Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was raised in central Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern California. We moved to California when I was twelve years old.
The End of the Pier
It was still dark when we started out for Newport Beach. We were in Toby’s 1949 Ford Wagon. The old car did not look like much, the black paint was faded and chipped, the wood side panels bleached gray and peeling, but it ran all right, if you ignored the smoke coming from under the hood. We stopped at an all-night convenience store and bought a bag of ice and a roll of tin foil. Toby dumped the ice into his ancient metal cooler.
We arrived at the beach at 6 a.m. Toby found a free parking space on a side street. We got the rods and reels and the cooler out of the back of the Ford. We had to dig under Toby’s surfboard, pool cleaning equipment, and more rods and reels to reach his huge wooden tackle box and fish bucket. We dragged the tackle box out of the back and set it on the pavement. We stacked the cooler on top of the box. With the rods and reels and fish bucket in one hand and the tackle box and cooler suspended between us in the other, we set out for the pier. It was about five hundred yards, but it seemed like five hundred miles.
When we got to the pier, we stopped to rest for a few minutes. My arm ached from carrying the tackle box and cooler, but the anguish I had felt for weeks seemed to dissipate in the chilly morning breeze coming off the ocean.
We took up our load and continued our journey. Our destination was the far northwest corner of the pier. A deep ocean canyon lies just off the end making this one of the best fishing piers on the California coast. As you approach the end, the pier opens up into a large square. In the middle of the square is a shop that sells live-bait and snacks, but it doesn’t open until 8 a.m. By then, the anglers are shoulder to shoulder around the end of the pier.
We reached our fishing spot and set the tackle box and cooler down on the deck. A couple of fellows were fishing nearby. These were the insomniacs: the old men in pea coats and stocking caps that fished all night. They sat hunched over their rods half asleep. Below them, the sea sloshed relentlessly against the barnacle-encrusted pilings.
We clamped our pole holders to the bench and started rigging our lines for bonito. We used fiberglass rods and saltwater spinning reels with twenty-pound test line. I attached a two-ounce diamond jig to one end of a two-foot leader. I tied a small snap swivel to the other end. Halfway between the jig and the swivel, I attached a feather lure. I threaded line from the reel through the eye rings on the rod and tied a snap swivel at the end. Clipping the swivels together, I attached the leader to the fishing line.
We made a few casts to wet our lines and test the wind. We swung our lines back under the pier and then flung them upwards and out, letting the weight of the jigs carry the lines far out into the ocean. There was a light splash when the jigs hit the water.
Toby placed his rod in the pole holder and started digging through the tackle box. He pulled out an old thermos bottle. The thermos had no cup cover just a cork stopper. He dug deeper and came up with two flattened paper cups.
“Do you think they’ll hold anything?” I asked.
“Sure. You just have to drink fast. I have a few more if these don’t work.”
“Do you ever throw anything away?”
Using his fingers, Toby pressed the cups back into shape. He set them on the bench and filled them to the brim with coffee from the thermos. He handed me a cup, then turned to the west and addressed the ocean, “Here’s to the sea that sustains us and delivers us from our illusions.” He downed the coffee in one gulp and refilled his cup. “Drink up Dingus.” He called me that after a character in a movie.
I sniffed the cup. It smelled strongly of whisky. I sipped the hot liquid quickly; aware that at any moment the bottom of the cup might fall out. It warmed me all over. I looked out across the huge expanse of the Pacific. It was starting to get light. I could see the blue-grey outline of Catalina Island straight out from the end of the pier. It looked desolate. I finished my coffee. Toby poured us another. He was on his third. I had known Toby since high school. He was short and muscular with a round freckled face and close-cropped red hair. He was single and lived with his parents. They were Southern Baptist. He was a self-proclaimed Buddhist.
“What are you going to do?” Toby asked.
“I don’t know. “I’m not sure what I can do.”
“If you need a place to crash, you can use the back of the Woody.”
“Yeah, with all that pool equipment and fishing tackle. No thanks.”
“I’d asked my parents to let you have the spare room, but they think you’re a bad influence.”
“They’re probably right.”
“They might let you have some space in the garage.”
”Thanks, but I don’t intend to go anywhere.”
“It’s a restraining order, Dingus. She can have you arrested.”
“She just wants more money.”
“So, why don’t you give it to her?”
“I don’t have it.”
“That’s why I’m single, Dingus, no complications.”
