Off the Hook
There are things down there that would blow your mind: fish with translucent heads whose eyeballs peer up through their skulls; hagfish that reduce gray whale carcasses to bone; 10-foot squid that attack divers; sharks that live for 100 years.
These are the mysteries that have drawn me to 300 Jefferson, Berth 3, on Fisherman’s Wharf, in the predawn darkness, home to Lovely Martha Sport Fishing. I drink my coffee and watch Captain Mike Rescino get his boat ready for the day’s fishing trip.
My goal is to catch the biggest, weirdest creature out there. Maybe a shark. Maybe a ray. Maybe something still unnamed by science – though technically, we’re fishing for striped bass and halibut. I’ve convinced my buddy Hank to come along.
“Hey Mike,” someone yells from the street, “I hope your dad’s running this thing today.” It’s a joke. Mike’s more or less taken over Lovely Martha from his dad, Frank. Built in 1959, his is one of the few boats left at the wharf actually made of wood. Like Mike, Frank inherited the boat from his father, Nick. Mike’s been working on Lovely Martha since he was three, if you keep your definition of working loose. He obtained his captain’s license the first moment he was legally able to do so, three years ago. Years of seawater, sun, and wind – aided by a bristly mustache – make Mike look a decade older than his 22 years.
Lovely Martha has picked up more than just barnacles in her long history. Somewhere along the line, she acquired a couple extra fishermen, too – the heckler, Kenny, and now Tony. Both men are friends of Frank’s and basic fixtures on the boat.
Pushing off the docks, a kid from Houston is already freezing his ass off. He’s used to fishing for tuna and snapper off the party barges in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’d fit a hundred people on those barges” he explains. “Non-top drinking for 20 hours. Guys, girls, everything.” This is not going to be that kind of trip.
We pick up our live anchovies from the bait guys down the docks, and motor into the Bay.
Talking over the cabin’s speaker system, Mike gives us the location of the life vests and dinghy, and reminds us to wash our hands after handling lead sinkers. “The state of California makes me say this,” he adds. “They’d also like me to mention: Don’t stare into the sun and don’t touch any burning dogs.”
As we leave the harbor, Willy, Mike’s deckhand, walks us through the basics. You net an anchovy from the live tank, push the hook through its bottom lip and out its snout, avoiding its brain – you want the anchovy alive and wriggling on its end of the line – drop the line into the water and let it spool out until it hits bottom.
You use your thumb to manage the line. Take your thumb off too early and the reel goes into free spin, creating an unmanageable tangle of line that Willy will have to cut free with his knife, begrudgingly, though without complaint.
When you hook a fish you yell, “fish on!” Willy then arrives with the net and pulls it over the gunwales, hitting it repeatedly in the head with a small club if necessary. These are the basics of mooching – also known as drift fishing.
Mike turns off the motor just west of the Bay Bridge – old barges float nearby like rusty carcasses. “All right,” he says over the speaker. “Bait ’em up and drop ’em in.”
I drop my line and release the lever, letting the heft of the sinker take the bait to the bottom. I don’t apply enough pressure, though, and my reel is instantly transformed into a ball of knots.
It’s embarrassing. Luckily, Willy is able to pick through the line, pulling here, feeding there. He eventually gets everything back into place.
“You gotta treat the reel like a woman,” Willy explains. “Hold her carefully, but firmly.” Willy’s metaphor is also exemplary of the “men’s club” nature of our fishing trip. Of the 14 of us on board, there isn’t a woman to be seen.
I ask the Houston kid if the girls on his party-barge trips in the Gulf actually fish. “Only the real redneck ones do,” he says.
Kenny catches the first fish of the trip – a nice striped bass – up at the bow. We rush over to watch him reel it in.
Willy scoops the bass up in the net, throws it into a container below the anchovy tank, and we’re back at it, encouraged. Where there’s one, there are more.
An hour later, Kenny is slaying ’em. He’s already caught another striper and a shark – a two-foot smooth hound, which looks like a cross between a miniature Jaws and E.T.
As Mike grabs the shark by the tail and flings it back to the sea, he and Willy sing the opening line of “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players, their version of an old nautical tradition.
Our next spot is in 16 feet of water. You’d never know it without a depth finder, though. For all I can tell, there’s a mile of blackness under our hull. The waves are as opaque as chunks of obsidian.
I’m trying to manage both Hank’s rod and mine, since Hank is busy taking photos and drinking beer. I decide to have a beer too, though it’s still not 9 a.m. It seems right, out here on the cold ocean. And besides, I think Tony cracked his Natty Ice around 7 a.m. I’m a few hours behind on this party.
Later, I’m up at the cabin, talking to Mike, when the Houston kid yells, “fish on!” and then proceeds to call my name. I rush over, taking the rod from him.
Suddenly, everyone’s telling me what to do: “Keep reeling.” “Don’t reel.” “Raise your rod.” “No, wait, lower it.”
I discern that I’m meant to tug my rod upwards, then reel while lowering it down again, raising the fish to the surface in small increments, keeping enough slack to prevent it from breaking the line.
It’s a shark. I’ve caught a fucking shark. A smooth hound. Even though most fishermen hate sharks – at least the inedible kind – I’m psyched.
Willy helps me get the shark off the line. I hold it up for a few photos before flinging it back into the waves. Someone yells, “Roll-er coas-ter.”
The next spot brings a new crop of striper, as well as a bat ray and a spiny dogfish – a gray shark with skin like sandpaper and a big spike protruding from its rear dorsal.
“Watch out for those things.” Mike advises. “They hurt like hell.” He and Willy proceed to tell stories of various punctures from teeth and spines.
“Stepped on a rockfish once,” Mike says. “Spine went right through my boot.”
“Aren’t those things venomous?” I ask.
“No,” Mike answers. “Hurt like hell, though.”
“They might not be venomous,” says Willy, “but they sure are poisonous.”
I am contemplating this koan when my rod takes another hit. It’s a halibut, which I bring slowly and carefully to the surface. It’s about 10 pounds and almost the length of my arm.
Apparently my change in bait tactics is working. Instead of going for the biggest anchovies, I’ve been using the liveliest ones. Hank’s line, which I also baited, is taking hits too.
I ask Captain Mike about this approach. “You know what?” he says, “it’s mostly luck.”
That’s what I like about fishing. You throw the line into the black depths, and if you’re fortunate, you’re visited by alien creatures from another world – aliens that taste fantastic.
The price of a fishing trip with Mike Rescino is $100. If you land a couple halibut and a striper – a completely conceivable run of luck – you’re coming home with easily $50 to $150 worth of meat. Not that I’m making these calculations out there on the water. I’m just looking out at Alcatraz and the Marin Headlands and thinking it’s funny how a fishing trip like this, something tourists do all the time, continually escapes the agenda of locals.
We fish for another few hours and though I don’t catch anything else, I’m satisfied. I’ve got my halibut, and now I’m content to eat a man-which (a giant sandwich), crack another beer, and listen to Kenny, Tony, and the rest of them make it rain. Fish on.
Want to land a giant fish? Call Captain Mike of Lovely Martha Sport Fishing a week or so ahead of time, and tell him you want in. He’ll book you and yours on the next trip. Half days go from about 6 a.m. until 1 p.m., maybe a little longer if the fish are biting. Get down to Berth 3, at Fisherman’s Wharf, by 6 a.m. Dress warmly, bring a lot of coffee, a few beers, and a giant sandwich. Your $100 fee covers everything – fishing license, rod rental, the works – but unless you like to wrestle hooks out of the jaws of your own fish, remember to tip Willy.