The White Sea Bass
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"If I can but hold him." - IZAAK WALTON.
There is an element of chance in sea-angling found in no other sport. I remember that my old boatman on the St. Lawrence knew every rock and shoal in a thirty-mile row around Grenadier Island and would often indicate a strike in advance. So with trout-fishing, every frequenter of certain streams has the picture of favorite pools photographed on his memory. With the sea-angler the reverse holds. He "grasps the skirt of happy chance and boldly sails out upon the unknown sea of Fortunatus without pointer or tip, with absolutely nothing except his inherent luck, upon which he stakes his all on this happy day.
The sea-angler is often superstitious. He has his whims and fancies. He assumes that a lost fish tells its companions; that it is worse than useless to fish on the ebb tide, and doubts not that certain people, usually poor gaffers, literally hoodoo the sport. Of all things, he is a believer in signs and omens and especially in luck. A strange fetich, this luck, which every angler woos with more or less success. " What luck?" shouts a friend from a passing boat; and if you have bagged your game, it is, " Joe, hold it up." And Joe holds forth a sixty-pounder, displaying every angle, that the iron may enter the heart of the rival boatman in the other craft, who has not gaffed even a gudgeon that day. But if there is no luck, no sixty-pounder, the angler merely pretends not to hear, and his boat-man raises his hands aloft, opening and closing his fingers in a mystic signal which can be interpreted from six to ten or anywhere along the line. Not St. Peter, but Ananias, is his patron saint. What is luck ? I have fished for hours by the side of a friend, where rod and bait seemed identical, and either he or I caught all the fish and had all the strikes. The luck was all on one side.
I have seen a lady, fishing with two anglers whose fame had reached halfway around the world, catch all the fish, five splendid white sea-bass, all over fifty pounds, despite the fact that she had never held a rod before. She used the same tackle, the same bait. Her ungallant companions changed the rod, insisted upon exchanging seats, but they failed to change her luck. From the time Deucalion the uncertainty of fisherman's luck has been proverbial; but perhaps this ephemeral luck, so potent to make or unmake a fishing day, has more in it than appears on the surface. You as well as I have perhaps often noticed that the lucky fisherman is a person of method. If a fisherman becomes possessed with the idea that a two-dollar reel is as potent to take tarpon and tuna as one costing fifteen or twenty dollars, that man is more than likely to attain a reputation as having poor luck. The man who never changes the line from the lower to the upper guides, who uses a line one hundred times, who has a theory that the ebb tide and the afternoon are best for fishing, is more than likely to be unlucky. This old man of the sea, " hard luck," will surely fasten upon such an one. You perhaps have observed that the angler who soon becomes weary of the constant waiting that is sometimes the feature of the day's luck, and thrusts his rod beneath his knee to read or drop asleep, is always a victim to poor luck, as by some occult eighth or ninth sense the fish invariably selects this exact moment to strike the bait, and it is always the largest fish which have this artful discernment. This is so infallible a rule, so well known among sea-anglers, that I have often changed my luck and forced a record fish to bite by merely dropping my rod into the oarlock, pretending to be engaged in some minor distraction. The moment I was thoroughly involved, my face deep in the folds of a coat, hoping to form a conjunction between cigar and match, the fish would strike; but it was a subterfuge, and before the fish had taken ten feet of line, I was ready for the play. I deduce from this that good luck means good and careful equipment, a good gaffer and boatman, good reels, lines, hooks, and the right kind of bait all the time; in a word, the application to fishing of the same rules which make one famous or successful in any phase of life.
It is worth crossing the continent in June from New York to Avalon to sit on the veranda of the hotels and listen to the tuna anglers, at the end of an exciting day, explain why and how the fish got away. It is always ascribed to bad luck. One man played his fish three hours, when his heart gave out on account of a recent attack of grippe. The handle of a cheap reel came off. Ananias, the veteran gaffer, who perchance had never gaffed before, forgot to change the worn line. Another angler caught his line about a button at the end of four hours; and so on. Anglers " smiling at grief," yet heaping agony upon the back of patient luck which brings them all their joys.
