Even now, 79-year-old Tony Scarich remembers that moonlit night in the '40s when he and his brother caught more than 100 spiny sculpin off Newport Pier and hauled them home by wheelbarrow--so many that the boys at Baldy's Tackle wondered if they weren't just hearing another Big Fish Story.
Even now, salty old-timers swear by the wiggle of the store's mint-green Baldy Jig, a lure so irresistible to fish that fishermen still mourn the loss of the original mold in a fire in the '60s. Nowadays, small boys with no fish smarts but plenty of moxie still drop by Baldy's to hoist their big catch by the gill--maybe a 2-pound bonita--and lay claim to the day's bragging rights.
But Baldy's, the oldest tackle shop in Orange County, isn't the hot spot that it once was--these days, a sushi bar packs in crowds at the end of the pier, and locals peruse a boardwalk shop that sells sterling silver toe rings. Baldy's, a victim of changing times and competition, closes for good on Sunday after 73 years at the foot of a pier that was originally built as a fishing port.
"It's an end of an era," said John Horst, 84, a man with a sun-freckled face who got his first pole at Baldy's at age 12 and still fishes off the pier every week. "The town is going modern, I guess, away from the old times. They don't want us fishermen around anymore."
Others contend that the city is long past its fishing village days, when steam whistles summoned workers to the canneries for mackerel slicing duty, when fishermen plopped on their bellies and dropped a line with a hook and a weight through holes in the planks of the pier. (Good luck in pulling a big fish through the small opening.)
"The fishermen at the end of the pier don't maintain the pier," said Assistant City Manager Ken Delino, who suggested that a nice restaurant or art gallery would be a good replacement for Baldy's. "For years, we've been dealing with their trash, their fish guts. It's filthy out there. . . . It is sad that it is a passing of an era, but the era is long gone, at least on Newport Beach Pier."
Earlier this year, the City Council delayed a decision on a plan to limit pier fishing after residents complained that fishermen left behind a smelly mess and sometimes hooked people while casting.
Pier fishermen, who are still smarting from the city's rebuff, say the closing of Baldy's is just another reminder that they no longer fit in. They say it's not just that they won't be able to buy fresh blood worms and razor clams anymore. (Pier fishermen mostly use live bait). Or that they won't be able to sprint down from their spot on the pier to Baldy's for emergency gear or drop by to check whether the spotfin croakers are biting on innkeeper worms.
They know their heydays are over.
"It's a slow progression from what Newport Beach used to be," said Bill Vas, 54, who dropped by Baldy's recently for a last look at the place. "It was a water town--now it's a glitz town."
Fishing associations do not keep statistics on pier fishing, which does not require a state-issued license. But all types of fishing are down, according to the American Sportfishing Assn. in Virginia. According to the association's latest study, 61 million people nationwide fished at least one day in 1992, down 11% from the previous year.
At Baldy's, owner Patrick Kennedy, 44, said business has been flagging since he took over in 1973. Kennedy, a longtime fisherman, bought the store from the original owners, the Racker family, who opened Baldy's in 1922.
Kennedy had planned to stick with the fishing business. This summer, he said he worked with the Racker family on new terms for his expiring 15-year lease. He was waiting to hear back from the owners on final terms when he got a lease termination notice three weeks ago, asking him to vacate the store by Nov. 1.
But Betty O'Connor, whose father, Walter "Baldy" Racker, opened the original store, said Kennedy was told the new terms of the lease were not negotiable. She said Kennedy simply chose not to renew his lease when the rent was more than doubled to $3,500 a month.
O'Connor said the family does not yet have a replacement tenant. The family would love to get another fishing tackle store in the 1,500-square-foot space, she said.
But others said a fishing store would not be able to survive in a high-rent area that caters to restaurant-goers, tourists and young people who surf, bike or skate.
"You'd have to sell a lot of hooks and sinkers and bait to exist on that kind of waterfront property," said J.D. Doughty, owner of J.D's Big Game Tackle on Balboa Island.
This week, Kennedy bid farewell to longtime customers in a near-empty store, stripped down after close-out sales. He's not sure whether he'll open another tackle store in cheaper quarters.
At Baldy's, sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling front windows, which offered a spectacular view of the ocean and swaying palm trees; the smell of saltwater rode a westerly breeze through the open door. Usually, Kennedy monitors a short-wave radio so he can track the action on fishing boats, but this week he wasn't in the mood.
The store still looks much the way it used to, with scruffy linoleum floors and the original 60-drawer oak hardware counter with bins full of spinners, plastic ball floats and a few old-fashioned goods--like the "picks" or big hooks used on reel-less rods in the '40s to snare huge tuna.
On the walls are stuffed fish such as an 81-pound big-eyed tuna, the trophy catch of a local. And, on the bulletin board are photos of fishermen lugging prize catches such as the 48-pound white sea bass caught near Catalina Island. A chalkboard lists high and low tides, and handwritten signs announce prices for fresh ghost shrimp, razor clams, mussels and blood worms (Pier fishermen will now have to go to Seal Beach or Dana Point for live bait).
For novices, Kennedy gave impromptu lessons on how to tie a hook or cast off the pier or get the feel of a spinning reel. Kennedy said those services usually are not offered at the chain sporting goods stores that stole much of his business.
"It's just sad to see a legacy leave," Kennedy said, outfitting his few remaining poles with tips and grips. "There's a lot of people that come in here as kids. We teach them how to fish on the pier. They graduate to fishing in the bay, and then they fish on the boats. And the next thing you know, they're a yacht owner, and they're coming in and outfitting their boats."
In the old days, when Baldy ran the store, he hired boys to catch live bait. He paid 10 cents a dozen for soft shell sand crabs that kids scooped off the beach with wire nets, or 10 cents a pound for razor clams that they found in the breathing holes of the Back Bay's mud flats.
Back then, there was no need for fancy-schmanzy depth finders or computer-generated fish finders or $200 fiberglass poles, said Ralph Irwin, 76, who hung out at Baldy's as a boy. Boys just bought a clunky bamboo pole at the store and then hit the surf. Or they'd go back to the store to watch old men file down their whalebone-carved jigs and then tell the story about the one that got away, thanks to some sorry shark that stole the biggest halibut you ever saw--right off the hook.
Fishermen still tell stories at Baldy's, the last stop on the boardwalk before the pier begins. Baldy's was the last-chance stop for fishermen to arm themselves before that long walk down the pier to do battle at the edge of the sea.
"The pier's old--like 100 years old," said Jeff Erickson, 19, on a recent afternoon at the pier, squinting into the sunlight at his fishing rig. "Baldy's was a part of it, and they've always been there. Now, it's like a part of it dies."