Hook, Line and Sinker


Captain Ahab had nothing on the guy who came aboard Val Rich's sportfishing boat a few years ago.

As a veteran skipper, Rich figured he had seen everything until one of his customers hooked a 10-pound bonito at the Yellow Banks on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island.

"Those fish are very hard fighters," Rich said. "The guy was fighting it off the back of the boat when his pants fell down around his ankles.

"It was an older gentleman. Completely white BVDs and white legs. You get the picture."

A dilemma suddenly arose: Hold the guy's pants up for him or man the gaffe to get his fish aboard.

"The guy says 'To heck with my pants, get my fish,' " Rich recalled. "He's waddling back and forth across the stern of the boat. Everyone was rolling on the decks, laughing so hard they couldn't even put their lines in the water. No one else was fishing."

The angler eventually landed his bonito and Rich collected another fish tale to add to the considerable lore of the sportfishing boats that leave daily from the docks at Malibu north all the way to Morro Bay.

These vessels are laden with paying customers--anglers ranging from novices to experts--more than a few of whom bear a similarity to the maniacal Ahab chasing Moby Dick. As one boat captain explains, the people are hungry.

Their quest can give rise to antics both entertaining and alarming. And that makes for good stories.

There is high drama on the high seas. Also tragedy and a fair bit of comedy.

"People do some pretty stupid things," said Debi Kohr who, along with her husband Kenneth, runs sportfishing boats out of Ventura Harbor.

At a landing in Morro Bay, Wayne Blicha recalled a classic example of the one that got away.

It happened when one of his customers hooked a good-sized halibut. After the fish was gaffed and brought aboard, the crew gathered around to admire the catch.

"Everyone was watching it jump all over the deck," Blicha said. "It jumped right off the boat. Had to clear a 2-foot rail."

The fisherman was dumbstruck.

"He just stood there, looking like 'Where did my fish go?' "

Disappointment is only one of the basic emotions that sportfishing can evoke.

This is recreation verging on obsession. It certainly is not a sport that, as Washington Irving once wrote, "tends to produce a gentleness of spirit, a pure serenity of mind."

Bruce Wolfe, who worked on local sportfishing boats for 20 years, said: "It's like gold. You can imagine how people act over gold."

In other words, this is no place for the faint of heart.

Fistfights can break out when, as sometimes happens, fishermen hook the same fish. The captain makes the call--the deepest hook wins.

Wolfe once saw two young men draw knives in a tussle over who would reach into the bait tank first.

Not long ago, Blicha recalls, one of his customers hooked a salmon. As he was reeling it in, a seal popped up and grabbed hold of the fish.

A tug-of-war ensued.

The boat captain yelled for everyone to bring in their lines. He then steered the boat, full-throttle, directly at the seal in a maritime game of chicken.

"You could see the look on the seal's face," said Blicha, a crew member that day. "He held on right until the last minute."

Then the seal let go and dove for the bottom.

"We got the fish," Blicha said. "It was a little chewed up."

Wolfe tells a more disturbing tale that took place on a boat out of Paradise Cove some 20 years ago, when one of the customers came aboard with a gunnysack.

"He kept looking into the sack," Wolfe said. "You could tell there was something in there, but you couldn't tell what it was."

The man kept to himself, guarding his secret, not talking to anyone else, until it was time for everyone to drop their lines into the water. At that point, he opened the sack and pulled out several live chicks, which he put on his hooks as bait.

"Oh God," Wolfe recalled. "There were people getting sick."

Within minutes, the man had caught five rock cod. This success, however, did not impress his boat mates.

"We all hated him," Wolfe said.

Such is life on sportfishing boats, where the captains and crew witness every conceivable oddity, every imaginable behavior and blunder.

Customers constantly get their lines tangled. Or drop their rods overboard. Or ask stupid questions.

"Like 'What time is the six o'clock boat leaving?' " Kohr said. "We get that one all the time."

It all makes for a good story back at the docks. And, every once in a while, the captains get to exact revenge for all the hassles they endure.

For Wolfe, the chance came several years ago when one of his customers caught a lizard fish.

These bottom-dwelling creatures are so unappealing that the National Audubon Society Field Guide describes them as "trash" with "no value as a food or game fish."

"Oily," Wolfe said. "The nastiest thing in the ocean."

The customer who caught one was about to throw it back. Wolfe, who uses lizard fishes as bait, asked if he could have it.

"All of a sudden, the guy decides to keep it because he figures he has something good," Wolfe said. "He thinks I want to eat it. So, later on, he says 'Hey, buddy, how do you cook these things?' "

Wolfe probably should have explained. But he didn't.

"I just told him, 'Saute it in butter. Just 30 seconds on each side.' "

Just another fish tale in the making.

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