A cigarette dangling from Jack Wolfe's lips glowed despite sub-40 degree temperatures at the Redondo Beach city pier the other morning.
Standing with other hardy fishermen, Wolfe waited for a fish--any fish--to bite.
"This is lousy," he barked, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, cap and glasses affixed firmly in place. Several poles were anchored to the rail, razor-thin lines drooping into the icy water two-stories below.
"Miserable," echoed Julius Samuels. His fishing gear remained at home, but he made the daily trek to be with his friends.
That, they say to the person, is what pier fishing is all about--friendship. And the scene occurs everywhere, like the Belmont Pier in Long Beach, where hard-core anglers--sometimes referred to as the bag people of sportfishing--brave icy mornings in winter and crowded railings in summer. They are a hardy lot because friendships should know no bounds, they say.
The piers of the South Bay, Santa Monica and Long Beach attract large groups from Southeast Los Angeles County. Often well-to-do fishermen pass these piers in shiny boats. They seldom pay pier fishermen much respect.
Most of those who frequent popular fishing spots, like the one at Belmont Plaza, however, think they share the good life.
"The people, the fresh air and sunshine," said Samuels, his nose reddened from an on-shore breeze. "You can't beat it."
'Now I'm Getting Lazy'
It was barely 8 a.m. Wolfe had been in place about an hour. Still no fish.
"I used to get down here by 6 in the morning, but now I'm getting lazy," he said. Gray and white sea gulls hovered overhead. A California seal circled under the pier, then rejoined a pack farther out to sea.
On the wharf, men in knee-high rubber boots spoke Spanish as they slit and cleaned commercial catches. The stench greeted newcomers.
Like most pier fishermen, the group in Redondo Beach is a fraternal lot, especially when the action is slow. Storms this week rattled the pier but damage was minor, and the fishermen only briefly abandoned their favorite spots in deference to the waves.
"You see the same people," said Terry Turk, operator of Redondo Sports Fishing.
Turk, has not seen much change in 10 years.
"We get a real mix of people," he said. "Ethnic groups, old and young. Some come to feed their own table. A lot come to feed their cats."
They are after mackerel, bonito, halibut and several varieties of cod. A delicacy among Asians, according to Turk, is opal eye.
On days when live bait--anchovies brought in by commercial haulers--is available the crowds can be enormous. But when there is no live bait, "the word passes fast," Turk said.
On those days pieces of mackerel, squid, night crawlers and plain old cheese serve as substitutes.
This winter there has been little live bait available along the coast because of extremely cold surface temperatures. Consequently, fishing has been "very bad," Samuels said.
"Let's face it, it's winter," said Tom Stein, a retired aerospace worker. "You wanna catch fish, you gotta go farther down . . . South America, Hawaii. . . ."
"Mexico," chimed in Samuels.
Steaming coffee in a foam cup comforted Stein as the chill continued. Broken clouds from a winter storm lurked above the horizon. Still early, many fishermen had retreated inside a local coffee shop to warm themselves as the breeze picked up and a light chop erased glassy seas.
Stein, a blue baseball cap fitted tightly over his head, peered from behind wire-framed spectacles. He lit another cigarette with the butt of one he had just finished. Like many of the others, he didn't have a pole with him.
"I came to visit my associates," he said. "We're all friends. Each enjoys the company of the other and, we might catch a fish by accident, who knows?"
Stein makes his way here "four or five times a week."
"But I won't come on weekends because the parking is too expensive," he said.
As a group of teen-agers took their place on the pier. Wolfe, who fishes here three times a week, was still waiting for a bite. Mark Bunn, 16, cast his line toward the seals, which were swimming in a group of four near the pilings of the pier. Anglers are prohibited from overhead casting here by blue and red signs posted every 10 feet or so around the structure. Still, Bunn got off a good underhand toss as the clang from a distant buoy sounded. A friend, 15-year old Lee Gosnell explained why the teen-agers prefer pier fishing.
"It's cheap. We save money, and besides, we don't have to fight the crowds that go out on the (fishing) barges."
At times, however, everyone battles the gulls. They can be aggressive predators, and they do not scare easily from their perches atop pier railings. Anglers joke that the gulls, and their droppings, are part of the local color.
Earlier in the morning a swarm engulfed the south side of the pier when a fisherman, known only as Terry, cut up pieces of a small mackerel and tossed them on the roof of a coffee shop. When the feeding was over the birds flew away screeching. Wolfe, Samuels and Terry breathed a sigh of relief.
"Now, aren't you glad cows can't fly?" Terry said to Wolfe.
Jack Wolfe was still waiting for a fish to bite. Two hours later he abandoned ship. He said he might be back tomorrow, if it didn't rain.
"The water is too cold for fish," he said.
Sometime later Victor Doss of Montebello, who works in Hermosa Beach, hauled in a small mackerel. He snagged the fish by its mouth and, removing the steel hook from its jaw, placed it in a plastic shopping bag.
"This is probably the biggest fish of the day," said Samuels. Onlookers rated the catch at about a pound.
"The small ones we fry. My wife cooks them," said Doss, his line already returned to the water for action.
The catch flapped inside the plastic bag. The rustling noise from inside the bag drew curious onlookers.
But for the veterans it was no big deal. They know there will always be a tomorrow because friendships--and fishing--should know no bounds.