Not much has been going on up here on the mountain the past week. Still no word on Alaska. If I haven’t heard anything by Monday I’m going to email my manager at the lodge and see what is going on with the situation up there. I’ve been working some, and have been watching shows on my phone and reading to pass the time. It’s been sweltering in the day, and chilly at night. The winds have been almost non-existent during the day, so hordes of mosquitoes, flies and bees are swarming around everywhere.
For me, it’s been a choice of being eaten alive or cooking in my camper shell. I’ve mostly stuck to baking in my aluminum can with the swamp coolers on high and all windows open. This makes it tolerable. At least it’s dry, the heat is preferable to being damp and cold all day as I was this past winter. Since I don’t have anything significant to write about at the moment, I thought I’d write about my early days fishing here in Monterey Bay. I want to tell ya’ll about the time I went on what I like to call the ‘California Sleigh Ride’.
Back in 2011, I was just getting started fishing out here. I had been spending a lot of time fishing off of Capitola Wharf getting the hang of things. I would use Sabiki rigs to catch live bait like mackerel, sardines and anchovies during the day, and at night I would use these baits to try for sharks or rays after dark. It was fun, but a little aggravating having to answer the question “What are you fishing for” every five minutes from tourists & passer-by. If I’m fishing alone, I’d rather not have to interact with anyone more than I have to. It was during this period I caught the dogfish shark that I’m named after.
I soon grew tired of wharf fishing and longed to cast a line in deeper waters where the real fish resided. At the wharf they’d let you rent skiffs for around 100 bucks a day, so I’d get friends to help split the cost and we’d go out. The skiffs only had 6 hp outboards on them so they weren’t fast at all, but you could take them up to 3 miles from the wharf. This allowed you to hit all the local reefs and do some decent rock cod, ling cod and halibut fishing.
In addition to these fish, there were stories from the guys that ran the boat rental that they’d occasionally catch white sea bass from the skiffs. The white sea bass are nicknamed ‘ghosts’ by the local fisherman because of the way they would haunt the local kelp beds. They are among the largest, most elusive gamefish in Monterey Bay. Not many anglers can say they have caught one. My friends and I would ply the skiff rental guys with booze to try and get them to spill their guts about their white sea bass honey holes, but they wouldn’t ever tell us.
I became obsessed with catching one of these fish. It was hard to do though, you pretty much had to dedicate your fishing to just that one species of fish. The way you catch them is to fly line just a hook baited with fresh (not frozen) squid and let it drift behind your boat. The chances of catching one are very slim, so when you’ve spent so much money to rent a boat, you’re going to want to fish for something that may give you a better return on your investment. We tried and tried for one of these beasts, but were never successful.
Around this time, we started hearing rumors about a giant school of these fish in the waters down by Monterey. They were only reachable by boat however. Since no one in my fishing circle had access to a boat, we were out of luck. Then, amazingly, I get a call from my friend Cole. It seemed his dad (who was an experienced sailor) had an 8 foot Zodiac boat that he wasn’t using at the time. He proposed that we should try and take it out to sea and go after the sea bass. It was a pretty crazy idea to take such a small craft into the maw of the Monterey Bay, but it just might be crazy enough of an idea to work!
At the time I was busy working, so he and a now-deceased friend loaded up the boat and took it down to Monterey one morning. It was a pretty ballsy thing to do! I was glued to my phone to hear how it worked out. That afternoon I heard from Cole. Not only did they launch successfully and not drown, they actually caught a sea bass! I couldn’t believe it, they proved it was possible! I got myself into a frenzy thinking about catching one myself. I asked Cole when he could go out again and if I could roll with him. He said he would be ready to go out in another 3 days or so and I could absolutely accompany him. I was super stoked!
I got everything ready to go while I waited for the big day. Fortunately the bait shop had a bunch of fresh dead squid which was essential bait, it’s what Cole had caught his on. When the day arrived, I went to Cole’s and we loaded up the Zodiac and the little outboard he had to propel it. I thought we were going to head back down to Monterey, but Cole informed me that he had heard the sea bass were now schooling off of Moss Landing. I guess they were migrating, following the huge schools of squid that were moving north. That was some good information to know, I guess we were going to be going out of Moss Landing that day!
Moss Landing is the best place to go out of on the Bay. It is also the most treacherous due to the fact that it is the closest to the underwater canyon which underlies the Bay. Only a quarter of a mile out of the harbor the depth is 200 feet. It later drops to a mile deep, so if you could see it from land, it would look like the Grand Canyon. It is one of the largest and deepest submarine canyons in the world. This is what makes the fishing so good, you’ve got all these nutrients coming up out of the depths that support a lot of marine life.
All this is well and good when you are in a normal boat that can take the unpredictable currents, waves and wind that result from not being in the more protected waters to the north. We were in a Zodiac of all things, not something you want to take out to sea even in the best conditions. When we arrived down to the harbor, we found the conditions to be calm fortunately. Unfortunately for us however, there was a pea-soup fog limiting visibility to a couple hundred yards. Adding to this bad news was that we heard from the fishermen at the ramp that the local fleet had found the school seven miles north and three miles out of Moss. We could make it there and back, but it was going to be a dangerous trip to undertake.
