Here's that story I told you about in my last email. Again, its kind
of long but a lot happened in the 15 hrs that spanned the whole
experience. Hope you enjoy it.
The sun has gone down and my boat is just starting to plane out as I make
my way north, back to Dana Point, when I shout over the motor, “What the
HELL just happened?!” I’m the only diver on my 14 foot skiff and so I’m
yelling to no one in particular and there is nobody there to hear how
confused, disappointed, and frustrated I am with myself. In short, I took a
gun with me when I slid off the side of the boat two hours before but when
I crawled back on I was empty-handed. Of everything, sliptip-shaft-reel-gun
all of it.
Diving had recently been a bit frustrating for me. I can’t say I’d been
hitting the beds particularly hard, but I will say that I was putting in as
much time as I realistically could without failing out of grad school,
getting fired from my job, or ending up on the couch. For my efforts I’d
been skunked at Catalina (even when I switched to targeting reef fish),
performed underwhelmingly in Baja (nothing over ten pounds for five days’
efforts) and dove local beds that looked like the Mississippi (mud). And
then, just as I’m finishing lunch before my prep period on a Friday I get
I hate/love The Text. The one that says, “It’s on!” and gets you amped for
fish that are swimming around in an ocean and the last thing you have is
time to go get one. Frick. So I mope, inconsolable about the fact that Baja
ate my truck – transmission – and chewed up my trailer – new axle - and I'm
stuck at work anyway. My buddy who knows all too well the lure of the ocean
sees my face, knows what it means, and tosses me the keys to his truck.
“Screw it man, get out of here. The trailer can make it to the harbor and
back and you can come in later.”
Fast forward through the following: race to friend’s house swap car for
truck race to San Clemente grab dive gear race to boat load gear in boat
crawl to gas station crawl to West Marine (damn…lost 2-stroke oil on beach
in Mex) crawl to launch ramp launch fire-up putt out of harbor.
It’s after 3 pm by the time I finally get down to the general area where
Bill Mac has directed me and so I turn on my GPS with relatively fresh (and
checked at home) batteries in it to find the bed that has likely now laid
down. Aaaaaand fade-to-white there goes my GPS. REALLY?
Luckily I see a boat just offshore and motor over to find Nate Baker
anchored up on the edge of the same kelp I’m looking for. I suit up, slide
in, and wait for my heart to slow a bit before starting to hunt. I have
literally run everywhere I’ve gone since deciding to dive, including
through the aisle at West Marine. An hour and a half later and I’ve seen
six-plus of the wrong colored seabass, terrified bait, and a dolphin
breezing the kelp doing the terrifying. Awesome to see, but I’ve seen
awesome a few times lately and I want fish.
I love diving solo for the freedom it affords, but I loathe it for the
safety-isolation that sometimes happens. It’s sometime after five o’clock
and I’ve gotten back into my 14 foot skiff with no one in sight. Playing it
safe, I decide to head north. I check out some kelp on the way up and it
looks pretty good but I want to get a little closer to the harbor before I
jump in on one last spot before dark. I settle on the Cottons/Artificial
Reef area so at the very least I can scout conditions for my roommate for
I get there and lo and behold there’s Nate anchored on the outside edge
right near where I was planning on jumping in. I figure to give him some
space and anchor about a hundred yards down current and as I’m putting on
my fins I notice birds going bonkers about halfway between is. Let’s go
check that out.
I slide in to better-than-twenty -feet of visibility, warm water, and more
terrified bait. Since I’ve shaken off the rust already I settle right into
my rhythm about fifteen feet into the kelp. Down to twenty or so feet,
level off, glide through the kelp and head up while still comfortable with
oxygen. Repeat. It’s very pretty and a calm before the storm sort of
feeling settles over me. I know I’m going to see a fish. Ten minutes later
I’m over halfway through my normal dive and there she is.
She comes in from open water, angling across my eventual path but much too
far away for a shot. She changes her vector as she catches sight of me and
gets a little curious. I gently freeze my finning and drift to see what she
is going to do as she has very obviously seen me. After a cursory
inspection from a safe distance she meanders directly away from me. I
expect her to bolt or gain speed, but my non-aggressive body language
doesn’t spook her. As soon as I’m in her blind-spot I pick up the pace and
slowly start making up ground.
Almost like a tease, she turns and angles back out. I continue in my set
direction as though I could care less, although as soon as her eyes
disappear behind a kelp stalk I increase my speed a bit more. She turns
back from her feint towards freedom and it really feels like she is testing
what my reaction to her movements is. After a little more of me trailing
too far behind her for a shot I’m starting to think I’m just going to watch
this fish glide away or spook it as I try to catch up. But then I catch a
She turns again, perpendicular and out to open water. The only thing I can
ascertain is that she was testing me with her first move to the blue and I
passed. Once again, as soon as her eyes get behind kelp I speed up. Only
this time I know I’m starting to run out of time and have to take a gamble
so I veer off sharply and behind some kelp of my own to intercept on what I
assume will be her eventual path.
