Dawn's light reflected on quiet harbor waters as anglers, poles in hand, gathered for another day on the ocean.
The Estrella, a 65-foot boat, was loading passengers for a 7 a.m. departure from the dock at Channel Islands Sportfishing Center (CISCO's) in Oxnard.
As the boat headed toward a fishing spot in the Santa Barbara Channel, sleepiness and the mainland dropped away, replaced by a choppy sea and chatter about, what else, fish.
"It's fun to fish," Woon Chong of Canoga Park said. "I like catching them; I like eating them better." He was hoping to bring home a calico bass that day. "It's the best fish you can catch, compares to lobster. It melts in your mouth."
Jesse Venegas of West Covina nodded. "I like fish stuffed, broiled, barbecued. There's so many ways to prepare it, and it's all good."
As the wind came up and whitecaps tipped the waves, attention turned to more immediate matters: staying dry and keeping breakfast down. People began crowding into the covered galley, but Sharon Flanagan of Santa Barbara advised against that move.
"The smell of the grease and no fresh air can make you sick," she said. "Once the fish start biting . . . the adrenaline starts flowing and you don't get seasick." She laughed as she pointed to her husband, David, standing in the bow. "He enjoys the crashing waves; so he's up there getting wet."
The Flanagans were after bonito that day, and as the anchor was lowered they began casting off the bow using lures. Most of the others were baiting with live anchovies or cut-up squid provided by the boat.
"Change your bait every few minutes; the bass like lively bait. If you want whitefish, try squid," boomed Capt. Jim Launius over the loudspeaker. At 10:15 a.m. the Estrella arrived at the Yellow Banks on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island, where the water is 90 to 100 feet deep.
Dropping anchor meant rush hour for the deckhands. They began chumming--throwing bait off the boat to attract and excite the fish. And they scrambled to help novices set up their tackle, bait their hooks and drop their lines.
"Is my line on the bottom?"
"Which is better bait for halibut?"
"Can you untangle my line?"
With the deftness that comes from 20 years as a deckhand, Sandy Anthony answered questions as she attached hooks with a fisherman's knot and tied sinkers on with a barrel knot.
"It's a good job most of the time. There's a lot to it, really," she said, explaining that deckhands lower the anchor, wash down the decks and clean and filet the passengers' catch.
The best part of the job for her is "being on the ocean. I love to fish, love boats."
Just then a call of "gaff!" sent Anthony scurrying for the long-handled hook and a net to pull a fish on board, another of her duties.
After helping Tim Gaffney, 11, of Thousand Oaks, land his chucklehead and remove the hook, Anthony put the fish in Tim's numbered burlap sack that was strung along the wall with others. Periodically, the deckhands would wet down the bags to keep the fish fresh.
Eight-year-old Hector Barragon of Oxnard was excited to land a 12-inch whitefish. He was out for the first time with his older brothers and his mother, who planned to cook Hector's catch into a fish soup with vegetables.
Carol Martens from the San Fernando Valley, who was fishing with her son, Aaron, 18, said, "I'd rather fish than anything." She advocated fishing as a great sport for women. "I think women would like this if they can get past the smells and the bait. It's like Vegas but cheaper and just as fun, I think."
Sportfishing has more in common with Las Vegas than just the luck of the catch. There's a jackpot involved, too. As the boat sailed out that morning, those interested had each thrown $5 into a jar on the chance that she or he would land the biggest fish of the day.
Steve Clark of Westlake Village won the $75 jackpot with a 7-pound whitefish. He had taken out his business associate, Alan Laudon from England.
When the Estrella sailed back into Oxnard at 5 p.m., the count totaled about 200 in barracuda, sculpin, sheepshead and assorted other fish. The catch had been good for some folks and disappointing for others. But most said they would return.
As Moon Chong, whose longed-for calico bass had been eaten by a seal before he could land the fish, said, "There's nothing like sea fishing."
WHERE AND WHEN
CISCO's, 4151 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard, operates a fleet of 15 boats available for full-day ($60 per person), three-quarter day ($29), or half-day ($20) fishing excursions. Full-day trips leave at 2 a.m.; three-quarter day at 5, 6 or 7 a.m.; and half-day at 9 a.m. Twilight trips depart at 5:30 p.m. and cost $20. Children 12 and under are half price. Tackle can be rented at $7 and a fishing license is $5.75. For information and reservations, call 985-8511 or 1-800-322-FISH.
Port Hueneme Sportfishing, at Dock 1, Port Hueneme, also runs open-party fishing excursions most days on four boats. Tickets cost $35 on the 4 and 5 a.m. departures, $25 at 6 a.m., and $27 at 7 a.m. Children 12 and under fish for are half price. Tackle can be rented for $7 and a day fishing license is $5.75. Reservations are recommended; call 488-2212 or 488-4715.