The tide was turning and I was becoming anxious. No matter the respect shown to the open ocean, she treats us with great indifference; the Moon’s gravitational pull her only master. Given the riveting scenery, I had taken my
time hiking to the beach’s rocky point, without seeing another soul, a good
long hour away. Northern California’s Tidelog noted a very early morning high
tide and the warm winter sun was now almost directly overhead.
Most fishermen will tell you, ad
nauseum and often with a non-pedigreed beer in hand, the best times to surf
cast for dinner are the lower light hours after sunrise or before dusk. Fishing a steeper beach during an incoming
tide is also ideal, as the rising waters dislodge sand crabs and other small
vertebrates from their homes, depositing them into the troughs where the waves
break, encouraging fish to feed.
An 11-foot surf rod and reel was split in half and tucked across a
treasured L.L. Bean bag, sewn with nautical blue piping and boasting my
initials in a blocky monogram, a long-ago gift from my mother during our better
years. Lining the outside pocket were thick
crackers from a nearby bakery’s wood-fired oven, and hunks of Gouda, aged half
a decade and crunchy with salt crystals.
Tucked inside were the day’s tools:
garishly colored fishing lures, a handmade trout priest, chunky four-ounce
pyramid sinker weights, a dozen small hooks, and a semi-frozen block of
anchovies. The hooks are teeny tiny,
designed to hold tightly onto the bait, making it difficult for the craftier
fish to pinch. In cards, ‘fish’ refers
to an incompetent player whose weaknesses can be easily exploited by the card ‘shark’. Surely a misnomer, as I’ve often found it’s the
fish holding the good hand, sending me home sunburned and empty-handed.
At the local sporting shop in search of bait, an old man with crazed
eyes and terribly weathered skin reported the rocky outcroppings at the beach’s
south end to be covered in mussels.
Bivalves and sand crabs are fine enticements on the end of a hook, and
can also be chummed into the water’s edge to attract fish. He warned me to be mindful of the ocean, as
sneaker waves are not uncommon, easily dragging off unsuspecting souls and
their canine companions. It’s the dogs
that survive, he cackled.
Armed with a flat stone for dislodging the mussels and an old carbon
steel knife for prying them open, I darted between the waves, scouring the tide
pools and combing through the wigs of seaweed concealing the rocks’ baldpates. Not one clam did I find.
Looking beyond the peaks of stone, woefully unadorned of mollusk, a winter
society ball was in full swing. Dancing
diamonds glittering as far as is the sea made it difficult to be annoyed by the
old man’s misinformed clamming commentary. As a set of large waves began to
crash against the rocks, I hiked back up the beach, stopping near a
congregation of seabirds floating in gentler surf, their meeting ground a reliable
indication of fish. Planting the surf
spike deep into the soft sand far above the water’s edge, I reassembled the rod
and reel and got busy tying the weights and hooks onto the line.
Surfperch are plentiful and hooked year round off Northern
California’s coastline, as opposed to a more seasonal harvesting of the tastier
halibut, the fish of my literal wet dreams.
Surfperch are often found in the shallow waters that flow over sandy
bottoms, rocky formations, or forests of kelp. Calico and Redtail surfperch feed along sandy
beaches, while Rubberlip, Black, and Pile perch prefer dining in rockier outcroppings.
Within the family
Embiotocidae, surfperch are Perciformes, meaning perch-like. Perciform is the largest order of the
Earth’s vertebrates, which includes 41% of all bony fish. Surfperch are flatter fish with oblong
bodies, measuring in length from five to eighteen inches. Instead of being notched, their dorsal fins
are continuous, and their tail is forked.
The colors and patterns vary, depending upon the species of surfperch
and the time of year.
daily fishing limit for surfperch is a-too-generous-in-this-day-and-age twenty,
in any combination of all the species, with not more than ten fish from any one
species. But at this late hour, I’d be
lucky to get even a nibble.
Now warmish and
slimy, I cut a few anchovies into smaller pieces, threading them onto the two-pronged
hooks. Stripping to a tee shirt and pulling up my
pant legs, I edged into the surf, the chilly waters immediately anesthetizing
my feet. I cast into the troughs where
the waves broke and then further out into the more placid holes of deeper water. Lost
in reverie, I was transported to an east coast beach at sunset, my father and I
hauling onto the sands a dizzying number of bluefish and stripers from the dark
waters. As we cleaned the oily fish by
the lighthouse’s strobe, he encouraged me to be methodical in my fishing: if the water’s current is moving to the
right, cast to the left and the bait will be pushed along; hold the rod tip high
so the line doesn’t drag on the waves; retrieve your bait slowly and steadily, bouncing
it along the bottom, and reeling
only to pick up slack.
Interrupting my thoughts were three fat seagulls hovering nearby, completely
intent on a late January lunch of rotted anchovy. With frightful precision, they took turns
furiously dive-bombing each carefully landed cast, gobbling my bait. With fists raised, I yelled and screamed into
the afternoon winds, finally giving up and burying at sea the remaining putrid
Returning to the quaint, drafty cabin, I read the instructions written by
Connecticut outdoorsman Charlie Van Over, framed and set on the mantle, for
lighting a proper fire. I quickly had a
roaring blaze, warming my still-frozen toes and drying my pants, which hung
from the arms of a corduroy upholstered couch, its cushions low to ground from
years of fireside contemplations. Tucked
into the red and white coals were phallic-looking fingerling potatoes,
purchased from a 24-7, payment-on-your-honor farm stand in a neighboring
town. Roasted until the flesh was creamy,
the potatoes were smothered in French butter and gobs of thick sour cream. Instead of my anticipated dinner of fire-grilled
fish, the tubers were paired with charred, stalky broccolini flecked with hot
peppers, garlic, and a flaky salt eccentrically and obsessively carried in my
bag. I managed through the better part of
a bottle of Scavino’s Cannubi Barolo, still too young at twelve years of age,
while plotting how to best land a perch on my plate for the next night’s