way to the east end of Catalina at a steady 90 degree angle from our intended target.  By 4:30 am we were the owners of a great scoop from our Squidmaster as we traveled up the entire length of that romantic isle to pop out into open 66 degree water. Conditions made for an easy passage in the gray-light crossing to this steep, uninhabited rock.  It sits away from any commerce and  off the beaten track of the vast majority of the weekend fishing public.  Those who know the value of live squid and got there early enough to score it were almost universally fishing Catalina, rather than  bypassing the entire length of the island to look for the same type of fish at a more distant and rugged destination.  

     We made our initial anchor set in the lee of Stanwyck at about 6:15 am on a spot where we have caught yellowtail on prior occasions.  The yellows did not show themselves on any dawn patrol, while the seabirds remained on land like lazy chickens instead of scouting for us.   Our baits, both finned and tentacled,  were attacked by barracuda and marginal calico bass.  After sizing up our prospects, we decided to head out to the rockfish grounds while the wind was down.  In these conditions, we would be able to get to them with relatively light weights and lures.

     Skipper found the spot in short order, although as it turned out he would find several more in the general area.  We started catching some beautiful reds on flatfall jigs tipped with some of the fresh -frozen squid Skipper had saved from the last trip.  Later, we used the skin of rockfish as our sweetener to great effect.  We fished between 150 and 175 feet down on an extended plateau studded with rock piles.

     The reds we were catching were of good quality.  We tried some other spots and added a mix of coppers (also excellent eating), some sheephead, Johnny Bass and an annoying number of pretty decent-sized whitefish.  These other miscellaneous reef fish are good enough to eat, but were not for keeping on this occasion because of the superior abundance of the prized reds and coppers.

      We had heard rumors of an afternoon yellowtail bite, so after we put a pretty good load of  top-quality groundfish on ice in the fishbox, we headed back toward the general area of our first set to begin looking.  We slow trolled some sardines, which is often a good way to locate yellowtail.  We got some calico bass this way.  We  then began getting incessantly stopped by barracuda strikes and cut lines, which put an end to  the slow trolling method.  There were some sea lions which came out to check us out, but nothing like the barbarian hordes at Catalina, which sweep away your bait, along with your opportunities and any trace of sympathy  one might otherwise harbor for these coastal gangsters. 

     We set anchor in a couple of spots where the kelp came up from about 70 feet to nearly the surface.  Once again we caught barracuda, bass and a few pretty nice sheephead on the squid and sardines.  The  attention of the 'cudas discouraged heavy use of the fin baits, but we kept chopping and chumming the 'dines and used squid in hopes of generating a spot for yellows to investigate.  The location was pretty thick with aquatic vegetation, so we often had to free-spool some of the calicos in order to work them out of their environment and into ours.  At that point I was using my lightest rig, which is my calico bass slayer, consisting of a Phenix 9 foot bass rod I built for this express purpose and an Okuma Komodo reel filled with spectra and a four-foot topshot of 20# flurocarbon leader.

     As we got close to 4 pm, the sun was still high, but Skipper reminded me of the fact that we still had to cut all the fish and start a 45 mile trip back to Cabrillo.  I had just changed out my spectra to fluro connection to cope with barracuda vandalism and was hoping to connect on a bigger model calico to coax from the kelp.  The gulls were starting to mill about, but not marking anything all that promising.

     I felt a fish take line and started to ease back the tip of the rod to see if there was good enough tension for an aggressive hookset.  I leaned toward the grab and pointed the rod tip before savagely arcing into a strike that I hoped would carry the fish up the water column toward me so that I could crank like a winch-monkey and get it past the kelp.  I got a couple of big head-shakes and then it took about 20 yards of line before seemingly wrapping me up.  I just knew it was the big old calico I was trying to catch to end the day and he had me stalemated.  I began to banjo-strum the tensioned line as a prelude to getting him to swim out of the tangle, but then he just took off on a much bigger run.  The line started whistling through my guides in rod pulsing surges that yellowtail provide.

      "That is the yellowtail we've been waiting for.  I knew they would show if we kept this up!" shouted Skipper as I started to reel down and try to get back some of what was being taken.  My rod flexed into unyielding resistance and I knew that he had me wrapped deep on this light gear.  I could not make any ground, but the head shakes told us the fish was still hooked up.  I stood there in the back and forth of this cabbage-patch stand off.  I knew that my only hope was to get him to saw his way out by running the abrasive braid mainline against the kelp stalks.  I hit a couple of more banjo strokes and he took off against a free-spool to which I applied my thumb with the rod tip as high as I could in order to keep the line slicing up and into the kelp that constrained it.  My rod lost its arc in a doink that made me think I had dumped the fish, but just as fast it loaded up again and I could feel more pressure as it began cutting through one kelp stock after another.  Each time it felt like the fish had broken away as the rod tip would arc fiercely and then pop into slack before loading up again as it buzzed and thunked through a succession of obstacles.

