ABOARD THE NEW SALMON QUEEN --The sun had not yet broken the horizonas we cruised across lake-smooth SanFrancisco Bay. To the left, the lights along theSan Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge twinkledbrightly like a carnival at night.
The twin Caterpillar diesel engines in the50-foot Delta charter boat throbbed in unison,leaving a whooshing wake behind us. A bracingwind whipped around the vessel, the fresh airsmelling of sweet brine. Soon, we would passAlcatraz Island and slide beneath the GoldenGate Bridge and into the wild Pacific, an oceanthat certainly belies its name. Our destination:the fishing grounds around the Farallon Islands,about 26 miles out.
An hour earlier, my fishing buddy and I hadstopped at the bait-and-tackle shop that's theheadquarters of the Emeryville SportfishingCenter. The shop serves as the booking agentfor the nine-boat charter fleet docked there. Weeach paid $80 for the fishing trip and spentanother $4 on two burlap fish sacks and twomesh crab sacks in which to stash our catches.Then we boarded the New Salmon Queen, tiedour rods to rod holders that linethe boat's railing, and securedour other gear inside the cabin.
One trip, two limits
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On this Friday morning, we 15fishermen (14 adults and onechild) had signed on for what'scalled a "combo trip," a commonouting during Dungeness crabseason. Though crab seasonruns from November until mid-June, combo trips usually end inMarch because the more highlyesteemed salmon season opensin April. The goal on a combotrip is for each angler to bringback limits of 10 rockfish and sixcrabs. It's called "limiting out."
A typical combo trip goes likethis: Leave the docks at 6 a.m.,get to the Farallons by about 8and fish until everyone hascaught the limit. On the wayback, the charter boat stops topull up crab traps set out a dayor two before. Enough Dungenesscrabs are hauled up toguarantee that each angler gets ahalf-dozen.
Once we passed the GoldenGate Bridge and the gorgeousMarin Headlands, the wind andthe seas picked up and the guyssettled in for the 90-minute ride.
Some sprawled on a couch insidethe cabin and dozed. Otherssat in booths, eating breakfastsof cold fried chicken and hamsandwiches. Two anglers heatedprime rib bones in the microwaveoven, producing the bestsmell of the day.
Other guys stood around inthe stern, out of the wind andspray, drinking coffee, jokingand swapping fish tales. A senseof excited anticipation was themood of the morning.
'A chance to get on the sea'
Veteran anglers Ross Petersonand his longtime fishing partner,Donald Lynn, drove from Stocktonto go fishing this day. Foryears, the two have fished upand down the California coastand in the Delta.
For them - as for most of theanglers aboard - there was moreto this trip than just bringinghome dinner.
"A bad day fishin' is betterthan a good day workin'," Lynnquoted.
"We usually limit out whereverwe go," said Peterson.
"Mainly, this is a chance to geton the sea."
"Out on the water, everybody'sgot something in common,"added Charles Cotton,also from Stockton. "I'm herewith two guys from work. Theother day I said 'fishing' andsomebody said, 'Let's go!' "
Ruben Lerma of North Highlandswas aboard with his12-year-old son, Arron.
"He earned this trip," Lermasaid of his boy. "I took himsalmon fishing and he's beenwanting to come back. We basicallymade a deal. I said, 'Keepyour grades up and we'll seewhat we can do.' He came homelast week with an honor-roll slipand I had to keep my end of thebargain, so here we are. This is anice getaway, and being with myson is really important."
The boat's deckhand, ChrisFox, has worked aboard the NewSalmon Queen for a year. Heloves the job, and it shows in hisready smile and eagerness tohelp the fishermen.
"It's like an adventure, andevery day is different," he said ashe moved around the boat,getting things shipshape.
A 'lucky' captain
Inside the wheelhouse, NewSalmon Queen owner and captainCraig Shimokusu talked toother skippers on the radio andlistened to a weather report.
"Looks like we'll have an eastwind about 12 knots, but itshould taper off to about 6 knotsat the islands," he said.
As the day went by, this translatedto rocking and rolling withthe rhythm of the waves, sometimeshaving to quickly grab ahandhold to keep from gettingknocked around. Of course,weather is always a factor on theocean, especially in the winter.
For instance, a week before ourouting, the New Salmon Queenfished in huge swells and rain,yet everyone limited out.
Until last year, the NewSalmon Queen was a commercialcrabbing boat on whichShimokusu had worked for 10years. Then he bought the vesseland converted it to a charterboat. If you know your wayaround a dock, you know thatoperating a fishing boat is amajor commitment and a crushingexpense. The work neverstops and you're a captive to it.
