For Christmas, my mother gave my brother Nathan and I a day of fishing for striper and sturgeon in San Pablo Bay with Argo Sportfishing. On boxing day, we drove into the city with the sunrise to hop aboard the Argo in what has to be about the best slip in the country. The 33-foot vessel resides in one of the very first berths in Fisherman’s Wharf, just below the famous restaurant Alioto’s.
We arrived and climbed aboard, cheap coffee in hand, where Captain Craig gave us a quick rundown on what we were meant to do out there. There were three other customers on the boat with us, one who seemed like he knew what he was doing, and two more like us, with hardly a clue. Living in Colorado, I am completely lost when it comes to matters of salt water–on top of not being a particularly good fisherman to begin with. So I was thankful that Craig gave us a quick rundown on exactly what we needed to do to bring in striper or sturgeon. With the basics explained, we got underway, Nathan and I simultaneously making bad jokes about our officially becoming Argonauts.
As we motored up the bay we watched cormorants and grebes diving for fish as well as the ubiquitous seals and sea lions poking their heads out of the water to check us out. It was a beautiful ride, but by the end of the two hours we were more than ready to do some fishing. We set anchor and let the current straighten us out. We arrived just as the tide started coming in, pushing water up the bay and pointing the stern of the ship squarely north.
The technique is relatively simple. We cast our lines off the back of the boat, with heavy lead weights dragging them eight feet down to the muddy bottom. The fillets of anchovy, concealing their sharp hooks, float up on the leaders. On board, we sit and watch our rod tips for the quick tugs and vibrations which indicate a bite.
When a nibble does come, you gently pick up your pole, extending it out over the water as you do so, to avoid tugging on the bait. With pole in hand, you wait for another bite. When that next bite comes, you yank the pole back “like you’re mad at it,” to set the hook. It was stressed here that due to the barbless hooks, you must immediately begin reeling once the hook is set, and be certain that you never let off the tension, lest the fish release itself to freedom.
I am a poor fisherman. I have little knowledge, and that seems to typically mean little luck when I toss a line in the water. I had never before fished salt water nor used a baitcaster, so as we waited, I felt a certain amount of anxiety about that first bite.
I am very prone to anxiety, as a rule. Particularly in these moments of uncertainty, when awaiting the first action, I can feel cortisol, tinged with a delicate infusion of adrenaline, coursing through my veins. It manifests largely as a knot in my stomach, one that I have come to know well with distaste over years of working in wildland fire. It is the same feeling that I had each time we arrived at a new fire, wondering what the fire would be like, what our assignment would be, how hard I would need to work, how dangerous it would be.
Standing on the back of the Argo, I did my best to reframe the feeling, as I have learned to do somewhat, as my body preparing for a challenge to come. I tried to coach my mind into seeing that feeling as excitement rather than anxiety, though that has never fully worked for me. With the knot of anxiety tight in my belly, I watched as my line took the first nibbles.
Now, I was actually expecting it this time. This was the third time on this trip that I had gone out to do some new form of hunting or fishing with little very little knowledge of tactics or techniques. Each morning, as I sat with my anxiety, I prayed that I would not be the first called to action. I repeated internally that plea that I have a moment or two to watch my peers, so that I might have a chance to model their practices. But, each morning without fail, I was the first called to action. This morning was no different: a chance to capture some wild creature presented itself, there was a burst of excitement all around, and I was the one called upon to capture it.
Perhaps it was that very belief that called the fish to my line that morning. Regardless of the reasoning in that fish’s mind, there was no denying that it was nibbling at my bait and everyone around me was excited and perhaps jealous that it was not their line.
I picked up my rod, carefully extending the tip outward to keep the bait still, and settled the end against my thigh. My blood felt thick with cortisol though, with the rod in hand, my adrenaline levels had risen to meet it. I felt the fish tug again and I did my best to mimic what I had seen Craig demonstrate, quickly whipping the tip of the rod up from horizontal to vertical, and immediately working the reel. I worked the fish around to the side of the boat and fortunately while I was doing this, someone else shouted “fish on,” something I had neglected to do, letting the crew know that I had one on the hook. They’d both hopped into the cabin a few moments prior and at the call came scrambling back out. Within a few seconds, Andrew netted the fish and plopped it on the deck. And just like that, our first fish was in the cooler.
All of it happened on instinct. I can hardly remember thinking throughout the process. Craig had instructed us and a deeper part of my brain ran through that instruction perfectly, while my higher brain was largely absent, paralyzed by anxiety and the overwhelming surge of stimuli. I was giddy with it. There is something amazing about moments of flow like that, when it feels as if you may not be thinking at all, but simply acting.
As the day drew on, my active mind intruded on this process, and I watched as others made the same mistakes as I. The most common error made across the boat is one of over-excitement. Fishing, like many things in life, is a game largely of patience. And we players are not naturally patient creatures. When one sits for twenty or thirty minutes waiting for a fish to nibble at their bait, it takes enormous restraint to wait for that good bite to try to set the hook. There is a feeling that this moment is a rare opportunity and must be seized immediately. Instead of waiting for the right moment, when the next slight tug comes on the line, the fisherman wrenches on their rod and simply yanks the bait away from the wary fish, alerting it to the trap. I was just as guilty of this as those around me.
It was a relatively slow fishing day from what the outfitter said. We stayed out past our appointed time by an hour or two. But, in spite of our many foibles, we all managed to catch our limit. Nathan and I each caught a few, though the heavier action seemed to come to the rods on the sides of the boat, and we were stuck squarely in the middle.
I caught the first fish and I caught the last fish, with mistakes in the middle and one fish that was too small to keep. The last fish felt great. I hadn’t been getting any bites for a while. Things had been relatively slow, but it certainly felt like my bait was the least interesting to the fish. We had nine of our ten fish in the cooler and we were already well behind schedule. We were headed back in about ten minutes if we didn’t limit, but we were having a light spell of action.
There was a little nibble on my rod and I picked it up carefully. Everyone turned to watch, asking if I had something. I said I thought so, and another nibble came, the folks around me letting out little gasps of excitement as my rod tip dipped. I let one, two, three little nibbles pass, exercising every ounce of patience I had, before finally it came: the big bite. My reaction was instant–that same instinct knew that this was the right moment. I yanked back on the rod, setting the hook, and a few seconds later another large striper was in the cooler and the boat was headed back to harbor.
The sun was setting as we returned to San Francisco, its golden light glinting off the water of the bay. I looked out from the starboard side, watching the light play between two sea stacks, the golden gate bridge behind in the distance. The air was rich with the scent of the sea, a smell that dredges up memories from childhood–a smell of home.
We returned to the boat’s slip in fisherman’s wharf and watched as the young deckhand expertly filleted our catch, tossing the skins and guts to eager harbor seals that took up their berths behind the boat as soon as Craig settled the Argo into its own.
At home, Nathan cooked everyone a heaping portion of the fish. Half went into the oven doused in a butter and dill sauce, the other half he cooked in a pan with garlic, butter, and lemons from the front yard. Both preparations were absolutely delicious–there are few things as wonderful as eating a fish pulled from the water only hours before.
The dinner was a beautiful way to say goodbye to California as well. I am very lucky to have the opportunity to travel and get to know this land through its wild foods. To me, there is no better way to understand and appreciate a place than its foods. Ducks and fish, cooked with fresh oranges and lemons from the yard, paint a distinctive and delicious scene of winter in Northern California.