A nasty day of fishing on S.F Bay turns into a keeper

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A nasty day of fishing on the bay turns into a keeper

Tom Stienstra, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer    

July 21, 2002

The great outdoors, like love, should never be saved for a perfect day.

When we arrived at Loch Lomond Harbor in San Rafael this week, a glance at the wind flags conjured nothing but trouble. They were stretched out as if starched, with a wind out of the south ripping at 15 knots and gusts to 20. Near the Richmond Bridge, San Francisco Bay was rippled with white caps for miles, like the suds in a washing machine. No other boats were on the water. The owners were waiting for a perfect day, not like this one.

My boys, Jeremy, 14, and Kris, 11, didn't seem to mind the prospects. After all, they were here. And who knows what the day might bring.

At the dock, they were fascinated with several marine birds that were hanging around the bait shop -- a great blue heron, a snowy egret, a great egret, a night heron and a gull. A tall, thin guy emerged from the shop, a grin breaking an anxious frown. It was Keith Fraser, a mentor and fishing partner. He looked at me, the words barely audible. "It's blowin' out there today," he muttered. "I don't want to disappoint the boys, but all we might end up with is a rough boat ride. It's like the North Atlantic out there."

But the boys were not disappointed. The birds had transfixed them. Fraser grinned, reached into a bait tank with a small net and handed Jeremy a two- inch shiner perch.

"Hold it high, in your palm," Fraser commanded.

In the next instant, the snowy egret took to the air, flared its wings, and then landed on Jeremy's open hand. The bird snatched the small fish and swallowed it, during which you could actually see the shape of the fish passing down its long craw. Jeremy, who is rapidly becoming a young man, let all the pressures of being a teenager drift off into the background and grinned at the bird.

Kris, equally mesmerized, then repeated the act. "That was weird," he said with a Cheshire Cat smile.

"That's Wee Willie, just like Willie Mays," Fraser explained. "He's been with us 10 years."

Fraser introduced the birds -- Nasty the great blue heron, Emma the great egret and Sylvester the black-crowned night heron. Missing for the moment was Ahab, a one-legged Hermann's gull, which I've seen land on Fraser's head, then perch there, hoping for a handout.

Then we were off to catch the incoming tide, boarding the 24-foot Skipjack and cruising out of the harbor. We were joined by our close friends, Tom Glasser and his son, Mike, both expert fishermen, who had agreed to help my boys with the subtle skills of drifting the bay's reefs for big bass.

The bay was awash in waves, and when the boat slammed into the swells at 30 knots, cold water crashed over the boat. Water clarity was poor, less than an inch. "Not good," said Fraser, clearly discouraged. To get out of the wind, we ducked behind the leeward side of a point off the Richmond shore, at a spot called the Whaling Station.

We hooked live shiner perch for bait, dropped them over the side with two ounces of weight, as the boat was maneuvered in a controlled drift, running with a big incoming tide, over a reef eight to 20 feet deep. First time through, nothing, no bites. "I was afraid of that," Fraser said.

The boat was repositioned for a second drift and I watched my boys in action. It takes a special touch to work live bait over a reef, where you "walk" the sinker along the bottom, where the bass are, setting the hooks on the bites, yet avoiding the snags. Kris, all of 4-foot-10, set the hook. His eyes looked like they might pop out of his head. He used the railing as a leverage point and battled away. The fish ran off to one side, then buried itself under the boat. It took five minutes for Kris to bring it to the surface, and then it was in the boat, a six-pounder, his first bass. He stared at it, as if in disbelief.

In the next few hours, on their own, Jeremy and Kris worked their rods, sensing every touch as they drifted the live bait along the bottom of the rocky reefs. The conditions were so rough that we stumbled all over the boat, like the bay boater's guide to ballet. But just when it seemed no more fish would be caught, one of them would hook up. Then there was a doubleheader, that is, both of them with bass, then four straight drifts with hookups.

In just three hours, 16 striped bass were hooked, fought and landed, most in eight to 12-pound class, all released but one for the barbecue. Kris had six, Jeremy four.

At the end of the tide, drifting the reef at the Brothers Islands, both boys hooked up at once, another doubleheader. I watched the looks on their faces as they battled away, full of both excitement and tension, gaining a little line, then losing it back. We covered 250 yards of water during the fights, the fish testing them to the limit. Almost in tandem, the two bass powered to the bottom, zigged one way, then zagged the other, then bulldogged straight down. Jeremy got his in first, a 12-pounder, bright and shiny, with the cleanest black-and-white stripes you've ever seen.

Kris was still at it, asking for no help, looking exhausted and yet still leveraging the fish. After 15 minutes, the striped bass rose to the surface along the boat and was his -- a beauty, about three feet long and 20 to 25 pounds. Kris stared at it, not quite believing it, and a moment later, smiled broadly as it was released and swam off into the murky waters. "That was the biggest fish I've caught in my whole life."

No one else was on the water. The wind, once howling, had diminished a bit as the tide topped out. Nearby, the Richmond Bridge was jammed with cars. At the dock, no other boats were coming in. By all accounts, this was a day not to go, but rather to wait for a better day. I did not catch a single fish, the third time I've been skunked on the bay in 25 years. Yet I can't imagine a better day.

That is because perfect days are created, not waited for, especially with the people you care for.

E-mail Tom Stienstra at tstienstra@sfchronicle.com.
 

tinner

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it is amazing how stuff like that works out for you every once in a while, great story.
 

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