The Many Moods of a Fisherman's City
Like all cities, San Francisco is many things to many people. To some The City—as it is known to all its residents and admirers—is sophistication: the elegance of luncheon in the Palace Hotel's Garden Court, the soft light of dinner at the Fleur de Lys. To others it is mystery: Russian and Telegraph hills after dark, when the fog rolls over them and makes the neon bleed in the night. To epicures, San Francisco is the city of exquisite fish and shellfish. Almost everyone, as a matter of fact, knows it is a good place to go to eat seafood. Thus far, only a favored few know that The City also is a wonderful place to go fishing.
A hundred-mile circle drawn around the city takes in the Russian and Gualala rivers, with their superb steelhead; the sprawling Delta, where in April the striped bass begin to move and spawn; perhaps 50 trout streams north and south of the city and in the Sierra foothills to-the east; a scattering of fine bass lakes; and, finally, a chunk of the Pacific Ocean, with its bounty of stripers and salmon and bottom fish.
The terrain in the Bay area was made for the many moods of the fisherman. North of the city the coastline is steep and rocky. Few towns encroach on this aloof and lonely shore, where sea lions bark in the surf and sea birds rest on the cliff.
April 17, 1961
South of San Francisco, the coastline is gentler. Suburbs are advancing down the shore line. It is beautiful, wind-cleansed country, with a flashing surf bounding against the rocks. The trees are twisted; the barns are gray from the salt wind. And the road south to Santa Cruz crosses a dozen streams that form shallow lagoons where they meet the sea.
There is no universal opening day for San Franciscans, partly because they have such a variety of fish that no one species dominates, but also because most California fish can be legally pursued the year round. There is, however, one exceptionally fine month to go fishing. That is April, a time of sharp, wind-washed days interspersed with days of buttery sunshine. At this time a brave army of trout-fishing traditionalists carries out a uniquely urban ceremony which, in San Francisco, passes for opening day.
Lake Merced, a shallow pond set well within the city limits, is full of planted rainbows. On April 29 a thousand anglers standing arm on arm will start flailing the water, hoping for a strike. It is a miracle, during this yearly ceremony, that the flying tackle misses so many fishermen; but then it misses most of the fish, too. In a way it is a pity the fishing is so frantic and fruitless, for the lake contains an abundant supply of fresh-water shrimp, and the rainbows feeding on them sometimes grow upwards of three pounds.
Farther out of town the fish are smaller, but the sport, if anything, is rougher. In the early mist and occasional wet snow of the Sierra's western slope, anglers pile out of their cars to throw worms, nymphs and spinners into the American River paralleling Highway 50 and the Yuba along Highway 40. For their pains, they get hatchery-raised trout about seven or eight inches long. Those who fish the larger streams, like the Trinity, have a fair chance of taking a steelhead, if their light tackle—and skill—can stand up to the thundering strike.
Most San Franciscans, however, leave the trout for other months and take their spring fishing in the gentler lowland lakes. April and May are fine for black bass (try it with a fly rod and popping bug: let the bug rest on the surface and pop it from time to time), crappie and bluegill at Lake Berryessa and other ponds and reservoirs in Napa County.
Berryessa is a new lake, held up by Monticello Dam. The fish are not very large as yet; a pound and a half is a good bass there. Still, the lake is considered a hot spot now. But if it follows the pattern of other warm-water reservoirs fishing is due to slack off before too many years. Clear Lake, in contrast, is a natural lake, and has been good, very good, for 50 years. Fishing on Clear Lake starts in March, and for some weeks now sportsmen have been out after catfish, white and black crappie, bluegill and black bass.
Their devout following notwithstanding, the trout, black bass and bluegill are only lightweight opponents for fishermen within the hundred-mile circle. The heavyweights are the striped bass; they go up to 60 pounds, and the best place to find them in April is the Delta.
The Delta is a triangle of land formed by the tortuous mingling of the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Mokelumne rivers where they meet to make their final run to the Gate. The points of the triangle are San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton, and it encloses a rich agricultural area tightly interlaced with waterways. The Delta is an artificial land, built last century, when the rivers were choked with silt from the hydraulic mining of gold and overflowed the land. Hydraulic mining was outlawed in 1884, and Chinese coolies, left over from the completion of the transcontinental railway, were put to work dredging up levees and restoring the land. In some ways the restoration turned out to be better than nature's original. Through the Delta there now flow a thousand miles of fishing and cruising channels—rivers, cuts, sloughs and reaches—a watery world on the doorstep of a city.
