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The Black Sea-Bass

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

"Hugest of all fishes in the sea For they were formed by heaven's great king Before all other earthly thing."

—The Voyage of St. Brandon (Mediaeval).

AROUND many portions of the Californian coast, especially its islands, there is a submarine forest of great density. The trees are represented by the so-called kelp, the Macrocystis, which attains a length of several hundred feet, rising upward in broad deep-green leaves of gigantic size, which swing in the current undulating like living things, forming a maze or forest, which, while easily seen, is a closed region even to the diver owing to the intricate convolutions of the plants. Looking down into this mimic forest when the sun is overhead, the scene, especially when observed through a water-glass, or a glass-bottom boat, is fascinating. Arches, loops, parterres, festoons, colonnades, every possible conception which the imagination might devise, is seen, glorified by the sunlight and bathed in marvellous tints of green, while through every interstice the deep-blue water forms a matchless mosaic. At low tide the long fluted leaves lie like snakes upon the surface, the wind often lifting them, but at the flood they are submerged and swing in the current at an angle of thirty-five or forty degrees ; now straightening up or turning, according to the whim or fancy of the mysterious currents which are found about these islands bathed by the Kuroshiwo, the great Black Current of Japan.

This submarine forest is the home of the king of the bass, Stereolepis gigas (Ayres), the gigantic black sea-bass, possibly the largest of all the serranoids. In appearance it bears a marked resemblance to the small black bass. Imagine a small-mouth black bass seven feet in length, weighing six or seven hundred pounds, and some idea of this monster, which is a common fish in the region described, may be conceived. It has been my good fortune to see the fish in its native haunts. Lying prone on the deck of a small boat, with my face within a foot of the water, I was watching my bait forty feet down among the stems of the kelp, the water being so clear that every object could be seen. As I looked, into the range of vision, through a curtain of kelp which it seemed to push aside like a portiere, came a mighty fish which I recognized as a black sea-bass. It was at least six feet in length, weighing possibly three hundred pounds, and simulated the color of the weed. At its approach the small fry and numerous sheepshead disappeared before the king. Its movements were slow and dignified, as became its size, and guided either by scent or sight it swam- toward my small sardine bait prepared for yellowtail, gazed at it warily and passed on to return and view it from another position. A score of times this gigantic fish, which I had previously imagined a glutton that rushed at food and bolted it, played about the bait with tactful movements, the personification of caution and deliberation ; then, as though satisfied, it poised directly over it, depressed its muzzle until it stood upon its head, tail upward, then took the bait and slowly moved off. When it felt the wire leader a whirl-wind seemed to have struck the kelp forest, leaves and stems being tossed hither and yon in a vortex as the tail of the mighty bass swept through it beyond my range of vision. I had but two hundred feet of fifteen-thread line on my yellowtail. reel, hence the end soon came. The reel uttered a vigorous protest, and the line parted. But I was well paid ; I had seen a big sea-bass standing upon its head in the heart of this maze of kelp.

This fish makes its home in these dense lamarian forests and is found in abundance from the Coronados and Cortez Bank, and doubtless farther south, to the latitude of San Francisco, lurking in the kelp beds around rocky points near shore from April to December. In July and August it spawns, and fishes caught at this time are filled with enormous masses of eggs which are deposited beneath the kelp in shoal water from twenty to thirty feet deep, near shore. At this time the fishes are very ravenous and bite eagerly, but on or about November 15 they become scarcer, and are rarely caught, though they do not entirely disappear. There is reason to believe that they run in schools at this season, and go offshore to deeper water. They attain an enormous size I have caught many specimens from one hundred and fifty up to three hundred and forty-seven pounds, and specimens weighing four and five hundred pounds have been taken, while the Santa Barbara Islands claim a bass which tipped the scales at eight hundred pounds, and fishes of this size have been taken in the Gulf of California. At Santa Catalina and San Diego the average bass weighs two hundred and fifty pounds, and small individuals are rarely seen. The smallest fish observed by me at the former place weighed thirty pounds, and fishes under one hundred pounds' weight are very rare. Where the very young go is a mystery, as they are never caught; possibly they frequent the deeper waters offshore. In 1870. there was a black sea-bass fishery at Pebbly Beach, Santa Catalina, and the Portuguese from San Pedro caught hundreds of these bass by employing the heaviest of hand-lines, small ropes, with which several men could soon master the largest fish. The fish were killed on the spot and their heads thrown into the water, resulting, according to local tradition, in so alarming the fish that they deserted the locality and have never been caught 'there since. The meat was dried and sold as boneless cod, but was found to be too tough and dry for this purpose.