     I finally got it free and hope was raised.  Skipper kept reminding me to be patient and I would get it, even though it seemed like we were just postponing a jolt of disappointment.  The fish ran up the port side toward the anchor line and I had to scramble up the handholds on the side of the house, holding the rod out over the water in my left hand as the line continued to play its spectra symphony through my guides.  It wrapped around the anchor line before I could get ahead of it and I was stopped again. 

     I could not tell which way it had turned or how many wraps it had taken.  Skipper came up the starboard side of the rail and met me at the bow pulpit.  He pulled up few feet of line on the anchor so we could make an educated guess on which way the fish had gone.  It looked like we needed to go under the anchor rope.  I once again put the reel in free-spool and passed it underneath to Skipper on the starboard bow.  He handed it back and I put it back in gear and reeled down.  We had guessed right and the fish took off once again, burying me in the jungle off the starboard bow.  I could feel the kelp bungy-cording me back down. I was sorely tempted to just give a big heave back and dare it to break, but I decided I had too much invested.  Again I played back and forth with the free-spool and reel-down technique.  I kept the line wired and felt the pops of successive kelp failure as the line angle came toward the surface father away from the boat.  I started short-pumping it and saw that I was  finally making ground without losing it back.  I felt the fish plane up bit by bit and looked down to see  a big flash of color with open water between the fish and the bottom of our boat.  I  short-stroked him closer and put my thumb on the spool to walk him back past the starboard side toward the cockpit where Skipper was waiting like a samurai with his gaff.  He put the hook right in the eye a split second after we both realized our yellowtail was actually a white seabass, which is a much more prized gamefish in our world of experience.  

      It was a long and agonizing struggle to land this fish. I have tried to recreate this sensation for my readers by abandoning all pretense of brevity in my narrative of the event.

     It hit the deck with a very soothing thump.  For a second, neither of us believed we had actually managed to land it after all of that.  To have it mutate from the yellowtail we had hoped to get into the elusive Ghost on our deck was an accelerator for our celebration.  Skipper put out his heaviest WSB rig in case there were others around as we gaped in appreciation at our good fortune.  The limit is one per angler this time of year. We both knew that we  had lots of fish cutting to complete before starting the long trip home in increasing wind and seas, so we did not stick around long to try for another.  The fact that the voyage back would be downhill and under a big load of tasty fish made the ride home much more palatable.

Below, Skipper poses with his captives before slicing them into domesticity.

     We were back and cleaned up by 9 pm.  We avoided the riots and got home in relative ease with a good story to tell, even though you've been saddled with reading this one.

     We were able to give a lot of quality fish to our chosen fish-worthy friends and family. White seabass is one of our favorite and rarest treats. Even though Secret Skipper's larger model provided us with recent bounty only two weeks ago, we usually go years between catching these ghosts.
     Above, Skipper took a picture of a dish of rockfish ceviche, which he was kind enough to send to me, along with all of the other photos in this report, as I had no cell phone camera with which to record our good fortune on the water and no patience to take pictures of my food once I got home.

     As good as this fish is sauteed, baked or fried, it is also an extremely wonderful fish for sashimi.  In that respect, it is hard to set enough aside to cook as the main course while wolfing raw plateloads with wasabi, ginger and soy.
Above is an example of Skipper's culinary handiwork. He and his wife are sophisticated adults who dine when they eat. When my own family is in a serious hurry to get our teeth engaged with this grade of sashimi, we usually just mix it up in individual feedbags equipped with ear-loops and then just hork it down until the bags cave in like flat balloons - like playing that sexy song by that German chick in reverse.  Some situations dictate that there is simply no time to accommodate art.  Additionally, feedbags are so much more fashionable during the pandemic.

     To summarize (even though it is way too late for that now), it is always better to be lucky than good  - and sometimes a bit of each can carry the day.  

     Here's hoping that our strange and troubled surroundings take a turn for the better.  In the meantime, I will try to keep in mind the privileges that I still get to enjoy and, of course, the raw truth that
These Are The Days.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Ghost of Mother's Day

     Well, like everyone, your narrator has been cooped up without much of a tale to tell. Since March 13th, we have been sheltering in place with the same small family garrison, carefully avoiding all of the projects and self improvement we always told ourselves we would engage in if we only had the time...You know, like the book you would write if only they would send you to prison for the kind of crime you really don't have the balls to commit.

      I finally broke out for a dawn patrol exploration with Secret Skipper, who has also been a good citizen like me by staying fully at home and avoiding anyone who is not already totally sick of him.

     We planned to head over to Catalina to try and score something good to eat for a Mother's Day dinner that would feature, as it must, home cooking.  We were thinking calico bass, yellowtail, or maybe chasing the reds.  We agreed to pack our own lunches, rather than invite the contagion of co-mingling.

     I was giddy rummaging  through my tackle and then going through the samurai discipline of taking just one bag of terminal gear and two rods.  I left the house at 4 am and was at the ramp in San Pedro by 5 am.  With minimal gear, compared to the siege warfare of lobstering, we basically just got on the boat and drove out of Cabrillo marina toward Mike's Bait barge in the pre-dawn darkness.

