By David G. Brown
I am a fisherman of the first order. Just pick up the phone and I’m ready to go-to any fishery, anywhere, anytime.
Early on, my sport was baseball. Then hockey. Later I became a golfing fanatic. As a kid back in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, I dabbled in fishing, occasionally hooking up with my chums. We’d ride our bikes to the Slatersville Reservoir to catch sunfish (kivvers), largemouth bass, and pickerel. But that was just to while the time away—until 6 years ago when I joined my pal Top Knot to surf cast at Race Point in Cape Cod.
On that memorable night, under a rainy, cloud-covered, full August moon, I tossed our a live American eel and retrieved a magnificent 43-inch, 35-pound striped bass (Morone saxatilis). Bingo, I was hooked—line and sinker.
Now, I exist to fish for “stripers”; they have become my mission statement.
Please understand I also enjoy fishing for other species, and when I recently spent some months in the Bay Area I knew there would be opportunities for salmon, halibut, and sturgeon as well as stripers (which, I understand, were transported here several decades ago from New England).
My first week, I stopped in to chat with Dave Staley, proprietor of the Castro Valley Sportsmen’s Center. He tuned me in on the local scene: “Wanna catch trout? Go to Lake Chabot. For stripers, find your way out to Vasco Boulevard, head up Highway 4 to the delta. Or drive just beyond the Oakland Airport and bottom-fish anchovies at the Bay Farm Bridge in Alameda. You might reel in anything in those waters, including Jimmy Hoffa.”
What a mouthful. I walked out of Dave’s shop with my head in a spin and drove directly to Lake Chabot, pronounced “Cha-bo.” Back home in Woonsocket, a French-Canadian bastion, we pronounce it “Chabit.” C’est la vie.
Not more than 5 minutes from the hustle and bustle of Castro Valley Boulevard, I found Chabot, this exquisite lake surrounded by flower-covered hills, walking and bike paths, along with a bird sanctuary. I walked and walked along the western shoreline until I spotted a curious old-timer all bundled up in a black Oakland Raiders Winter parka. Her bobbing head was hidden under a cotton hood as she listened to her Walkman. Sitting on a wooden pier, this octogenarian had two lines in the water. I had my light “Ugly Stick” pole and a small Abu Garcia reel threaded with 6-pound test and began jigging a 4-inch plastic shad body-with no success.
In due time I asked her, “Whatcha usin’?”
Her eyes appeared out of the hood. She perused my deception, looked at me as though I was some village idiot, and replied, “Boy, you need Power Bait if you’s expectin’ to slay trout.”
I tracked over to the Chabot Bait &Tackle Shop, found out that on Wednesdays, for half price, I could rent a small powered trolling boat. I bought five bottles of Power Bait and drove home. Trout are cute, but I want stripers.
The following night I found the delta and fished for 6 hours near Discovery Bay. I cast surface poppers, swimmers, and Kastmaster lures (made in Rhode Island). Not one fish. Went back the next night. Nada.
Frustration had overtaken me. I labeled myself “Mr. Bubble.” As an addictive maniac, I was not to be denied. After a few hours of sleep, I slapped myself back to consciousness, stopped in at Dave Staley’s and purchased two bags of anchovies (they smell worse than the obnoxious odor of Oxnard onions). Managed to drive myself into an acute case of vertigo while getting lost in the myriad of Oakland streets, roads, and highways. Finally, I found the Bay Farm Bridge at noontime.
Not the most beautiful fishery, and a tad intimidating. I think I talked with a drug dealer, a pimp, and a few hookers, which really didn’t affect me, especially if stripers were in the offing. And I must say it was exhilarating looking across the bay at the San Francisco skyline. At least the tide was right neatly working its way to high.
A fellow by the name of Manoog Epstein helped set me up to bottom-fish the anchovies. I was using much heavier gear with 20-pound test line and my favorite Penn striper reel, housed on a 9-foot graphite rod.
