CHICKEN OF THE SEA

One fishy adventure story

 

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

      You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish. 

      That's the author of "The Old Man and the Sea," not me. I don't fish, don't eat fish, don't like the smell of them. I don't even like the rock band Phish.

      My staple is the burrito, which I have no problem catching at the Taco Bell drive-thru. But Ernest Hemingway knew one or two things about great adventures. So I made a reservation with Redondo Beach Sport Fishing.

      They tell me yesterday's catch was banner for our ship, the Redondo Special, yielding 32 sea bass weighing in at a heavy average of 15 lbs. each. They bit so hard, one joker even caught one using a banana peel as bait. 

      News travels fast. Today, the Special carries 62 fishermen, 30 more than yesterday. Each is assigned a position corresponding to a colored number painted on the railing. I am green 9.

      "You catch a different kind of fish depending on where you stand on the boat," says Mickey Jelsma, 59, of Torrance. As I scribble down this tidbit, Jelsma's fishing buddies suddenly crack up. 

      "We got a live one here!" one says. 

      The Redondo Special is like the bar on "Cheers"; the regulars know each other well. Many of these guys go only by nicknames such as Gary-Cuda, Papa-San and Tweak-a-Boo.

      One of these solemnly named gentlemen, I think it was Tweak-a-Boo, asks why a photographer is snapping pictures of me.

      "Are you a celebrity?" he asks. "Because I can see you're not a fisherman." 

      Mike Kassel, a 53-year-old computer consultant from Redondo Beach, has no nickname (that he admits to). He is a friend of the captains who tags along whenever the boat needs extra volunteers. He takes pity on the fun the other fishermen are having at my expense and strikes up a conversation.

      Kassel, who wears a "Fishing Is My Life" cap, proves a bottomless source of angling angles. Of course, I pay little attention as he carefully shows me how to handle what he calls my bale, attaches a silver ball called a sliding sinker to my line, and tells me how to avoid getting tangled up. Like a 6-year-old, I pretend to absorb the knowledge as the adult does everything. 

      If we got shipwrecked like on "Gilligan's Island," Kassel would be the Professor, although his body type is significantly more Skipper.

      "OK, we're pulling out," announces our captain, 26-year-old Jeff Jessop of Westchester. First mate Dan Fouts, a 34-year-old Redondo Beach resident and former Starkist fisherman, battens down the hatches. (I don't know what that means or if Fouts actually did that. I just always wanted to write it.) 

      Fouts would be Gilligan on the island, although his body type is more Skipper, too. (Just an observation: Maybe seafood isn't the great diet food experts claim it is.)

      We chug out for about 20 minutes before Fouts drops anchor a quarter mile off Palos Verdes, over an undersea ridge about 80 feet deep.

      Before I even use my rod, my line has managed to tangle around my reel. It's not an everyday type of tangle, either. This one resembles rocker Keith Richards' hair. Before this fishing test even begins, the best I can hope to score is a deep C-minus.

      "What did you do?!" Kassel huffs before devoting 10 minutes to undoing the damage. 

      "If the 'Daily Breeze' boy gets one, you know it's good fishing!" someone calls out.

      Squid is what sea bass like to eat, so at the bow (front) of the boat there is a tank in which 100 violently swish around. Kassel reaches into this squid mosh pit and plucks one out. It resembles the muppet named Beeker. He punctures my hook through its tail as I refuse to watch. Black ink squirts out onto the deck of the ship and my T-shirt.

      "White sea bass are coming up now because the squid are spawning," Kassel explains as he casts Beeker out.

      Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who.

      That's Hemingway again, talking to some fish. The reality for me is hardly heroic. Three minutes into my first fishing adventure, I feel a sharp tug from the deep. But I feel horrible and want it to stop. Not only am I rooting for my fish to get away, I hope my bait gets away, too. I imagine how it would feel if my entire body hung from a hook stabbed through the roof of my mouth.

      "What are you doing?" Kassel yells. "Pull it in!"

      A beautifully hued and thoroughly frightened sea creature appears as I hesitantly work the crank. I'm told it is a kelp bass, a protected species otherwise known as a calico, and it is literally within an inch of its life. By law, calicos smaller than 12 inches must be thrown back. (Killing fish children is bad, but killing their parents is good.) Mine measures 11 inches.

      "Too bad," Kassel says while unhooking it. 

