“Fish is the only food that is considered spoiled once it smells like what it is.”
-P. J. O’Rourke, American satirist
The tide was turning and I was becoming anxious. No matter the respect shown to the open ocean, she treats us with great indifference, the Moon’s gravitational pull her only master. Given the riveting scenery of Point Reyes National Seashore, I had taken my time hiking to the beach’s rocky point, without seeing another soul, a good long hour away. Northern California’s Tidelog noted a very early morning high tide and the warmish winter sun was now almost directly overhead.
Most fishermen will tell you, ad nauseam and often with a non-pedigreed beer in hand, the best times to surf cast for dinner are the lower light hours after sunrise or before dusk. Fishing a steeper beach during an incoming tide is also ideal, as the rising waters dislodge sand crabs and other small vertebrates from their homes, depositing them into the troughs where waves break, encouraging fish to feed.
An 11-foot surf rod and reel was split in half and tucked across a treasured L.L. Bean bag, sewn with nautical blue piping and boasting my initials in a blocky monogram, a long-ago gift from my mother during our better years. Lining the outside pocket were thick crackers from a nearby bakery’s wood-fired oven, and hunks of Gouda, aged half a decade and crunchy with salt crystals. Tucked inside were the day’s tools: garishly colored fishing lures, a handmade trout priest, chunky four-ounce pyramid sinker weights, a dozen small hooks, a semi-frozen block of anchovies, and half a joint of Mendocino green bud. The hooks are teeny tiny, designed to hold tightly onto the bait, making it difficult for the craftier fish to pinch. In cards, ‘fish’ refers to an incompetent player whose weaknesses can be easily exploited by the card ‘shark’. Surely a misnomer, as I’ve often found it’s the fish holding the good hand, sending me home sunburned and empty-handed.
At the local sporting/hardware shop in search of bait, an old man with crazed eyes and terribly weathered skin reported the rocky outcroppings at the beach’s south end to be covered in mussels. Bivalves and sand crabs are fine enticements on the end of a hook, and can also be chummed into the water’s edge to attract fish. He warned me to be mindful of the ocean, as sneaker waves are not uncommon, easily dragging off unsuspecting souls and their canine companions. It’s the dogs who survive, he cackled.
Armed with a flat stone for dislodging the mussels and an old carbon steel knife for prying them open, I darted between the waves, scouring the tide pools and combing through the wigs of seaweed concealing the rocks’ baldpates. Not one clam did I find. Looking beyond the peaks of stone, woefully unadorned of mollusk, a winter society ball was in full swing. Dancing diamonds glittering as far as is the sea made it difficult to be annoyed by the batty old man’s clamming claptrap.
As a set of large waves began to crash against the rocks, I hiked back up the beach, stopping near a congregation of seabirds floating in gentler surf, their meeting ground a reliable indication of fish. Planting the surf spike deep into the soft sand far above the water’s edge, I reassembled the rod and reel and got busy tying the weights and hooks onto the line.
Surfperch are plentiful and hooked year round off Northern California’s coastline, as opposed to the more seasonal halibut (the fish of my literal wet dreams). Surfperch are often found in the shallow waters that flow over sandy bottoms, rocky formations, or forests of kelp. Calico and Redtail surfperch feed along sandy beaches, while Rubberlip, Black, and Pile perch prefer rockier outcroppings. Their colors and patterns vary, depending upon the species of surfperch and the time of year. Surfperch are flatter fish with oblong bodies, measuring in length from five to eighteen inches. Instead of being notched, their dorsal fins are continuous, and their tail is forked.
California’s daily fishing limit for surfperch is a-too-generous-in-this-day-and-age twenty, in any combination of all the species, with not more than ten fish from any one species. But at this late hour, I’d be lucky to get even a nibble.
Now warmish and slimy, I cut a few anchovies into smaller pieces, threading them onto the two-pronged hooks. Stripping to a tee shirt and pulling up my pant legs, I edged into the surf, the chilly waters immediately anesthetizing my feet. I cast over and over into the troughs where the waves broke and then further out into the more placid holes of deeper water.
Lost in the yogic movements of fishing, my mind was transported to an east coast beach at sunset with my father, who most always had good luck fishing; this serendipity however, not extending to the women in his life. As his creaky, night-blue Land Rover bounced over the sand dunes, occasionally taking air, I landed hard against a thinly padded metal jump seat. Surely my ass would be bruised, I recalled thinking, not a sought-after look on Nantucket.
