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At night on the Ocean Beach pier with the Mackerel Queen

Snagging straight through the night

Ocean Beach Pier at night
  • Ocean Beach Pier at night

The walk down the Ocean Beach fishing pier is longer than I remember it. Three years ago I lived in an apartment building close to the land end of the pier, and I walked it often. But three years ago I played soccer three times a week and body surfed almost every day. Those days are over, maybe that’s why the walk seems longer. At the cafe and bait shop two-thirds of the way down the pier, I meet Bruce, the proprietor. He’s going to rent me a fishing pole so I can fish all night on the pier.

The walks I used to take on the half-mile-long, T-shaped O.B. pier were often late at night before I went to sleep but sometimes during the day. No matter what time it was, there were always 25 or 30 people fishing. Occasionally, I’d see somebody catch a 12-inch mackerel, but not often. Once I saw a guy pull a lobster out of the ocean on a fishing line. He and his fishing buddies were afraid to touch it, despite its lack of claws. Finally, an aged angler, who could have been the model for Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, grabbed the thing and threw it back. The pictures on the bait shop doors showed people holding hooked halibut, sea bass, leopard sharks, stingrays, and yellowtails caught on the pier, but I never saw it happen. I began to suspect a hoax perpetrated by the bait salesmen.

Then again, my walks on the pier never lasted more than half an hour, barely a tick of the clock in fisherman’s terms. Maybe the trick was time. I remember waking up early in the morning and spotting anglers I’d seen fishing the night before finally leaving the pier. Maybe that’s the way to catch something more inspiring than a mackerel, I thought; fill an ice chest full of scarfables and beer and sit out all night fishing. “Well,” says Bruce, “I’ve fished all night and I’ve fished all day, and I think the fishing’s about the same either way. But every night people fish out here until sunrise. They must be catching something or they wouldn’t be doing it.”

Bruce hands me a yellow fishing rod from behind the bait-store counter. It’s about eight feet long. At the end of the line dangles a one-ounce lead weight. A foot above, a six-inch line with a hook on its end juts out from the main line. Another foot up is another hook. “This is rigged to fish the bottom,” Bruce explains. “That’s where you’ll catch the bass and the halibut. The weight sits on the bottom and the bait hovers just above, where the fish are.”

After teaching me a couple of knots for the hooks and sinkers, Bruce fills a five-gallon bucket with supplies I’ll need tonight — knife, rag, extra hooks, sinkers.

He pulls from a deep freezer a plastic bag full of anchovies, three squids, and a foot-long mackerel, all frozen. He demonstrates how to cut and hook each type of bait and then takes me outside to practice a few underhand casts. (No overhead casting is allowed on the pier.)

How often do I reel in and recast?

“You don’t,” he answers. “Just set the line a little bit taught and set your pole down. When the tip of the pole starts wiggling, pick it up and bring him in.”

What am I going to catch tonight?

“With the bait you have, you could catch just about anything.” He walks around to the front of the counter, where snapshots of anglers and their catches are pinned up.

“This is what you’ll catch tonight: that’s a halibut...sand shark...shovel nose...guitar fish... leopard shark...and a big ray.”

Do I have to throw them back or can I keep them?

“Keep anything you want, as long as it’s the minimum size. There’s a size chart posted outside.”

Where on the pier should I fish?

Standing outside the bait shop, pointing toward the end of the pier, he answers, “All along the left arm of the T, especially in the corner, is very good at night. Fish (on the land side] because the current flows this way. In the far corner on the right-hand side is what’s called ‘shark alley.’ But anywhere from the concession stand here to the end is going to be good. From here to the beach is not going to be good.”

Before I leave, Bruce warns me, “There’s something you need to be very aware of, very aware of. The pier is the pier. There are transients that come out here; they drink out here, they have fun out here, and they may come up and slap you on the back and say, ‘Hey, what’s up, man?’ You just tell them, ‘Leave me alone, I’m fishing.’ I’m not telling you to live in fear, I’m just telling you to be aware. Fish near a light and watch what goes on. If anything looks bad, just leave. Grab your pole, grab your shit, and leave.”

