|2010 Pier Fishing In California Short Stories
I Taste Salt
Dennis Agena (Moonshine) — 2010
It’s right after lunch and I’m back on the tailgate of the truck. The heat rising off the road makes the horizon wobble and shimmer in my eyes. The sweat drips off my brow and I taste salt. We’re laying cones on the 710 right below the 91. I’m sitting on the tailgate, tossing cones along the line and Omar is behind the wheel, rolling at a steady 10 MPH. The striper truck is on its way and we have to merge the outside lane with lane 2 by 1PM and we’re way behind.
Hector is out walking about 50 paces in back of the truck, kicking the cones I drop into a wide arc that would’ve made Michelangelo proud. He’s drifted about 20 cones behind when he spots something on the shoulder and breaks to his right to check it out.
In the cab, Omar is on the phone, sparring with his longtime girlfriend, Rosa about commitment. From what I can hear above the thump of the radio, Rosa has Omar about 2 steps from hanging him on the ropes, ready to deliver the rabbit punch that sends him into inter-relational oblivion.
Hector lets out a whoop and holds up what looks to be a man’s wallet. He stops to inspect the contents and shrinks further into the distance. By the time he’s fanning the folding money and doing his I Got Beer Money dance, I’m so engrossed in the theatrics that I drop a cone on the edge of its base. It wobbles for a moment and then topples over. I holler to Omar to wait but he’s just told Rosa to relax. He doesn’t hear me because Rosa is reaching across the miles that separate them and she’s kicking Omar into the grave he’s just dug for himself. As he stammers for breath she dances on the freshly dug earth in a pair of black Via Spiga pumps Omar doesn’t yet know he’s going to buy her.
I stand the cone up and turn to chase Omar down when I hear the unmistakable whap-whap-whap sound of a car mowing down cones at high speed. I take an instinctive sidestep sprint to the right, but I feel the impact of bumper against bone and I know I’m in big trouble. As I’m spinning in the air, I see flashes of the road, the red Miata that hit me, Hector standing with his mouth open and the fast-approaching back of Omar’s truck. In my time on the road, I’ve been hit four times; never hard enough to land in the hospital. I know that if I land in the hospital this time, I’ll be lucky. Right before I hit the truck, I spread my arms and my body stops spinning. I get this stable sensation of flying I know I’ve felt somewhere before.
I’m flying my Orange Crate Stingray down that last long hill that runs almost all the way to the parking lot at King Harbor. The lights are all green in my direction, my hands are off the handlebars and I am about as happy as a 12 year old kid can be. It’s been a long ride but I can already smell the sea. I lick my lips and I taste salt.
I skid right up to where the asphalt meets the pier planks and hop off the Stingray. I chain my bike to the pay telescope. Someone in the diner yells that I can’t park it there and I feign deafness.
The rail is jammed and I bide my time hanging out beside the bait window while I joint my Blue Chip Stamp bought spinning outfit and run the line up the guides. The stainless steel counter loads up with bait tickets while I tie on a mackerel-patterned, big-lipped Rebel stickbait you normally see being towed behind a boat. My buddy, Denny and I found an ad in the Lamplighter featuring a 2 for one coupon for any item at Big 5. We cut it out of the newspaper and opt for the biggest, baddest lures we can find in the tackle department. We end up paying the king’s ransom of twelve bucks for a couple of lures that barely fit in our tackle boxes.
If Denny hadn’t been kept in study hall for fighting, he’d be here with me, tossing the big baits in the middle of a bunch of Opaleye anglers. I cinch the knot and as I do, my hand slips and the massive tail hook sticks me deep in the ham of my fist, causing me to wince with a pain I‘ve never felt before.
I’m jerked awake by the kind of pain that comes as a revelation to most folks who’ve already experienced root canals, colonoscopies and chemotherapy. Whoever said that gravely injured folks don’t experience pain was never gravely injured. I’m lying on the back of Omar’s truck pinned to the front of a Miata. Omar, Hector and the blonde young girl who drove the Miata are talking to a policeman. Hector listens attentively and empathetically to the girl who was texting and didn’t see the guy in the road who she’s just killed. I let out a groan and the small group realizes that I’m still alive and comes running. Disgusted, I will myself back to the Redondo Sportfishing Pier.
One of the sportfishing boats has pulled up to the pier and blocks about 25 percent of the end of the south rail. The crowd moves down the rail to the fishable part of the pier. I bring my gear to the open part of the pier that will become prime fishing real estate once the sportfishing boat departs.
The boat soon leaves in a spew of broken baitfish and I stand on the bottom rail of the pier, ready to make my first underhand cast. I let the big-lipped Rebel fly ¾ of the way to the bubble hole and hula it back. The locals see the huge green and black lure wobbling back to the pier and begin to jeer. They stop after the second cast when two huge shadows chase the lure back to the pier. On the third cast, something engulfs the Rebel before it begins to swim back.
