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Old Salts

Memories of influentual fishermen
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It was always the same, and it never changed between trips, dad would say, “You need to go to bed early, we have to leave in eight hours”. I would lie in bed, eyes wide open, like a kid that knew he was going to be on Space Mountain the next day at Disneyland. As always, I would finally fall asleep at one in the morning. Sleep however, would be short lived, as my father would wake me up an hour later with a, “I told you to sleep, you never listen.” Despite my dad’s short temper, and unwillingness to try to wake up on a good foot, I always had the biggest smile on my face those mornings.

The trip would start on the two-ten,and then we’d transition to the one-o-one freeway. The drive was long, and I would slip in and out of sleep. They say that you can’t actually smell the ocean. I am not to certain if that is actually true, since I always knew we were close to Port Hueneme by the smell of the air. The dock itself was always foggy, rays of orange lights mixing in with the wet air. Other anglers were arriving as well, and we would all take that walk to the dock house, pay the charter fee. It was like people in a bread line, all hungry and desperate.

Huntington Beach with my buddy Matt, 1986

My father raised my brother and myself with his earnings as a construction worker specializing in drywall. He had come to an arrangement with the gentleman who contracted him for work, mostly due to my father doing good work, as well as the two of them both sharing an interest in fishing. This man also knew that my father, at times, had difficulty putting food on the table. His name was Ernie, but everybody on the boat called him Shark Hat Ernie. His brother, happened to run a charter boat out of Port Hueneme, and due to the relationship, my father and I only paid fifty dollars for a one day charter. A two day charter would cost my dad eighty dollars. Ernie always said that the cost was split between the two of us, but in looking back, I think Ernie had talked his brother into letting me slide. Thanks to this arrangement, I truly think that I was one of maybe a handful of kids in Los Angeles that was able to fish on a charter boat almost every week for over ten years. While other kids in my neighborhood were playing the newest Super Mario Brothers and eating pork and beans, I was cleaning fish and sharpening hooks with my dad. I grew up on a diet of yellow tail and halibut. We usually brought home ten to twenty pounds of fish a week, thus allowing my dad to spend money elsewhere, like rent.

After paying the charter fee, we would walk the plank onto what was my home for the next day or two. The SS Aquarius was a typical Southern California charter boat. It wasn’t fancy and the crew certainly wasn’t either. There was a captain, but he changed frequently. There also was a more permanent gentleman, possibly an employee of the owner, who made sure everything was on the up and up. The cook was a good guy and would often cook up catches donated by anglers for the rest of the boat. It was some of the best fish I have ever eaten, even today. The most consistent crew member was the deck hand, a boy only a little older then I was. It didn’t matter if we went out during the school week, or a weekend, the deck hand was always there. I was very jealous of him and his amazing life working the charter every day. Lookin’ back, it was probably a tough upbringing for him, but at the time I idolized him.

The Aquarius would leave the dock no latter then four in the morning. The fishermen would cut the small talk, go below and sleep. It would be two hours or more before we would drop a line. I was always, far too excited to go to sleep. Instead, I would play with the live squid in the bait tanks. It was like being on some strange time travel ship, as the only light available was the deck light. You couldn't see anything that wasn’t lit by it, and there was no real concept of where you were going in the dark. When I finally got tired, I always got the worst bed due to playin’ around too long on deck. Lying down next to the boats engine compartment I would fall asleep like a log next to those pumping pistons.

 My first real spiritual experience came aboard that boat. I was nine and had managed to stay awake long enough for the sunrise. The sky, very slowly, began to turn a dark blue. This transition of light continued for the next ten minutes, changing to lighter hues of blue. Hell, it could have been twenty minutes, since I was in a trance. I remember thinking, “what if something goes wrong?” On the ocean, there is a very uneasy feeling that sometimes takes hold and you go from feeling immortal to feeling very much like a normal person. With hundreds of feet of open water below you and the vastness of the horizon, there was just no telling what you would do if the boat sank. I remember the sun finally coming over the horizon. It came with great force, much like a business man arriving late to a meeting. Looking over the side of the boat, I saw dolphins and flying fish following us to our destination. For the first time in my life, I had felt that something bigger was at work, something protecting us, protecting me.

In the end, I was about as likely to wake up on time in the morning, as I was to fall asleep the previous night. The cabin would be filled with the smell of bacon, eggs, and toast. The other fishermen were either fishing or working on a cup of coffee over a poker game. I think poker was just as important as fishing to many. Fights often broke out over the games. Shark Hat Ernie and my dad would be on deck fishing, and laughing about the funnier side of their work week. As I came on deck they’d call out, “Good morning punk.  Didn’t sleep last night I heard”.

Shark Hat Ernie was a larger than life character. He always wore his “shark hat”. It was a stuffed animal shark that was cut in two at the center, with the front half coming out of a trucker hat and the tail end the rear. There was a string attached to the contraption, and when pulled, it made it look as if the shark was swimming, flapping its body around on that stupid hat. As silly as the hat was, the man knew how to catch yellow tail, and he caught a lot of ‘em. I don’t remember him catching anything trophy size, but he usually took home the boat’s side pot when it came to a numbers competition. Whenever he caught a fish, any fish, he would spastically pull on the string, yelling “fish on, fish on”. Many a jealous fishermen got sick and tired of that shark swimming around all day on Ernie’s head.

