The second-most popular baitfish in the Gulf of Mexico is just one letter away from the first (Pinfish). I’m speaking, of course, of the Pinfish.
I caught my one and only Pigfish fishing from a public pier in Pensacola minutes after night fell. There were mullet everywhere, as well as small species I still have yet to catch such as a few species of baitfish, Ballyhoo, and Atlantic Needlefish.
That was frustrating, but after being approached late at night by some guy in a sweatshirt who was very obviously holding a knife, it was the least of my worries.
I watched in horror as a he extended his arm, brandishing four inches of gleaming steel reflecting light from the pier lights.
I had some pliers in my bag. Oh! And some scissors. I could fight with that. Maybe I could throw some semi-rancid shrimp in his face, and then lunge with the knife?
He must have detected my bristling because he turned the blade back towards himself and asked “Hey man, is this yours?”
It wasn’t, and I told him so, visibly relieved as he walked away.
I continued fishing.
A few minutes later, another sketchy-but-not-that-sketchy-for-Florida guy came up to me. He was twitchy and awkward, obviously a tweaker.
He told me his car had broken down and asked if I had jumper cables he could borrow. I told him to wait a few minutes, and when he was a good 200 yards away, I went to the car and grabbed them, careful not to turn my back to a Floridian sketchmonger in the dark.
I gave him the cables, fully expecting them to be stolen.
Fifteen minutes later, he called out “Thanks man!” and left them on my hood.
I felt a little bad for thinking the worst of him, but then again, Florida has a reputation, and I’d be stupid not to take precautions.
So yeah. That’s how I caught my one and only Pigfish.
Species: Cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus) Location: Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA Date: March 24, 2010
During college, trips to the coast were a somewhat regular occurrence for Ben Blanchard and myself. But when our other friend Christopher Puckett decided to go as well, we were pleasantly surprised.
Christopher is a good friend, but he was never really the outdoorsy type. Usually, the three of us would play video games or board games, joke around, or have deep discussions, but we didn’t really do a lot of fishing together.
We’d all started in the same class in school, but Christopher graduated a year early. So for his junior year and Ben and my sophomore year Spring Break trip, we piled into my car and drove down to California, where it would be warm. Or so we told ourselves.
The San Francisco Bay, however, is not warm in March. It’s warmer than Oregon but only just.
We spent the first night in San Rafael, a city on the north end of the Bay, in a fleabag motel. The only reason we weren’t robbed blind is because my car was so unimpressive that the criminals all around it must have pitied us.
Would-be thieves thought: “Yikes. This guy needs it more than we do.”
The next morning, our charter for Striped Bass and White Sturgeon was a flop. Jim Cox Sportfishing was the name of the boat, and despite the guide and the three of us fishing, we only managed only one striper, and it was Christopher who caught it.
Now apart from our Biology Trip as freshman in high school where we caught a bunch of bottomfish and the one time he went trout fishing with at Spencer Creek, this was his only fish. The 27-inch striper was nearly 10 pounds. Not bad for maybe his tenth fish.
He also caught a stingray pushing 20 pounds, and Ben caught a respectable Starry Flounder (a fish I’ve seen caught just that once and have failed to catch myself in the years since).
I was skunked. Not the best way to drop $180 for a guy who, at the time, only made about $5000 per year.
We went to a nice seafood dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf then drove to Santa Cruz. I really wanted to catch a fish, so we headed to the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier.
Sure enough, I caught a fish. I setup the rod, and when I went to the bathroom, I came back to see Ben reeling in a White Croaker.
It wasn’t long before I started catching fish, too. That night I caught three small sculpins, and everyone else fishing on the pier kept calling them “Bullheads,” so I thought they were Pacific Staghorn Sculpins. The Internet existed, but I didn’t have a laptop and Christopher’s iPhone 1 was reserved solely for navigation, so I just went on in ignorance.
It wasn’t until I got home that I compared pictures and realized they’d been Cabezon.
Species: Walleye Surfperch (Hyperprosopon argenteum) Location: Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Date: June 13, 2008
Here’s another one straight from my journal:
“Although my last night (of my Senior Trip) happened to be Friday the Thirteenth, I had to try one last time. At eleven I headed out, eager to add one more species to my life list. I fished a long time … I gave up bait fishing and tried lures.
