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Sons of the Sea : Legacy of Sharks, Oars and Ones That Didn't Get Away

February 07, 1991|CHRIS AHRENS

Stan Lewis quit his job picking watermelons in the Imperial Valley and hitchhiked to Solana Beach in the summer of 1933.

Walking over a sandy rise, the 18-year-old saw a man rowing a small, wooden fishing boat to shore. The boat sat low in the water, indicating a good catch. Lewis remembered that moment vividly--right down to the transparent clarity of the Pacific Ocean--until his death 46 years later.

He remembered it as the moment he decided how to spend the rest of his life.

The decision lives on today in his son, Tommy Lewis, 44, who still fishes the coast of North County in a small wooden boat.

Nearly every day, from early October to early March, Lewis' purple fishing boat can be seen from shore near the kelp beds between Solana Beach and Leucadia. The rest of the year he fishes in deeper water.

Like his father and his grandfather, he pulls lobster and halibut from the ocean and sees his catch sold in local restaurants and fish markets. Often, only hours after it is taken from the ocean, it is on the tables of North County.

There aren't many fishermen like Lewis left: the work is difficult, the money unpredictable, the catches shrinking, the legal restrictions increasing. "There used to be a lot more of us in the area, but a lot of them have died or quit. Each year, six or seven new guys try fishing, but they usually quit by the end of the year," Lewis said. "Fishing isn't easy."

It is an industry in which storms can destroy equipment, poachers can steal the catch and death by drowning is an ever-present danger. But, for Lewis, those things pale in comparison to the blow dealt last fall when California voters approved the Marine Resources Protection Act, which will ban gill net fishing within the 3-mile coastal zone by the end of 1993.

There are hopes among local gill net fishermen that the new law will be repealed or modified. For now, however, there are a few men hanging onto an ancient craft, and a way of life that may soon be lost in North County forever.

Tommy Lewis learned fishing as a boy. His first boat, a flat-bottomed skiff, was purchased for $11 with money he earned collecting bottles from the Encinitas dump. He was 11 years old at the time and already learning gill net fishing from Stan Lewis, his father.

Stan would often take Tommy out into a big surf, kill the boat engine and tell his son to get them back to shore. "He believed in knowing how to row," Tommy remembers with a laugh.

"And my father was a daredevil. One Friday the 13th he broke a mirror, petted a black cat, walked under a ladder and parachuted from an airplane into a school of sharks--just to prove that the variety wasn't dangerous.

"He pulled me from school when I was 15 so that I could help him fish. I only went to school two days a week. I was really small, and the surf was huge, 10 feet. He said, 'There won't be anybody else out there today, and you'll kill 'em.' I was scared then, but now the ocean is where I feel the safest."

Tommy's father learned ocean fishing from Dick Heiner. Heiner, who died in 1980, was the man Stan had seen rowing ashore that summer day in 1933 when he decided he would become a fisherman. Later, Heiner would become more than mentor to Lewis--he would become his father-in-law. When Lewis arrived in Solana Beach, he had no place better to go, so he bunked down in one of the caves on the beach.

It was there that he met the fishermen of North County who would camp in the caves along the coast during the fishing season. Each night, over a bottle of port and a campfire, they told romantic stories of the sea, stories that further reinforced Lewis' career decision.

And each day Lewis approached the fisherman he had first seen rowing ashore, offering to help him out. Finally, Heiner agreed to his request.

Slowly and painfully, Lewis learned the craft. He learned to set a line for shark, to fish with a gill net, to build and set a lobster trap, and to filet a fish without wasting any of the precious meat.

Lewis had found a new love in fishing, and another in Heiner's daughter, Mae, whom he later married.

Soon Lewis had his own boat and his own stories.

Today, his widow, Mae Lewis, still tells the stories--including the one about the octopus:

"My husband was fishing for rock cod when he reeled in something very heavy. When he got it to the surface, he found that a huge octopus had come up to eat the fish. It was bigger than the 16-foot boat he was in, and he tried to cut the line, but it was too late.

"The octopus attached itself to the bottom of the boat, and nearly sunk it. Stan sharpened his knife on his stone and went around cutting off the tentacles that had reached clear over the side of the boat. The octopus still would not let go. Stan managed to get the boat in through the surf with the octopus still attached to the bottom.

"On shore, some men put the octopus in a wagon and paraded it through the streets of Encinitas. It had come from very deep water, and it was bright red."

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