Manoog, originally from Tok, Alaska, is a short, stubby, sinewy character who appeared from out of the woods on his bike. Didn’t even have a rod and reel. He was so nice I was apprehensive, especially when he whipped out all his knives, honed to razor-blade sharpness. Couldn’t help but wonder what he used them for. Then again, I was thankful he threaded two pungent anchovies onto two hooks for me… the first time.
Bottom-fishing is not exactly my cup of tea. You throw. You tighten the slack from your line, set a light drag, and place the rod on the wooden fence with the tip pointed up. And you wait, hoping and praying that the line will sing. If there’s no action, it’s a bore, easy to fall asleep. Manoog was very animated as he talked to my line, “C’mon, baby, hit it. Daddy needs a new pair of shoes,” trying to will a fish on.
Then, outta nothin, after almost two hours, my line screeched its way across the bay. Two hundred yards ripped from my Penn. Whatever it was was about to spool me, so I carefully tightened the drag and the fish settled. There was no need to reset the hook, this bull is mine. I think. I regained about 150 yards of line, hoping it would surface and I could get a glimpse, but, lo and behold, it took another long run. Big striped bass usually take you for two hard runs, and this baby was a fast mover. T he feel told me it had to be in the 40-pound range.
Manoog was psyched and kept encouraging me, “Stay with it, Davey boy. Give her no slack. You can do it. “
“Have no fear, my man.” Finally, I had the action I was hoping for.
On the second retrieve, as I drew the fish home, I got my first look. This schlock was big and sleek.
Manoog yelled, “It ain’t no striper, Davey. You got yourself a leopard shark.” Grey with several spots along its torso.
The fish was exhausted as I led it to the side of the bridge. I looked at Manoog and said, “What the hell am I gonna do with that?”
“You’ll eat it.”
“No, I won’t. I’m not getting near that monster. I’m cuttin’ the line.”
“Whoa, whoa. Don’t do dat, man. I’ll eat it. ”
“And you’ll remove the hook?”
In a flash Manoog was on that shark like flies take to tarpaper. Artfully, he pounded it above the eyes with a round rock and we watched its eyes roll up.
Manoog hauled the shark from the water. “Sure you don’t want to rake her home?”
“It’s all yours, my friend. I have no interest in taking her home.”
“Absolutely. How the hell are you gonna take her home on your bike?”
“You got plastic bags?”
“Indeed I do.”
In half an hour Bruce sliced up the entire fish, all 51 pounds of it, including the head—a master with those finely sharpened knives. I got my satisfaction, not a striper to boot, but an amazing battle. I gained protection and a newfound friend, all the way from Tok, Alaska. Mr. Manoog was a sight to behold as he rode off on that bike, preciously holding five plastic bags. ❖
Although I’ve yet to cook up a shark, I’ve got a simply splendid recipe for striped bass. Let’s begin with a worthy tip: Never over-wash a fish. It takes away from the taste. Stripers have an amazingly clean taste. The meat s white and flaky and the primo bites are near the tail. Before frying, brush your Morone saxatilis with olive oil, adding pinches of black pepper, garlic. And celery salt. Fry the filet at a moderate temp (320°) and squeeze lime as you go. Get it crispy on both sides. Never over-cook. My concept is to keep it simple so you can maximize the pure taste.
Crus Ritz crackers, adding salted butter to your liking. I never use oleo; a little butter will not kill ya. Sprinkle Old Bay Powder into the mix. Place parley in your oven: when it’s dry, crush in your hands and add to the Ritz. A fresh green salad, warm, sourdough bread (which y’all do so well in the Bay Area), and your favorite white wine is all it takes. Nothin’ fancy, other than the ritziest fish you can experience.
Mange, baby, mange.
David G. Brown is a former small business owner in Rhode Island. He has freelanced as a newspaper writer (Woonsocket Call and Castro Valley Forum), and now spends full time writing novels (Not Home, Gone Fishin, and Return of the Free Faller).