Last of L.B.'s Commercial Fleet : Sea, Not Profit, Lures Last of the Fishermen

Times Staff Writer

These guys do it because they love it. They're out there seven days at a time in a small boat, and they work 20 hours a day. They're out there in bad weather, and they're really up against the odds. They bring in 1,000 pounds at 50 cents a pound. Who can make a living on that kind of money? But most of these guys on these small boats are connivers, and they can make that $200 a month grow when they hit the dock. They're a rare breed, but they're virtually being chased out of existence, these guys. It's a dying business.

Mike Redlaw, fish market manager on Queen's Wharf

By today, Charlie (Tuna) Culwell and his 50-year-old deckhand, Don Plucker, should be off San Diego, 20 miles out at sea with four fishing lines and 400 hooks hung from yellow buoys that bob near their boat, the Sierra.

In the same area--they call it the Kidney Bank--Charlie's son, John, is running four more lines at 1,200 feet from another small boat, the Jezabel.

Together, the two 40-foot World War II "liberty launches" used by Charlie and his son are about all that is left of Long Beach's full-time commercial fishing fleet.

Never large, it has shrunk continually since the 1950s, as larger boats have taken a greater share of the catch and as the number of fish have declined. In those years, nearly all the Long Beach survivors shifted to docks in San Pedro, the center of the region's wholesale fishing business.

But last weekend, as dark clouds gathered and chill winds whipped the water at the Queen's Wharf landing in Long Beach Harbor, Charlie, John and Plucker prepared the two boats for the trip south in search of rock cod, a so-called bottom fish.

Charlie, 49, barrel-chested at 6-foot-1 and 289 pounds, was tying two-inch hooks to line. Plucker, a former maintenance man, was replacing a steering cable. And John was trying to borrow a depth gauge, "a fish-finder," so he could head to sea.

"This is the only thing bad weather is good for," said Charlie, pulling at a hook while sitting in the Sierra's cabin Sunday morning.

The cabin, like the boat itself, is not fancy. The windows are weather-stained, white paint is scraped and peeling. Torn foam cushions serve as seats. Below deck, among fishing gear and next to the open fish hold, is the cot where Charlie sleeps.

Delayed by Winds

"Winds are 12 to 18 knots," said Charlie. They would not be able to leave until Monday, said Plucker.

But Charlie, who was a bartender until 1980, was upbeat. After a dismal 1984, January had been his best fishing month ever. And, always the gambler, he was eager to try again.

"There is a potential that's just pulling you out there," said Charlie. "You might catch a ton in a day or you might not catch a ton in a week."

Plucker, a short, sturdy man who wears a garage mechanic's coveralls and pulls a cap down tightly around his ears, added: "You always got it in your head that you'll do better next trip. You always think it can't get no worse, it's got to get better."

The last three trips have been better, much better, said Charlie, who as boat owner got two-thirds of the profit to Plucker's one-third. "I owed $2,500 at the first of the year; what I'd borrowed to keep going. I've paid it off now, except for $420.

"Now it's a whole new ballgame, but I've had a lot of help from a lot of people or I wouldn't be able to keep the boat right now. People have just given me things, and this boat shoulda been paid off two years ago."

Five years into full-time fishing, Charlie finally has all the essential equipment to make a go of it on a low-overhead, hook-and-line boat, itself almost obsolete in this day of high-overhead net fishing. It took four years to afford a hydraulic winch to reel in the fishing lines.

A Lantern and a Compass

"When Don and I first went out, all we had was a Coleman lantern and a compass," he said.

John, who recently began running the Jezabel for its owner, the Queen's Wharf fish market, has little equipment. He's just acquired a life raft after surviving a fierce storm in December that sunk five boats and took the life of one fisherman.

"I was kinda lucky," he said.

"I want to do what I'm doin'," said Charlie, "but it's hard to go out there and catch fish when you know you have to have 'em. When you relax, you do better."

"We are tight on money," said John, 22. Easygoing and soft-spoken, he lives on the Jezabel and sometimes works other jobs so he can afford to keep fishing.

Still, Charlie and John say their worries about money are negligible compared to those they escape when they push off before dawn into the open sea.

'Fish Don't Talk Back'

"The money don't really matter if you can make a livin'," said Charlie, who worked sportfishing boats until he married in 1960 and needed a more reliable income. "We take the good times with the bad. My wife says they're all bad, but we like it. Everybody thinks you've got to get rich, but I don't. And the fish don't talk back to you.

"I tended bar for 20 years," he said, "but now I don't have to worry about anything--not a boss or the customers or drunks or the robbers or the wives. The only thing I've got to worry about out there is Mother Nature.

Charlie grew up fishing off the Redondo Beach Pier and took two runs at sportfishing as a young man. Even when he quit, he stayed close to the business by tending bar at the old Pierpoint Landing at the entrance to Long Beach Harbor.

But in 1970, after the landing closed, he moved to Riverside, tending bar at a Mexican food restaurant for a decade. His return to the sea began in 1978, when he bought the already old and poorly maintained Sierra from a doctor for $6,000.

He and Plucker, who had fished the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, would fish weekends out of Oceanside. In 1980, after an injury forced Charlie to temporarily stop tending bar, "I told Don, 'Let's go fishin'. We're paying our bills, let's keep doin' it.' "

Plucker had been laid off and faced a $325 monthly housing bill. He agreed to give it a try.

'Getting Too Old'

"I was getting too old for people to give me a job," he said. "Nobody wants an old man to do work."

Charlie has four children, but by 1980 the youngest was a teen-ager, and with a low $178 mortgage payment, he was in a position to take a chance.

"Sometimes we went out and didn't make expenses," said Charlie.

By last year, while fishing 100 miles out, the boat would clear maybe $2,200 a month. Charlie would get the owner's three-fifths share of $1,320, with John's and Plucker's one-fifth shares each coming to $440 a month before taxes.

Even that sub-poverty income was dependent upon a fluke in the local red snapper market. Vietnamese, Chinese and Koreans want a whole fish that hasn't been disfigured in nets, said Mike Redlaw of the small Queen's Wharf fish market.

He can sell the Culwells' hook-caught snapper for maybe twice what a damaged red snapper will bring, said Redlaw.

"Without these guys, places like this fish market couldn't exist," Redlaw said.

Extraordinary Luck

The Sierra's luck this year in a new fishing area closer to port has been extraordinary, with 11,000 pounds of fish caught during three trips, said Charlie.

And with the recent successes have come dreams.

Plucker dreams of a decent living. John dreams of his own boat. And Charlie dreams of running his own fish market.

"We'll have a small fish market somewhere inland like Riverside or Barstow," said Charlie. "John will run the boat or maybe two boats. And I'll run the market. And my wife wants to get in on that end, the sellin'. And we're not talkin' about bein' open seven days a week.

"The consumers, all they have to do is try it once."

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