“What about your schoolteacher girlfriend?”
“She wants me to get a degree in accounting. She thinks it will help my business. It bothers her that she makes more money than me.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Nope,” said Toby, smiling broadly. I’m teaching her Buddhism.”
“How’s that going?”
“I gave her a copy of the Kama Sutra.”
“It’s all the same thing. She said it was trash and threw it at me.”
“Incompatibility, the graveyard of relationships.”
“Hey, we came here to fish not discuss my personal life.”
“Nor mine. Let’s have some more coffee.”
Toby refilled our cups. “Did you see that?” He pointed out to sea to the northwest.
I strained my eyes, but could see nothing. A large school of anchovies swept under the pier with a palpable flutter.
“Here they come.”
About fifty yards out from the pier, the water was boiling. We threw out our lines and rapidly jigged them in. Within seconds, we had fish on. No fish fights like a bonito. It will dash across the surface of the water one direction, then turn in a flash and run in the opposite direction. You have to reel in the slack when it turns and keep the line taut or it will slip the hook. This one was pulling like an albacore. As I got it near the pier, I could see why. I had two fish, one on the feather and the other on the jig. Toby landed his bonito and waited for me to bring mine in. I had to guide the fish through a gauntlet of fishing lines that seemed to have magically appeared in the water. I hauled the two fish up on the pier. They were black and silver with blue stripes on their sides. They appeared to weigh between three and five pounds each. I unhooked them and tossed them in the bucket with Toby’s fish. By the time I was ready to cast again, Toby had another fish on his line.
Two hours later, I had six bonito in the bucket and had fought and lost that many more. Toby had eight. All the action was on our end of the pier and anglers were crowded in all around us. Hooked fish raced across the surface of the water tangling lines.
We had had enough. There were too many fishermen now and tempers were getting short.
We carried our catch to the dressing sinks on the south side of the pier, cleaned the bonito and cut them into fillets. We wrapped the fillets in tin foil and placed them in the cooler. The bait shop was open, so Toby rinsed the fish bucket and had it filled at the bait shop with salt water and live anchovies. We took up our gear, which was even more cumbersome with the bucket of water, and headed down the pier towards the shore. We stopped at the halfway point and rigged our lines with live-bait for halibut.
We had just tossed out our lines and sit down on the fishing bench when Toby’s rod jumped so hard it nearly came out of the pole holder. He grabbed it and leaned back. The rod bent almost double. He had hooked something big. It could be a shark, a halibut or even sea bass. He tightened the drag and tried to reel in. The fish took off running for open sea. He let it run, fighting against the pull of the drag. It turned and Toby quickly took up the slack, reeling rapidly to keep the line taut. He steered the fish toward the pier. I rushed to the bait shop and got the drop net. I watched the water as Toby worked the fish closer to the pier. I saw it come up, a flat gray-green monster with both eyes on one side of its head and dark spots on its back. It was a halibut. The biggest halibut I had ever seen. I lowered the net letting the rope slide through my fingers. Toby steered the fish over the net. I pulled up on the rope. Sensing the net, the fish thrashed about and nearly escaped. I lifted the net again and trapped it in the mesh. Toby laid his rod aside and came over to help me. We hauled the fish up hand over hand and dumped it on the pier. Using a pair of pliers from Toby’s tackle box, I removed the hook from the halibut’s mouth. I was careful to keep my fingers away from the small needle-like teeth. Toby got a portable gaff from his tackle box, hooked it in the fish’s gills and carried it to the bait shop for weighing. It came in at thirty-five pounds. It was not the record, but it was the biggest fish either of us had caught off Newport Pier. Toby cleaned the halibut immediately and cut it into steaks. He wrapped the steaks in tin foil and placed them in the cooler with the bonito.
The sun was blazing overhead. I could feel its heat burning the back of my neck. The wind had picked up and was blowing our lines out like hoop skirts.
“That’s it for me,” said Toby. Let’s get a beer.”
We stowed the fishing equipment and cooler in the back of the Ford and headed for the public bathrooms at the base of the pier to wash up. Once we were certain we no longer stank like fish, we walked over to the bar north of the pier. We took a table next to the picture window overlooking the beach and ordered beer and fried squid.
“You want to go out to the wedge tomorrow and get in some surfing,” asked Toby.
“The last time we were out there, I nearly drowned.”
“Hell, last month you were talking about killing yourself.”
“I changed my mind.”