Every night, a swarm of smaller fish had gathered under the lights of the oil rig transport docking area. I had tried throwing everything in my tackle box, but nothing worked. Finally, I caught my first surfperch on a Nordic Kokanee jig half the size of the fish.
As soon as I cast again, I got snagged. Maybe Friday the Thirteenth…? Nah.
I gave up the fish as bait but only after I’d taken pictures to better remember the trip. Believe me, I will.”
My first surfperch was quite small, but I was stoked to have landed it. Just look at that grin.
That trip actually hooked me on surfperch fishing, and to this day, it’s one of my favorite types of fishing — albeit now I use gear just slightly more tailored to the species instead of over-sized Kokanee jigs.
Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Trip Date: June 9-13, 2008
The piers of Central and Southern California have a unique subculture. By day, they teem with tourists of all different races and backgrounds, all living completely separate lives. By night, the multi-ethnic tapestry remains, but the occupants of the pier share a common goal: catching fish.
When four or five white boys from rural Southern Oregon walked onto the Seal Beach Pier in June of 2008, every head turned. Broken English paired with Vietnamese, Spanish, Russian, and a host of other languages I couldn’t place, mixing with the acrid stench of cigarettes from every group.
We walked around the pier, looking at everyone’s respective catch — almost exclusively White Croaker and various species of surfperch — before a guy hooked into a respectable fish.
We stared intently as he fought it for five, ten, fifteen minutes. It broke the surface almost 30 feet below, and he identified it as a skate. He said he had no desire to eat it, but many Asian fisherman did, and we’d be more than welcome to keep it. We were thrilled at the possibility, but just as he got to the end of the pier to land it (a major feat, considering it was nearly half a mile long), it broke his line.
With that, the rest of my classmates decided to head back, but I remained fixated.
I stayed out until almost 3:00 a.m. that morning, watching, learning, fishing. It made getting up for Six Flags three hours later especially difficult, but I would spend the next four nights doing the same thing and not regretting it one bit.
One day of the trip included a charter fishing excursion, which I had looked forward to for years.
In fact, I’d led the class fundraising efforts throughout high school, starting a concession stand for junior high sporting events, then, seeing its success and noting that hot lunch was only served at our school three Fridays a month, starting a snack bar that served microwavable lunches and snack items like candy bars once a week. It did quite well.
As our funds grew, we rolled into senior year. One of my best friends, Tony Maddalena, and I, had been given three pages of yearbook ads to sell. We sold about three times that many.
All told, our efforts had resulted in more than $12,000 that we could put towards the trip, but all I cared about was what would become my first-ever chartered fishing trip.
The opportunity to choose a half-day or full-day trip day came, and everybody wanted to do a half-day trip. I was crushed. One of the chaperones, Dan Phelps, either took pity on me or really wanted to go fishing, because he volunteered to accompany me on the full-day trip.
The barracuda had been running, and the last three boats before us had caught hundreds of them, so I was optimistic. Perhaps too optimistic, because our boat caught less than a dozen between the 50-plus anglers on board.
I had a five-footer strike my anchovy right as I brought it to the surface, slurping the soft-bodied bait right off of my hook.
I stood there, momentarily frozen, before the shock and disappointment set in.
Sure, we caught lots of Pacific Mackerel, Calico Bass, and Dan even got a brilliantly-colored, red-orange California Scorpionfish — which we were told had dorsal spines as poisonous as its flesh was delicious — but no barracuda.
Returning to the house, we learned the guys on the half-day trip had caught almost a dozen species between them, including barracuda, yellowtail, and even a four-foot shark.
Disappointed by the charter boat, I returned faithfully to the pier each night, which made for plenty of interesting experiences:
One day, a seagull stole my bait.
Another day, I caught a starfish.
Yet another, I learned that the week before we’d arrived, the television series Greek shot its Spring Break episode right on that pier.
In a moment of stupidity, I tried leaving my rod propped in the sand with bait in the water while I tried swimming. The pole fell over and the sand ruined my reel.
I actually hooked into a nice California Halibut that was maybe 10-12 pounds, but after fighting it to the surface and allowing me to look at it, my line snapped.
Great experiences and stories, but not one fish.
On the afternoon of the last day, one of the guys I’d befriended, Julian, said he’d let me use one of his two rods.
Julian was born just across the border in Mexico. When he came to the United States in his late teens, he brought with him his wife, a few possessions, and a bad drug addiction.
The birth of his first son sobered him up and made him an advocate for the Christian faith he credited his sobriety to.