I esteem myself a lucky fisherman because of one catch, a white sea-bass which I took one rosy morning at Santa Catalina with very light tackle and in very good company. It came about, as such things do, unexpectedly. We were lying on the sands of a little cove under the shadow of a ridge of Mount Black Jack ; the launch was anchored near shore, the boat hauled up on the beach. The little bay was, that rare thing at this island, shallow, the bottom sinking gradually away five, ten, fifteen feet, until sixty or seventy feet from the shore it dropped into the channel. The water was as clear as crystal, the surface as smooth as a disk of steel. Not a breath came from the high rocky ridge, and all nature seemed asleep. As my eyes rested on the picture, an ideal place to play a fish, the unexpected happened. Two, three, four, five fins came into view from behind a rocky point just as I had been figuring them, as though some one had given the cue and the finny actors had stepped out from the wings on to the scene, a tragedy in one act. They moved along with great deliberation, the big dorsals waving gently and the tips of the caudal far astern, so that it was an easy matter to construct the entire hidden fish. It was a school of white sea-bass, apparently none of which was under fifty pounds. On they came, not twenty feet from the beach, and, as I rose, their bulky forms were sharply outlined against the dark olive-hued bottom.
My rod and line, baited with flying-fish, was lying in the small boat — note this premonition of coming fisherman's luck. It took but a moment to grasp it, and so deft and agile was the boatman that my bait, as he pulled offshore, crossed the school, dazzling the very eyes of the dignified strollers along this fishes' rialto. One at least resented the intrusion. There was a swirl of waters, a boiling seething as the school awoke to the fact that one had fisherman's luck ; then followed a brief pause ; to swallow a flying-fish one foot in length, is not accomplished at once; and I could see the monster poising, swallowing with convulsive gulp; then feeling the wire leader, it shot ahead, and for an instant I gave the butt to one of the finest white sea-bass that ever swam, which when hooked, unreeled the line to a new music of the reel. There was no stopping this splendid rush, and with thumb trembling on the pad, the tip bending to the danger point, the boatman backing with one oar, pulling with all his power on the other, to whirl the boat around, my companion breathing advice and caution in low tones, the reel swearing, praying, protesting, ah ! it was an exciting moment, one of those critical points in the life of an angler that comes but once and is gone. If I can but hold him!" Walton whispered on a similar occasion. If! what a world of chance and possibility is tied up in that small word ! If the line had only been newer ; if the leader had not been rusty ; if that knot had been cut out, or if you only had taken a gaffer who did not lose his head, — each and any of these "ifs" might have reversed this day of happy memory.
But I was in luck, and this catch has lived with me ever since. Possibly the bass has grown a little every year, gained a pound or so in the telling, but it would have done the same had it lived, and far be it from me to deprive so noble and generous a creature of any prerogative; living: or dead, it shall grow, at least so long as my gaffer lives.
We have left the fish rushing madly. I had caught many bass, but never in shoal water. They are taken almost invariably in the deep blue water along the rocks, and will often, like a salmon, or almost any fish, plunge down and sulk ; but this fellow could not sulk, hence was away, and when I checked it, it dashed around, circling the boat so rapidly in a series of rushes that only by heroic measures was it saved. Twice or more the dash was so impetuous that the rod was quickly passed under the oars of the boatman to save it, he sending the flat-bottom boat around on a pivot in a desperate attempt to keep me facing the fish. Fifteen or more minutes slipped away, the bass making inshore rushes to secure line, with which to reach the deep channel. But the boatman hugged the shore, and by sheer luck I kept the plunger in shallow water, where we could feast our eyes on its every move. Its bearing off was splendid, and so powerful was the fish that only the, oars-man kept it from going out to sea with skiff and men. Slowly it came in, now stopping, beating the water ; now dashing off with all the line gained by strenuous endeavor, shaking its bulky head and every second testing line, rod, and angler. There was no Timoleon in that dancing, whirling craft, to boast of his luck and see it take wings, but three men in good luck, who finally saw the great fish come slowly to the gaff. It circled the boat to the last, and was gaffed, bearing off heavily, bending the slender rod into a bow as it passed the gaffer, still vigorous and full of fight, beating the water with its big tail, hurling the foam over us, literally tossing defiance in our faces as I unreeled the line to permit the gaffer to slide it in, blazing in all the colors of its kind, as he held it up a moment that we might look upon its splendid proportions.
The actual weight of this fish was fifty-two pounds several hours after the capture, and the time occupied in its undoing was nearly half an hour. The bass as it lay on the canvas fish-bag was a picture for an artist; nearly four feet long, of a grayish golden color above, merging into silver upon the belly. About the head, the scales were iridescent, flashing all the hues of a pea-cock, blue and green, a dazzling creature when seen just from the water, The fish was well proportioned, long, fairly slender, a noble fish, and well named Cynoscion nobilis (Ayres), the weakfish of California.
This bass represents a genus well known in American waters, about twenty species having been described. It ranges the coast of California even to Canada, and is most common from south of Magdalena Bay to Santa Barbara ; but it is very uncertain in its movements, and equally so in biting. The season may, theoretically, be said to be from May 1 to July, or even August, but some seasons the fish is very rare and will not bite; again it comes in numbers and affords sport long to be remembered.
