BY THE CELLBLOCKS AND THE BAY

In sight of San Quentin and San Francisco, below the hurtling commuter traffic, lie striped bass of record size offering sport to satisfy any fisherman
November 12, 1973

San Francisco Bay: 4:30 in the morning. I am later than planned because of the time it took to clear myself with a policeman who pulled me over in San Anselmo for "suspicious behavior." Was it the generally fishy odor about the car that, in the end, convinced the law of my innocence? I don't know. In any case, we parted amicably.

I park the car near a maintenance station on the Marin County side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Frank has not arrived, so I decide to walk out on the span for a quick preview.

Along the way, rats scurry for cover behind a screen of shabby shrubs. These would not be big Norways, the kind you expect to see in the tropics sitting boldly in a palm while you sip rum and tonic on the veranda. No, the pusillanimous rodents that people my morning are inclined to cower behind slimy rocks near the freeway, struggling on an equal footing with Marfak for control of the last strands of seaweed or waiting in crevices for the next colloidal high tide.

I brush past the PEDESTRIANS PROHIBITED sign, jump the low guardrail and trot to the second lamppost. There is no traffic in sight but from the north I hear a big diesel shift down on the bridge approach. He will be doing 70 when he reaches me so I hook one leg over the railing, grip the light standard and try to be inconspicuous. I would rather not be sucked under the wheels of a tractor-trailer full of rutabagas. He goes by with a blast and the bridge vibrates as his taillights fade away. I run to the next lamppost and look down. A dozen dark forms are finning in the shadow beneath the bridge. The largest is a striped bass of more than 30 pounds. To the right, a pod of smelt is easing near on a tangent certain to prompt an attack. The little fish are attracted by the brilliant light overhead. In their lack of purpose they seem ephemeral, like a quivering translucent curtain, while the heavy predators lurking in the dark are deliberate and potent. In a moment the black shapes explode, sending the smelt showering away in a radius of flashing bodies.

Satisfied, I turn back and see a California Highway Patrol car coming at me, its nose down under heavy braking.

"What are you doing here, buddy?"

"Going fishing as soon as it's legal time. Just looking to see if there were any stripers."

"That your car back at the maintenance building?"

"Yes."

"Better move it. It's parked illegally. And don't walk out here anymore."

On my way to the car I see the patrolman who questioned me get out and look over the railing. Then the amber light is flashing and the driver is out, too. Together they lean over the side, pointing.

Frank's blue sedan comes down off the ramp and turns south. When I reach him, he is untying his boat and I begin to do the same. In a few seconds we will have them in the water. In order to launch we must trespass. The land belongs to the state of California and although I've never been verbally warned off, any number of KEEP OUT signs are posted.

For seven or eight years I kept a boat locked up behind a sign reading CABLE CROSSING. Once a year someone would repaint the sign, getting white paint on the chain. Some yards away in a blockhouse belonging to San Quentin penitentiary, trusties worked during the day. Each season they raised a handsome vegetable garden that I was careful never to disturb.

I often talked to one convict in particular. After fishing it would take a few minutes to put the boat back behind the sign and carry everything else to the car. If he saw me, he would call out in greeting and I'd perhaps comment on the progress of the garden. Then he would ask about the fishing. He said he liked to go after stripers before he got Inside.

One December we had a severe storm, accompanied by especially high tides. Afterward, I went over to check the boat and all I could find was the chain. I was poking around the beach when I heard my friend's voice.

"Looking for your boat?"

"Guess the storm got it," I replied.

"No, I saw it break loose the other morning and caught it. I dragged it up there," he said, pointing. "Only thing I couldn't find was the seat." Beyond the garden I could see my trim little El Toro upside down on a pair of two-by-fours.

In recent years there have been no inmates at the blockhouse, and the garden lies fallow beneath wild anise. In a sense this has meant more license to trespass, but I stopped keeping a boat behind the sign when I knew there would be no trusty to look after it.

The morning is windless, overcast. Sunrise is only an hour away, yet the eastern horizon above San Pablo Bay is still dark. Bursts of flame glow against the cloud ceiling over Point Molate, for behind its quarried headlands lies the Standard Oil Company of California's refinery, petroleum's ode to the Cubists with its sprawl of cylinders, cones and rectangles. At Point San Quentin the flaring fires have become a familiar greeting, much like the glistening dew on a chokecherry bush that starts off the trout fisherman's day in the Rockies.

"Did you look?" Frank asks.

"They're there."