Fishing for the giant as a sport has long been in vogue at the islands off Los Angeles County.

Previous to 1895 the fishes were caught entirely with the hand-line, but about that time General Charles Viele succeeded in taking a large fish with rod and reel, and since then this has been the method employed—anglers landing fishes ranging from three hundred to four hundred pounds with ordinary tuna tackle. While the rod is to be commended as the most sportsmanlike, the fish gives the angler more exercise with the hand-line, and will easily jerk the absent-minded fisherman overboard. I took my first bass in the latter manner in 1886. My boatman provided a line which in the East would have been sacred to sharks ; the hook was a small edition of a shark hook, while a chain served as a leader. The bait was a five-pound whitefish, hooked through the back so that it would swim. A half-pound sinker was attached, and this crude contrivance, an insult to the bass tribe in general, was lowered within six feet of the bottom and the waiting begun.

" How poor are they that have no patience" is well exemplified in this pastime, as without patience no one ever landed a black sea-bass. Catches of four or five a day have been made, but the average is one, and often the wait is long and wearisome to the angler who has no other resources. On the day in question the strike came in half an hour. Some idea of the strength of this fish can be conveyed by giving the details of a catch made by me in 1894. My companion had never seen the fish caught, and insisted upon taking the place of boatman for the exercise. In a weak moment I consented. The skiff, as I ascertained later, weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds, our combined weight was three hundred and fifty pounds. After an hour's fishing we had by great good luck caught enough sheepshead, so we threw over the large hand-line for black sea-bass. The anchor was hauled up and the boat made fast to the kelp ready to cast off at a moment's notice, and within fifty feet of the beach we began to fish. It was not long before the line began to move over the rail, and I took it in hand while my companion cast off the big kelp leaf which held us. Out ran the line, slowly and deliberately, the "bite " of this colossus being a surprise to the novice. I allowed twenty feet to pass over, then assuming that the bait was well in the mouth of the fish, theoretically gave it the butt. The answer came on the instant in so terrific a jerk that I was thrown upon my knees and my arms hauled almost elbow deep in the water before I could release the line, while the impact had jerked the light boat around as though on a pivot, and thrown my companion down. In the meantime the line was rushing over the side. As I seized it, the fish surged downward, taking the stern of the light craft almost under water, dragging it rapidly and irresistibly along. We were carried two hundred yards out to sea before I succeeded in stopping the fish, my companion having shipped the oars, pulling violently against it. By rapid manipulation I brought the fish to within twenty feet of the surface and caught a glimpse of its huge form, the dark brown back and the flash of silvery belly ; then seeing the boat it made a rush that nearly carried the skiff with it and took all the line I had gained, in the direction of the inner kelp bed just beyond where the sea was breaking heavily on a point of rocks. Once in the kelp I knew that the bass would escape, so redoubled my efforts while my companion lay flat, balancing the boat, as the fish seemed determined to carry it under water, so fierce were its rushes. The bass would plunge downward, then deliver a series of blows, arm-wrenching in their power and probably given by striking the head from side to side by convulsive lateral movements of the entire body ; then, when hauled up with the greatest possible effort, it would circle the boat, endangering the craft, stop and lash the water and impress us with its immensity.