Despite that, Shimokusu said,"I'm lucky to be able to do somethingI love and make a living at.My dad took me fishing when Iwas a kid and I got hooked."
Anybody can buy a ticket to gofishing, from experienced anglerswho - like Peterson andLynn - often help deckhands dochores and assist other anglers,to novices who will spend theday seasick or getting their linestangled.
Regardless of their level ofexpertise, Shimokusu observed,"The pressure builds up in everybody'slives, so this is like amini-vacation. Also, it's a hunter-gatherer (scenario) - go outand catch your meals for thenext couple of days and get somebonus crabs on top of it."
Soon, we moved to the bow ofthe boat to watch our approachto the misty, 90 million-year-oldFarallon Islands. The biggest ofthe formations is the southeasterncluster, which is 358 feethigh and was topped with alighthouse in 1855.
As we neared the fishinggrounds, deckhand Fox assembledus on the stern deck for abrief fishing seminar. Essentially,as we drifted over rockshelves and encountered schoolsof fish, we were to take our cuesfrom Shimokusu, speaking overthe PA system. He would bewatching a fish finder and, stillmore effective, a sophisticatedWestmar side-scanning sonarsystem to locate our prey.
Each rod was rigged with twofly jigs and a lead sinker. Let thesinker go to the bottom, Foxcounseled, and slowly reel upthe rig until it reaches the levelwhere the fish are congregated.
Other times, the captainwould tell us how deep the fishwere. For instance, he wouldsay, "They're 30 feet down,"and, "Free-spool for five secondsand you'll be in the middle ofthem."
Each fisherman would beresponsible for putting his catchin his burlap sack, looped on ametal catch at the rod-holderstation. Fox would roam theboat, troubleshooting.
"Get ready," the captain said,slowing down and swinging theboat around to position it."Spread out, guys, there's lots ofroom."
The fishing was fast and furious,with anglers often reeling intwo hefty rockfish at a time - anarm-torquing chore when thatmuch weight is fighting a currentas it comes up from depthsranging between 30 feet and 100feet. The scene was all bent rods,flopping fish and whoops oftriumph.
We would catch rockfish for15 minutes, then crank up therigs so the boat could be repositionedto drift over moreschools, and the process wouldrepeat. We could have keptdoing that all day - for the fun ofit - but it didn't take us long tolimit out.
On the way back in, Fox filletedfish in what was really astudy in how to do it (his besttime was 18 seconds). Eachfisherman stashed his fillets inplastic bags to take home.
Soon, we stopped at one ofShimokusu's strings of crab pots(he has 60). Each trap is attachedto a line hooked to afloating buoy.
With some help from Lynnand Peterson, Fox began theritual of crabbing. First, hesnagged the buoy line with aboat hook, then slipped the lineinto the pulley of a battery-poweredwinch. The winch lifted theheavy, circular, rebar-and-wiretrap out of the water and alongsidethe starboard gunwale; thenFox heaved the trap onto thegunwale and emptied the scurryingcrabs into a wooden box.
The guys crowded around to seethat many live crabs in one placeat one time. Fox rebaited the trapwith fish carcasses and squidand pushed it back into thewater. After emptying eight pots,he had enough crabs to giveeveryone six.
The taste of success
We were back at the docks atabout 3 p.m. and sought out DonLawson. He has a little businessset up behind the tackle shop.
For $1 apiece, he cooks livecrabs in 30-gallon pots of boilingsalted water. He took our twocrab sacks from us, droppedthem in a pot with other sacksand set a timer for 25 minutes.
As we waited, we talked withother people in line, includingDave Okasaki and his sister,Lynn Okasaki, from Roseville,who had just returned from acombo trip aboard another charterboat, the New Seeker.
"Where else would you wantto be on a beautiful day like this?It was gorgeous out there," saidDave Okasaki.
"We have fishing in ourblood," Lynn Okasaki said. "Onone of our trips, we were in themidst of a (pod) of dolphins,hundreds of them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Just then, Lawson's timerdinged and he carefully liftedsteaming sacks of cooked crabsout of the boiling water andimmersed them in tubs of coldwater. The air filled with a fragrantaroma.
"Since Nov. 5, I've cooked4,500 crabs, not including today,"Lawson said. "The onlytrouble is, at the end of the daysmell like a crab."
Soon, our crabs had cooled,we headed to the car. Before weput the crabs into an ice chest,we broke off a bunch of legs andcracked them open with ourteeth and fingers, gouging outchunks of sweet meat and wolfingthem down.
"From the ocean to the cookpot to our bellies, all within anhour," my fishing buddy said.I couldn't answer because mymouth was full.