     We got a nice scoop of 4-5 inch sardines, which remained lively until the survivors were released at the end of the day.  We had heard rumors of a big yellowtail bite at the west end, so we headed for the east end and a chance to pick up live squid from the Carnage, which was supposed to be set up east of Avalon.

     The ride over was easy and emerging gray light revealed a lot of overcast that would stick with us most of the day.  We ran at a steady 31 mph and burned fuel at a rate of over 1.3 miles to the gallon, which is damn good mileage on a boat this solid with twin 250s.  We spotted the lights of the Carnage right where he was supposed to be and got a great scoop of squid, which mostly settled down with our sardines, except for the ones savagely engulfed in their tentacles and torn to pieces.

     We decided to fish the quarry off the east end at sunrise.  We had the place mostly to ourselves, except for constant strafing from the seals who took turns taking our sardines right behind the head on every cast we made.  We switched to squid and got a few bass that we released, along with some halfmoon.  We decided to move up the island.  

     We fished Hen rock for a few more calicos and barracuda and then moved on to Empire, where the birds telegraphed yellowtail water.  We saw a big one break water and the birds got busy.  We anchored up well to the east of another Parker which was crewed by a Dad and his boys out for a fun day.  We watched them pull in a calico and we started to get the same action as we fought off the seals and hoped the yellows would come our way.  The dad then got into the stern and put a big arc into what was clearly a solid fish.  It began taking line and he was pumping back against it.  His kids were excited and he was handing it off to them to reel down and then taking over when the fish started to outmaneuver the young anglers.  The Dad's generosity in giving his  kids their turns was increasing the risk that the fish would get away, or that the seals would get their chance to lurk below the boat and pounce on an exhausted prize they could never catch on their own.
     Sure enough, as the fish came to color and Dad went for the gaff, a huge bull sea lion erupted on the fish in a boil of tragic piracy.  The yellowtail was way too big for the seal to simply gulp down, so it surfaced about 40 yards outside their boat and proceeded to thrash the fish to bits at the surface for the next 30 minutes while the disappointed kids looked on across a short stretch of water and the birds churned in a frenzy above that mayhem. Eventually, they pulled anchor and left their mocking tormentor trying to gator down chunks of the prize they came so close to capturing for themselves. We caught a few more mediocre bass, halfmoon and a sheephead before heading west. 

     By late morning we had only landed a few keeper calicos and Skipper was debating chasing the radio fish that were supposedly wide open at Eagle Rock on the other side of the west end.  We did not want to go there and had several other spots in mind on our constant probe to the west.  We then stopped at a very familiar and versatile spot near the Isthmus, where we metered around before selecting a spot for the hook in 60 feet of water that would put our stern above a steep decline and a strong west current.  It was a good corridor for calicos and the right structure through which yellows or even a white seabass might flow. There were other spots nearby to try for deeper species and the current was perfect.

     Using squid on leadheads and sliding sinker rigs, we each got a steady bite from calicos, including a nicer grade of fish.  Then Skipper got lit up on a fish that started taking line in head-shaking pulses and he knew he had something good.  

     The fish was in heavy structure and Skipper masterfully worked the braid through the stuff near the bottom and got it up to where it was swimming free.  He had to dance back and forth near the transom and bury his rod to keep the line out of the props a couple of times as the fish blasted several short bursts of power that caused us to speculate as to what it might be. 

      When it seemed like Skipper was finally gaining the upper hand, the fish just sort of gave up, which caused Skipper to say that maybe it was a white sea bass.  Moments later, the fish came to color and showed itself to be exactly that.  Skipper dragged it up and it laid out perfectly for a gaff shot I was poised to deliver right to the head.
   Now, I consider myself to be a competent gaffer and nobody had been drinking, but somehow I managed to forcefully deliver a gaff shot to the gill plate that resulted in the gaff coming out of my hands and landing in the water beyond the proned-out croaker.  I was mortified and instinctively reached down into the water, seized the head of the fish and dragged it up and into the boat just like I meant to do it that way. 

      I was so relieved to see this totally bitchen ghost of the sea stretched out on the deck instead of swimming away with Skipper glaring at me that I might have thought of Jesus for a moment (The Jewish one who died for my sins, not the Mexican one who is the God of fishing boat repair).

     We admired the amazing copper to purple coloration on this unexpected prize until it was time to pull the anchor and start looking for the gaff that the current had so swiftly carried west.
We found it and then reset, but the current went abruptly slack and then, in a moment, turned a 180 and started eastward.  We took this as a sign that we should cut fish and head home.

     Skipper, as usual, did a handy job with the wet work and we were back in Pedro by 3 pm, having telephoned upgraded meal plans to our small circles of lucky diners.

     We had our maximum allowable dining group attend a feast that started with cocktails amidst the always rare seabass sashimi, followed by a beautifully side-dished pile of seabass fillets.  

     Despite our efforts to chase these ghosts whenever we can, white seabass remains among the rarest and most appreciated game-consuming experiences our family ever gets to have.

