Fishermen Are the Ones Who Get Away


Mar 11, 2001
Reaction score
Fishermen Are the Ones Who Get Away

Brian Hoffman, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer  

April 26, 2001

Wally's World: Renfort has been trolling for salmon for nearly 70 years, the past 20 on the Butchie B. Chronicle photo by Kurt Rogers

There's still a certain romance to this. Or, at the very least, a smug sense of freedom. It's 6 a.m. on a salmon boat. Directly above you, the morning commute builds to a crawl on the Golden Gate. Directly ahead, nothing but ocean and promise.

Wally Renfort has seen the view from the salt-splashed deck either a few times or a few thousand. He's 76 now. He's been coming out to chase salmon on party boats for nearly 70 of those years. Two-to-three times a week, in season.

And Wally's back there with all the other day anglers on the Butchie B, staring up with pity at the red lights of traffic snaking toward work through a gray dawn.

"You have to love the ocean," Wally likes to say. "If you love the ocean, you can't stay away."

And he hasn't. To everyone, he's simply Wally. He's usually the first to arrive. And -- why lie? -- the first to leave. He's famous for his food, mostly because he brings enough for everyone. And he should be famous for his Wally Balls. This is a guy who knows a few tricks for catching salmon.

Probably every boat in the Bay Area Fleet -- and maybe every boat in every sportfishing fleet -- has its Wally. A guy with a genuine smile and a million memories of oceans and salmon.

On San Francisco's venerable Wacky Jacky, where a 73-going-on-21 Jacky Douglas runs things, there's the Wednesday Crew of regulars. The Wacky Jacky started up its party-boat business in 1973. On opening day 1974, Mike Kilina and the fortuitously named George Wakayama were among the anglers who boarded that day. They haven't missed a year since, nor many Wednesdays, either.

Maybe it's the thrill of the ocean, or the fish, or being stuck on a boat for eight hours. Whatever the reason, this is a tight-knit affair. Just don't say it's exclusive.

"This is for everyone," Douglas said. "It's like a mini-vacation. I started coming out to get away from my kids. I had four daughters and I escaped by going salmon fishing.

"If you're a mother with kids, get a baby sitter and enjoy life for a day. You can have peace and quiet or you can raise hell. That's what happened to me.

I got hooked."

Still, it's hard to get away from the history forged on these boats. Phil Bentivegna has been operating the Butchie B for 33 years, and Wally has been with him 20 of them. Phil learned the business from his father, who also ran out of San Francisco. Before that, Phil's grandfather fished out of the city commercially for salmon. Phil's son, Patrick, 31, has a captain's license and runs the boat when not working as an options manager. That's four generations of sunrises, scenery and salmon.

Just as important are the skippers bringing new blood into the pursuit. Frank Rascino, a third-generation salmon skipper, has been involved with the San Francisco Police Youth Fishing Program for the 29 years he's been running the Lovely Martha out of Pier 47 at Fisherman's Wharf. The program goes back 31 years, when Rascino's father began taking kids fishing for the city.

"They're impressionable," Rascino said. "And it's a good way to teach them the right way about fishing. They learn it's not just about catching, but about the boat ride and the entire experience."

But the catching is still a big part. Lest anyone forget the objective primary to every angler, there's the Rascino Speech. It goes something like this: "If you have any questions, or if you're not sure how to use the equipment, you'd better ask now, because you have an excellent chance of catching a fish of a lifetime! A 20, 30, 40, perhaps even a 50-pound salmon! A fish of a lifetime could be caught at any time!"

Rascino smiles when you ask him about it. "To these kids," he said, "any fish is a fish of a lifetime. They're just happy to be out here. It's a day of adventure, something new for them. What we hope is they catch that first fish and make it something they do for life. I want to see them out here year after year."

And a fish of a lifetime is out there. Lots of them. It's a full seven- month season this year, starting last week and running through Nov. 13. By popular opinion, the fat months are still ahead.

You still need to bring some luck to the boat. And if you don't have luck, Wally says, then bring a little voodoo and craftiness. Like Wally Balls. Not content with simply lowering down a dull lead weight, Wally decorates them in outlandish patterns of multicolored reflective tape, glitter, fluorescent paint, various scrawlings, whatever it takes. Anything to gain an edge.

But even if you're not catching, you're still fishing. Still out on the water. Still a part of something special. "We're blessed," says Douglas, who's just started her 29th season as a salmon skipper. "I really feel we're lucky to have this in our backyard."


-- San Francisco: Butchie B (415) 457-8388. Wacky Jacky (415) 586-9800. Lovely Martha (650) 871-1691. Other numbers can be found in the Yellow Pages.

-- Marin: New Rayann (415) 924-6851, Outer Limits (415) 454-3191, Salty Lady (415) 674-3474, Flying Fish (415) 332-1015.

-- East Bay: (510) 654-6040, (510) 849-2727, (650) 726-2926.

-- Half Moon Bay: (650) 726-7133, (415) 469-8433.

-- Bodega Bay: (707) 875-3495.

Information is available on the Internet at


"Go with someone who fishes all the time. Someone that's always out there and knows what's going on."

-- On choosing a boat .

"You'd better. How else are they gonna hear you?"

-- On talking to salmon .

"I think those new patches they have out work. If they don't, stand up front so you can chum for the rest of us."

-- On being seasick .

"Enjoy it. It's a different life out in the open ocean. You see so many things. It's really fantastic to be out there."

-- Final advice

E-mail Brian Hoffman at

Latest Posts

Top Bottom