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.


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