A cigarette dangling from the lips of Jack Wolfe glowed in the early-morning chill on the Redondo Beach Pier.
Standing with a few other hardy fishermen, Wolfe waited for a fish--any fish--to bite.
"This is lousy," he barked, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans, cap and glasses affixed firmly in place. Several poles were tethered to the rail, razor-thin lines drooping into the icy water two-stories below.
"Miserable," echoed Julius Samuels of Torrance. His fishing gear remained at home, but he made the daily trek to be with his friends.
And that, they say, is what pier fishing is all about: friendship. These hard-core anglers brave icy mornings in winter and crowded piers in summertime because, they say, friendships should know no bounds.
They get little attention from other anglers who pass them in shiny boats. Yet most of those who frequent South Bay piers think they share the best life.
"The people, the fresh air and sunshine," said Samuels, his nose reddened from the cold wind. "You can't beat it."
It was barely 8 a.m. Wolfe had been in place about an hour. Still no fish.
"I used to get down here by 6 in the morning, but now I'm getting lazy," he said.
Gray and white sea gulls hovered overhead. A California seal circled in the water under the pier, then rejoined a pack of his friends farther out at the end of the horseshoe-shaped structure.
On the wharf, men wearing knee-high rubber boots and speaking Spanish slit and cleaned commercial catches. The stench greeted newcomers.
The fishermen here are a fraternal lot, especially when the action is slow.
"You see the same people," said Terry Turk, operator of Redondo Sports Fishing, who hasn't seen much change in 10 years.
"We get a real mix of people," he said. "Ethnic groups, old and young. Some come to feed their own table. A lot come to feed their cats."
They are after mackerel, bonito, halibut and several varieties of cod. A delicacy among Orientals, according to Turk, is opal eye.
On days when live bait--anchovies brought in by commercial haulers--is available, the crowds can be enormous. But when there is no live bait, "the word passes fast," Turk said. Pieces of mackerel, squid, night crawlers and even cheese serve as substitutes.
This winter there has been very little live bait, according to the locals at Redondo Beach Pier. Consequently, fishing has been very bad, Samuels said.
"Let's face it, it's December," said Tom Stein, a retired aerospace worker from Hawthorne. "You wanna catch fish you gotta go farther down . . . South America, Hawaii. . ."
"Mexico," Samuels chimed in.
A steaming cup of coffee in a foam cup comforted Stein as the chill continued and broken clouds from a winter storm lurked on the horizon. Still early, many of the fishermen had retreated to a nearby coffee shop to warm themselves as the wind picked up and a light chop erased glassy seas.
Stein, a blue cap fitted tightly over his head, peered from behind wire-framed spectacles as he lighted another cigarette with the one he was just finishing. He also didn't have a pole with him.
"I came to visit my associates," he said. "We're all friends. Each enjoys the company of the other and, we might catch a fish by accident, who knows?"
Stein said he makes his way to the pier four or five times a week.
"But I won't come on weekends because the parking is too expensive," he said.
As a group of teen-agers take their place on the pier, Wolfe, who fishes here three times a week, is still waiting for a bite. Mark Bunn, 16, a student at North High School in Torrance, casts his line toward four seals that are playfully swimming near the pier pilings. Anglers are prohibited from overhead casting by blue and red signs posted along the pier. Still, Bunn gets off a good underhand toss as a distant green buoy clangs. A friend, 15-year old Lee Gosnell of Torrance, says they often fish from the pier because "it's cheap." "We save money, and besides, we don't have to fight the crowds" that go out on the fishing boats, he said.
At times, however, everyone battles the gulls. They can be aggressive, hovering nearby when someone hauls in a catch.
Anglers joke that the gulls and their droppings--which have heavily stained the wooden structure--are part of the atmosphere.
Earlier, a flock of the pesky creatures engulfed the south side of the pier when a fisherman named Terry cut up pieces of a small mackerel and tossed them on the roof of the coffee shop, not far from the dried remains of a sand shark that Wolfe said was thrown up there several days before by a disgusted fisherman. Several cats appeared, competing with the sea gulls for the scraps. When feeding was over the birds flew away screeching. Wolfe, Samuels and Terry breathed a sigh of relief. The gull's droppings, an occupational risk here, had missed the fishermen.
"Now aren't you glad cows can't fly?" Terry said to Wolfe.
Wolfe was still waiting for a bite. Two hours later he called it quits, saying he might be back the next day if it didn't rain.
"The water is too cold for fish," he said.
Later, a small mackerel is reeled in by Victor Doss, who works in Hermosa Beach. He removed the steel hook from its jaw and places the fish in a plastic shopping bag.
"This is probably the biggest fish of the day," Samuels said. Onlookers rated the catch at about a pound.
"The small ones we fry. My wife cooks them," said Doss, his line already returned to action.