On the first of May, 1899, with a fellow-angler ten of these fishes, all over fifty pounds in weight, were taken between nine and twelve o'clock, not one hundred feet from the beach in Avalon Bay. A large school entered the bay and remained ten days, affording excellent sport. In our boat, my companion and I each hooked a large fish at the same moment. One rushed ahead, the other darted astern, and we were at once involved in a most spirited tug of war, which resulted in the loss of one fish. At one time twenty or thirty small boats were fishing, and sometimes half of these would have bass hooked at the same time ; the scene as the big fish towed the boats about, the cries and shouts as lines were parted or rods succumbed, being a most animated one. I recall one rush of a bass hooked by a lady, which towed the boat almost entirely across the bay before the fish could be checked, the game later tip-ping the scale at eighty pounds.
The large bass I took in the little shallow bay was caught with much lighter tackle than generally used, the line being a number fifteen cuttyhunk, which I commend, as the fish, with proper care, can be caught with even a smaller line, if in moderately shallow water. The only draw-back to very light lines is the fact that the sulking fish must be lifted at times, when a little carelessness will break the line. Better lose all than to slay so gamy a creature with a hand-line or anything larger than a twenty-one-thread line.
In the matter of rods, a seven- or eight-foot rod weighing from fifteen to eighteen ounces, of split bamboo, greenheart, or any good wood, is employed. I have used light rods for these fishes, which compare with the striped bass of the East ; in fact, the white sea-bass takes the place of the latter as a sport in Southern California, but I have fished with a much lighter rod for my fifty-pounders than is used for a striped-bass of this weight at Cuttyhunk and elsewhere. As a matter of fair play, the rod should be seven or eight feet long; and if the water was always shallow, longer ones could be used. At the islands where these fishes most do congregate, the water is often extremely deep and blue a stone's toss from the beach, and a sulking fish two or three hundred feet down must often be considered after a rush ; hence the rod must be sufficiently stiff to enable the angler to bring it to the surface. The majority of the catches are made in the bays, in fairly shallow water, and as the well-equipped angler will have several rods he can adapt himself to circumstances. The line should be a number fifteen, or smaller, despite the size of the fish, if the latter is to have the advantage, which of course is essential ; and the hook, a 9/o Limerick, or an O'Shaughnessy, or any good hook of this size, with a piano-wire leader a foot in length ; gut or salmon leader is soon worn off by the fine teeth of this noble Cynoscion. The bait, if a smelt, six inches in length, is impaled through the mouth, the point thrust into the belly of the fish, and the mouth of the latter bound or closed and fastened to the shank of the hook by a silver wire, which should be attached to every hook ; it prevents the bait from whirling and the line from untwisting. The leader should bear at least two swivels. Spoons, and all kinds of artificial baits, are useless, at least in my long and continued experience, the fancy of the great bass—and the term bass is a localism — being for very large baits, as the flying-fish or smelt, a prodigious lure for even so large a fish.
In searching for this game the boatman rows along the rocky shores of the islands in perfectly smooth water, not sixty feet from the high massive cliffs which merge into mountains. Often the strike comes within a few feet of the rocks; yet the water may be two hundred feet in depth, so precipitous are the shores, blue water being found at the very portals. Again little bays are entered, the mouths of deep canons which wind upward, the great bass being fond of such places; and in the larger bays, as the Isthmus, the angler can sometimes go ashore and cast from the beach, and land these splendid fishes under ideal conditions.
The method of fishing en regle is to troll slowly, with sardine, smelt, or flying-fish bait, just outside the kelp. The fish comes in small schools, almost always swims on the surface, and can be recognized at once by its dorsal fins above water. It frequents little bays or indentures in the kelp, and I have taken it by lying off and casting forty or fifty feet. Even the tremendous bait, a whole flying-fish, dropped into a school, does not alarm them, as this is the habit of the flying-fishes, to drop with a crash. The solidity of these fishes, the difficulty to move them, can be illustrated by an incident. A boatman took my rod while I was fishing for larger game and cast it into a school, where it was immediately seized by a large bass. The man struck so heavily that the rod broke off just above the butt, the fish not being moved by the shock. Of course the break was entirely unnecessary, but it illustrates the point. I have been most successful in taking this bass by following large schools of sardines upon which they prey. The bass chase them in, taking their position beneath them, a huge fish being occasionally seen by the angler down through a funnel of sardines as the line sinks. In May or the latter part of April one or two large schools of sardines enter the bay of Avalon to spawn, and their numbers are so vast and so closely do they lie, that they form an almost solid mass. Into this I cast an empty hook, and when it is out of sight a slight jerk is sufficient to impale a sardine, which becomes the most active of lures. The sardines do not appear to notice the hook, but the struggles of the live bait alarm them so that they form a solid ring about it. Down it sinks until it reaches the lower stratum of the school, when it will be seized by the watchful bass that apparently cannot resist the struggling fish.