     We ate the calicos the following night as part of our official Mother's Day chow-down and honestly, they were just as delicious, if more familiar.

     Here's hoping that brighter times are ahead, but even in what has been for most of us a crisis of inconvenience, we all know that
                                These are the Days.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020


On Friday, March 6th, I experienced the extremely rare double feature of having a Motion for Summary Judgment granted in my client's favor in Los Angeles Superior Court, and then going to San Pedro Harbor to run the table on the lobster one final time this season.
    Because of my concern for LA traffic (which seems a quaint memory now), I left my house at 4:30 and arrived more than two hours early for my hearing, which in turn was made last on the court's calendar, so that we argued to a judge in an empty courtroom, where no one could hear the final gurgle of a lawsuit being put to death.
   Since the judge went my way, I was suddenly free to head out for one last trip with Secret Skipper and to meet Isaac for his one and only shot at these critters since he returned home from his 5 month trek through South America.  The truth is that I had planned this victory party regardless of the outcome (It's a Victory party and Somebody has to win), so I was going either way.
On my way down to the harbor, I stopped in Long Beach to have a giant breakfast with my brother Charlie.  He chose a place and navigated me to the Pot Holder, which is a great place to get some eggs and marijuana, as one might surmise from its name. After dropping my brother off at his office and heading across the bridge to Pedro, I discovered that I left my cell phone at the restaurant, but managed to go back and find it, even though I did not remember where it was and had no cell phone or brother to guide me.
I then met Secret Skipper down at Cabrillo Marina where I changed out of my black suit/wingtip getup and into my Grundig rubber Lobsterwear.  Isaac soon showed up with sandwiches and other provisions which were loaded onto the boat in carts we tried to stay in front of on a ramp that was dramatically steepened by a big low tide. 
The moon would be mostly full, but we had no fear of lunar-inspired failure, as this has been a season like no other.  We had an experienced crew of three, which is the ideal number for getting the hard work done without having too many limits to try and fill in one night. Skipper is the ruler and driver, I am the buoy grabber and line puller, while Isaac expertly coiled all of the line off the wheel and onto the deck so that our lines were as straight as if we had soaked them in Jeri-curl.
     The ride over to the Island of Romance was windy and bumpy as it has been most every time we have gone, but that just keeps the fair weather crowds thinner.  Skipper had secured fresh salmon carcasses and we bought eighty bucks worth of live sardines from Mike at the San Pedro Bait Company barge.  Mike entertained us with one of the greatest stories about the relationship between fishermen and seals that I have ever witnessed, complete with stage-worthy acting out of certain scenes.  I am forbidden by an oath I took from repeating any of it in writing, but ask me some time when we are together and consuming something other than Corona.
    We arrived at the island early enough to get all of our gear deployed by 4:30 pm and do a little bass fishing.  We caught no little bass, nor did we get big ones, despite saving some of our sardines for bait.  Each sardine we threw was expertly eaten by the big seals which relentlessly plagued our efforts.  We resorted to throwing plastics in a kind of half-hearted way to kill time before the now daylight savings delayed darkness would envelope us and allow the bugs to crawl our way.
     We were stoked to get our gear deployed early because soon two other boats came over to start sewing their hoop pattern around ours.  We sort of had dibs under the loosely interpreted Law of the Fish, but that did not stop these otherwise friendly fellow piscatorians from placing some of their gear in our way.
     We started pulling at 6:15 and got some action in the deepest set of 300 foot rigs.  We moved into the mid-range hoops we set in 150-200 feet and got even better results, giving us six solidly legal bugs before we got to our last three shallow hoops, which produced no legals.
     We rolled back out for another set of pulls and things began to thin out.  We did manage four more legals in the mid range set and so had ten in 20 pulls, which is usually a damn good ratio, but this year has spoiled us with expectations of easier limits.
     We then began a long process of pulling mostly empty hoops and took many pulls to get to eleven.  At that point, we were concerned that limits might not be achievable, but we all knew it was probably our last trip and nobody was remotely ready to puss out and go home.
     We took a break from the constant pulling and ate our  chips and sandwiches as the seas and wind became progressively calmer.  One of the other boats reset their gear on both sides of our set, so we were treated to them churning back and forth across our set to leave us bobbing in their wakes as they checked their own gear.  It was a bit of a party foul, but nothing worth mentioning to them. The other guys stayed shallow and left relatively early after a couple of unproductive sets.
     We had many more empty pulls on our way to thirteen good sized specimens after four sets, but there was still activity worth chasing, including more short lobster and a rare  (in southern waters) dungeness crab in one of the shallow hoops.  It looked like it had recently molted and was too small to keep, but it was a good sign.
     We also snared a decent sized and very ornery scorpionfish, which we tried to extract with Isaac's brand new pliers.  That sparkling tool disappeared into the sea before we could properly engage its services and so we left the fish in the hoop to  shelter in place until it could extract itself after we sent it back down.
     It was past ten pm and our rate of catch was pretty meager. We had not caught a legal lobster in more pulls than we would consider promising to achieve our limit of 21.  Skipper, who was used to being back in his bed early this season, then boldly predicted that we were about to start hitting hoops that would be holding more than one legal.  This wizard-like prophecy came true and what became our last set started producing in what was now a glassy ocean. Skipper made the decision to start recovering and breaking down our gear before we had limits, which I consider a risky insult to the vindictive attention of the Gods of the Sea.  Apparently, the Gods of the Sea really did not give a shit about our attitude. We made our triple limit in that set and ended up throwing back four legals as we enthusiastically harvested the final banzai charge these delicious marine lemmings would make against us this season.
     We were done pulling and had all of our gear stowed by 11 pm.  The ride home on a dead flat ocean was like butter.  We cleaned up the boat, aided by a much flatter ramp in the high tide, snapped a picture of the unfortunate occupants of our ice chest and then divided up our catch for the parties we would get to host one more time this year.