I walk back to my car with Bruce’s warning ringing in my ears and visions dancing in my head — visions of a mob of transients, angry at my rejection of their salutations, throwing me naked over the pier railing, casting lots for my clothing, eating my scarfables, and drinking my beer. When I get home, I call my friend Matthew, who agrees to come along tonight.

Nine o’clock p.m., we arrive at the pier bundled up against the cold. But by the time we finish walking to the end, we’re commenting at how surprisingly balmy it is. We try the right arm of the T, but it’s too crowded. The left arm isn’t, and we take up a position on a concrete bench 50 feet out from the angle. With the knife Bruce supplied, I get to work cutting bait. The mackerel is still frozen so I use the head half of a sardine on the top hook and a chunk of squid on the bottom. The hooks baited, I hang the rod over the rail, tip down, and cast the sinkers and bait out 15 or 20 yards. When the line stops spooling off the reel, I wind some in until the line feels fairly taught, lean the pole down against the rail, and have a seat on the bench. “What now?” Matthew asks.

We wait.

We lean against the rail on either side of the pole, sipping Wild Turkey (Matthew is not a beer man), and staring at the ink-black water. Over and over, as the swells roll by on their way to the beach, the rod bends slowly down and back up. At ten o’clock the rod twitches violently, once or twice. Matthew grabs it and begins to reel. As he winds in line, the rod bends way over but suddenly straightens up again. When the hooks come out of the water, the anchovy is gone.

We cast, wait, drink bourbon; cast, wait, drink bourbon; cast, wait, drink bourbon for the next hour and a half. During that time, we see a young man 40 feet farther out the arm of the pier pull in four or five fish. I walk over in time to see him unhook the fourth, a 14-inch mackerel, and drop it in a cardboard box already occupied by a dozen other mackerel. His pole is rigged differently than ours. His has a single hook at the end of the line and an iridescent green float tied on about three feet up the line. The float, he explains, attracts the mackerel, which swim near the surface. As he leaves, he gives me the float in case I want to try for mackerel.

I consider rigging the rod to fish for mackerel but decide against it. I want a big one. The problem is, the big ones don’t seem to want me. I cast the bait out again and for another hour, we wait but don’t even get a nibble. At half past midnight, in desperation, we walk down the end of the arm, where a bearded angler and his wife, clad in knit caps, parkas, and scarves, watch four rods leaning against the rail. They introduce themselves as Calvin and Candy. I ask for some pointers.

“What do you want to catch?” he asks me.

“Fish,” I answer sheepishly. “Let’s see how you’re rigged here,” he says, inspecting my pole. “You’re rigged to fish the bottom. You can stick with that, or you can tie a float on there and go for mackerel.”

I want to fish the bottom. “I think you need more weight on here so you can get a good cast,” Calvin says. “You’ve got a one-ounce on there now; why don’t you tie a two-ounce on with it.”

At the bottom of my bucket I find an extra two-ounce sinker, but when I go to tie it on with the one-ounce, I can’t duplicate the knot that Bruce showed me this afternoon. Calvin laughs, “Candy, show this guy how to tie on those sinkers.” Candy, a short, sweet-faced woman, gets up from the bench she’s been sitting on and walks over. With considerable dexterity, she demonstrates the knot for me again. “Now, what kind of bait do you want to use?” she asks.

What do you recommend?

“I’d use mackerel,” she says. I reach into my bait bucket and pull out the now-thawed mackerel. “Do you know how to fillet it?” she asks. My blank expression answers her question. “Give me your knife,” she says, “I’ll show you.”

As Candy slices the fish down the middle of its belly, Calvin boasts, “My wife is the mackerel queen. She knows everything there is to know about catching them and filleting them. I’ve seen her pull in 25,30 mackerel in one night. She catches them, and I use them for bait.”

