Reeling in the years
You should have been at the pier the day Warren hooked a near-keeper halibut.
Oh, Warren has hooked plenty of keepers in his time, but he'll tell you fishing isn't about what you take, it's about what keeps you coming back. Anyway: This one halibut a couple of weeks ago--turned out to be 20 inches, two short of legal limit--had Warren moving. Bad hip and all, dang thing, he raced that halibut, staying just ahead of the hooked fish's efforts to reach the pylons and wrap itself to freedom. Thirty feet below Warren's bowed fishing rod, the young feisty halibut with the white belly challenged the 81-year-old fisherman, tanned like leather from so many long days in a sun that precocious halibut wouldn't survive a minute. Noble had a line dropped several feet up the pier (toward Ruby's) and had to hustle to raise his rig to let Warren and the halibut scamper underneath. Snooky abandoned her reel and went for the drop met. She lowered the net in sync with Warren raising the halibut. Reeling, lowering, reeling, lowering until the flopping captive popped from the water and into the wide, circular net fixed to a thick rope, Snooky's good with the net. Snooky's good with everything out here. Out came the measure, up-short came the halibut, over the edge went the 20-incher and back for more bait went Warren, his old, small face lit as if a boy again.
Warren and a halibut
Milton was there that day. Cass might have been. Bob wasn't though, he's off fishing his way toward Washington or something. And Sunny. Well, she's not out much this summer. Came out a lot last year and fished from her wheelchair, but even the Queen of the Halibuts has to give it up at some point, and this may be the summer—her 82nd—marked as Sunny's retirement.
If it is Tuesday or Thursday, and if the Balboa Pier is standing, this bunch will be on it. Usually gathered near the second "T" with carts and coolers and buckets and memories that go way back, to the days, even, before sardines got fished out; back to when barges were anchored three miles out and a water taxi would take you to them for two bits and you could catch barracuda so big they called them logs. Oh, yeah.
This summer there are about five or six regulars: Snooky, Noble, Warren, Milton, Cass. They all have last names. But not out here. Snooky's thick photo book shows the whole gang that has grown over the years to about 20, sometimes—if the scene of past Christmas parties is accurate.
The gang at Christmas
And, being that it's Snooky's book, you can bet it is. She's got another book, without photos but with as many memories. It's the record book she keeps— the one that cost $12.95 but is worth it because it has tide information for each day of the year. Even shows what time of day is best for fishing, although as Warren says: "I've never seen a halibut wearing a wristwatch."
Cass and Snookie
Every summer, Snooky records each halibut caught by her pier peers, and at the end of the season, the person who has caught the most keepers gets...nothing. Midway into the summer Warren and Snooky have four apiece; Cass, two; Noble, three. Milton, mostly comes to visit.
Snooky, Sunny's daughter is the baby of the bunch. She's 60. Warren, you know, is 81. Milton is 80. Noble is 71. Most are retired: from real estate, insurance, nursery management. They get here about 10 A.M., break for their lunch precisely (well, as precisely as retired fishermen) at noon, stay sometimes till late afternoon.
Snookie and her mom Sunny
This is not a hobby for any of them. Hobby? No. Something else. Something more life-giving. Or so it seems. “The camaraderie,” Snooky says she comes for. Which is something, considering how much she likes fishing and how good she is at it. Can't remember a time when she didn't fish. Goes to Vegas for international fishing conventions. Said Milton: “I come down to see the gang as much as anything.” Among the gang there are about 300 years of fishing experience, gathered on piers from Belmont Shore to here at Balboa, where they are a well-known sight. After all these years, a pool of anchovies can still excite them. Like last week, when the waters near the pier were darkened with thousands of the smelly bait fish.
Milton and Noble and Warren and Snooky left their main rigs propped on the pier railing and gathered their bait-catching lines, aiming leaded monofilament laced with tiny hooks into the school and yanking up cigar-shaped silver that shot sharp reflections at the midday sun. See, game fish like anchovies best, it seems. Better than smelt, anyway. Maybe, Snooky figures, because anchovies have a softer scale. So, when the anchovies come through, the excitement of getting bait is nearly as good as the thrill of a keeper catch. Nearly.
Ron with a shovelnose shark (guitarfish)
You need a lot of bait out here. Not that it's anything like it was 50 years ago, mind you, but a person who knows what he's doing can keep busy, This pier fishing is not as passive as you might think. There's bait to be caught, leaders to be strung, territory to be guarded against the occasional fisherman who wanders out here not knowing that the second "T" is the crowd's unofficial squat.
“If you want nuts,” Warren says, “come to the pier.” The deranged come here, the drugged, the street preachers claiming to be fishers of men. The ill and ill-intentioned and the ill-conceit of the well-intentioned mix with those who fish for fun and those who fish for food and those who fish because it's what they've always done. They watch after one another in this group.
A few years ago, Snooky says, it got so that if you didn't keep an eye on your equipment, it would disappear. So now, they all look out for one another and take lunch at the same time so they can watch their gear while they eat. Things change.
Things don't. Warren's been fishing these waters 72 years and says the thrill at 81 is the same as when he was 9. The same it'll be at 90. He's seen a lot out here. Still, he dreams. “It's always been a dream of mine to go to the Florida Keys and fish for those big tuna,” he says. “Man, to get a hold of one of those big things, boy, oh boy...” Man, Boy oh boy.
Warren says he wants to die fishing. Almost did. In 1993, he'd just landed a 27-inch halibut, and Snooky was taking a picture when Warren collapsed. Noble and Snooky took him to the hospital. Heart attack. He was back in two weeks, more convinced of how he wants to go out. “I want to die with a 100-pound fish at the end of the line,” Warren says. “For a fisherman, that's the way to go out...But I'd be happy to get a 10-pound bonito out here."
Cass with a halibut
Fishing, fishing, fishing. Tuesday, Thursday. Tuesday, Thursday. Toss, reel, bait, clean, eat. Visit. Keepers.
Snookie with a salmon
John Hughes, Subculture, The Orange County Register, August 2, 1997
Although the writer used Snooky as the spelling for her name, I have always used Snookie and I believe that's the way she spells it.