     We were home by 2:35 am, which is still earlier than we generally achieve in other years when we often come home with fewer lobster.  I had been up nearly 24 hours, so sleep was pretty easy to achieve, although I knew when my head hit the pillow that we were going to have to get up and leave for Raahagues gun club by 8:15 am with all our gear and two dogs for the NAVHDA Rattlesnake training and shotgun shooting we had signed up for earlier this year.
     As for that experience, I just wish that they had allowed us to take pictures, as it is a fascinating process where the dogs are essentially taken on a walk with a trained handler to encounter several rattlesnakes, which my dogs now believe are capable of jolting them with electricity after they get a chance to see, smell, hear and get way too close, as puppies will do.  It was clear that our instructor was a big fan of rattlesnakes and held them in high regard.  I decided to pretend that I did too, or at least  refrain from pissing him off by telling him how many I had killed in my own neighborhood (none in the last year).
   In any event, both of my  11 month old dogs were appropriately rattled by the experience and we decided to just skip the shotgun shooting part of our plans and head back to Dana for a big fat breakfasty lunch and a nap that would prepare us for the live band reggae party our neighbors were throwing Saturday night.  We advised our hosts that we would not be bringing any of our lobster to their party, but would instead selfishly invite them over the following evening for a more exclusive dining experience.
     I had an all too wonderful time at the party and woke up a bit furry in the mouth and sore from lobstering and dancing about, but Sunday night was the positive payback for getting up off the deck and cooking up our last steak and lobster pigfest of the season.  
     Your narrator managed to snap the mandatory Lobster-years photo of Tommy and David, clean and prep these bugs and start putting together another surf and turf experience befitting a Resident of the United States.

     Our hosts of the prior evening, Stacy and John, are seasoned veterans of our family's eat-what-we-kill lifestyle  They arrived with beverages, their daughter Zoe and her two fellow students from Marquette University, Tessa and Sarah.  One of these girls claimed to have never tasted lobster, so we had a mission.
    John, who is a form restaurant guy (See Plato's theory of the forms) and a culinary raconteur, is a great friend and always a most enthusiastic participant in these carnivorous gatherings.
     Suffice it to say, that there was plenty to eat and even to take home for later consumption, as left-over lobster is one of the mightiest badges of pure luxury, in the same way as a donut side dish is regarded by some as a necessary passenger on any plate of surf and turf.
     Well, things are certainly different now as real sequestration seems to have overtaken our carefree criminal lifestyle of consumption and interaction with one another.

    By the way - Happy St. Paddy's Day even if this year's parade is more intimate than we would prefer.

     Here's hoping that all of you are sheltering in place with something good to read after you get through this drivel, that you have more than the exoskeletons of lobsters with which to wipe your bums and that you never forget to remember that

Friday, February 14, 2020

Quick work at the Emerald Isle

On February 7th I got another invite from Secret Skipper, who has been totally on fire this year at the Island of Romance. We had to go on a Friday, which meant playing some hooky, but that would hopefully beat the crowds and Skipper has been running the table on  rapid limits every time this year. I tried to recruit Tommy, David or Sarah to go with us, as they are licensed up, but Sarah had to work and the boys could not miss an afternoon of high school.  
     Your narrator got into work early, made some lawyer-like noises and then escaped the office to arrive at San Pedro by 12:45.  There was a deep low tide that was just short of bottoming out, which made for a steep ramp from the parking lot down to the docks.We loaded up the boat in short order and headed over to San Pedro bait to buy sixty bucks worth of live bait to add to the salmon carcasses Skipper had bought at the fish market.  The concept of live bait for cutting up and cramming into lobster bait cages might seem bit odd, but fresh is generally better than frozen and that is how they sell it.  There is no discount for the dead stuff and the bait always seems to stay lively in the winter.
The Wizard at his station .   
 The weather had been very cold all week and we packed warm clothes to wear beneath our "deadliest catch" slickers. Conditions were brisk as we headed across the channel.  We were set for a big full moon on Saturday and it would be up before the sun went down Friday night.  This meant a lot of light and the likelihood of the lobster being more active in deeper water during a night of fishing  that would barely supply darkness.  
It was nearly the opposite of the lunar conditions from my last report, which documented quick limits.
     When we arrived at our point of attack, we anchored up in pretty deep water to go through the important and disgusting task of taking a meat cleaver to the now moribund sardines and frozen salmon carcasses and cramming them into the upgraded bait cages that Skipper introduced as part of his technological warfare against these delicious insects of the sea. 
 We then put out each hoop and paid out all the line to make sure it was not tangled before we hauled everything back aboard and decided we were ready to start scouting for structure.  
     We were patient in finding some big stones and kelp, even in the water that was over 200 feet deep.  We began a careful deployment of our deepest rigs (300 feet) in a ripping current that rushed underneath a sea surface that was rapidly calming down from its afternoon tantrum. We scoured the boat clean from all of the bait gore as soon as we made our set.  This made the final cleanup at the dock a much quicker and less crust-infested task. We had all of our gear deployed by 5:15 and then it was time to mow down a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and wait for darkness, or at least less sunlight.
     We began hauling gear in our two 300 foot hoops in very calm conditions.  Each one had two big keepers and we were off to the races.
     The mid-range sets also produced, including one which contained five legals and another three-plus pounder.  