My reel screams as the fish makes a run for open water. I turn it back and it circles back toward the harbor and makes a run between the pier pilings. I keep the pressure on and the fish somehow avoids being sawed off and makes a second run toward open water. My arms are aching by the time someone sees color and instead of bonito, someone yells “yellowtail!” I bring it back around and the fish eventually gives up the ghost. The guys at the tackle shop drop the landing net and soon I’ve got the yellowtail flopping at my feet. People I don’t know are slapping me on the back while I draw my fillet knife to clean and pack the fish for the ride home. A lady with a little yappy dog emerges from the crowd and asks me if I’m really going to keep the “beautiful fish” and I respond by ignoring her as I begin to clean the yellowtail.
For a moment, I wobble back to the 710. A paramedic is showering me with irrelevant questions while I lay strapped to a gurney, barely able to stay conscious. The paramedic fades away and I’m a kid again, back at the pier.
The woman is still jabbering about the “poor fish” long after I’ve cleaned the yellowtail and collected my gear. I leave my bike chained and walk across the parking lot to Captain Kidd’s. I realize that my new non-friend has decided to follow and serenade me with more advice about how sensitive I should be toward the pain of animals. I set my load down and walk back to meet her. In the twenty minutes since she began her tirade, I haven’t said a word, but I have been thinking about what I could say if I had the chance. The sight of me walking back has stopped her in her tracks and I think I see a wisp of fear in her eyes. My response reflects the same skill I needed to pitch that Rebel and make it dance in front of that big yellowtail now resting in my pack. I approach until I am toe-to-toe with the woman’s top-siders and in a volume that only she and I can hear, I let loose with a fifteen word tirade that only a twelve-year-old could utter without violating the public decency laws of the City of Redondo Beach. The effect is immediate. The lady stammers, but I’ve verbally knocked the wind out of her. Even the poodle stops barking and lets out a little whimper. For a moment, we stand suspended in time, with only the pacific breeze in our ears to disturb the sterile vacuum that separates us. Then, she yanks the little dog’s chain and they turn and walk away in silence. I stand and watch them for a minute to make sure she doesn’t come back before the rumble in my stomach makes me move on.
I throw my rod and gear on an outdoor table at Captain Kidd’s and walk up to the food counter. I give my order to the same guy I’ve given it to dozens of times before. He takes my cash without a word and turns to throw a fresh beef patty on the battle-scarred grill. Soon, I’m back at the table, taking a bite out of the burger. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to think about how terrific a single bite into a great cheeseburger can taste. The crunch of the tart pickle and fresh lettuce mixing with the flavor of the perfect patty and cheese in that first bite are close to perfection. I raise my paper cup of soda and hail the great master of the stainless-steel grill. The heady feeling makes me forget that I’d planned to curse memory of the woman and her yappy-mouthed rat of a dog further, at my leisure. The memory drifts back and I savor the victory, the resulting solitude, the sheer dudeness of the moment. I slug that first bite down with cola and I can almost hear it hit bottom in my empty gut. I bite into a hot, crunchy, steak-cut fry and I taste salt. I think I hear a shout; someone calling my name, so I stop in mid-chew. I gaze over the parking lot through the spray-stained window and look over the roofs of the cars all the way to the pier in the distance. The sunset brackets a tiny, shadowy someone hauling what looks like a barracuda over the rail. I hear the shout again and then I feel the distant rumble of ambulance wheels somewhere far beneath me, against my back.
The siren wails. The paramedic leans close with his eyes fixed on mine and he’s shouting my name, telling me to hang on. His voice speeds up like the sound of an old record album running at 78 rpm and then slows down to a deep rumble. His face swells and fills my field of vision and then shrinks to thimble size. I see the woman with her little poodle and she’s jabbering at me; her words spill out momentarily in a chipmunk’s chatter and then she and her dog slip down a black hole. I’m engulfed by a sensation almost as if I’m sinking into a very deep, very warm pool and as I open my mouth, I taste salt. The paramedic has drifted somewhere far down to the end of a dark hall. He’s still shouting something while he rummages through a box on the floor. I feel a heavy pressure on my eyes that radiates down to my nostrils, throat and chest and then...
The Final Fish
Rick Duenas (rockcrab62) — 2010
Joe Harmon had done it all in California when it came to fishing. From San Diego to Crescent City, and every coastal town in between had seen him. From pungent tidal flats layered in sticky, salty mud, to slippery tidal rocks, beaten with the constant fury of enormous waves, Joe had fished them all. Now in his 90s, residing in Silicon Valley, Joe was still at it, always looking to keep catching fish, though less and less, now, because of his inconvenient location. Although Joe had caught nearly every fish you could think of, one thing lurked in the deep crevices of his mind. It was constantly haunting him, evading him, close enough to reach, but just too far; Annarhichthys ocellatus—the wolf eel.
Joe had tried and tried for the rocky hole-dwelling demon, but the slippery beast had always evaded him. In his 20s, when Joe found himself living on the North Coast in Humboldt County, he tried specifically for the creature. Every method—kayak fishing, poke poling, casting from cliffs, every bait—squid, urchin, crab, octopus, and every location—the jetties at Eureka, the reefs of the Lost Coast, the headlands of Mendocino, but to no avail. And now, at age 92, Joe knew his chances were limited.