We row around the tilted bow of a derelict tugboat, then past rotted pilings left from the ferryboat days. Over on the approach a yellow bridge-patrol truck moves slowly, its warning lights flashing. Switching on a spotlight, the driver scans the water, catching sight of Frank and me. Then the light is turned off and the truck goes on toward the toll plaza.

Unseen overhead, a nighthawk rasps its singularly forlorn call. The smell of an institutional breakfast wafts unappetizingly across the water from San Quentin, an odor not unlike that of a cow barn in winter. No croissants and chilled grapefruit sections this morning, to be sure.

I visited Inside once when I was 16 and on a school tour. We saw the high comblike cellblocks, the laundry, woodshop, dusty yard and gas chamber—"the little green room." Worst of all I saw the look of confinement on the faces of the hundreds of inmates. Whatever they had for breakfast, I felt certain it would not taste delicious.

There is a fast tide and we must row smartly to pass beneath the bridge, always dank and dripping. Sounds are amplified and echoed, especially that of wavelets slapping against pilings. Reflected light plays on the girders overhead, and just before we emerge I see several bass hovering at the edge but they sink from view almost at once.

Frank rows into the dark and I decide to try the first light. I drop a large buck-tail fly by the piling directly beneath the lamp where the current will swing it into the shadows.

Instantly there is a take and I set the hook twice. This is always the moment when you wonder if the bass will go under the bridge and break the line on a sharp barnacle. But light pressure encourages them to dive toward the boat. Now my bass pulls into the dark and I try to gauge its size. If nothing else, it is a stubborn fish that resolutely resists all the strain I can manage on a 15-pound tippet. Eventually, I land it and mentally record a weight slightly above 20 pounds.

Frank is anchored under the third light where I see angular splashes as fish erupt under a school of bait.

It was Walt Mullen who showed me the bridge and how to fish it shortly after it was built. When we first met I was 16 and he more than 80. My father had known Walt's daughter back in the '20s when they were going to Stanford. "He loved to fish more than anyone I ever knew," my dad recalls.

Mullen was a sign painter, wiry and spry, surely no more than a hundred pounds soaking wet. His shop was unpretentious and well hidden from casual customers. I wanted to learn the trade so I would often hang around, but my patience was too short and my business acumen nil. We always ended up talking about fishing.

One day he pulled a rumpled, paint-smeared tide book out of a little pocket in the front of his overalls. "See here," he said, pointing to the numerals. "There's a good tide in three days. Would you like to go out to the bridge?"

At that point my experience was primarily academic so far as fly casting for striped bass was concerned. Walt did not fly-fish but he knew instinctively I would catch fish on the streamers I showed him.

I had read about certain pioneer anglers on the East Coast who caught striped bass by fly-fishing. Among them was Joe Brooks, the noted Virginian, who caught one weighing 29 pounds six ounces in 1948 out of Coos Bay, Ore. This fish was acknowledged as the world record for fly tackle.

Walt and I fished together regularly for several years. Then I married and became too busy and he closed his shop, moving his business into an adjoining county. Occasionally I would see him at the bridge. His eyes were failing and he did not trust himself in a boat anymore so he would cast from the rocks, often a futile gesture since the stripers rarely fed that close to shore.

One windy evening Bill Schaadt and I were in a boat at the third light. "Look." Bill pointed. Hunched against the railing on the bridge, oblivious to speeding traffic and thoroughly unable to distinguish Bill or me, was Walt. He was clutching an enormous spinning rod, which he cocked back, then used to drive his lure in a trajectory that carried it over a school of bass I'm sure he never saw. His face was locked in an expression of determination that made him look like an angling Ichabod Crane.

"Boy," Bill said. "There's a guy who likes to fish!"

Walt hooked a striper as we watched and stalked grimly back to the rocks to land it.

After that, many years passed during which I did not see Walt Mullen. Then one cold spring morning I was out at the bridge alone. I'd begun going at odd hours and on poorish tides simply to avoid the noisome mob of trollers.

When it grew light I could see someone casting from the rocks. Walt! I drew up my anchor and rowed in, circling widely so I wouldn't spoil anything. Close in I turned but could no longer see anyone.

Still excited, I went ashore. He couldn't see me, I thought. But I could find no one even though I searched under the bridge and crossed the freeway to look on the other side. I felt a sense of loss, an uneasy melancholy. I went home.

Months later I found out Walt had died earlier that spring.

I row behind Frank. The bass are there, making heavy swirls as they feed. Traffic on the bridge is picking up. Early commuters. They are too low in their cars to see us but the truck drivers usually wave or give a blast of the horn. It is getting light, a gray dawn that could be seriously depressing to a man looking forward to eight hours on the production line.