We had come this far, and the allure of having the school within reach compelled us to go on out anyway. We were equipped with a radio and life jackets, so we thought if something bad happened we’d be within range of rescue. Onward into the fog we went! As we went north parallel to the shore, the fog thinned a little so our visibility improved a little bit. After about an hour or so, we started worrying that we had missed the fleet in the fog. Suddenly, we started seeing boats pop up out of the mists. We found the fleet! They were still a ways out, so we had to go offshore a little bit more. When we arrived, there must have been at least fifty boats spread out over a mile or so. Not sure on where to start fishing, we made our way into the middle of the fleet and dropped lines.
Needless to say, we got a lot of crazy looks from the people on the boats. They must have thought we were nuts! Actually, looking back on it now, they were right! We had to do it though, we couldn’t back down. Like that old quote says, “Fortune favors the brave” and all that.
There were a lot of things we had to watch out for, one being the fact that we had a sharp gaff in an inflatable boat in 50 degree water 3 miles out. One wrong move and we would have put a hole in the thing. We had discussed the protocol on landing a fish beforehand so in the excitement one of us didn’t go wild and gaff a big hole in the boat. If one person got a fish on, the other was responsible for gaffing and anything else that happened. There wasn’t a lot of space to work with, so we needed to make sure we had an understanding.
Since we didn’t have a fish finder, we decided to fish at different depths to increase our chances of a hookup. Cole fly lined his bait close to the surface, while I put on a bit of weight so my bait was closer to the bottom. Usually you don’t put any weight on since white sea bass are usually higher up in the water column, but I had a hunch. An hour passed by and we didn’t get any action. We were about to move to another spot when WHAM! I had Fish On!
It was like I had hooked up with a freight train. There was no doubt what it was. Until this point, I had never had anything this big on the other end of my line in these waters. It was pandemonium on deck. Cole and I were completely freaked out as I fought the beast. I would take up a bunch of line only to have it sizzle back out at almost the highest drag setting. I came close to getting spooled numerous times, but I kept up with the fish. For twenty minutes the fight went on, and for that time there was nothing in this world but me and that fish. It was probably the most intense fight I’ve ever been in, there was so much at stake. We put our lives on the line to have a shot at catching this fish, there was no way I was going to lose it!
At long last, we saw color as the fish rose to the boat. When it surfaced, we gasped at the size of the thing. It was almost as big as the boat it seemed! Cole was right on it though, he took the gaff and plugged it perfectly. With one giant heave he threw it into the bottom of the Zodiac. It filled the whole bottom of the boat. It felt unreal, like I was in a dream. Suddenly, I was aware of cheering and hand clapping. I looked up and three boats we had been a quarter of a mile away from at the start were now only about 40-50 yards away. The fish had towed us that far! It took us on a California sleigh ride!
Everyone on those boats had been watching the fight the whole time, now we were receiving a standing ovation. At that moment, I felt as proud of my achievement as anything else I have done before or since in my life. It was a moment I’ll remember on my deathbed, it was incredible. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.
After our celebrations, we fished for another hour trying to catch another one but we didn’t even get a bite. We decided to head on in, our work was done for the day. The chop had increased and it was time to make our way back before we got swamped. About halfway on our return, I was sitting on the bow while Cole drove. We were having lively discussions about our victory, and our guard was down in regards to the seas we were moving through. Suddenly, it felt like the bottom of the Zodiac blew out and we found ourselves with a boat full of water! I’ll never forget the look of panic on Cole’s face. We were still about a mile offshore, and the fish started floating out of the boat. My first instinct was to grab the fish around the tail and was prepared to swim to shore if necessary. I had no thoughts about my own life, I wasn’t going to let this fish go for anything!
We started bailing like maniacs. I still had no idea what had happened, one minute we were doing great and the next the whole ocean had filled the boat. Like I said, I thought the bottom had blown out of the thing. As we bailed I noticed no more water was coming in, so everything was all right. It took a while for us to calm down, that was an absolutely terrifying experience! After we got the water out, we figured out what had happened. Since I was sitting on the bow of the boat, it couldn’t crest the waves properly. My weight had caused the boat to dig into a nice swell instead of floating over it. Relieved that this was the case, I sat in the bottom of the Zodiac with the fish and we carefully made our way back to port without any further issues.
We hollered at a bunch of folks when we got back to land, and by the time we returned to Cole’s, quite a few people were there to check out the fish. It didn’t take long to slice up some massive fillets and we put on a nice BBQ for everyone. I later made a lot of sushi out of my half of the fish, it was better than anything you would find in a restaurant! It just melted in your mouth and was just all around excellent.
So that is the story of one of my greatest all-time catches. I guess you could say I found my ‘Great White Whale’ like Captain Ahab did in Moby Dick. I’ll never forget the fight of that beast in such an unlikely vessel. It made one hell of a fishing story! I’d love to try fighting a big fish in say, a kayak or something similar at some point in the future. Nothing like getting towed by your catch on a sleigh ride!