The white sea-bass at Santa Catalina average about forty or fifty pounds, small ones being more or less rare. Specimens weighing eighty pounds have been caught with cast or hand lines; the rod record is fifty-six pounds. In the San Francisco market bass weighing sixty, seventy, and eighty pounds are not uncommon, and doubtless the fish attains a maximum weight of one hundred or more pounds.
The spawning season is in June and July, the young, which are found in San Diego, New-port, and San Pedro (California) waters, are supposed to be different fish, and are known as sea-trout. The young resemble the adults, but have three or four black or dusky stripes. The fins are darker than in the adult, and the pectoral fin bears at its base a blotch of color more or less distinct. The young, or sea-trout, afford excellent sport with an eight-ounce split bamboo. The angler who desires to try them should engage from the bait-catchers very small sardines or smelt, and use a number two Sproat hook, or any hook of that size.
The white sea-bass swim in long lines, four or five in a column, move leisurely, and impress one by their dignity and beauty. I confess to never having caught one but I was tempted to release it. They rank among the fine table fishes of the Pacific coast, baked white sea-bass of a large size with a dash of port being a savory dish. The misnamed sea-trout are delicious. They should be served whole, broiled or baked. When cut into slices and disguised with some individuality-killing sauce, they might be called by any name and would be quite as unpalatable.
The white sea-bass is eminently sociable, and if the angler remains quiet, the passing school will merely divide at the anchor rope of the boat : I have inadvertently touched one with an oar. At such a time, looking down, the water appears filled with the splendid fish, which resemble gigantic salmon, and often their utter contempt for all kinds of bait is maddening to the most philosophical angler.
In the Gulf of California a large species of this genus is found, known to science as Cynoscion macdonaldi and called at Guaymas totu-ava. It is a stouter, bulkier fish than C. nobilis, and exceeds it in size. An old boatman who had wandered up the Gulf informed me that he had caught these fish weighing two or three hundred pounds, but he probably confused it with the Gulf jewfish. There is a record of a fish which weighed one hundred and seventy-two pounds, hence two hundred pounds is possible. A friend who fished for them at San Jorgas Bay, not far from the island of Tiburon, considered them identical with C. nobilis, and supposed it was the same fish ; but instead of averaging forty or fifty pounds the fish he caught tipped the scales at eighty pounds. At San
Jorgas Bay there is a very, high tide, and behind the flood follow the schools of white sea-bass which have been named by Dr. Gilbert after Mr. Marshall Macdonald, United States Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries. The marked difference between the two fishes that would be noticed by the angler appears to be that in the latter the snout is sharp, while in C. nobilis the head is long, snout long and sharp. In C. macdonaldi there are about fifty-five pores ; in nobilis, seventy or eighty.
The Gulf bass is the giant of its tribe, and can be found in vast numbers on the shores of the east coast, even entering the mouth of the Colorado River. The young are dusky and silvery, and instead of stripes, as in nobilis, have, according to Dr. Gilbert, "coarse black specks along the lower part of the head and sides," there being no disposition to form streaks or bands. It is caught at San Jorgas Bay in April and May, and according to Dr. Gilbert is not known at Guaymas in summer, having probably migrated far up the Gulf, where vast schools of mullet afford an ample food supply. The angler who desires to take this fish will find San Jorgas hot in summer, but pleasant in the spring. The settling up the country at the mouth of the Colorado will undoubtedly develop a new field for the angler and sportsman in this section of California or Mexico.
A smaller species of white sea-bass, C. parvipinnis, is known as sea-trout and bluefish along the Californian coast, and has been found from Mazatlan to San Luis Obispo. At Newport, San Pedro, and Avalon it is a valuable fish, taken in nets and often caught by anglers. The largest specimen I have landed weighed about twelve or fourteen pounds, and was about two feet long. It differs in appearance from the other species. Its back is a decided blue, resembling that of the yellowtail out of water. The body is long and slender, with a striking resemblance to its cousin the Eastern weakfish. Altogether, with its . vivid silvery belly, blue back, yellow lower fins, it is one of the most attractive of the Southern Californian fishes which fall to the lot of the man with the rod. It is not a common catch, and is taken with small sardines with rod, line, and hooks described for sea-trout. All these fishes are the Pacific representatives of the Atlantic weakfish, or squeteague, C. regalis, which every sea-angler has taken along the Atlantic seaboard.