Monday, January 9, 2012

Barracuda

I fished freshwater for about 45 years before seriously considering saltwater fishing.  Oh, I had thrown a line into the saltwater on Padre Island once, and once in Charleston an acquaintance talked me into some fishing from his boat out on the Atlantic, but it didn’t have much appeal for me.  The halibut I nabbed in Alaska was fun, although it was more work than I cared for.  I had also been out on both shrimp and oyster boats in the Gulf.  I liked bass and trout.  I liked catfish and walleye.  I liked crappie and pike.  I knew nothing about saltwater fish.

Then I was introduced to the husband of my wife’s friend.  He couldn’t get enough of the ocean.  He had been in the Navy, and he kept returning to the ocean like a river to the sea.  Nothing could convince him to skip a fishing trip in order to make a living.  And one day I joined him on a local day-boat to fish the waters near Catalina Island.

I’ve been on boats before.  My grandparent’s lake home was surrounded by homes of family members, and boats were everywhere.  There were big boats, small boats, good boats, bad boats, and anyone could use any boat at any time.  And I did.  I’ve been on stormy lakes in small canoes, calm lakes in big boats, and in every combination possible of boat and weather—all on lakes and rivers.

The fishing on Padre Island was from the sandy beach into a very calm Gulf, and the shrimp and oyster boats in the Gulf also experienced very calm waters.  In Charleston, the Atlantic was relatively calm with very moderate swells, hardly enough to notice.  And the waters I fished off the Alaska shoreline were almost glass smooth.  But the southern California Pacific waters were different.  The boat was over eighty feet long and at least sixteen feet wide, and the swells topped at over twenty feet tossing this big boat around like a beach ball.  Sometime we were on top of the swell, and sometimes we were on the bottom.  For a while my stomach felt as though it would turn inside out.  Someone handed me a beer and told me to take a couple of swallows, then let it go overboard.  It would make me feel much better.  I did, and it did.  Suddenly I was just fine and ready to fish.

I had an old two-piece fiberglass rod that had been rewound by someone just learning to wrap rods.  The guides were in approximately the right places and most were in alignment.  It was triple wrapped, triple coated, triple thick, and triple heavy.  By itself the weight of this thing approached two pounds.  I added to it a reel I found at a yard sale.  The reel was adequate for the task, but it also weighed in at well over one pound.  By the time I added fishing line and tied on a lure, I was holding nearly four pounds of equipment.

The man who brought me on this journey was an old hand at this game.  He drove a truck with every conceivable piece of fishing equipment known to man in the camper shell, and when he arrived at the landing, he started asking questions about where we were going and what we could expect to catch.  Consequently he was able to choose what to bring onto the boat.  His equipment was in top shape and lightweight.  His tackle box was filled with exactly the right things for a day trip in these waters.  And he brought along a hat and sunscreen.

Why did I forget my hat and sunscreen?  It’s part of my basic fishing equipment, and I don’t leave home without them.  But on this day I just forgot.  I think it was because I was thrown off my routine of preparing to fish by the uncertainty of ocean fishing.  At least they sold ball caps at the landing.  That would provide some protection to the spot where hair used to grow.  And I could probably talk someone out of a dab or two of sunscreen.

We paid our fare and climbed onto the boat’s deck.  Racks were available to hold our tackle boxes and clips were attached to the outside of the enclosed cockpit and galley to hold the rods.  About sixty other fishermen followed us on board, stowed their equipment, and stormed the galley in search of beer.  The captain made an appearance to inform everyone of his rules, but I was the only one paying attention.  When he finished, he walked over to me, curled the right side of his upper lip and spat out, “Rookie!”  Then he walked over to the line of rods, grabbed mine, held it up and growled, “This @#$%!& thing’s yours, ain’t it?”  I thought he was going to toss my rod and reel overboard, but he stopped himself about halfway through the motion and just dropped it onto the deck.

Someone belched behind me, and I turned around to see several men watching what had just happened.  One of them put a hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry too much about it.  The captain was always like this when the boat was full.  Then again he was always like this when the boat wasn’t full.  Come to think of it, the captain was always like this.