As I clear the kelp there she is, angling slightly away and still cruising
slowly, slowly enough to catch up to if only she would get curious and
turn. Today is my day. She turns, giving me a perfect broadside shot. I
have enough time to extend my gun, glance down to check the drag on my reel
(first shot on a legit fish with a reel) and then fire. I don’t see where
the shaft hits her, but she takes off like a train into the blue.
Fifteen minutes later I’ve worked up near the start of my shooting line. I
don’t know how good a shot I have, and the open water has afforded me the
opportunity of really playing her and tiring her out. Anytime I’ve gotten
close she’s blasted off again. We’ve turned around and she’s towed me back
toward the kelp. Sweet, let’s gets you wrapped up at fifteen feet or so,
slip you the knockout knife, and pack it in. No such luck.
The wrap-up at fifteen feet turns out to be a faux tie-up turned Orange
Blossom Express to the seafloor (sonofa…where the hell did my knife just
go?). I’ll spare all the intimate details of the dense, dark, interwoven
insides of Cottons but thirty minutes later, while the visibility has been
continually deteriorating, I’ve finally gotten directly above the fish. I
go get my divelight because, if you’ve been keeping track, it’s now very
close to sundown. I’ve elected to leave my floatline in the boat to see if
I can just make one successful retrieval dive…I’ve got work the next day
and really do not want to have to come back out to get this fish.
I make my dive down the line and before I know it I’ve hit the bottom. And
like an aquatic mole, I’ve burrowed into the bottom multiple feet before I
realize someone forgot to vacuum the pool. Holy SHIT the vis is bad. So bad
that I’m searching for the fish with a two-foot visibility halo and my hand
constantly on the line. I find her and she’s tuckered out enough that I
feel comfortable slipping my free hand under her gill in the hopes the line
slides right around the kelp and up.
Nope. In fact, the tuckered out fish apparently benches 225 with her gill
plates and clamps down hard enough to keep my glove when I rip my hand out
go back up. In the flurry of stealing my glove back, kicking up, and
turning to find the line I do exactly what I don’t want to do. I lose
contact with the line, and therefore with the fish, and ergo with my gun.
Luckily I had placed the gun on the edge of the bed and had the reel line
on the surface to make it easier to see. Too bad the sun has now set and I
can’t see hardly anything. In a word: SHIT.
I cannot explain the feeling of losing that gun. The idiocy of it, the
corner-cutting (why the hell don’t I have a marker-float of some kind on my
belt, or at least on my boat?), the hubris…I deserved to lose that gun.
There is really only one hope, and that is to get numbers from Nate if he
has them and come back to look for it.
I track him down, and sure enough he’s got numbers and, not only that, he
offers to help me look. Additionally, he says his boat is still in the yard
and we can just take his. Both of these are unsolicited offers to help. He
asks what time the sun comes up and sets our meeting time for six thirty.
Hell yeah, I’m in. I was planning on Sunday since I’ve got to be ready for
work by one, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially when
that horse has 120 more horses than the 30 I typically have and come with a
kickass diver to boot.
Needless to say, when morning comes I have not slept well. I’ve dreamt of
murk, murk, and more murk all night. Actually not true…you have to be
asleep to dream. I meet Nate in the harbor and we load up and shove off.
Upon arrival, we anchor up and slide in with a plan to do a two-man swath
in the canopy in order to find this gun. Too bad the vis is too bad for
that. Its six to eight in spots, and as I work the edge looking for my gun
under the low-tide canopy I have to inspect everything that looks like a
carbon-fiber barrel. Turns out a lot of bladeless stipes look like a
carbon-fiber barrel when pulled taut. The minutes melt away in the murk as
I dive without a gun in my hands for the first time in years.
I eventually overshoot my probable searching zone by a ways and change
tactics. I decide to crawl through the kelp in the hopes of intersecting my
reel line. I head into the kelp and proceed to run parallel back upcurrent
on the surface, pushing stipes and blades underneath me one at a time while
looking for bright orange reel line. After fifty feet of this, I’m
considering the drop in tides and the likely expansion of the kelp line and
head perpendicular into the kelp another fifteen or so feet before
continuing up current.
Good thing I did, because not even another fifty feet further I’m sweeping
some kelp underneath me when, lo and be-SWEET MERCY-hold there it is! My
gun, right below me, hanging just under the surface. I cannot believe my
eyes and grab the gun as though its going to disappear into the murk again.
I cannot explain the feeling of finding that gun. The brilliance of it, the
perseverance (the murk/rolling swell combo made me want to puke almost
immediately), the glorious humiliation…I did not deserve to find that gun.
If anyone ever tells you stone-shots are overrated and take away the fun of
the freight-train rush after shooting a white seabass, tell them 12 hour
fish retrievals are more overrated. I will say it was worth the story, and
worth the lessons the whole experience taught me (there are many, many
lessons) but I would prefer to never go through it again.
Unless, of course, there’s another forty-five pound fish waiting at the end
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Thursday, January 21, 2021