The fishermen were always split into two groups. There were your yuppy “weekender” types on the boat. Out to see what deep sea fishing thing was all about. Then, there were the regulars, the old salts. No matter the day of the week or the weather, you could always count on seeing them. They were blue collar guys with blue collar jobs. They had little concern for material positions outside of their fishing gear. They drank like fish, and smoked like chimneys.


 There was one fisherman that I never knew what he did for work, but he was always on the boat. Nobody ever knew his name; he was referred to as the Arab. The Arab was a very nice guy. He was always willing to teach me necessary things and give me tips. He didn’t talk much, I think out of embarrassment for having an accent. One day, while fishing for yellow tail, we all happened to drop our lines in at the same time. Two minutes later, everyone started yelling fish on. Anglers were running around and underneath one another so as to not cross lines. After we all fought our catches for three minutes, thinking we had yellow tails, we gasped at what we saw surface. We had dropped our lines into a school of sting rays, lots of sting rays. As everybody looked around for line clippers, the Arab began to yell “no, please for my children, please”.

The cook had stepped out at the commotion, and realized why the Arab was upset and said, “Just bring ‘em in and sit ‘em on the rails”. As sting ray after sting ray was gaffed, the deck hand was busy running around with a machete cutting off the barbed tails. I had no idea what was goin’ on, and wondered why these scary creatures swimming around in the pink and red on the deck were being harvested.

The Arab went around shaking everybody’s hand, and he quickly took two of the sting rays, now dead from the gaff, to the cook. The cook took out what was the dirtiest looking cookie cutter I had ever seen, and hammered the cutter into the wings of the sting rays one by one. When he was done cutting out rounds, he breaded and fried the meat. It turned out that sting ray meat tastes almost identical to scallops. We all ate in style that day.

Catalina Island, with my cousin Lindsey and dad on the SS Aquarius, 1994

Another man on the boat was simply named Eskimo. Unfortunately for Eskimo, he was actually a Native American man. It was just the company he kept wasn’t the most cultured group around. I can’t remember hearing this man say more than five words in all the years I fished next to him. One day, on the way back to dock, he showed me the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Sea gulls are notorious for following the boat back to dock, picking up guts and scraps the deck hand would throw over board while filleting everybody’s harvest. First looking at a gull that was resting on the rail, he then looked down at me and simply said, “Watch this.” He moved his hand slowly over the gulls head and smacked the top of its head lightly. The sea gull turned into a toy. Eskimo picked it up and put it in my hands, upside down, and then sideways. The sea gull was indeed, in some strange trance. He again tapped the bird on the head a minute later, and it flew away as if nothing happened.

Huntington Beach, 1989. Drivin’ dad's boat.

The man that held the most mystery, in my imagination, was a guy named Mike. He was a painter and electrician who also worked alongside my father and Ernie. He was a shorter guy whose face never showed any sort of emotion, regardless whether he was upset about losing a fish or joking with the other fishermen. He wore an otolith necklace. An otolith is a stone in the ear of a fish that over time gets bigger, not too different than how a pearl is created (the bigger the stone, the bigger the fish). He would always take a knife to the head of any whitefish he caught, placing the stone in his breast pocket. The stones supposedly brought good luck, but based on the size of some of them, I think it was clear that Mike was staking a claim on the boat. What I liked most was how humble he was.

I will never forget his truck. It was a blue Datsun pickup, small and beaten, with a white camper top on the bed. Every time we went out, he would pull up in this truck, and take his gear out, which included a rod, reel, and tackle box. I noticed one day that he had a BASS sticker on the back, the only indication that he was a fisherman.

One day my father almost beat me within an inch of my life, after I accidently stepped on Mike’s rod. I came to find out later, that my dad was upset because his rod was in the ball park of fifteen hundred dollars. I have no idea what his reel cost, and don’t want to know. Years later, my father tried to explain the life that Mike lived. He had a small apartment downtown, off of Sunset Boulevard. Although he made good money in construction, my father said that his studio apartment made him look like he was on the verge of becoming homeless. Mike apparently went home to a mattress, a small TV on an egg crate, and a recliner. That was it, as Mike spent all of his money on the charter fees and tackle. Mike was on the boat about three times a week, and was for sure paying more per trip then my father was. That was his life, fishing. Aside from my father, and Ernie, Mike was, and continues to be, my hero.

I still think about Mike, and wonder whatever happened to him. My dad no longer gets out on the ocean, and once in a great while will talk with Shark Hat Ernie. The other men I was lucky enough to have shared those memories are now just that, memories of characters that continue to live on in my head. They are still a large part of the person I am today, and I thank them for that. I don’t know if I ever will come close to having the character that they did or the strength. But I do know that I finished writing this article in my small apartment, with my TV, my mattress in the bedroom, and a car sitting in the parking lot with a BASS sticker on the back. Once in a blue moon, another angler will see me loading my cat fishing gear, and with a puzzled look ask “you a bass fishermen?”

In answer, I always just smile at ‘em.


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