The California Sheepshead
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"Out in the golden sunshine, Throw we the net and line. The silvery lines today Flash in the silvery spray. So throw the line, throw-yo, heave-ho ! "
— MERIVALE. The Fisherman's Song.
THE region represented on the map by Southern California and its contiguous high seas is supposed by many to be a land of perennial summer, and to a certain extent this is true. The summer alongshore is a comfortable season, cooler than that of any Atlantic state ; the winter a cooler summer, when the mercury drops into the roaring thirties and wild flowers insist upon coming into bloom. It is not a real winter, yet certain fishes, creatures of habit, insist upon their prerogative and make. this floral, verdant winter an excuse for following the ancient and honored custom of their confreres in other and colder seas in a word, they migrate.
One could tell by the first glance at the sheepshead that it could not by any flight of the imagination be included in this class ; that enormous white protruding under-jaw, the very archetype of determination and obstinacy, tells the story. The sheepshead remains winter and summer. True, it may move out a few fathoms in February or the preceding month, but it can be caught any day in the year from San Diego to Santa Barbara by boatmen who know the ways and haunts of fishes. In general appearance the adult sheepshead is one of the most remarkable of fishes, due to its enormous hump, or forehead, formed by a fleshy pad, which gives it a most pugnacious appearance, the fish resembling an animated batter.. ing-ram. The body is deep, the tail powerful, the pectoral fins ample and in swimming the sheepshead uses them more than any fish that I recall except some of the kelp, and parrot-fishes. Its coloring is as remarkable as its shape. The head of the adult male, its dorsal and anal fins, the tail and the back part of the body are jet, often blue black resembling velvet, the remainder of the body brown, almost white or a deep crimson, the latter being the most prevailing color, indicating a perfect physical condition. In confinement I found that the rich crimson band faded in a few days.
The coloring of this remarkable fish is so arranged that it appears to have three large distinct bands ; the head black, the mid-body crimson, the caudal portion black. In old males the under-jaw becomes very prominent and is pure white. The fish has an enormous mouth, recalling that of the hogfish, which is armed with canine teeth so prominent that they give it a most ferocious appearance. The eye is small yet richly colored, and while lost in the enormous head, is an interesting organ giving character to the fish, due, perhaps, to its unusual power of motion. Thus a large sheepshead, which I kept in confinement, would follow me around as I walked by its tank, begging to be fed, poising and holding itself in position by delicate and dexterous motions of its side-fins. It would follow every movement with its eyes, tipping and turning about to an extraordinary extent. This fish became very tame, and with it I kept others of both sexes and all sizes, which were so varied in color and marking that they would be easily considered different fishes by those not familiar with them. The females were normally a dusky red or rose color all over; some almost white; the very young maroon barred with black.
Owing to this diversity of colors the fish is known by various names along the coast—the fathead, or redfish, being the most familiar; but at the islands, where it is taken with a rod as a game fish, it is known as the sheepshead, and to science as Pimelometopon pulcher (Ayres). The average fish ranges from ten to fifteen pounds, but I have seen large males; which would weigh twenty or twenty-five pounds. The sheepshead spawns at the islands in June or July, depositing its eggs in the kelp beds near shore ; and these ocean: forests are its home, where, amid the most esthetic surroundings, it poises in company with the colossal black sea-bass. The islands of Southern California and much of the mainland coast have this border of kelp, which is a fishes' highway, — a maze of vines (macrocystis) of enormous. length, whose leaves, long, broad, and richly tinted in olive-green, rise from great depths and. sway in the current, or at ebb tide lie along the surface, their fluted edges fluttering in the soft wind, often waving slightly above it.
This submarine forest is the salvation of the fishes. It forms an effective breakwater, without thirty feet or more long, tinted a deep lavender ; others are crystal chalices, or chains of dainty design. If the scene along this forest is fascinating by day, what can be said at night, when myriads of lights appear. Every point and form then becomes a living light, while the water itself blazes out in silver radiance.
Such is the home of the sheepshead, the sly, cunning, jocular denizen of every ocean hedge and byway from San Diego and beyond to San Clemente, Santa Catalina, the islands of Santa Barbara on to Point Concepcion, which appears to be its northern limit. At the island of San Clemente it is particularly plentiful, the many caves lined with kelp affording it retreats to its choice. Looking down through the openings of the kelp, following some vagrant sunbeam, I have seen dozens of these poseurs and watched them, unsuspected. They were always deliberate in their movements, sailing in and out of the various halls formed by the kelp, accompanied by the dazzling golden angel-fish ; now standing on their heads to pick up some object on the bottom, or darting down to rub themselves upon a moss-covered rock. I recall one huge fellow at this place which moved sedately about, proudly dragging three feet of what appeared to be a cod-line, the hook plainly visible against its white jaw.