I lived in San Francisco 20 years before I really found my way into the Delta. I had known about it, of course, from riding the levee road to Sacramento, looking down on the blooming pear orchards, the myriad islands with their low growths of willows and bulrushes. I had watched the tiny ferryboats scuttling back and forth between the islands and seen the common but always startling sight of ocean-bound freighters threading through the channels, the water they ride on hidden from view by the intervening willows.
When I finally landed on the Delta in 1956, it was a striped bass that brought me there. The fish was served to me at a friend's home, its delicate white flesh cooked with love and melted butter. "Where did you buy this?" I asked my host. "You don't buy striped bass," he said, piously. "You catch them."
This struck me as a pretentious remark, but it turned out to be true. There is a black market in striped bass in the purlieus of San Francisco Bay. And the striper is by law exclusively a game fish, with the catch limited to three a day, the legal size being 16 inches. Some 250,000 San Franciscans—including me—go after them annually.
About 80% of the anglers use bait. Chunked or filleted sardines are the most popular, although stripers have been taken on flies. They are also taken regularly by trollers using feathered spoons and plugs. For some reason the stripers do not rise to the lures that have been so successful in the eastern fishery—buck-tails, sea worms and eel rigs.
Hap Robertson, who runs Hap's Place at Rio Vista, recommends chumming, on the experience of a customer who fishes for stripers almost every weekend; and, according to Hap, he catches the limit almost every time he comes out. Hap calls him "the best fisherman I know," and adds: "He has a chum box made of quarter-inch hardware cloth, 8 by 8 by 14 inches. He cuts up and mashes sardines in this, and then hangs the box behind his boat and bounces it away with the tide, about 20 feet from the boat. He fishes within a few feet of the box."
Hap advises light tackle. "The male fish hit hard, and you don't have to worry about any delicacy of touch," he says. "But the sows pick up the bait, mouth it and move along a little way. If they feel the weight of the line or drag of the reel, they'll drop the bait and leave."
During April and May, while the stripers are still spawning, they stay close to the Delta, wandering the shallows off China Camp and the Hamilton Field flats. In the Delta itself, they move around Venice Island and Oulton Point. Then in early June the mature fish start downstream toward the Bay and the ocean. On the way they pass through Carquinez Strait, and here they are most easily caught by trolling. For reasons I can't even guess at, the stripers slash at the lures most honestly during the evening hours. The first time I went there I was aboard a party boat out of Dowrelio's Resort at Crockett. For an hour nothing happened. Then the skipper ordered us to get our lines out of the water, and raced toward a cloud of diving birds. He slowed the boat as we neared the birds and we cast lines again. Within seconds, every reel on the boat was screeching. During the next five minutes fish flopped aboard in a silver stream. Lines became so tangled that there was no hope of straightening them out. My line had merged with three others—and on the four lines were five fish. The line with two fish was plainly mine, but there was some disagreement about it. After that flurry, 15 anglers had 19 fish. And for the next two hours, before we headed back to Dowrelio's, there was not another strike.
Once past Carquinez Strait, the stripers begin to run along the seashore, sometimes—to the pleasure of surf fishermen—churning the water white as they pursue bait fish into small coves. For the rest of the summer, and before they wander back into the Delta, they can be caught almost anywhere in the Bay area. Fishermen troll for them off Alcatraz and in Raccoon Strait. The striper is also pursued by jetty jockeys from the shore and piers of San Francisco to Coyote Point in San Mateo County, and the surf fishermen keep a close watch on the beaches north and south.
On some of the same beaches other fishermen will be scanning the water for the first schools of smelt, which start their spring run sometime around St. Patrick's Day. From then until September the surf regularly teems with millions of the wriggling silver fish. Just as regularly, the surf is empty, for the smelt seems to lead a helter-skelter life and is extremely hard to outguess.
Ed Watt, who manages Martin's Beach, says the smelt run about four days a week. "One day they'll come in at 10:30 in the morning and the next day at 2:30—or not at all."
When word of a run gets around, the smelt jumpers converge. Some carry one-man A-frame nets having a maximum width of six feet. Other two-man teams carry 20-foot horizontal nets, and charge into the surf as if they were setting up a badminton game. This wild action takes place at any hour of the day or night. It results in two distinctly different sizes of smelt, depending on the hour. Day fish run about 10 to the pound, and night fish run 30 to the pound.