But the opportunity presented itself, as Joe found himself on perhaps the last trip he would ever make to the coast, as each day he grew more and more tired. Joe was ecstatic when his son invited him down to his home in Monterey for a little fishing with his family. Despite Joe’s worsening conditions, he just couldn’t turn it down, as he valued all the time he could spend with his son and grandson.
“So whatcha fishing for today, Pops?” Steve asked his father as they made their way down Highway 1.
“Gonna catch me a wolf eel,” Joe replied contently, “only fish I haven’t caught.”
“Should have a decent chance with the low tide today.”
Joe and his family made their way out onto the Coastguard Jetty of Monterey. It was a day that fit Joe’s liking, a bit of an overcast, some fog, but not too cold. It was early March, and the recent weather hadn’t been great, so Joe’s wish came true when he saw a lack of divers in the water. So far so good, Joe thought to himself as they setup their gear halfway out. Steve and his son, James, setup their light, spinning rods with high-low rigs baited with pile worms, hoping to catch any of the rock denizens that lay in close to the rocks.
Joe’s gear was quite the opposite. He brought his best set-up, an old Ugly-stik surf combo he had gotten a while back. On his 40 pound test, he slid a sliding sinker and then tied on a snap-swivel, to set up a Carolina-rig, modified for fishing the rocks. He then looped a pre-tied leader with a 3/0 octopus hook on. He hoped that this wouldn’t come back to haunt him, as he tended to not use the cheaper packs of pre-snelled hooks when he poke poled, or fished the holes. Too late now, Joe thought as he skewered a squid tail onto his hook.
Although he wasn’t doing too well health-wise, fishing seemed to be the best remedy on Earth.
Heron-like, he creeped on the edge of the cement barrier, carefully lowering his baited hook into every nook, cranny, crevice, and tidal pocket he saw. Every so often, he would get a bite, and pull out a decent sized, slimy, black, monkeyface eel (Cebidichthys violaceous) or the occasional cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus), often with incredible blue beneath a splotchy, smooth skin. Great on any other day of fishing, but he was after the wolf eel. He kept a couple, regardless, as he had always enjoyed a good fish-dinner, actually one of his favorite parts, deciding what recipe to experiment with.
After several hours, the time was 5:00, the sun growing low in the sky, for Joe, a symbol of hope, growing lower and lower. He had had a great day of fishing, 3 monkeyface eels, 2 cabezon, 3 grass rockfish, and even some type of kelpfish, maybe a striped kelpfish, but still no wolf eel. I can catch a damn kelpfish, but no wolf?, Joe thought to himself, pathetic. With every nibble and then bite after each drop, Joe’s hope grew, only to sink once more as some small, black fish would come squirming out every time. The tide had now come back in, though not as high as it could have been, but definitely getting there. The Sun was doing no favors either, now low in the sky, the blazing orange reflection shimmering off the surface, like a nuclear explosion. Last chance, Joe thought.
“Ready to go, Pops?” asked Steve, who had caught some small perch and rockfish.
“In a few more minutes,” Joe replied, determined to get his eel.
“Sure. James is having a good time,” Steve said, as he went over to help the teenager untangle the line from his reel.
As a boy, Joe had always hated those words from his parents, “Ready to go?” as he would fish as long and hard as he possibly could, through wind, rain, and the numbing cold.
While lost in his thoughts, it happened.
There it was, the twitch of the tip. Just the waves, Joe thought, but he knew, he knew this could be the chance he had waited a life time for. Again the tip twitched, this time stronger, and then again, and then BAM! A solid hit1 Joe reared back, and tried to finangle the beast from its lair. He could tell it big, either a wolf or a ling.
But after a minute, the beast had gotten too deep in its hole. Not a problem, Joe thought, as he snapped the line to try again. As an experienced poke-poler, he knew that fish would bite multiple times, because they were so aggressive in defending their hole.
Another piece of squid went into the hole, and BAM! The moment the squid hit the surface, a huge ripple rose up, the squid gone. No waiting this time, as Joe reared back to put pressure on the beast. It was a back and forth tug-of-war, and each time the eel got near the surface, it hooked its tail on a boulder and pulled back down.
After what seemed like an eternity, Joe had finally prevailed. He lifted the mighty beast from the hole, its long, snake-like body easily reaching 4 feet. Holding it from the back of the head, Joe admired the fish that had eluded him for so long, its gray body wrapping around Joe’s arm, its spots, seeming to match the color of the rocks around it. Its large, canine teeth, easily able to chomp through anything that meandered into its lair.
Keep it? Joe thought to himself, NOT A CHANCE. And with that, he gently placed the mighty beast down into the pool above its hole, watching its old, wrinkly face, like a mirror, slowly slither in, and then the rest of the graceful body with it.
After the release, Joe and his family walked off the jetty as the sun slowly set. Joe, with a new skip in his step, was almost like a little kid, the way he and James played with their bounty of eels and rockfish in the car on the long trip back.
I wonder how many different varieties of fish there are in heaven! Joe thought. And as he looked up at the fading sky, he could have sworn that he saw an eel.