Night fishing, Ocean Beach pier

Night fishing, Ocean Beach pier

After the belly slice, she cuts along the mackerel’s side and removes a perfect fillet, silvery skin on one side, pink fish flesh on the other. “Your hooks aren’t very big,” she says, slicing the fillet horizontally, “so we’ll use half-inch chunks. Now, do you know how to hook the bait?” Another blank expression. She gives me a motherly smile and takes a hook in one hand and a chunk of mackerel in the other. “I’ll show you. You hook through the meat, out through the skin, back through the skin, and the hook hides in the meat.” “Now, cast that out there,” Calvin instructs, and I obey. “That’s a good cast. Now reel in some line till it feels a little tight and then set the rod down.” I reel in and check the line for tension. Calvin does too and gives it a few more turns. I lean the rod against the pier rail so that a third of the rod is above the rail. Calvin chuckles, “Now, the way you’ve got that rod leaning, if you get a good-sized fish, it’ll pull your rod right over. A guy lost a rod earlier tonight, and it was just a mackerel that pulled it over.” He adjusts the leaning angle so that only two feet of the rod are above the rail. “Now you watch and wait.”

I ask Calvin how long he and his wife have been fishing the pier. “We’ve been fishing this pier since.... How long have we been here, honey?”

“Since summer.”

“See,” Calvin continues, “since I was forced into early retirement two years ago...” “He means laid off,” Candy interjects.

“...We’ve fished every fishing pier between here and Santa Monica. We’re fishing to eat. Mostly, I’m trying to catch sharks — leopard sharks, sand sharks, mako sharks. Any sharks I can catch I can keep, except a great white. But I also fish for bass. I usually have a shark line out and a couple of bass lines out too.”

“We live in a motorhome parked at the base of the pier,” Candy explains. “We drive around to the different piers, and we’ve been coming here, off and on, since July. We’ve been here for about a week now.” “I’ve been out here on the pier for two straight days,” adds Calvin. “I’ve got my sleeping bag out here, and I sleep on the bench. The farthest from this spot I’ve been is to the cafe there, because Candy brought me some coffee this morning, but she forgot the cream and sugar, and I’ve got to have my cream and sugar. But usually, I don’t even go over there to take a piss. I just chum the water.” You must see a lot out here. He laughs. “Yes, I do. I saw a guy yesterday get drunk and then decide to sit on the rail right over here. Sure enough, he lost his balance and fell in. That water is so damn cold that even though he was drunk when he went in, I’m sure he was sober by the time he came up for air. I threw him my gaff line and pulled him over. He was holding onto one of the pilings, getting all cut up on the barnacles. Meanwhile, someone alerted the lifeguards, and they came out in the raft and... Hey! Look here!”

In midsentence he springs over and snatches up my pole, the end of which is twitching wildly, and starts reeling and pulling up. As he winds, the pole bends over into an upside-down U. But after four or five seconds, it straightens up again. “It’s off,” Calvin says. “It felt like a big bass.”

For the next half hour, I chat with Calvin and Candy while Matthew catches a nap on a nearby bench. A couple of times the rod twitches, but never more than once or twice.

“You’ve got a bass down there playing with the bait,” Calvin tells me. “Bass will do that.”

At 1:30, Calvin and Candy head for the motorhome, but not before Calvin tells me his favorite location on the pier. “Cast right off the end of this arm, right in the far corner,” he instructs. “That’s where I catch all my bass.”

I reel in the bait and sinkers and cast from Calvin’s bass spot. SNAP! I forgot to loosen the drag on the reel and the sinkers break off. Out in the darkness, I hear them plop into the water. I tie a couple more on, make sure the drag is loosened, and cast. Something feels wrong, and I see a splash directly below me. I reel in the line and the weights are gone. My knot has failed. I grab the last two from the bucket and begin to tie them on. Matthew, awake now and laughing at my ineptitude, asks, “You’re not going to try again, are you?”

I sure as hell am. I tie on the last two sinkers and cast. Plop. Plop. The two sinkers hit the water. My knot has failed again. Matthew’s mocking chortles ring out across the Pacific.

— Ernie Grimm

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