Both are delicious if cooked as follows: dip in pancake mix and fry for two minutes in deep hot fat (375°). When the fish are cool enough, twist off the tail. Give the head a quarter turn each way, then pull steadily, and the head, bones and all the insides come out at once. You are left with a hollow, crisp tidbit.
Prowling the rocky headlands near these same beaches is another strange breed of hunting cat, the abalone mar. Armed with a screwdriver, he sloshes among the weeds of low tide, sometimes covered entirely by the cold surf, bending to feel out the abalone. When his hand encounters one of the hard, slippery shells, he uses the screwdriver to pry the reluctant abalone off its rock.
The shorebound abalone are small, and it sometimes takes a long, wet time to harvest the limit of five. To get the big ones, you must swim out to sea and dive for them. Most abalone hunters take along a float made by enclosing an inner tube in heavy canvas, leaving a slit in the top side to receive the catch. Some use two carbon-dioxide life preservers with a net strung between. Others, seeking what little comfort the sport provides, use one-and two-man rubber boats. I went out once with a friend of mine, Police Sergeant Robert McCusker. We pushed our floats before us and headed for sea, wearing exposure suits and fins. We dived in cold water from eight to 35 feet deep, and it was all free diving—meaning no air tanks. "We do not use air," McCusker says, "simply because it is illegal." He is an expert diver, and can afford to be law-abiding.
What you get after all this trouble and discomfort is a sea snail, an ugly-looking gastropod that must be pried from its shell, trimmed and cleaned and beaten with a mallet before it is edible. Says the official bulletin of the California Department of Fish and Game: "A slice of abalone before it is pounded has the consistency of the tread of a better grade tire casing." But when thoroughly pounded, dipped in beaten egg and flour and cooked in hot fat very quickly, it is one of the world's delicacies.
Despite the gastronomic rewards, there are not a few anglers who refuse to classify abalone-pounding and smelt-jumping as genuine forms of fishing. There is an even fussier group of San Franciscans which looks down on all forms of marine quarry save one—the tyee, or king salmon. These fish come big. The smallest keeper must be at least 22 inches long; and occasionally a fish is landed that weighs 60 pounds and more.
As a tribute to the lordly tyee, San Francisco fishermen have created one of the world's richest deposits of cast iron on the ocean bottom between the Golden Gate and the Farallon Islands. In this deep water they get their anchovy baits down with a three-pound iron ball held to the line by a spring. Every time a salmon strikes, the spring opens up, and down goes another sinker. Thousands of them lie in the deep, ready for mining.
The loss of one or a dozen 40¢ sinkers has never discouraged the San Francisco salmon fisherman. He is a hardy fellow, likely to arise at 4 in the morning, ready to pit the contents of his stomach against the considerable roll of the ocean swells that lie between him and his distant fishing ground.
Like the smelt, the tyee salmon are unpredictable. Early in the season (March) they tend to move around the Farallons, where they feed on shrimp, baby rock-fish and anchovies. In a normal year their feeding is almost undisturbed by fishermen, for at this season the average wind is 30 knots. Often I have been turned back by near gales and heavy waves after my charter boat was 10 bucking miles out. But this year the winds have been kind, and the early salmon run is the best in my memory. Every day many boats have been coming back with the limit (three per man) of strong, fat fish.
By June the tyee leave the Farallons and move in toward the Bay. This is the peak time for the tyee fisherman. Every morning at 6 about 150 charter and party boats carrying from six to 12 people each leave their docks at Sausalito, Berkeley, San Francisco and other Bay points. To my mind, these quiet, early-morning departures can be among the pleasantest things in life. Wisps of fog shroud the Bay, the sun barely lights the ridge on Belvedere peninsula. The sleepy harbor seals lie like giant sloths on the mooring buoys, staring with large, unblinking eyes at outgoing fishermen.
Although the favorite lure is still the deep-trolled anchovy, many anglers are abandoning the traditional heavy gear for spinning rods; they report good results and more fight per salmon.