For nearly an hour this fish fought me, as the boat was so small that but one could play it ; and had my companion not remained in the bow the bass would have sunk the frail craft. It was finally brought to the surface, and holding it with one hand I gaffed it with the other, when with a tremendous rush it was away, wrenching the gaff from my hand. Four or five times it repeated this, and when I finally held it by the gaff I could not kill it, so fierce were its lunges. A heavy swell was now coming in, and there was a rough point to turn at Church Rock. It was manifestly impossible to take the fish into the boat, so I held it while my companion rowed, its lunges almost swamping us in the seaway as we rounded the point. Three miles from here we met some fishermen, and by the aid of five men the big bass was hauled in, almost filling the boat and bringing it down to within a few inches of the water's edge. But the two boats convoyed us into port, where the big fish, which weighed between three hundred and four hundred pounds, was hauled upon the beach. It was not believed possible to land so heavy a fish with a rod, but I was fortunate in seeing the first one taken in this way. General Charles Viele and myself were fishing with rods from an anchored launch two hundred feet from the shore at the "fence," Santa Catalina. The General had a strike almost immediately, and springing into a small boat with the engineer as an oarsman was rapidly towed away. In about two hours he had mastered the fish and had it on the deck. When he was playing it I had hooked four or five, losing my lines and breaking two tips, it being impossible to stop the rushes with light tackle (twenty-one-thread line) from an anchored boat. Finally, my rod being entirely depleted, I tried a hand-line, and in less than an hour landed two bass. One weighed one hundred and fifty-eight pounds and another two hundred and seventy-eight pounds, the latter with the aid of General Viele. We returned to port with three bass, one weighing one hundred and fifty-eight, a second two hundred and seventy-eight, and the third two hundred and fifty-eight pounds, before lunch. This was the initial rod catch of this fish, and since then scores have been landed with rod and reel, the record catch being held by Harrison T. Kendall of Pasadena, with a fish weighing four hundred and nineteen pounds. The second largest was taken by Mr. F. S. Schenck of Brooklyn, New York, and weighed three hundred and eighty-four pounds.

The tackle in vogue for this athletic and vigorous sport is similar to that required for tuna fishing. The same sized hook is used, a twenty-one-thread line, and a long eight or nine foot wire leader to prevent chafing, while above the leader or snell the line should be either doubled or provided with a fifteen-foot upper leader of strong cod line. This is to give the boatman purchase when the fish has been brought to gaff, as it almost invariably lashes the water, hurling spray over boat and fishermen.

As to the standing of the black sea-bass as a game fish there is much difference of opinion. Some claim that it is superior to the tuna, but in this I do not agree. I have taken possibly twenty bass of various sizes in hard hand-to-hand contests, and am fully impressed with their power; but in agility they do not compare with the tuna or tarpon. I should class the black sea-bass with the Florida jewfish and large black grouper, though it is much more active than the former and more attractive, having the general shape of a bass in the water. When hung up and distorted, no idea can be had of its shape. As to its qualities as a food-fish there is the same difference of opinion; the large fishes are dry and coarse, but specimens of one hundred or so pounds, if properly baked, are very good. If a fish is common, it is often despised, and if hideous in appearance, repudiated ; this is exemplified in eels and sculpins, both fit for the gods if skilfully prepared ; but the latter is scorned in the Atlantic, while in California it is esteemed very highly.

The method of taking the black sea-bass in California waters is to fish from an eighteen-foot launch or a boat light enough for the fish to tow readily, but still large enough to hold from one to three bass of two hundred pounds each, if the angler is so fortunate. The launch is anchored either at the inner or outer kelp beds, the anchor line buoyed so that it can be tossed over the moment the strike comes, as the fish invariably tows the boat until killed. On these grounds albacore bait is the best, three or four pounds being used, while live whitefish or half a barracuda are not to be slighted. This great bass has been caught when trolling for yellowtail with sardine bait, but this is exceptional, though I believe by trolling with a pipe sinker that would keep the large whitefish bait twenty feet under water, the bass could be taken in this most attractive way. There seems to be no choice in the position of the bait. If, half of a barracuda is employed, or four or five pounds of albacore, a veritable shark bait, it is taken either on the bottom or a few feet above it. That the great fish has many of the attributes of the typical bass is shown by its habit of chasing whitefish to the surface ; many times when reeling in a gamy whitefish, I have seen the gigantic form of a black sea-bass dash upward, snapping at it, causing the water to boil like a miniature maelstrom. Often the bass seizes the fish and makes away with it, line and all. The bass does not make the long rushes of the tuna. Four hundred feet of line is sufficient. A novice should never attempt the sport unaided. It is a sport for two men in a staunch. boat, as large fish may tow a frail boat to sea or capsize it ; yet expert anglers who delight in strenuous conflicts with these huge fishes have, played them,, brought them to gaff, and hauled. them into the boat single-handed and alone.

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