Tom, the sunburned deckhand of the New Seeker, wielded a large net and was ready to scoop up whatever was on the end of the line. “Reel it in, reel it in!” he yelled.
“I’m trying!” Margaret screamed back.
The pole was bent and quivering, the line was taut, and whatever was on the end of it was big.
The Old Men of the New Seeker put down their Bud Lights and offered a few expert suggestions:
“Move the pole to other side!”
“Don’t let up! You’ve almost got it!”
Quickly, a flash of silver glimmered, barely perceptible beneath the murky moss color of the ocean. The object skimmed the surface and then went under again. Margaret continued reeling, but the flash of silver was determined and Margaret was tired and about to lose out to the fish.
“You reel,” Tom ordered a startled angler, who immediately took over the job of reeling Margaret’s pole.
“Faster! Faster! You’ve almost got it!” Tom bent over and craned his net over the side. The fish, a proud and wild king salmon, broke through the surface of the water.
“Reel!” Tom commanded. He bent over the side and scooped the angry salmon into his net. Then he emptied it onto the deck of the boat. With one swift blow to the head with something that resembled a silver baseball bat, the fighting fish was now calm.
“Twenty-three pounds,” Tom said. “Not bad.”
A few hours before, at around five in the morning, a crowd of about twenty had gathered at Emeryville Sportfishing, located at the end of Powell Street. It is one of a handful of places in the East Bay that offer chartered fishing trips. For about a hundred bucks, would-be anglers are outfitted with licenses, poles, and sinkers and taken out in a fishing boat. The most popular trips are for halibut, crab, and salmon. Salmon season runs from March to October.
This potentially works out to be a great deal, since salmon, even the farmed kind, is expensive. But there’s also another appeal: There’s nothing like the thought of fresh-caught salmon to awaken the taste buds.
John of Emeryville Sportfishing exchanged pleasantries with the regulars, handed out licenses to those who were fishing for the first time this season, and patiently explained to the newbies where they could find their boats.
Once aboard, people scrambled for the best fishing positions. The bow, considered by some anglers to be the best spot, was already taken. Fishermen who had long ago staked out their places drank hot liquid out of old Thermoses.
Tom arrived and yawned loudly. He looked exhausted, but began stringing up the poles as effortlessly as breathing. Then Captain Harry came aboard with his golden labrador Ralph, a sweet old dog, bounding behind him.
Tom gave us newbies a quick lesson on how to bait our hooks (fat anchovies were being used as bait) and what to do if we hooked a fish. “When you think you’ve got a fish, yell ‘Fish on,’ and we’ll help you,” he explained. Once all the poles were ready, the engine turned and the boat sputtered out of the dock. Someone asked Harry where we were going, and he replied, “Wherever the salmon are.”
The New Seeker cruised out of Emeryville and into the foggy morning. Like a strange industrial mirage, the cranes of the Port of Oakland were barely perceptible. The boat kept on going, easily passing smaller boats that tried to follow.
“They know we’re a fishing boat and they’re gonna try to follow us to get where the fish are at,” a regular explained with a raspy laugh. “Sometimes the boat will turn around in circles to try to fool them.”
Inside the cabin, comrades played cards and bragged about the fish they had caught on trips to Baja or Alaska. (“Man, that bluefin was like, huge!”) A father with a young daughter celebrating her birthday snuggled on a bench and slept. Those who had stayed outside shivered in their windbreakers. An hour passed, and then two. A whale and some porpoises swam by, and those who were awake screamed and gawked. Then, finally, the engine stopped. “Okay, we’re gonna stop here for a while,” Tom said.
The New Seeker had traveled 28 miles past Point Bonita, the lighthouse on the Marin side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The waves were small and the color of pewter. Tom helped the novices cast out their lines. “You want to go about thirty feet under,” he said. “That’s where the salmon are.”
People like to say that there’s a Zen to fishing. That it’s just as important to ponder the empty spaces as the full spaces; that part of the game can be watching a seagull fly. Translated into English, this means that fishing can be really boring. But then someone yelled “Fish on!” and it quickly became the Super Bowl: Raiders vs. Niners.
“Fish on, starboard side!” Tom shouted. An old man, who at first glance looked too fragile to wrestle anything heavier than a remote control, had hooked something mighty.
With the strength of Popeye, the senior fisherman quickly reeled a squirming salmon onto the boat. And then someone else bellowed “Fish on!” and then another. Tom ran about the boat with his net, frantically yelling orders.
The deck was a bloodbath. Little spots of red decorated Tom’s white T-shirt. Now that the fish had been found, the anglers were hopeful that they would catch the limit of two salmon per person (although the fish must measure at least twenty inches in length). By 1 p.m., almost everyone had caught at least one, except for one woman who pulled up her line to find only a set of fish jaws.
At about 2 p.m., the captain announced that we had bagged the limit. Not everyone had had good luck; some still had barren poles, but others, like the old man with the strength of Popeye, had caught five. Everyone aboard would go home with two hefty salmon.
“It’s a good thing you weren’t here on Mother’s Day,” Captain Harry said as we headed back. “There were eighteen people, and we only caught six fish.” This was also a rare day because no one had barfed over the side of the boat.
We had scored. We had our salmon; the average fish weighed about twenty pounds. After the boat docked, Tom filleted most of our fish with a finely honed knife. It took just seconds. Then everyone was presented with their very own, very large bag of freshly caught salmon. It was sort of scary. What would we do with all that fish?
Funny you should ask: Captain Harry has a few recipes just in case you run out of ideas. Here’s a popular one from his brochure:
Sue’s Poached Salmon
(serve hot or cold)
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
Salmon fillets (about two pounds) cut into four pieces
2 tablespoons butter
1-1/2 teaspoons butter
1-1/2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1-1/2 teaspoons dried parsley
Salt and pepper
In a large nonstick skillet, heat wine and water over medium-high heat for five minutes. Slide salmon into poaching liquid and place some butter of top of each piece. Sprinkle with garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper.
Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and poach until flesh is firm — about ten to fifteen minutes.
Serve immediately. Or if you prefer, refrigerate and serve cold.