I heard the captain make an announcement on his loud speaker.  “Today we got us a @#$%!& rookie on board.  I ain’t @#$%!& helping him none, and you @#$%!& better not neither.”  There was a series of words attached to the end of his announcement that are better off not included here, but needless to say, I wasn’t enjoying this.  I got a few more pats on the shoulder and several reassurances, but I noticed the men were looking to see if the captain was watching them.

I searched for my fishing companion, but he was nowhere to be seen.  I went into the galley, down to the bunks, and around the perimeter of the boat, but he had gone into hiding somewhere after the captain made his appearance.  So I leaned against the rail and watched as the crew cast off the lines and we pulled out of the slip.  Shortly afterwards a crewmember came around collecting for the jackpot.  It was ten dollars, and some men were declining, but most were laying down their money.  Considering my position with the captain, I thought I had better participate.

Almost two hours later the boat stopped where the swells were much diminished, and the anchor was dropped.  Men lined up at the rails and started tossing their lures and bait into the water.  Almost immediately fish were being pulled on board.  I quickly learned that these were mackerel, but where the mackerel were, bigger fish were there to eat them.  I heaved out my big blue and white lure and reeled it back.  Nothing.  I did it again, and again, and again, but nothing.  The man standing next to me leaned over to me and whispered, “Try blue and silver.”

I didn’t have blue and silver, but I had a small file, so I removed some of the white paint from the lure and tossed it back into the water.  I landed a small mackerel.  The man leaned back over to me and whispered he had never seen such a small fish take such a big lure.  Maybe I should just toss the lure back out there with the mackerel still attached and see what happens.  I thought this was a good idea.  I’ve used baits attached to lures in freshwater before and it was a dynamite combination, so why wouldn’t it work here.  Back out it went. 

The mackerel was a lively one, and it was interesting to have such a tug of war with my bait, but suddenly the tug shifted to a jerk and a hard pull.  I had hooked something much bigger than the mackerel.  It was everything I could do to keep the fish from tangling my line with everyone else’s line, but everyone was cooperative and moved aside as I fought the fish.  Finally, it came to the surface, and a crewmember gaffed it and brought it on board.  It was a big barracuda.  I looked down at it lying on the deck, and then up to see that the crewmember who gaffed it was the captain.  The resemblance was astounding.

He unhooked my fish, threw away the mackerel, and carried the barracuda to a burlap bag with my boarding number on it.  After tossing it in he climbed up on the bait tank and bellowed, “Why in the @#$%!& are you @#$%!& letting a @#$%!& rookie win the @#$%!& jackpot?  We ain’t @#$%!& going back ‘till you @#$%!& catch a bigger @#$%!& fish.”  He looked down at me from his perch and spat out, “Rookie!”

I went into the galley and there sat the guy who brought me on this journey.  He was just biting into a huge hamburger, and I thought I would get one also.  The cook made one for me, set me up with a large order of fries and a soda, and refused to take my money.  “It’s paid for.  Captain’s orders.”

Maybe it was just a rookie’s luck, but I won the jackpot that day.  It was almost five hundred dollars, and I was tempted to keep it, but as I looked at the crew working this boat, and thought about what they had to put up with to keep their jobs, I decided to give it to them.  I didn’t know at the time that it was customary for the jackpot winner to tip the crew, and I didn’t know that these workers labored for such minimal earnings, I just simply gave the crew the money.

When we got back to the landing, I was ready to set my feet on solid ground again.  The men lined up to disembark, and about one-third of the men had left the boat when my turn came.  Then a hand grabbed me and jerked me out of line.  My first instinct was to throw a punch, but one hand was holding a rod and the other was holding a tackle box.  “Stand here.”  It was the captain again.

After everyone except the crew, captain, and me had left the boat, he gave me a handful of free passes for future trips.  “Damn rookie, but a good one.  Next trip’s on me, and bring a few friends.”

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