Jordan and Stephanie Martinez planned to celebrate their one-month wedding anniversary with a night out at their favorite Thai restaurant. But what’s a date without fishing? So first, they drove in from Alhambra for a little pole time at Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier in Long Beach.
Carrying folding camp chairs and tackle boxes, the Martinezes joined a handful of lone fishermen and families staking out spots along the pier’s metal railing and dropping their lines. From Vietnamese, Filipino, Mexican and African American backgrounds, they shared bait, admired each other’s catches flopping around in plastic buckets of ice, and traded fish stories.
What they didn’t do is complain about the fish not biting. They didn’t care. They came out, even with rain in the forecast, to break away, enjoy the peace and camaraderie.
“We don’t even need to fish,” Jordan Martinez, 23, a FedEx driver, said. “We’re just here for the fun.”
Belmont is the homely stepsister to the Redondo Beach and Santa Monica piers, with their restaurants, honky-tonks and vintage arcade games like Zoltar the Fortune Teller. The T-shaped pier doesn’t have much in the way of frills — just portable toilets and street lights with metal shades shaped like pith helmets. An American flag flaps over a bait shop at the end.
What the pier, a third of a mile long and as wide as a city street, does have is space. And, on a chilly autumn night this week, a bizarre but strangely enchanting view. Christmas lights hung from a metal frame form a Christmas tree in front of the bait shop. In the distance, the Queen Mary’s stacks were also strung for the holidays. The moon rose, spilling ribbons of milky light across the waters.
Way offshore, a twinkling breakwater built by the Navy slashed through the bay. Closer in, several islands were alight. It took a minute to realize the islands weren’t real: they were camouflage for oil and gas drilling equipment. With their pastel towers and unnaturally jaunty palms, they looked like where Gilligan pulled up after the S.S. Minnow shipwrecked, or the atoll where castaways slump in old New Yorker cartoons.
I was drawn to the pier by a half-baked desire to start fishing again. While the cool kids worked on their tans in Balboa, my family vacationed at the then-unfashionable Oxnard Beach, which seemed to be socked in solid in dense fog every day of the year. But at dawn, my father would take us fishing off the now-vanished Point Mugu Pier. He was a World War II veteran, but even so, it remains a mystery to me how he got us on the restricted naval base that once included the pier.
Although the ocean perch we caught and fried up remains my favorite breakfast, I had failed to interest my kids in fishing. And without equipment or somebody to tell me what to do, I hadn’t fished for decades.
But the Belmont pier was my kind of place. Nobody seemed to know what they were doing. They paid no heed to the “do not eat” list of fish contaminated by DDT, PCBs and mercury posted on the pier in four languages — English, Spanish, Chinese and Khmer. If it’s big enough to keep, it’s big enough to eat.
“That’s for kids,” Benilda Badeo, a Long Beach caregiver for the elderly, said as she laughed off the do-not-eat warning and prepared to take home several forbidden smelt. “I’m already an adult.”
Several fishermen and women admitted they didn’t know one fish species from another. Icie Gibson, 29, of Compton, said she didn’t “eat anything with eyes on the same side of the head.”
“There was one here came up biting on the line of the pole,” Gibson said. “That thing was vicious. I said, oh no, that’s not an eater.”
The fishing lore they passed around was contradictory. Martin Estrada blamed the near-full moon for his bad luck.
“The moon has to be gone to best catch fish,” said the 42-year-old Long Beach gardener. “I just like to waste my time here.”
John Colima, on the other hand, held that fish flee the darkness. He said he suspended a light bulb above the water line or threw in glow sticks to attract the little buggers.
Colima, his face obscured behind the light from his headlamp, arrived with a hoop net as well as his pole. The net was for catching lobsters, he said.
Lobstering in Southern California? Granted, they’re spiny, strange and altogether different from Maine’s finest. But Colima, 40, rhapsodized about their delectability, dipped in soy sauce or melted butter.
And, drawn by mussels bristling off the pier footings, lobsters were easy to catch, said Colima, 40, a phone installer. He assured me he’d caught lobsters a half-foot wide.
Unfolding his camp chair, he sat down and scored several little silver fish with his knife, slipped them into his net and dropped it over the side. Lobsters would be crawling into the net in 15 minutes, he predicted, half an hour tops.
An hour later, with the lobsters still stubbornly refusing to show, I asked another lobster fisherman, Tuan Lai of Anaheim, to report on the catch the next day.
Reached by phone, Lai, 19, a Golden West College student, said he plied his own net for two or three hours but came up with nothing but little blue crabs. And no one else did any better, he added.
“I don’t know what happened,” said Lai, who, Internet-trained in lobstering, insisted that earlier in the month he’d snagged a small one. Perhaps the gig was up with the lobsters, he theorized. “Maybe the lobsters are just kind of smart,” he said.