“Bootlegger’s Cove” a “Real-Life thriller” by Rob Tillitz
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May 1, 1980.
26 MILES OFF the coast of San Francisco. 12 years earlier.
“NET! COME HERE and get the f—— net ready.”
Gar, the fishboat captain was energized. The diesel engine pounded slowly at trolling speed. The yell was to the other man on the boat, Jeff.
Gar was hunched over the stern rail about as far as one could go outside of the trolling pit without falling into the ocean. It was a glorious spring day, the ocean was flat and that cloudy-green color that salmon love. Seabirds chattered and shrieked at one another, and the smell of coffee and bacon drifted out of the wheelhouse. It was sixty-one degrees in the early morning air.
The gurdy was still winding up as Gar reached over, unsnapping linesnaps from the trolling wire then straightening to coil the monofilament leaders into the leader box. He carefully inspected the split-tailed herring baits, changing the bad ones. He had watched the fish hit and seen the porcelain insulator, out of the corner of one eye, on the first big jump. It was certainly a splitter, and likely a giant one. Gar’s experienced eye guessed the unseen fish to be over thirty pounds as it struggled on the hundred-pound-test leader.
Gar yelled, “hurry up” just as Jeff burst out on deck, excited when he saw the fish running in different directions.
Jeff ran back to the stern and jumped into the pit while reaching for the net in the same notion. He laid the hoop net across the stern rail, with the scoop end hanging out over the water.
“Are we in ‘em, Garaloney?” Jeff rippled with energy. Gar had been given the handle “Garaloney” some years earlier, by his skipper at the time; it was because of his expertise at abalone diving.
“You know it, Jeffer.” Then, to the uncaught fish: “Pump, you mother-f—–! Pump your heart out,” he hollered at the trolling wire that was being wrenched hard.
Now bent all the way over the stern rail again, Gar had the auspicious linesnap, which was jerking madly, in sight. But he did not want to bring it up too high while the fish was thrashing its head from side to side. Not yet. He would not take a chance of losing this beauty.
“Are there any boats coming on your side?” Gar’s stomach was flooded with bile, as if a swarm of butterflies were circling inside. He took a moment for caution, knowing the Chinook would require his full attention for the next ten minutes, which was plenty of time for another boat in the small fleet to get close enough to lock outriggers with them.
“Clear into the middle of next week,” Jeff sang out in his exhilaration. There was nothing like a hundred-dollar fish to spike the adrenaline.
IT WAS OPENING morning, and they had come out of the anchorage at the Southeast Farallon Island at daylight, snooping their way down toward the rest of the Half Moon Bay, California, boats, looking for a spot to fish. They set their gear into the water about nine miles south of the Farallon anchorage at Pa’s Canyon, named after Carl Burlesque. Carl, or Pa, had caught tons upon tons of rock cod dragging Old Pa Rock, located deep, and on one side of the canyon. But there were more than rock cod here. There were salmon, and it was opening day of the season. Gar and his crewman Jeff were trailing their gear across this canyon head in near-perfect salmon fishing conditions.
There were spring murres squabbling raucously all around the boat. The Murre is a streamlined bird, gregarious and social, noted for agile swimming ability, and their presence on the surface of the ocean is usually a sign of fish. Baitfish are driven to the surface by feeding salmon from below. And the murres feed on them when they come up to escape from the salmon. So fishermen watch for these birds.
The whiteness of the famous Pete Seeger song’s, “Little Boxes on the Hillside” at Daly City, and on up into the Sunset District of San Francisco, were just visible from 22 miles off Pedro Point. Perfect opening-weather presented itself with just an occasional lazy swell rolling through. Clear blue sky with some wispy white clouds, and a hardly noticeable six to eight mile per hour breeze, just sufficient to keep the kelp flies at bay.
Beyond the normal smells of an older wooden boat—deck caulk, fir, bilge water, and always diesel—the ocean offered its salty aroma. It smelled this morning as shrimp taste. Just exactly like shrimp taste, Gar observed, while scrutinizing the salmon’s latest run, along with the smells of different paints lingering in the air. The topside smelled of lacquer, while the bottom paint reminded him of early school days. It was a smell like crayons or clay, with an underlying reek of tar.
GAR HELD THE kill cord high and over the back of his hand, pinching the line tight to his palm with his right thumb. The linesnap was just six or eight feet away. The fish had mellowed, swimming just behind and slightly away from the boat. The game now was to ease the fish closer, inch by inch.
Gar pulled long and slow on the line, surfacing the silvery prize sufficiently to inspect both its size as well as the position of the hook. The fish was a monster for this time of year. Normally the fish are smaller in the spring, but this one was by no means small.
“I’m bettin’ thirty eight,” Gar guessed, meaning what the fish would weigh at the dock, which would be after it was dressed, because salmon must be cleaned and gilled as soon after being caught as possible.
“I’m taking overs,” Jeff countered.
“He’s hooked good,” Gar said, breathing out.
A suck in, then exhaling, “Come on, baby. Come to papa.”
Another in and out: “Atta boy, don’t be shy, just get….” Now holding his breath, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” The fish was starting to sit on its tail while head thrashing again. The thing fought with an admirable frenzy, tearing up the water and becoming a blur of manic activity. Water splashed into the air for thirty feet around. But it couldn’t last. No fish could sustain such mortal activity.
When the fish was again within reach, Jeff had the net ready. The fish’s head was within swinging range, accordingly Gar grabbed his gaff, but instead of gaffing it Gar turned the gaff’s hook out away from the fish and clubbed the giant perfectly on the soft spot between and above the eyes, knocking the beast into fish incoherency.