We’d had a summerhouse on the island for as long as I could remember, a check written by my parents the moment they laid eyes on it. It was rented for astronomical sums of money in high season, while we used the house on weekends and holidays in the spring, and in mid-September through to Thanksgiving. The house was situated on a cliff in the little town of Siasconset, or ‘Sconset as it’s called, which was the very epitome of east coast early Americana, with big fireplaces and a primitive, clapboard asceticism and large hedged yards protecting very deep pockets, often woven into the red, whale-patterned pants of a third generation New England cheapskate.
Ours was a simple house built almost one hundred years prior with six, very tiny bedrooms, each with a little sink that had one spigot for hot water and one spigot for cold. In the late autumn we’d arrive to the island on the last Friday night ferry, the house so cold we’d make hot chocolate in the kitchen, stamping our feet and crowding around the oven near the old white farm sink while the fire got going, and heading to bed without undressing, bundled against the frigid, damp air of the unoccupied rooms. Surrounded by bushes of blue hydrangea and climbing white rose was a wrap-around porch set with rocking chairs, their wide rattan seats looking out over seagrass and beach plum to the endless Atlantic Ocean. On the warmer mornings, I’d pack into a sling bag a sandwich with from my mother’s tuna salad, made with piccalilli and Bermuda onion on pumpernickel, a can of Coke, books of matches from the island’s posh restaurants left behind by summer renters, and the bible of this 15-year old, Vanity Fair magazine. The afternoon would slip by slowly; reading and smoking and leeching catholic school adolescence into the sand, encountering only waves on miles of empty seashore. My soul resides there.
My father was quiet as we slowly drove down the beach to where sea birds were feeding, just offshore. Without word, we unloaded our fishing gear as the sun made its way round the lighthouse and toward the water’s edge at infinity. The Nantucket Sound is rich with bluefish, and even an occasional striped bass will make an appearance on the end of our long, heavy poles. With pensive silence, my father tied up the fishing lines with float rigs, which keeps the bait off the ocean floor and away from hungry crabs.
“Your mother’s been drinking lately” was all he would say.
A jagged stone that will forever be lodged in my shoe, I angrily, thoughtlessly asked my father what he did to my mother, a strict, prudish woman who pushed hard for the exemplary in life, to send her to buy plastic, liter bottles of cheap vodka and gulp from them behind a locked bathroom door. He stared off into the sea, not saying another word. It was years later I realized her wasted life was of her own making. A controlling, ambitious woman, maybe it was a response to living his life instead of hers; to being trapped by generational expectations, but the seeds of destruction were surely planted long before any of us arrived on her scene. We didn’t speak of my mother again that night, or about her seemingly rapid slide into a paralyzing, later-in-life alcoholism, which would methodically and unoriginally steal her health and taint our relationships.
That night, my father and I hauled onto the sands a dizzying number of bluefish and stripers from the dark waters. As we cleaned the oily fish by the lighthouse’s strobe, he encouraged me to be methodical in my fishing: if the water’s current is moving to the right, cast to the left and the bait will be pushed along; hold the rod tip high so the line doesn’t drag on the waves; retrieve your bait slowly and steadily, bouncing it along the bottom, and reeling only to pick up slack.
A large wave slammed against my legs, the icy waters of northern California immediately breaking the hazy trance of days long ago. I finally took notice of the three fat seagulls hovering closely, completely intent on a late January lunch of rotted anchovy. With frightful precision, they took turns furiously dive-bombing each carefully landed cast, gobbling my bait. With fists raised, I yelled and screamed with fury, spitting anger into the afternoon winds, before finally giving up and burying at sea the remaining putrid fish.
Returning salt-crusted and empty-handed to the drafty, rented cabin on the edge of the National Seashore, I read the instructions written by Connecticut outdoorsman Charlie Van Over, framed and set on the mantle, for lighting a proper fire. I quickly had a roaring blaze, warming my still-frozen toes and drying my pants, which hung from the arms of a corduroy upholstered couch, its cushions low to ground from years of fireside contemplations. I tucked into the red and white coals phallic-looking fingerling potatoes, purchased from a 24–7, payment-on-your-honor farm stand in the neighboring hippy town of Bolinas. Roasted until the flesh was creamy, the potatoes were smothered in French butter and gobs of thick sour cream. Instead of my anticipated dinner of fire-grilled fish, the tubers were paired with charred, stalky broccolini flecked with hot peppers, garlic, and a flaky salt eccentrically and obsessively carried in my bag. I managed through the better part of a bottle of Scavino’s Cannubi Barolo, still too young at twelve years of age, while plotting how to best land a perch on my plate for the next night’s supper.