by Rick Bin
SOMETIMES, when the bait trawlers have found the squid, and the late-afternoon breeze whitecaps the deepwater swells that lift the boat, then slide out from underneath the bow, dropping the hull with a watery smack …
Sometimes, when the sun-streaked fog swallows the peaks of the mountains behind Malibu’s actor’s alley and the faint outline of Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands rise out of the blue horizon …
Sometimes … it’s easy to sit back in the fighting chair, cradle the cold fruit juice between your legs, and forget that you’re less than 20 miles from the urban grit and grime of metropolitan Los Angeles.
Usually, as the breeze and the waves seduce you, leaving a peaceful, salty smile upon your sunblocked lips … usually, when you’re well beyond the traffic, the asphalt-oven heat, and the rotten-fish-and-petroleum smell of the marina … usually, the shrieking chirrrrr of the old Penn takes just a bit longer to reach in and grab adrenaline, a faint alarm in the middle of a sleepy dream, while the gentle hand of the breeze beckons you back, and the waves continue the ocean’s lullaby …
“Whatcha waitin’ for, Mrs. Paul, Christmas?”
The gritty voice shatters the haze like a cold bucket of water, and with a start, you realize the reel has been singing for a few rolls of the boat, an eternity for a serious flattie fisherman.
And as you leap out of the chair, spilling fruit juice all over the stern, then lose your balance and fall to one knee on the rolling deck, out of the corner of your eye you catch the shake of the head and the teasing smile of the skipper as he watches you grab the rod, put the reel in gear, and take a menacing stance with the rod over the rail as you prepare to set the hook.
“Well thank goodness, Precious. I was starting to think you’d fallen overboard. Say, ’bout how much longer you think before the dancin’ starts?”
“The hell you talkin’ about?” you ask, with an exasperated look over your shoulder.
“Well, you look like you’re either about to waltz with that fish or go to the bathroom. I’m just givin’ you the benefit of the doubt, seein’ as you don’t appear too interested in catching that thing.”
And it’s just as well that the fish starts pulling again, because you don’t have anything quick to say in response, nothing that would keep the jawing at bay, God knows, and as you set the hook well, firmly, and feel the rod tip bend down, then flicker, then down heavy, you look over at the sun-weathered, gray-bearded skipper and flash him a grin that says: “Yeah, but I’m on.”
And in a few moments, it begins.
“Sure to be a barndoor, that one, ‘way it’s pullin’,” you hear as you work the reel.”
“Feed a small village for a week, sure.”
“Damn right,” you’re thinking.”
“Say, would’ja like me to back up the boat?”
Something about the tone of voice still sounds too cute. But the fish is there, pulling hard, bending the rod tip down and whirring the spool on the reel even as you move around the rail of the boat.
“Oh, she’s gonna be a biggie, prob’ly one of them Alaskan breeders that lost her way. Might have to lash her to the side of the boat!”
“Would’ja just get the net ready, and quit’cher squawking,” you answer.
“The net? I don’t know. She might just pull me over an swaller me whole. Make a Jonah outta me certain.”
And you can’t figure out what’s up. The old salty is still leaning against the rail, arms crossed, demeanor far removed from the electric excitement that streaks through his body anytime flattie fishing is the topic.
And then the fish is coming up, easy, too easy for a good halibut, and as you start to see color, even from the deep green, the unmistakable silhouette of shark is plain. As it shakes its head and makes another run, you ignore the buzzing spool and turn around to the suddenly too serious expression of the skipper.
“Should I call the Coast Guard?” He meets your stare for a long moment, trying to hold it in, and then the face breaks into a million smiling wrinkles as he takes hold of his sides, bends over, and bursts out laughing.
“Only to pick up your salty old hide after I skin ya,” you answer, and you can’t help but laugh with the sunburned old goat.
“Put up a hell of a fight, though, you sure did,” he manages between wiping his tears. “Why I never seen anyone set a hook quite like that before. Looked like you stepped on an urchin, you did. Helluva technique.”
And now the shark is pulling again, the spool buzz as mocking as the old man’s chortles.
“All right, you’ve had your fun. Now can you please help me with this thing before he cuts my line?” No sooner are the words out of your mouth than the line goes limp.
And the old man bends over again in a spasm of glee, finally coming up to wipe his eyes and sputter a final flaming arrow.
“A man might learn a mite fishing with a gent like you. Yessir.”
The sun is straight overhead now. This time, the clicker makes a sharp, sudden screech, like a scream cut short, and the old man somehow already has the rod in hand even as you’re dropping your legs from the gunwale and pulling the bill of the cap up off your eyes.
“C’mon honey, it’s candy bait,” you hear him say to the bottom of the ocean. And then another short shriek of the reel and a surprisingly light, deft hookset, and the old man is on, rod tip almost touching the green water, line pointing straight down. The pressure is steady, the rod tip flickers only occasionally, the dead weight of the halibut the only clue to its size.
“Well, she ain’t a barndoor, but she’ll fillet.”
And then another reel comes alive, screaming long and hard.
“Sandy,” the old man declares. “Make a good soup.”
And as you take hold of the rod and put the reel in gear, you ponder this man of the sea, this man who already knows what’s on the end of the deepwater line, who is as much its prisoner as vice versa, as ancient a breed as is known to man. You can find his kind fishing tuna out of Boston, salmon in Seattle, dorado in Cabo, marlin in the Gulfstream … or halibut in the Santa Monica Bay. They’re all the same.
As he nets the halibut and brings it into the boat, yet another reel sounds the alarm, but the weathered old fisherman ignores it for the moment, choosing to quickly unhook the halibut and get it into the ice of the fishwell before moving on.
“Nother sandy,” he says, to no one in particular.
And that’s the way it is sometimes along the kelp beds that cling to the edges of the lights and glamour of La-La land, when the bait trawlers have found the squid, and the reels and sand bass keep you honest, and the old salties run roughshod over tenderfeet as payment for the company of a sharp wit, and a few good halibut fillets.