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.


  1. Jimi H., nice touch

  2. Great fish and tale too. Haven't heard the term hork in quite awhile. A Eddieism? Stay safe my brother!