Species: Salema (Xenistius californiensis) Location: Dana Point Marina, Dana Point, CA Date: August 9, 2017
If an advertising team were to market the Salema, they’d describe it as a bite-sized, “Tropical Flavors” version of the Striped Bass.
It truly looks like a tiny striper with slightly more vivid coloration. It even feeds like one on a tiny scale, cruising the marinas and rocky shorelines of California to feed on tiny fish and microorganisms that get in its way.
When I caught my first one, I assumed it was some sort of surfperch species, but as I did some research later that night, I was surprised/slightly horrified when I read that it wasn’t their vivid colors to worry about but the vivid hallucinations they cause.
“Salema are known to cause vivid hallucinations when consumed.”
Granted, that was describing the Salema Porgy found in the Mediterranean.
It still provided a little excitement for an otherwise not-too-exciting fish, and that’s all I can ask for as Species Hunter.
Species: Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis) Location: San Pablo Bay, San Francisco, CA Date: March 25, 2012
This is the fifth and final story in succession and ties in with the other species I caught on the same day, and you’re best reading them in order: First and Second and Third and Fourth.
The California Delta is famous for bass. Largemouths, Stripers, and Spots all call this area home. I’d love to fish it some day.
This story, however, takes place nearby in the San Pablo Bay, and it involves Stripers.
Years before, after personally striking out for Stripers in the San Pablo Bay but watching my friend, Christopher Puckett, land a double-digit fish, I saw the possibilities.
It was now almost four years later, but I’d booked the trip in hopes of catching sharks, stripers, and sturgeon. We’d already boated three species of shark and lost a fourth, massive one, but the sturgeon and Stripers remained quiet.
Then, Ben Blanchard got a respectable fish of around eight pounds.
Not long after, he caught a second, slightly smaller fish.
Both were keepers.
I’d boated four new species that day, so I couldn’t complain, but since this was a trip where we intended to target three large, edible fish, I’d hoped to take home some meat.
Eventually, a Striper of my own inhaled the shrimp on my hook, and after a fight in which the captain jumped up and down hooting and hollering in excitement, it came to net.
It was 13 pounds, 1 ounce and measured 33 1/2 inches long, making it the largest fish (other than the two Bat Rays I’d caught earlier in the day) I’d ever caught and the largest game fish.
The fish was delicious, making me promise never to release a legal Striper. Plus, the picture Ben took was one of the best fishing pictures I’ve ever had taken of me, and it remained one of my favorite profile pics for years. If only I’d removed the hook the captain put through its lip beforehand…
Species: Leopard Shark (Triakis semifasciata) Location: San Pablo Bay, San Francisco, CA Date: March 25, 2012
This is the fourth story in succession and ties in with the other species I caught on the same day, and you’re best reading them in order: First and Second and Third.
It was so long ago; the memory is fuzzy. The experience was certain, but some details are blurred at the bloodshot, tired edge of reality. Whether it happened this way exactly while the little boy watched, or a fantastical young mind crafted sensory elements to accompany a particularly gripping story is uncertain.
There was a little boy with his family. He might have been three or seven or 10, but he certainly wasn’t any older.
He watched a man in overalls fishing from the beach. Grandpa wore overalls. This guy was wearing overalls, but they were rubber. Or plastic. Like the memory of that day.
Anyway, the man was using an absolutely gigantic fishing pole. Dad didn’t know why. Neither did Mom. That frustrated the boy. He liked to know why.
So as the family passed, the boy asked.
The old fisherman told the boy it was to keep the line above the breakers, another name for waves, apparently.
“What are you fishing for?” the boy asked.
“Surfperch,” replied the man.
The boy wondered aloud if perch could go in the ocean. He’d caught perch before.
These were different perch, though.
Different perch and breakers. The boy was learning.
The man’s rod doubled, and he caught a silverly fish he called a surfperch right then.
The boy ran up to get a better look, his parents cautioning him to not get in the man’s way. The man didn’t mind. He proudly showed off his catch before putting it in a bucket.
The young family grew tired of watching, so they started on down the beach. But the boy kept looking back. He couldn’t focus on the sand dollars or shells or the wet gooey sand between his toes. He was fascinated by the man behind him fishing.
Before the family left for the day, the rod doubled again, but no silvery surfperch broke the surface. This fish was clearly bigger. It ran and dove, and after a few minutes, the boy had frozen, intently watching the action.