"The coldest winter I ever spent," someone once wrote, "was a summer in San Francisco." Perhaps this explains, in part, the centesimal suicides and high alcohol intake for which the City by the Bay is known.

We are virtually within sight of well over a million people, yet alone. We are perhaps out of step, ill-placed and ill-timed, in a sphere where cogs must mesh and all parts syncopate to keep the system running.

Even within the framework of angling as a popular endeavor, our methods are archaic: fly rods and rowboats. But we are touching something unrestricted, wild and arcane, beyond the reach of those who carefully maintain one-dimensional lives. There are people in the city nearby whose sole contact today with unreconstructed nature will be to step into diminutive piles of poodle excrement.

When I looked into the mirror during the late 1950s I saw a striped-bass fisherman who imagined, wrongly, that he was doing something remarkable and unique. The thought used to please me.

At the time, an elderly gent by the name of Ellis Springer was pierkeeper at the Marin Rod and Gun Club, whose facilities are situated only a few feet from the bridge. Ellis would let me use the club's launching ramp, dock and fish-cleaning table even though I was not a member. Always in a light blue captain's hat and smoking a stubby cigar, he was one of those people who talked at you. What made this particularly amusing was that his speech had a quality that made it impossible to understand anything he said.

I did not think he knew what fly-fishing was and wanted to let him in on my discovery. So one day when we were down at the dock I gave him a demonstration that seemed to fill him with what I thought to be a proper sense of wonder. I finished the exhibition by showing him some flies, which he studied for a moment. Then he looked at me with an expression of total confusion and exclaimed, "Yeehhh! Hoopty poopty! Hoopty poopty!"

Such exclamations were a part of all subsequent conversations.

"Hi, Springer."

"Yeehhh! Hoopty poopty!"

I used to carry fish around in the back of my car the way other young men carried a six-pack of Country Club. I'd show Ellis and he'd become truly frantic, waving his cigar. "Yeehhh! Hoopty poopty! Hoopty poopty!"

Later I learned he called everything that was not a sardine filet a hoopty poopty.

Frank hooks a bass. I put my anchor down out of his way but still near enough to reach the school. I see two powerful boils and cast the bulky fly on a slow loop toward the swirl closest to a piling. In my eagerness I overshoot so the fly tinks against the bridge, hanging momentarily between the rail and roadway. Then it flutters downward and I notice the number 9 stenciled on the abutment above.

The take is authoritative and my response lifts the clearly visible fly line from the water, curving it abruptly as a sheet of droplets limns the fish's first long run. It is not a frenetic battle as the striper stays deep, far from the boat. But I am not inclined to carry out these contests gently and soon the fish is nearby. Once, glowering, it rushes away beneath a crescent of spray only to be turned in a vertical wallow. Nothing in their lives really prepares fish to deal with the relentless harassment of being hooked.

Oddly, I am reminded of the way Walt Mullen always described the playing of a fish. "Then it fooled around and fooled around," he would say. And that is exactly it.

In the boat the striped bass is big. "It's more than 25," I say to Frank. Earlier, we had talked of a 25-pound striper caught accidentally by a man fly-fishing for shad in the Russian River. It seemed that a fish taken by design should receive top honors for the season. Naturally, we each hoped to catch such a bass.

Back at the beach we lay three large fish in front of the CABLE CROSSING sign. "That one's bigger than the 30-pounder I caught on a casting rod last season," Frank says. Getting his Polaroid camera he takes a picture of me with the fish. The photo comes out a minute later looking distant and journalistic. I promise to call him as soon as I weigh the bass. Then I head for San Rafael; he goes off to work in San Francisco.

Later, I call. "It's the big one, isn't it?" Frank asks. "I've been looking at the snapshot all morning."

"Yes, 36 pounds six ounces."

The record Brooks held for 18 years was broken.

That was 1966 and years have passed and others have caught bigger bass, over 40 pounds, and the latest record, of course, someday will be topped. Outside my Montana home a blizzard is raging. The familiar edges that normally define my yard—its fences, woodpile and barns—have vanished beneath the snow. My house, the last on an unpaved road among aspen and pine forests along the northwestern perimeter of the vast Absaroka Wilderness, is well on its way toward becoming a speck on the surface of a preposterous marshmallow. Unable to go out, I have sat, reminisced and revisited. For the angler remoteness, a romance with far places, threads through his finest memories. I moved to Big Sky country seeking remoteness. But for me, this day, it lies miles to the west, beneath a bridge in San Francisco Bay.

THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)