Catching more than fish

Amateur angler Jon Apothaker reeled in a lot more than a prize catch when he hooked a 5-foot-long black sea bass at Balboa Pier.

The fisherman could face up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail for unintentionally landing a member of the protected species off the pier Jan. 3. Apothaker’s struggle to reel in the massive fish attracted a crowd of spectators, and several videos of the incident have popped up on the Internet since.

“In hindsight, what I learned is that even if the fish is dying on the surface and has hooks on it, it’s best to leave it there to die,” Apothaker said. “Once the sea bass hits the sand, it becomes illegal.”

On Friday, California Department of Fish and Game Lt. Dan Sforza said he couldn’t say much about Apothaker’s big catch, except that an investigation into the matter was ongoing.

“If we find there is a violation, then we will forward it to the district attorney’s office,” he said. “If caught, the law requires you to immediately release them.”

Using fresh mackerel as bait and a steel fishing line, Apothaker was hoping to catch a thresher shark off the pier that day. The small sharks make for good eating. Apothaker likes to cut them up into steaks and broil them.

He and a friend had driven down from Sherman Oaks to visit Balboa Pier because they heard it was a good fishing spot and, before long, Apothaker felt a sharp tug on his line.

He struggled as the monster on the other end of his line pulled back with all its might.

Apothaker was convinced he had hooked a giant bat ray.

“The thing just kept on charging,” he said.

Apothaker’s struggle with the fish began attracting a crowd that sunny Sunday. He estimated that a group of 40 or 50 people amassed on the pier, waiting to see what he would pull out of the ocean on his fishing pole.

“People were saying ‘oh, what is it?’ and sort of cheering me on,” Apothaker said. “I really didn’t hear anything. I was really focused.”

For an hour, he wrestled with the thing, eventually sitting down on the pier with the taut rod between his legs, to take pressure off his tired arm.

Apothaker tried to sink his hook into the fish by giving it enough slack to run and then abruptly jerking the line upward.

The fish floated to the surface, belly up and lifeless.

Apothaker tried to reel it in, but his line snapped.

The crowd on the pier flagged down a man in a motor boat, who hooked the floating fish with a giant, three-pronged hook through its lower jaw.

Apothaker said he thought the fish might have been a really big grouper at first.

The crowd followed Apothaker as he walked down to the beach.

Apothaker swam out to meet the boat and get a closer look at his catch.

The still-breathing fish was covered in a thick slime and was as heavy as a full-grown man.

Back on the beach with the fish, a few spectators suggested that the creature might be a protected black sea bass.

Intentionally catching and keeping a black sea bass is a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or six months in jail.

Once he learned that it might be a protected species, Apothaker did everything in his power to revive the fish, he said.

With the help of a man on the beach who let him use a pair of pliers, Apothaker removed the hook from the fish’s mouth. A young girl with a bucket ran back and forth from the surf with buckets of water to pour over the bass’ gills.

Apothaker and a surfer spent the next 45 minutes in the water trying to get the fish to swim on its own.

Eventually the fish drunkenly swam off at a 45-degree angle, he said.

When Apothaker got back on the sand, the police were waiting to question him about his catch.

The giant fish washed up dead on the shore Sunday, according to Newport Beach Animal Control.

“In hindsight, I probably would do everything to save the fish again, but I would not bring it to shore,” Apothaker said. “I thought ‘Gee, that would have been a lot of fish tacos.’”

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