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THE OUTDOORS : AN EYE FOR A TOOTH : Garrett Ray Has Uncanny Knack of Spotting Elusive Corbina at Low Tide

Times Staff Writer

At dawn, with the tide so low that only a gentle sheet of water rushes up onto the the flat sandy coastline, a familiar sight appears over a small dune.

Garrett Ray, having walked a short distance from his Venice Beach home, is well aware of what this minus tide will mean, and he has planned his day accordingly.

With the tide this low, the white-haired fisherman will be able to see the “chuck holes” in the wet sand that will eventually fill with water--and fish--from the incoming tide. Prospects will be best here, he says.

More important, however, he can witness the wary corbina, swimming in with each wave to feed. They are easily visible in the shallow flats created by the minus tide, and thus more susceptible to the careful fisherman.

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A friend of Ray’s arrives, and a few others are on the beach with fishing rods in their hands and hopes of success in their heads.

Their chances will be greatly enhanced by the presence of Ray, 61, who has fished extensively for corbina for the last 50 years, and who in that time has fine-tuned his skills in what can be described as one of the most frustrating types of fishing.

“He’s a damned good corbina fisherman, one of the best there is,” said Bob Wylie, whose Malibu bait shop has been catering to surf fisherman for more than 42 years.

The corbina, an elusive croaker that is strong enough for the powerful inter-tidal currents in which it swims and feeds, has discouraged as many people by its reluctance to bite as it has excited by its sizzling runs on hook and line.

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“It’s a pretty smart fish,” Ray says. “You’ve got to be when you’ve got to get in here and mingle with all these swimmers.”

He points to surfers wading through the corbina’s territory and alludes to the hordes of beach-goers that will arrive later in the day.

Suddenly, the conditions seem right. The tide is rising slowly and the anglers follow Ray a short distance up the coast. Having filled a tin can with soft-shelled sand crabs, as opposed to the more abundant but less-productive hard-shelled variety, the fishermen rig their gear and begin to cast.

Ray, meanwhile, chooses to wait, and talk about his favorite fish. He recounts the day he caught 25 corbina and donated them to the local lifeguards for a fish fry. He recalls the six- and seven-pounders--the largest on record weighed 8 1/2 pounds--that were “pretty consistent” in the 1930s, when he started fishing for them.

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“I get a bigger kick out of the people fishing around me than catching them,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll leave my pole at home and bring people down and show them how to fish ‘em.”

After all, Ray doesn’t want to be selfish. He says he has caught and released about 300 corbina this year alone, a claim that people who know him will back.

“He can spot the fish like nobody else,” says Bill Beebe, a local columnist who has fished with Ray over the years. “He’ll point to an area holding two or three fish and I’ll have to really strain to see them.”

Ray’s eye for corbina, which range from southern Baja California to Point Conception, becomes evident before long, as he begins to spot fish in the surf.

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“There’s one,” he shouts as he points to the swirling corbina. “Did you see that big ol’ one over there?”

Before long, Beebe is hooked up, his seven-foot ultra-light rod bent almost double. Ray doesn’t get excited. “It’s just a small one,” he suggests. “It’ll go 1 1/2, maybe 1 3/4 pounds.”

After about five minutes, Beebe has landed the fish, bearing out Ray’s prediction.

Ray and Beebe then walk farther north, Ray scouting the surf line while recalling the five-pounders that had come in so far to feed that he had to “kick them off the sand bars,” or how the corbina will sometimes “stand on its head while digging through the sand for hard-shells (sand crabs).”

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Sand crabs represent 90% of the corbina’s diet--some insist the fish’s flesh tastes similar to crab meat--and Ray says that 99% of those are hard-shells, simply because they are abundant. Soft-shelled crabs, though more difficult to come by, are prized as bait. Ray, while walking, talking and scouting for fish, digs them up with his big toe.

Asked how he can find them when others can’t, he replies, “After 50 years I better know how.”

He then tells how they are usually the last to bury themselves in the sand, and how they sometimes leave small bumps in the sand after burrowing under.

Soon, he too has hooked up and about 10 minutes later a 3 1/2-pound corbina lies exhausted on the beach. Ray nonchalantly picks it up and releases it in the surf.

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Moments later he calls to another fisherman, waves him over and points to an area just in front of him. The fisherman, seeing three fish in a chuck-hole not more than 10 yards out, casts and eventually lands a 3 1/2-pounder.

By mid-morning, all fishing with Ray have caught a fish. Others have gathered, but Ray, claiming the tide has risen too far, calls it quits.

“They’re still out there,” he says. “But I don’t even bother when I can’t see them.”

Nope. Ray prefers to stalk the corbina, much as one would stalk the bonefish of the Florida Keys.

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“Here, with the right surf in the flats, I can walk along and show you groups of three fish, five fish or even seven fish,” he says, pointing out what has already become evident.

And when the corbina is hooked, often in ankle-deep water, it gets downright stubborn, darting out beyond the surf line or merely turning sideways to resist the angler’s pressure. On four-pound test it is a challenge for even the most experienced angler.

“There are more and more corbina fishermen every year,” Ray says. “But they’ll never be fished out because you’re not going to find too many people that are going to catch them.”


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