Tuesday, July 6, 2010

California Waypoints - Caveat Emptor*

By John Hurwitz

Midsummer, somewhere off Northern California’s lost coast, I’d been salmon fishing around Shelter Cove. The fog hung halfway up the mountains, the sky was missing, replaced by a grey blanket stretching as far west as I could see. Mountains rise straight up from the sea with innumerable creeks springing from every crevice and gorge. The waterfalls and rivulets trip and flow down the cliffs, grow into creeks as they meet the beach and then race across the sand to join the sea. A magical place to be sure and once there, a place you’ll never forget. Off some of these creeks there’s some good holding ground for boaters who don’t mind anchoring just outside the breaker line facing the open sea. In this setting I stretched out on the deck one evening and contemplated where to end my trip. With my golden retriever, Pal resting at my side, we considered our options.

Home at that time was in Belmont, California. We could fish on down the coast, deliver in Half Moon Bay, and see my wife, Irene. Pal had been my deckhand all of his life. We had spent many years talking to each other out on the ocean. He was my best friend, an incredible retriever, and not a bad storyteller. He agreed with the plan.

So we kicked off our trip down the coast, destination: Half Moon Bay. I’d call Irene and she could come over the hill from Belmont and pick us up. And if by chance the albacore should show up I’d be in position. Half Moon is a great jumping off spot for the Pioneer, Guide, and Davidson seamounts, favorite playgrounds for the tuna.

Passing many rivers as I fished south, I held as close to them as I could for any stray salmon. Off the Navarro, above Pt. Arena I was going through the gear when I found two dead steelhead twirling on the dog lines. I didn’t think much about it. I had at least three thousand pounds of ice on board and these two were destined for Irene’s table at home. They were already dead, but that far from justified feeding these beautiful fish to the crabs. I cleaned them, dug a special hole in the ice and buried them for the final leg of the trip.

I anchored at Pt. Reyes the evening before making the run to Half Moon. It was smoking out of the NW, but Reyes is the perfect place to lay back and listen to the wind play tunes in the rigging. I knew this northwest wouldn’t trouble my run home, I’d just slide with it. That night several other boats joined me in the anchorage and I listened as fishermen wearily pitched their anchors and let the force of the wind set the hooks.

At first light I set my gear just outside the anchorage and trolled in the general direction of the southeast island. Nearing the island, I adjusted my course for Half Moon and took a couple nice fish off the gear after the turn. It was a slow sloppy scratch, but certainly better then nothing. Nearing the harbor I stowed the gear and Pal and I started cleaning up the boat. While I cleaned and fastened everything topside, Pal was cleaning up the galley and around my bunk where I frequently snacked when reading in the evening. He even got a biscuit or two for his efforts.

Entering Half Moon Bay, I turned toward the large pier jutting out into the center of the bay. The fish houses and their buyers were located at the end of the pier. As I swung the boat around to place it under the hoist, I noticed the buyer standing out at the hoist and was grateful to have him there to catch a line. The tide was high and snagging a piling was the next best thing after a friendly hand. As the North Cape gently nudged the pilings I looked up and called to Michael McHenry that I had salmon to unload. “Great. Let’s do it!” he replied. He dropped the basket on my deck and I loaded what fish I had into it. He gave me my fish ticket and said I could pick up a check the next day. As we were standing there talking, up pulled a truck with the familiar symbol and a game warden stepped out.

The warden walked over to me and said “ Say Captain, mind if I have a look in your fish hold?” “Sure,” I replied, “be my guest.” (Comfortable in the knowledge he’d never find those two steelhead.) At my consent he returned to his truck and retrieved a long telescoping steel rod. His producing this steel rod was not something I had anticipated, I felt my nerves start to tingle a little. That rod had only one function which was to probe into ice bins for hidden fish. Had he been watching me?

McHenry stayed on the pier with me updating me with the latest gossip and fishing info while the warden continued his search. Suddenly out of the hold appeared the warden, arms outstretched and a steelhead in each hand. He shouted, “Skipper, what are these?” Stunned I blurted out, “Two silvers. I was taking them home to my wife for dinner.” This set off the warden into a long tirade chastising me about how commercial fishermen cannot keep fish to take home for dinner and that these fish must be sold. He climbed off the boat and handed me the fish.
When I explained I didn’t know about the law against taking fish home, the warden resumed his sermon even more passionately. With the speech droning on, I laid the fish down on the dock between Michael and me.

As I stared at my boots like a wayward schoolboy I noticed the buyer attempting to distance himself from me and my fish. My attention was now captured by Michael’s slow but deliberate movement as he continued to gaze down at the two fish while edging backwards till he took one final long step backwards. At the same moment I heard a truck door slam. The warden, having delivered his speech, had moved on, and was driving off the pier leaving us alone with the two fish. As Michael and I watched him go, he turned to me and said, “John, you just used up your luck for the whole year!”

The steelhead was delicious.

*Buyer Beware

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