A lazy, hazy day of fishing may not have the glitz appeal of a night out in Tinseltown, but for folks who like the smell of salt air, the reek of bait and the tug of a fish on the line, the Isle of Redondo has an appeal of its own.
The Isle, the sole survivor of a fleet of stationary fishing platforms that were anchored in the open ocean off Southern California, opened its season Saturday and demonstrated the special attraction it has for fishermen from San Fernando to Anaheim.
For many of the first anglers to board the Isle, it was a pre-dawn awakening and a fast trip along vacant freeways to Redondo Beach to make the 7 a.m. departure.
In Glendale, Juan Duran, 25, a chemical company driver, felt the Isle's magnetic pull at 4:30 a.m. as he wolfed down a big breakfast that his wife had fixed for him. She asked if she should plan fish for supper. "No, I might not catch anything," Duran told her.
Meanwhile, throughout Southern California, 82 other fishermen--a cultural cross section including a Palos Verdes Estates lawyer, a retired Air Force colonel from Anaheim, a thin black kid from Wilmington, a hefty security guard from Artesia, a father and son from Panorama City, a group of Armenian anglers from Pasadena and Glendale, a construction worker from San Fernando--headed for Redondo Beach as well.
Aboard the Isle, as poles began bobbing with fish, the catch varied as widely as the fishermen.
Matt Matsumoto, 52, an unemployed Silver Lake resident, was one of the first to haul in a fish--a ling cod measuring just over 22 inches.
"That's amazing!" commented barge master Mark Willey, 19. "I haven't seen one of them out here in a long time." Barge master Randy Mansfield, who was watching, confided that he was happy merely to see something caught alive with fins. "The first day you're always a little frightened," he said.
A few caught spiny little rock cod--"Ta dah!" announced retired Air Force Col. C. Edward Shepherd as he held up a four-incher--and several took in sea bass. But, as expected, mackerel made most of the action Saturday.
The sea was calm and the barge's catamaran hull rode easily on the little swells that rolled across the ocean.
But it was not always so. Older, less-safe ships went to the bottom regularly in the old days.
"Years ago," longtime barge operator Frank Hale recalled, "there were barges off of Malibu, off of Venice, off Santa Monica, off Ocean Park, off Redondo Beach--every harbor had a barge.
"Back in the early '20s, they put the old sailing vessels off there. You could buy them for nothing. You get a water taxi and you were in business. There was no regulation, no nothing. The good days. On those days, they wouldn't dry dock them and paint them and the worms would get them. The bad weather would come and they would wash ashore. Then they would go back and get another one."
Hale recalled that before World War II, several people aboard the Olympic were killed when a Japanese freighter plowed into the old sailing vessel, which anchored over the Horseshoe kelp bed, a well-known fishing ground dangerously close to the shipping lanes into Long Beach harbor.
And he remembered the wild April day in 1951 when the Retriever and Bud Uhler went under.
"We couldn't get him off. We tried," Hale said.
The wind was howling at more than gale force and waves 15 feet high tossed around the 65-foot rescue boat like a child's bathtub toy, he recalled. The Coast Guard tried and also failed to make a rescue. In the morning, the Retriever was on the bottom and Uhler's body, still wearing a life jacket and life preserver, had washed up on the shores of Redondo Beach.
'We Took a Gamble'
On Dec. 2, 1968, the Sacramento--the world's largest fishing barge, an 89-year-old vessel that used to ferry commuters across San Francisco Bay--sank two miles off Redondo Beach where the Isle of Redondo now anchors.
"We took a calculated gamble--that we wouldn't have a very serious winter storm--and lost," said Jack Baker, who ran the barge operation then.
In winds of 30 knots and seas of eight feet, Baker piloted the boat that took the crew and fishing passengers off the Sacramento.
"Passengers were hanging over the side throwing up. The crew wanted to stay aboard but I would not permit it," he said. "It was getting dangerous. The wind was increasing steadily." The storm intensified during the night and sank the barge.
Nowadays, the Coast Guard insists on strict safety regulations. The 534-ton Isle of Redondo, which was built in 1980, is inspected as a passenger vessel, and its owners moor it in sheltered waters during the stormy winter months. The Southland's only other fishing barge, Frank Hale's Annie B., is anchored full time in the sheltered waters of Long Beach Harbor.
The tight regulations have led to safer operations but, Baker and Hale said, they are also responsible for the collapse of the barge fleet as the expense of meeting them grew too costly.
The excitement aboard the Isle these days is tamer than fighting winter storms. It's all in the fishing.
After an hour, Juan Duran had something to show his wife. He had caught a 3 1/2-pound sea bass--the biggest fish yet landed.
"I'm going to eat it tonight," he said.