A boy with brick-red curls and a film of sunscreen masking his freckles squeezed a chunk of dead squid onto his bait hook.
Noah Lopez, 12, bit down on his lower lip and watched as the baby-blue fishing line that matched his hoodie unraveled into the Pacific Ocean.
A moment after another boy yelled, “I just caught two!,” Noah thought he felt a nibble. He started to crank up his line but felt no tension. He drooped his shoulders, let his line back out and waited.
That morning, Noah, along with 73 other young students from Montebello, embarked on a fishing trip to San Pedro. For most, it was their first. The outing was paid for by a $200,000 gang-prevention grant given to the city’s Police Department. The money covers two other trips, among other things.
Noah gazed off at the excursion’s first sea-sickened victims, three girls who sat hunched along the deck with their heads nuzzled in their elbows.
Finally, he felt a tug, raveled the line and yanked up. A split second after a flat, brown fish with a fluorescent purple underbelly broke the water’s surface, a pelican tried to swoop it away.
“That’s mine, buddy,” Noah said.
The pelican’s millisecond miscalculation meant Noah’s first catch.
Everyone caught at least one fish, but most caught several.
The idea behind the fishing trips came from Montebello Police Chief Kevin McClure, after a failed attempt to secure a grant for youth activities. “We were doing your basic gang diversion programs, but the second time I decided to think outside the box,” McClure said.
The goal is to take students out of their landlocked neighborhood and show them another side of life in Los Angeles County.
McClure showed up for the morning’s send-off from Montebello City Hall wearing a pale blue shirt and an easy smile. “Everybody have a great day, and I hope to see you guys at the next event,” he said.
As the bus barreled south along the 710 Freeway, Roman Flores, 12, turned to his friend Zach Bernal, 11. “Zach, isn’t there going to be like a famous fisher there?”
“There are no famous fishers, dude.”
“Be a believer in fish,” Roman said, before tapping the shoulder of the sleek-haired girl a seat in front of him. “Are you a believer?”
“A belieber? Like Justin Bieber?” she asked as she raised her dark eyebrows.
The boys laughed and shifted the conversation to the possibility of their cellphones plunging into the ocean.
Half an hour later, the bus pulled up to the 22nd Street Landing Seafood Grill & Bar in San Pedro.
Daniel Hernandez, a well-known angler with a fishing show on KDOC-TV, greeted the group.
More than two decades ago, Hernandez’s frustration with the lack of TV programs for sports fishermen pushed him to host his own show. “It’s also one of the only places you see people of color fishing,” the Montebello native said.
In 2001, he started the Daniel Hernandez Youth Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at exposing inner-city students to sport fishing. The Montebello Police Department formed a partnership with the organization, which coordinated the trips and provided volunteers.
After a quick fishing lesson and photo session, the kids rushed to the pier and filed onto the San Pedro Special. The boat zipped through about 10 miles of ocean and let down its anchor.
Victoria Guerrero,12, has always loved marine life. All of her elementary school supplies were fish-themed: “My pencils, my pens, my folders, my pencil bags, my erasers,” she said.
For Fishie, as her friends call her, the trip was a long time coming. Before that afternoon, she’d never seen a fish in the ocean. It wasn’t her family’s thing.
“Bad parents, right?” Christina Cortez, Victoria’s mother and Montebello’s mayor pro tem, said with a laugh before the trip. “I’m not the outdoors person.”
Toward the end of the trip, a boy asked Victoria how many fish she had caught.
“What? You only had two when I was with you. What happened?”
She smiled. “I kept fishing.”