When we got to the shallows (under 100 feet) we continued to collect and had 11 legals,  mostly pretty big ones, at the end of eight-pulls,  Given that we were three away from our limit, we decided to start recovering gear and not send it back down while we were still on the first set, which is something I have never done.  We had a few that only held shorts and one which held nothing but a very angry angel shark that somehow managed to get its entire self into the hoop, but the remaining hoops kept producing to the point where we got our 14 bug quota and again threw back a full limit in the next eight pulls.  All legals were females.
     We had all of the gear cleaned up and stowed away for the ride back by 7:15.  The ride home was smooth and we were tied up and cleaning the boat by 8:35 pm. Clean up was swift and easy, in part because we pre-cleaned and also because we were back so soon that we did not experience the cranky fatigue that usually accompanies cleaning up and hauling the gear back up to the parking lot at 3 am.  Even the tide cooperated with us by supplying a major high that leveled out the ramp for our off-load. This was the quickest and easiest lobster trip I have ever experienced.
      I would have been home by 10:30 if the 405 was not reduced to one lane at several points on my path. As it was, my road time was forty minutes longer than it should have been, but I was home just a little after 11 pm. instead of staggering in at sunrise.  I stashed a limit in the garage.
     I had the boys stand in for the mandatory "Lobster Life" photo by which I have charted their development since they were toddlers.

     We invited my kid-brother Charlie and his wife Shelby, along with their pointer Milo, who is brother to our Tashtego, to come over Saturday afternoon to plunder our catch.  

These lobster invites are always a short notice event and we were lucky to catch them without plans, although their kids lost out on mass consumption by making plans for a Saturday night that did not involve wasting their time with the elderly. 
     This has been one of the most consistent seasons in more than a decade and we have been bringing home a nice grade of roaches.  We are heading off to a Drug Lord vacation in Mexico, so this story will have to do for now. This lobster season still has legs and these creatures have been crawling. Eat them while you can can catch them, because
These are the Days

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Buffalo Lobster on the last New Moon

On the afternoon of December 27, secret Skipper took David and I out to the island of Romance for the last trip of the decade.  It had been raining hard for two days and there was a one percent moon, so atmospheric and celestial conditions were aligned.

     The ocean was still grumpy from the storms, but we hardnosed through the chop and figured it would be less crowded because of it.  We baited with salmon carcasses and sardines.  We made our initial set under the gaze of a bison that came grazing down the trail leading to a rocky overlook above us. It was really cool to see, even though this photo was taken in diminishing light.  He had no idea.

     We made our sets in three different bands of water, figuring that the bugs would be most active in the shallows in the aftermath of the runoff.  We put five shallow (under 100 feet); two medium (140 to 180) and three in deeper water beyond the 200 foot level, looking for structure and kelp at every location.  
      All the sets were made as the bison slowly meandered toward where we drifted close to shore, waiting for darkness to engulf us and get the critters crawling.   In the early twilight, a thin crescent moon eased up low in the southwest horizon and went back down before we even noticed it was gone.

     Our first pull in the deep set produced a great lobster that did not require measuring.  Getting started that way provided an optimistic vibe, for sure.  Most of the rest of the hoops produced bugs, some of which were shorts, while others easily made the grade.  We got 8 in the first set of ten and were really stoked.

     We moved a couple of the shallow hoops out into deeper water when we reset and then began a second run of collecting.  We had several pulls with more than one legal and threw back several that were right at the gauge line.  They seemed to be crawling almost everywhere but we had two hoops that were producing the majority of our biggest ones.  After the second pass we had 17 and reset to just go right back to pulling the first one again.  Three pulls in, we had limits of seven each and began to recover gear to break down, stack and head back to San Pedro.  Once again these bugs were everywhere and we threw back at least a limit just getting our equipment back on board for the ride home.