Late in the afternoon, both of Julian’s rods dipped at the same time and I reeled in a small White Croaker. It wasn’t pretty, didn’t fight well, and made a weird, throaty noise when handled (I later discovered this to be its namesake), but I was glad to have caught it.
I wished Julian a good life as we parted that afternoon, and planned one last attempt to catch a fish entirely on my own.
When I returned that evening, I could see fish schooling around the pilings under the pier lights, but couldn’t get them to bite. I had absolutely no saltwater tackle, and everything I’d used all week was intended to catch trout. I had the right baits (squid and shrimp), but not the right gear.
Why I tied on a Kokanee Jig, I’ll never know. It was four inches long and weighed about two ounces — hardly the proper lure for fish smaller than my hand. Why that six-inch Walleye Surfperch bit it, I’m even more nonplussed, but it did.
After about 20 hours of sleep in five days, after hours on the pier, after questioning whether I had a future in even casual fishing, I had held out hope.
That hope resulted in a last-minute catch that would be my only fish of the week (apart from the dismal catch on the charter boat).
It was too small to eat, and several fisherman dropping bait traps into the water had caught larger fish, but I was so proud. I had a passerby take a picture for me with my disposable camera, and I was grinning ear to ear.
When I returned home the next afternoon, exhausted, Dad mentioned he’d been having some luck at the Klamath River. I’d been fishing all week and catching almost nothing, so you’d think I’d decline, right?
Nope. After a 14-hour drive, I hopped off the vans, and we went fishing that night.
It was, at that moment, that I realized just how serious I was with fishing. It was no longer just something I did for fun. It was an obsession.
Seal Beach Pier, Seal Beach, CA Trip Date: June 9-13, 2008
The night before graduation, I decided to scrap the speech I’d written weeks in advance and start a new one. I finished it around midnight, and it is, to this day, the best speech I’ve ever written. While my delivery was a little shaky, that speech remains one of my proudest moments.
From there, everything happened so fast: the ceremony, the party, the packing. Suddenly my senior class was on its way to Seal Beach, California.
Fourteen long hours in that same red van we took on our Biology Trip four years earlier, and we were unloading our stuff at a beach house just 200 yards from the Naval Weapons Station.
As we resigned ourselves to cook under the cloudy lid that kept heat and humidity in, we scoured the space we’d worked four long years to rent. We found a tandem bike, which quickly surged in popularity, but didn’t really interest me. What did were the two dusty pieces of graphite tucked into the back of the mildew-kissed garage. There were two sturdy old Shakespeare surf fishing rods, spooled with thick monofilament line years past its usefulness, which just sat there, forgotten.
We had plans interspersed throughout the week, but when the sun and moon performed a solar shift change and darkness permeated the beach, I convinced the other guys in my class to try and catch a fish or two, but only after goofing around on the beach.
We headed first for the rocky finger that stretched out several hundred yards from the beach and was bisected by a military-grade chain link fence that marked the northern boundary of the naval base. We fished with those two ocean rods, as well as my fast action, six-foot Ugly Stik Elite with its equally ill-suited Shakespeare Crusader Spinning Reel.
We had no bait, so we tried to catch the small crabs lurking warily in the rocks at our feet. Despite an hour of effort, soaking ourselves with sweat, and providing our shins and knees as bloody sacrifices for the wet rocks, we remained baitless.
Instead, we got our adrenaline rush by taking two bold steps onto a naval base soaked in darkness, before realizing the jointly pathetic and stupid actions we’d made and headed back to the house.
Throughout the next few days, that jetty would bring a variety of experiences.
I would watch one of the fisherman catch several California Halibut and White Seabass on swimbaits. One fisherman landed a White Seabass that died. Those fish were supposed to be 24 inches long, but this was just short. He decided to keep it.
Another day, I watched a gentleman catch a five-foot shark. Apparently, several Asian gentleman saw it, too, because they ran up and paid the guy several hundred dollars for it, loaded it into their van, and disappeared.
I finally decided to give up fishing the jetty after a particularly pervy old fisherman made unsettling comments about my female classmates visible on the beach maybe a quarter mile away.
Not illegal, but creepy.
After our excursion onto the naval base, most of the other guys retired to a chaperoned house full of girls to watch movies and enjoy the creature comforts of civilization, but a few of us headed to the pier. And the pier is what this story is really about.