At such localities the angler tarries to try conclusions with this doughty fish. The boat is anchored within the kelp, one of the leaves being hauled aboard as an anchor. The rods are taken out, put together, and the question of bait remains to be decided. When the fish is in the biting humor, sardines are readily taken, but when it is coy, crayfish, the long-whipped crustacean, which takes the place of the lobster in California and the tropics, is selected. But the sheepshead is no clumsy game, to be caught even on selected bait. At times it scorns anything ; but it hap-pens that today the fish is in the biting humor, and no sooner has the bait reached the bottom in twenty feet of water than it is taken. A good honest strike this. No nibbler to peck at the bait and examine it, like a customhouse officer, for hidden fish-hooks, but a strong, steady jerk to which you respond with as heavy a hand as the exigencies of the situation and the hard jaw of the fish require. There is no doubt as to the result ; the fish is hooked, the water hisses before the line, the reel sings merrily, and the fight is on, with a royal foeman that tugs, rushes, plunges, hammers, and sulks, all in such rapid succession that the novice is fairly puzzled, recognizing the tokens of several fishes. With difficulty the fish is kept out of the kelp, but finally it rushes along the bottom, making for open water, and you have a clear field in which to play your strength against a very clever fish that shortly demonstrates its game qualities by taking the line in long and continued bursts of speed, which test rod, line, and the finesse of the angler, who wins only by careful work with the reel and thumb brake.
Finally, after having been repeatedly stopped, the fish begins to come in on the reel, fighting every step, taking long lateral runs to dash alongside with an impetuosity that so demoralizes your amateur gaffer that he misses, and so the fish has to be turned again. This time it is on the surface, its great bands of jet and red, its enormous head and white underjaw, making it an extraordinary object. It lies for a moment flapping its big pectorals and rolling its comical red-rimmed eyes at you out of a sea of black — an appeal for mercy that is sometimes heeded by certain anglers who flatter themselves that they understand the language of fishes. Fishing in this manner on the west side of Santa Catalina and at San Clemente, I have known these fishes to bite so rapidly that they took the bait as soon as it reached the bottom. It would have been a piscatorial bonanza for a professional fisherman, as he could literally have filled his boat with sheepshead of the largest size. So much for taking this fish with a light rod where it has a fighting chance. If the fisherman really enjoys hand-line fishing, it can be had all alongshore.
The sheepshead is a valuable food-fish in California, many thousand pounds being dried or salted annually but for domestic consumption it would be classed as a " chowder " fish, and is excellent for the purpose. While its praises probably have never been sung before, I commend it to the angler, confident that when taken with a fairly light bending rod and a number fifteen or eighteen cuttyhunk line it will repay the expert in the gentle art of angling.
With the sheepshead, living in its highway, is another gamy fish, the whitefish, Caulolatilus princeps (Jenyns), which attains a maximum weight of twenty pounds, that has afforded me such sport that I may refer to it. Small or medium-sized specimens may be caught almost anywhere alongshore, away from sandy beaches, and at rocky points, but the largest I have found after fishing at nearly all the islands were at the government island of San Clemente, about fifty miles from San Pedro, or opposite San Juan Capistrano. During a yachting trip around this island we anchored on the lee or east side where there was a rapid current, and in this I amused myself one morning casting for yellowtails. In-stead of the latter, quantities of whitefish rose and began to follow the bait. At a distance they resembled and acted not unlike pollock, and taking a ten-ounce split bamboo rod, and using crayfish (spiny lobster) bait, I was soon participating in sport well worthy the name. The swift current carried the bait astern, and as it drifted twenty-five or thirty feet there was a struggle for it by scores of whitefish of large size, their at-tractive drab colors, with dashes of blue and yellow, flashing in the sunlight as they played upon the surface. When hooked they rushed away with force and vigor that tested the light tackle to its utmost, and as the sport grew fast and furious, and several anglers joined, the snap-ping of the delicate lines began. Some of the largest fish made a determined battle, and an old trout fisherman of the party remarked that they equalled in game qualities any of these fishes he had ever taken. Ten or more minutes would be occupied in landing a fish, and with trout tackle it would have taken a much longer time to bring the largest to gaff or net.
The whitefish is one of the most valuable of the California food-fishes, and one of the most attractive, in its demure coat of gray, drab, or olive. It is not a migrant, being found about the islands from the Coronados north at all times. The attention paid to angling in Southern California is well illustrated at certain points, as Coronado Beach, Long Beach, Terminal, and Santa Monica, where long piers have been built out. into the surf, upon which anglers who are satisfied with small fry can indulge in the pastime. Here the mackerel, halibut, and various kinds of surf fishes, Embiotocidae , are taken, which, if it were possible to fish for with trout-rods, would afford fine sport, as the fish weigh from one to five or six pounds, and are gamy ; but the exigencies of the case require stiff rods, and the long bamboo pole is chiefly used, as by it the fish can be lifted to the high piers. Large fish, if hooked, are led ashore and hauled upon the beach. The " surf " of these localities is particularly interesting from the fact that the young are born alive. I have kept the parents of the species known as shiners, Abeona minima, in a tank, where the young were born. The latter immediately "schooled," and formed interesting pets. They fed from my hand with avidity, displaying no fear,— the entire school following me as I moved around the tank, watching every movement with lively interest. The young were an inch and a quarter in length at birth, and were at once able to care for themselves, the parents paying no attention, to them. As their name suggests, they are found in the surf, feeding upon the various crustaceans which burrow in the sand.
A gamy fish, for a black-bass rod and the lightest line, is the rock-bass and its many species of California waters. I have taken them up to ten pounds and found them gamy; but light tackle is a desideratum, as while they are modelled after the shape of the black bass they have not the staying qualities of this fish. There are many species, all found at rocky points, lying in the weed simulating more or less the general tone of the bottom.