      I secretly sigh with relief. I tell myself that my calico toddler will swim away and make out just fine with that festering hook hole in his face. He'll go see his fish pediatrician for some fish antibiotics, which his family's fish HMO will cover.

      "See?" says Kassel. "Anyone can catch a fish." 

      The next catch is more up my alley. My hook snags a wad of kelp, perfect for a cruelty-free Japanese seaweed salad. 

      "I've got a fighter!" I joke as I reel it in. 

      No one is amused. These fishermen have come to catch the hulking sea bass they heard about yesterday. But for the first half of the five-hour voyage, not one bites. One guy hangs two squid on his line, figuring the bass will be able to perceive the extra value.

      At the boat's stern (rear), Fouts vigorously chums (shreds apart dead bait and chucks it in the water) to attract fish. But it seems only to be attracting the birds that encircle us. 

      "Pelicans eat 50 or 60 percent of the bait that goes in the water, so you have to try and outsmart them -- throw the bait on the opposite side of the boat from where they are," Fouts explains.

      One pelican situates itself only a few feet out from my position, waiting for scraps the way my buddies and I scan dancefloors for females at 1:52 a.m. The long-beaked bird is an unfamiliar sight, since we didn't have pelicans by the ocean on Long Island where I grew up. We had only seagulls. By the bay, we had baygulls. (My uncle told me that one!)

      Seriously, though, even if we did catch a big fish, the hungry seals that also encircle us are bold enough to chomp it right off the hook in the water.

      "I remember the good old days, when we used to let us shoot seals with .22s," says a man whose name I did not wish to ask. 

      "Bernie's on!" Fouts suddenly screams. Bernie Rosero, 62, of Hermosa Beach, has the day's first big bite. It is a 35-pound yellowtail. Fouts -- steam pouring from his red ears -- barrels over with a net to help, a sight that to Rosero must resemble what a matador sees at his job.

      "Excuse me! Watch out!" Fouts yells, knocking a row of us fishermen away from our colored rail numbers like dominoes.

      When his net proves ineffective, Fouts resorts to a giant hook on a stick, with which he spears Rosero's massive sushi roll in the left gill and heaves it up on deck. The yellowtail lies lifeless for 5 minutes, in shock. Then it wakes up and starts flopping violently, bleeding profusely from its wound and taking 20 more minutes to suffocate, the final 15 of which it spends inside a potato sack.

      This is the beginning of what will prove to be a bonanza yielding more than 150 fish, 10 over 25 pounds. You'd think these animals would tell their friends, "Hey, watch out for those funny squid with the strings attached!" But no. Within minutes the deck is littered with fish bodies, all oozing fluids, seizuring and seemingly pleading to me for help. One even lifts its head sideways toward me, like a singing "Boogie Bass" during the chorus of "Oh, Pretty Woman." 

      It's not me who did this to you, I attempt to explain. The only bass I ever ingest comes in a glass with a head of foam.

      Nauseated by the stench of death and the boat's constant rocking motion, I retire my rod and take the only available seat outdoors, a bench outside the captain's wheel house on the upper deck. Unfortunately, that is not where fishermen expect someone to be sitting when the fishing is so good. So they cast behind them without looking.

      In a new twist on the fish-slapping dance sketch from "Monty Python's Flying Circus," I am thwacked in the face by two different bait squid.

      "Sorry!" say the offending casters, who neglect to use the official fishing phrase to clear casting areas: "Head's up!"

      I slip down to the galley to get away. It is dark and smelly. (But then, every place is smelly to a man with squid juice congealing on his nose.) "Jenny Jones" is flickering from a TV that won't change channels (a rare episode in which a husband admits cheating on hiswife with her friend.) The life I left five hours earlier is a pleasant and distant dream.

      In what is scheduled to be the last 20 minutes of our trip, the sea bass start biting wildly, some big enough to be piloted by Russian submarine commanders.

      "I've got one!" a different voice screams every 2 minutes. More than an hour after our scheduled return, Captain Jessop has no plans to move.

      "I'm staying until this is over," he says. (Wasn't that what the captain said in "A Perfect Storm," too?)

      "Isn't this fun?" Kassel asks me.

      I am doused in squid guts, my feet are squishy with fish blood, and there is a smell that will remain in my nose until my nostril hairs grow out. 

      I call my my editor from my cell phone, reporting that I will be late.

      "It's probably not a good idea for you to file this story from the office anyway," he says.

 

 

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