What emerged from the water was shocking. It looked like a shark, but it had spots and looked more like a jaguar or a leopard.
As the boy would find out, it was both.
Catching a Leopard Shark became a life goal that day, and though the story’s details blurred, the beautiful fish never did.
The boy, now a man, tried chasing Leopard Sharks during college, but failed the first time. On the second pass, he found more success. His party had already boated two other species of sharks, rays, and his friend Ben even boated a Striped Bass.
Though Leopard Sharks were always a reasonable possibility along the California Coast, the man just didn’t expect it to happen. So, when line began ripping off the baitcaster again, he assumed it was something else.
When the color flashed in the creamy aqua water, the magical moment on the beach all those years before came back to him. He’d finally done it. The little boy’s dream had become a reality all these years later.
The captain began talking about how these beautiful sharks tasted like salmon, so the man was excited to try them. Unfortunately, this fish measured 35 inches in length, and Leopard Sharks have a minimum length of 36 inches in California.
Still, after a few quick pictures and a release, the man still felt privileged to have captured such a gorgeous fish.
Species: Brown Smoothhound (Mustelus henlei) Location: San Pablo Bay, San Francisco, CA Date: March 25, 2012
Shark Week isn’t for a few months. I desperately wish I could’ve timed this to release then, but I didn’t want my readers to wait around for months and lose interest. I’ve already had enough women lose interest in me.
I kid. Kind of.
Still, the moment when I caught my first shark was something special. I was fishing with Sole-Man Sportfishing out of San Francisco, and it was my second attempt for Striped Bass, sturgeon, and sharks in the Bay.
On the first trip, I’d went with two friends, Christopher Puckett and Ben Blanchard. One caught a respectable striper and a Bat Ray while the other caught a Starry Flounder (a fish I’ve seen caught several times but have yet to boat myself). I got skunked.
It just so happened that for Round Two, Ben and I had returned. We were on a different charter and immediately liked the captain.
When I met him, he said something to the effect of, “You’re surprised I’m not white, huh?”
He was about the least stereotypical charter boat captain I’ve ever met. In 30 or more charter trips, he remains arguably my favorite.
Captain Don Franklin was raised in inner city Oakland and had a rough upbringing. He told us that many of his friends had gotten caught up in gangs, but he’d gotten caught up in fishing, and it changed his life.
Little did I know, he was about to change mine.
Captain Don had given Ben and I a special deal because he was training his son to be a deckhand. As the day progressed, his son caught on quickly. Despite being maybe 13 or 14 years old — the youngest deckhand I’ve ever seen — he was polite, professional, hardworking, and learned quickly.
The stripers remained elusive early, but the first fish I caught was a shark. It was small, but as I got it close to the boat, I was ecstatic. It was a shark!
Freaking out like a small child who’s just been granted his heart’s desire, the two-foot creature writing on my hook made my day.
The captain wasn’t too impressed with the Brown Smoothhound I’d just caught, but he appreciated my enthusiasm.
Ben caught one early, too, and after we’d posed for a few quick pictures, he tossed back the relatively harmless little sharks.
We motored to the next spot and happened to pass the captain with whom we’d went striper fishing years before, and Captain Don told us it was the other guy’s last trip. Apparently, we weren’t the only clients who’d been disappointed by the experience.
Captain Don cracked jokes, informed us, and made the day all-around pleasant. We actually caught several more species that day, but the last hookup I had ended tragically.
My rod sat in the rod holder, minding its own business, when something massive picked up my bait. It ran hard as I lifted the rod, and I feared it might spool me. With the lightest possible pressure, I gently put my thumb on the spool, and the 20-pound mono snapped like thread.
I was informed I’d likely just lost a massive Sevengill Shark of several hundred pounds. This is still the largest fish I’ve ever hooked. My own personal Shark Week wasn’t bad, but that fish would’ve made my life — especially considering that those sharks are both edible and delicious.
I pouted a bit, but Captain Don quickly lifted my spirits as his honorary deckhand, a cat in a life vest, pranced around the cabin.
That’s not a joke. He really had a cat in a life vest on board, and though it made my allergies flare up all day, it was still the most unique fishing experience I’ve had on a boat.
Apart from being one of my most unique days fishing, it remains one of my best, despite losing the fish of a lifetime.
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.
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.