     We got the last shallow one over the rail and into the stack when our attention was drawn to a blinding searchlight sweeping the escarpment above us.  We turned around to see what it was, but we were sightless looking back into it.  We then saw the beam hover over a spot and our bison was completely lit up.  It was right at the edge of column of rock that plunged vertically into the sea, which is exactly what that bison did as we heard a deafening crack from the direction of the searchlight source.  The bison's left rear leg collapse and it began clopping the rock with its forelegs and turning to the left.  This movement caused it to cantilever over the edge and rebound from a barnacled boiler rock into the quiet water of the cove like a calving glacier.

      We heard a high-pitched outboard whine approaching us and then the light was on us.  Again, we were blinded.  Almost instantly, a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) with three wardens was bumping up to our port side and throwing ropes over our cleats.
    The first warden hurdled onto our deck and announced their authority to inspect our licenses and the live bait tank full of big lobster.  Our California lobster cards, which are three feet long, were uncoiled like rolls of toilet paper for inspection of what we had recorded as our harvest.

     " I see that you have not used New Times Roman text in your inscription for your lobster harvest.  You need to be aware of that  your printing looks like Italics.  I could give you a ticket, or even confiscate your boat right now for that violation alone, so those bugs in your tank better be legal."

        As they peered into the tank with their headlamps, I could see that they were impressed by the size of the members of our limit.  I couldn't help myself and decided to speak.  "Hey officers, did  you just shoot a buffalo off that cliff with a rifle?"

       "Who are you, Dick Tracy?  We'll do the questioning around here.  Give us your camera phones for now.  We will return them to you if you check out."  Skipper, David and I exchanged confused glances.

     "Where did you get those lobsters?

     "Right out there, in deeper water."  Skipper pointed toward the lights of the mainland.

      "Are they still crawling?"

       "Well, yeah, I guess so.  In fact I've never seen them crawl so consistently", was Skippers careful response.

      We then heard the sound of a diesel engine as this weird barge pulled up from where the zodiac boat had come.  It was manned by three more wardens and had a hydraulic crane mounted in the center.

       "This is the Wildlife Therapy Float, or WTF, which is paid for not only by your fishing license fee, but also through a special lobster card fee duplication program we have to fine your for not turning in your lobster card, even if you actually turn it in and send us proof that you did."

     I exclaimed back "Hey, that is exactly what happened to me!  I got fined when I bought my new card this year for not reporting my harvest.  I sent  a copy of the the thank you email from DFW and the confirmation number for my timely reporting of last season's harvest, but they sent me an email saying that they were just keeping the money, because they had achieved possession of my payment and there is a specific Finders/Keepers provision in the code which makes it conclusively presumed to be DFW property."

The guy who seemed to be in command looked right at me and pointed his finger.  "That is exactly how this program is intended to work and our WTF vessel is part of that program."

     "I am  still not sure I understand how this program is supposed to work,"  I responded.

"Okay, I am about to show you.  First of all, Skipper, can you redeploy another set?"

Skipper answered "I guess so, but we already have our limit."

"My wardens don't, so here is what you are going to do.  I am going to take your two passengers hostage on our barge and you are going to take two of my wardens out for another set because we prefer not to have to eat this bison without lobster."


"Just do what I say and you will understand.  I am a sworn officer of the law and a protector of wildlife.  Do you guys have a couple of gaffs we could use to maneuver that buffalo  into the sling we have on the crane?"

Skipper said yes and David and I jumped onto the WTF with the gaffs. Skipper  motored way with the two wardens and began resetting our gear.  We had already discarded our bait, so the wardens replenished our bait cages with some chunks of bloody seal meat from a cooler they off loaded from the WTF barge.

David and I stood by with our gaffs as we idled up to the carcass, which was slowly drifting with the tide into deeper water.  We gaffed each end of it and the wardens guided it rather expertly into the sling.  The winch on the crane groaned a bit as this animal that must have weighed close to a ton was strapped into a spreader bar and inverted above the water immediately adjacent to the rail.

     As they were engaging in what seemed like a very practiced routine, I asked them what it was that they were doing.

    "This is part of a new program whereby Fish and Game wants to personally share the experience of its constituents by engaging with them."

"I mean with the bison."

He looked at me as he momentarily backed away from the spots in the hide he had been carefully notching with a Kukri knife.  "Oh, we are allowed to shoot one bison a week, to take measurements and stuff....but then we get to eat it and then mail our feces into the DFW lab where they document it."

"Document it for what?"

"For evidence of human feces of course."

     One of the wardens inserted the end of an air pressure hose into the notch which had been cut into the hide and then turned on the compressor, which fired up in a startling grind.  He inserted the nozzle into the notch in the hide and squeezed the lever.  The hide began inflating and separating from the carcass.  They pulled it completely off in a flurry of pneumatic tearing.   They spread the hide out on the deck and then pulled a heavy duty SAWZ-ALL from a coffin-sized tool chest. It had a 14 inch stainles steel reciprocating blade. The warden handling the saw put on goggles and a Grundig rubber overall-and-jacket combination.  He began butchering off slabs of prime bison meat that the other wardens helped peel off with the gaffs like the crew of the Pequod harvesting blubber under Ahab's watchful eye.  They worked with unbelievable precision and purpose.