“Good Morning!” he breathed reverently.
All over but the hallelujahs now, Gar let the fish drop back in the current to just astern of their positions while Jeff simultaneously slipped the dip net behind the fish. Jeff levered the net up over the rail of the stern. It took Gar’s help, grabbing low on the handle, then on the far side of the net, to lift the fish over the rail. They flopped it onto the deck where another couple of whacks to the noodle were delivered to insure its capture.
Elated, the two fishermen let go with a jubilant, beginning-of-the-season-scream, then turned back to their work. The fish would go thirty-eight pounds, easy.
Gar increased the speed of the boat a little bit, kicked off the autopilot, and spun the wheel thirty degrees for a slow turn. He did this almost automatically, and spoke to Jeff.
“I’ll turn your way so you can run your bow line. I better run us back up through that spot before we get too far away. We’re in ‘em. I can feel it. I love this canyon. It never lets me down. And we found it all by our lonesomes.” Gar loved finding his own fish. It was an integral element of his independent nature.
Jeff was busy on his side, and then he called for the net. Gar already running his bow line back out, paused the gurdy for fifteen seconds to net Jeff’s fish then set the net back in its position hanging slightly out over the stern. Jeff’s fish was a keeper, but would only go about eight pounds dressed. It was a nice medium, and he told Jeff that.
Jeff took two more keepers off that wire, and shook two shorts, laughing all the while. This was good fishing, and if it stayed just like this they would break the hundred-for-the-day mark. And with a decent grade of fish to boot. That was always the goal. A hundred fish or better for the day.
WHEN THE BOAT was pointed straight back on their reverse tack, north toward the island, Gar took a moment to run up to the pilothouse and check their position on the Loran and make a mark on the chart. He left Jeff to tend the lines. They fished eight leaders on six lines, for a total of 48 hooks in the water. Gar wanted to insure they were going to pass back over the canyon head again, right at its tip.
It was a simple collection of spring colors out the window of the cabin: green ocean, blue sky, nothing elaborate, a chill in the air, and a sunny glare sparkling on the smooth sea. Gar watched the other boats rising and falling on the green swells, a busy pair of men in every stern, the outriggers rocking as if a pair of knitting needles, giant knitting needles, had been poked into the amidships of each of the shiny-white trollers. Every boat had their pair of men working the stern, the bows plunged meanwhile slowly forward, all in identical directions, no one at the helms. Trails of burnt diesel smudged the otherwise perfect sky. Chatter spilled from Gar’s array of radios. He did not hear good fish reports from those boats that were not on this spot.
THAT DONE, HE ran back and jumped into the pit. The float line that he had idling in was just up into position and without slowing the gurdy, Gar pulled the handle on the float board and set the float well out of the way behind the gurdy and wire. He had witnessed floats laid in the deck bin kicked over the side by lively fish not yet knocked out. And this was unacceptable.
The two fishermen ran through the rest of the gear, joking back and forth, thinking life wasn’t too bad. And when finished they had thirteen keepers on deck with a solid eight-pound average weight. These were decent-sized fish for spring fishing. With the big splitter, the average was likely over ten pounds for the moment, but that average would be reduced as they continued to catch school fish of the seven-to-eight-pound variety.
This is how the fishing went. The gear was run, and the fish were cleaned. All of this with seagulls circling, diving, and screaming harshly behind the stern. The oily smell of the herring baits, and the fresher smell of salmon blood filled the air. Gar ran up to the pilot house, telling Jeff over his shoulder, “I better check in with the boys, real quick.”
IN THE WHEEL house, he first tried the radio called the Mouse, also known as the Mickey Mouse. This is fisherman-speak for the C.B. radio. Switching to the Half Moon Bay fleet’s “secret” channel nine, Gar whistled a “Phweee-phwuuu” (that was a sort of secret whistle.)
Michael, Gar’s hero, mentor and role model (and, some would say, the best salmon fisherman ever) came back smartly.
“Is that you, Lips?” Gar, in addition to being called “Garaloney”, had inherited the handle “Lips” because years before when he had deckhanded with a very serious fisherman named Nardo, he was never allowed to come in out of the summer sun. His lips were burned raw for several seasons straight.
“Wall-to-wall, and tree-top tall. How they bitin’ for you? Come back? “ Gar replied.
“We’re just out front of home, moving steadily up and out. And we have three little rags for the morning. Not much doing.” Michael responded. A Rag is a barely-legal sized salmon.
“Oh boy, doesn’t sound too awfully shiny. We’re on that favorite canyon of mine and Pa’s, and we’ve got an unlucky number, with one monster for the morning, over.” Gar tried to downplay his excitement.
“You got green or brown water?” Mike asked.
“Well, it was all green—the good green—but now I see an occasional puddle of brown. I don’t know yet if it’s the good brown or the bad brown. We’ll see. But I have lines going, and things look plenty fishy. I gotta go. Lotta rips, too,” he added as he threw down the mike and ran out the door.
“Keep gettin’ ‘em Lipaloney. We’ll see you soon.” Mike clicked off, in a hurry to get to his gear.
Mike was grateful to Gar for the report, and wanted to get to Gar’s location as quickly as possible. Although he was the mentor and role model to an entire generation of Half Moon Bay salmon fishermen, Michael McHenry was not too proud to listen to good advice when he found it. Fishing is an utterly pragmatic endeavor. You go where the fish are if you want to catch them.