Late in the season, in September, the tyee start moving toward the Sacramento River to spawn. And a man with light tackle can get some exciting action by trolling in San Pablo Bay and the Sacramento. The trick is to troll upstream and so slowly that the spinner barely keeps its beat. The trick, too, is to avoid intimate contact with the giant sturgeon, which have a nursery in San Pablo Bay. In the fall an antic mood grips these immense, armored fish and, bursting with love, they fling themselves high out of the water. Since sturgeon run to nine or 10 feet, this is quite a sight.
Although it is legal to take them by casting and bottom-fishing, no one really goes out after sturgeon. Usually they are hooked by some astonished salmon or striper fisherman who blunders into one, losing his tackle in the process. If the tackle happens to stay intact the smallest keeper is 50 inches long.
September and October, too, are the times when the silver salmon start to come back into the hundred-mile circle from the depths of the Pacific. In these months and on to December they enter the tidal lagoons and smaller streams on their way up to spawn. Weighing from seven to 12 pounds, they are tremendous fighters, full of leap and dash. The best places are the mouth of the Russian River, the Gualala, Ten Mile River and the Garcia. Silvers are caught also in Tomales Bay and off Dillon Beach. The season has a short peak, because silvers should be taken before they lose their sea-given vigor. The season varies from stream to stream but generally follows the first heavy rains that wash away the sand bars at the mouths of the streams and allow the salmon in.
Not long after the silvers stop running, these same streams slowly come alive with steelhead. "They are wild and fast and heavy," says steelheader Doug Merrick, with reverence. "There's no other fishing like it. It's exciting as hell." Unique to the Pacific Coast, steelhead spend most of their time at sea, returning in late November to their birth streams to spawn. Unlike salmon, they do not die after spawning but may return year after year. At sea they are a steel-blue with bright silvery sides, and can be confused with salmon. One old fisherman advises, "If you can pick up a steelhead by the tail, it's a salmon." Once they move into fresh water, they develop a colorful stripe along their sides and greatly resemble rainbow trout.
The Russian River is a splendid steelhead stream and attracts larger fish (averaging 10 pounds) than the northern rivers. The Gualala, the Garcia, the San Lorenzo and smaller coastal streams all harbor steelhead in the proper season. The proper season—late fall and winter—is wet and usually very cold. But the steelhead fishermen go out by the hundreds, cold and damp and happy. The purists fish with a light fly rod, with a sinking line and sinking fly. Others use two-handed spinning rods with wobblers, spinners and flashers. Still others use steelhead or salmon roe—preferably fresh—which they gather into a "strawberry" about as big as a thumbnail.
The steelhead population seems to be on the decline. One fisherman told me: "We used to count on at least one fish a day. Now we're glad to get one a trip."
These odds, and the bleak weather, are too much for any but the most unswerving angler. In fact, for many San Franciscans, the odds and discomforts of any type of fishing are too great if it requires that they set foot outside the city limits. With special knowledge they do very well without ever leaving town.
One of their favorite spots is a deep and productive striper hole at the foot of Taraval Street. Fishing is also good (and so is crabbing) on the Army mine dock and at Old Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge. There are some good fresh-water ponds inside the Presidio. Anglers must get permission from the provost marshal, show their state fishing license and agree to abide by the military rules. A Presidio permit good for one year can be had free. And, of course, there is always Lake Merced.
Hidden all around the perimeter—mostly in the Bay—are dozens of other lively fishing holes. They aren't much to look at, but fish can be caught in them. One of the best is at the Pacific Gas & Electric Company's steam plant. The water flows from the plant at about 70?. This warm water attracts bait fish, and the striped bass are not far behind. Year after year the bass appear first at this site, and it is the last place they leave. Double Rock, the city dump just north of the new ball park at Candlestick Park, is also a favored spot. Islais Creek is popular, and so is the Red Stack Pier, mainly because it is one of the few privately operated wharves where fishermen are tolerated. Once in a while the management chases everybody for smoking, but within a few days—or hours—the fishermen are allowed to drift back.
At other spots the conflict between the workaday world and the dreamy world of fishermen is sometimes sharper. Where Mission Rock used to be (the rock is now blasted away), welders at the Bethlehem shipyard gather of a spring night, looking for striper. To attract bait fish, they drop lights into the water. This is illegal. Several of the welders have been fired. The company, however, was not concerned with conservation or good sportsmanship. Its position was that welders on the night shift ought to weld, not fish. But there is no reasoning with a fisherman—not in San Francisco in the spring.
San Pablo Bay
San Francisco Bay
San Joaquin River