By Vince Basehart
As twilight falls over the Santa Monica Pier, a pancake-shaped
sea creature is laid gently on the deck by a fisherman. A Chihuahua, straining
at a leash held by a woman resembling a Lladro figurine, sniffs at the hapless
skate, then licks it. The fisherman de-hooks his catch and tosses it back over
On this particular summer evening, this constitutes serious fishing
action. Four fishermen doze in beach chairs. But for their rods propped against
the rail, in their hooded sweatshirts they might be sleeping Druids.
Here and there are clumps of fishermen – they’re all men –
standing together at the blue-painted rail tying multiple hooks to leaders and
attaching torpedo shaped weights to the ends of their lines.
Jose Marquez, a gaunt 30 year old Nicaraguan, has staked out a
corner of the pier with three other anglers. Jose is the most energetic of the
bunch, yo-yoing his rig up and down.
“I’ve been here two hours and have only caught these."
He points to a bucket containing three freshly caught mackerel. "We'll
use some for bait. The ones left over we’ll put in the smoker and make
Patrick, 50-ish, wears a disintegrating Dodgers cap. He has a barnacled face
and emits vodka vapors.
"There’s some good stuff to catch if you know what
you're doin'. And when the sheepshead are bitin', bang, bang, bang!"
He yanks up three imaginary fish like he’s firing a sawed-off
shotgun. He goes on about “dropper loops,” and the kinds of complicated
knots and fanciful bait presentations that the celebrities of the Bay -- the
California halibut -- demand.
“Halibut,” is what I hear everywhere. This species
is the tasty but comparatively diminutive cousin to Alaska’s “barn
doors,” and for veterans of Southern California’s pier and breakwater
circuit, Santa Monica is the best place to find them.
Patrick continues to regale me with past fishing exploits that
sound violent and Hemingwayesqe, as the sounds of “I Fought the Law (and
The Law Won),” drifts through the gathering overcast.
John Dallas Poling is set up with a guitar, microphone and amp.
He sings the song like an angel, and seems to know most everyone there including
the sportsmen. Like a lounge act, in between stanzas he easily drops in "Hiya
Tommy" to a portly man setting up his gear at the rail.
The pier’s lower deck is an L-shaped gangway where the structure's scabby
legs are visible. Down here, with the Nyquil-colored swells swooshing between
the pylons and the brine hitting your nose, you feel suddenly, truly, at sea.
This is where Nat Boonyanit is lowering a hook loaded with chunked squid. When
Nat tells me he’s a sushi chef at a local catering service, I brace myself
for a punch line. But it’s true. And it's clear the 23 year old knows
I delicately mention the Bay's association with raw human filth,
but he’ll have none of that.
“Look for clear eyes, good color, bright red gills. If it’s
got all that, you’re good to go.”
Kindly, Nat swears to my stricken face that none of his pier catch
will ever end up on any plate with a lump of wasabi.
I return to the top deck. The sky is purple now. John Dallas Poling
is in the last throes of a heartbreaking "Stairway to Heaven." The
Lladro lady holds her Chihuahua and
lights up a cigarette. Jose Marquez is reeling in another mackerel for the smoker.
And she's buuuuying a staaairway -- “ma’am,
there’s no smoking on the pier," Poling interjects to Lladro lady
-- to heavuuun.