Our attention was drawn to the leeward. Skipper and the two wardens tied up alongside with twenty more lobster and got off the boat.

The head warden then addressed me again.  "  I ran your GO ID on our DFW database.  Your story about the bogus fine checks out.  Because of our mistake in assessing a fine against you when you had done nothing to deserve it, we are awarding you guys thirty-five pounds of delicious buffalo steaks to take home with you.  In addition, I want to also say that the Skipper of this boat is, without a doubt, the finest lobster skipper I have ever met in 47 years of writing tickets and protecting wildlife for this remarkable state agency, as evidenced by his harvest of twenty lobster for my two men in just one set.  We will all get to celebrate the end of the year with locally caught surf and turf.  Now, please get away from here and speak to no one about this."  He handed back our cell phones.

We remained puzzled, but decided to do as we were instructed.  It had been both a confusing and educational experience.

We cleaned up in San Pedro and divided up our catch.  All of the bugs we caught were females.

 I invited a bunch of our pals to come over for a pre-New years eve get-together.

Tommy and David stood in for the obligatory "Lobster Life" documentation.  

After prepping all day, your narrator shook up and assisted in consuming a Liquidity of Manhattans.

I dared anyone to not eat all of the bison steak and lobster that they could possibly ram into their digestive systems.

The food all came out pretty well and our diehard Packer neighbors were able to celebrate their team's victory in style, rather than coming over and inflicting buzz kill.

This was the the most consistent crawl I have ever seen in decades of lobstering.  We met a bunch of righteous guys from the Department of Fish and Game who proved to us how much this agency cares about wildlife and legal justice.  Once again, we learned a lot more about the constant innovation the Department is injecting into its experimental programs to improve the experience of their license buying constituents.

  I realize that I was told not to talk about this program, but it is really too peculiar to  keep secret and nobody is really going to read this post anyway.  If you do, don't tell. 

 There, I think that counts as confidentiality.

Wishing all of you a great start to a New Year and a new set of experiences, or at least more of your favorite ones.

These Are the Days.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Winter Solstice

A couple of weeks ago I went over to our offshore spot with Secret Skipper to chase lobster.  It was raining on the front end of an approaching storm, so we had the island to ourselves.   We kept at it through the weather, nabbing limits evenly distributed between deep and shallow sets.

We played a lot of name that tune with the radio on, but I  could not get Skipper to stop singing his own version of Neil Sedaka's "Ooh, I Hear Lobster in the Rain."

We had our usual follow-up foody gathering at home, as well as the obligatory growth chart photo of the boys with this season's first bugs.  It was a good start and a hopeful harbinger for good rainfall this year.

On December 21, to celebrate the Winter Solstice, which is always a particularly meaningful waypoint in the seasonal calendar for me, I took our bastard barbarian pointer Tashtego and joined Robert and Todd at 4 am on a hunt near Mount  Palomar for the opening day of a week-long band tail pigeon season.  The altitude and uphill hiking in the darkness was a bit of a challenge for me, but Robert and Todd are experienced outdoorsmen and they showed the way. 

 The weather was windy and cold, with the advanced guard of the front that now has us all in its grip.  This type of pursuit involves full camo forest hunting in pines and oaks.  Hunters find a hidden spot in the trees with a decent field of fire, or put a stalk on birds that had settled in among nearby branches.  We were using #4 shot and full chokes.

The birds were pretty sparce where I was.  I never got a shot off, but Robert filled out his two bird limit and Tash was relentless in his retrieves, recovering both birds in the steep tangle.  Tash eventually decided to mostly follow Robert around instead of me. 

 Even though he is only eight months old, he has tremendous hunting drive and already knows how to sort out and associate himself with the most talented hunter in the group.  We also hit the area around Julian for some productive glassing for deer.  Both the hiking and driving featured beautiful scenery.  The trip was a great way to mark the shortest day of the year before this big weather drove us all inside toward the fire, the food and the fellowship that calls us home this time of year.

As we look back on another year, it is important to remember the opportunities we have made to celebrate
and to toast our blessings

The Solstice is that darkest of days which gives us pause to roll back through the year of memories and look forward to brighter days to come.

We added a couple of new family members
and caught a glimpse of adventures to come

We savored the occasions to walk together
and apart

Once again, the longest of nights has passed and we are in the realm of expanding light as we begin another round of chances to hang out and cash in our time with one another.

Neptune has issued the biggest tides of the year and Apollo has regained celestial primacy. May memory always allow me to celebrate this seasonal turning point with my favorite song from the Optimistic Land of OZ.

"We're out of the Woods,
We're out of the Dark,
We're out of the Night.
Step into the Sun,
Step into the light.

Winter's big weather is surely on the way, but we have once again rounded the horn on the battle between light and darkness.

May the advancing light of a newborn year show us a path to make more memories, a better world, and never let us forget that