Jodi Thomas hardly fits the popular image of a surf fisherman--that of a brawny old salt leaning into the sea spray, casting a whip-like 12-foot rod over oncoming waves with confidence, athleticism and perhaps a colorful maritime oath or two.
Jodi is 5 years old. And her pole is a 6 1/2-footer designed mainly for freshwater use. But when she reeled in two fat female surf perches recently, the Huntington Beach kindergartner could count herself among the county's successful surf anglers.
"It's all she could talk about for a couple of days," said her dad, Mike, an X-ray technician. He takes Jodi and her sister, 11-year-old Lisa, and brother, 12-year-old Michael, to Laguna's Ninth Street Beach or to Huntington once a week to cast for barred surf perch, corbina, yellowfin croaker and spot-fin croaker. And if they haul up the occasional starfish, sand shark or ray, well, that's fishing too.
Although surf fishing traditionally has been primarily a men's sport, kids and women make up an increasing percentage of surf anglers, bait shop owners say.
Outnumbering adults, 87 youngsters fished in the recent Perch Derby sponsored by Let's Go Fishing, a Huntington Beach store.
On Balboa Island, John Doughty of J.D.'s Big Game Tackle reports an unusual sight, one that bodes well for business: 8- to 12-year-old girls have lately been browsing his store aisles, discussing not Beanie Babies but how to tie fishing knots and how to use those lures with the funny names, like Surf Candy, Motor Oil and Crazy Charlie.
No license is needed for anglers under 16. Otherwise, count on adding a fee of $18.40 to the cost for an entry-level rod and reel, which run from $50 to $100, and another $20 or so for line, weights, hooks and bait. Angler's Bait and Tackle in Dana Point is one of the few county stores that sell live surf bait. Ghost shrimp, a species of sand shrimp, are delivered from the Pacific Northwest; local varieties are too small for the job, says retailer Pat Walla.
"Major baits are mussels, clams, ghost shrimp and bloodworm, which come from Maine," Walla said. "Most fishermen take one of the above, maybe three pounds of mussels at $1.75 a pound--mussels catch anything in the surf line. Bloodworm are $5 for a dozen."
Serious surf anglers keep their noses in tide charts; prime fishing time is during high tide and the two hours beforehand. This, fishermen say, is when the fish like to feed, because the incoming tide churns up their diet of sand crabs, sand worms and sand fleas.
"The fish are not going to stay in areas where they work hardest to make a living," says Mark Gasich of Anglers Center in Newport Beach.
"They sit in areas where there's a slight slacking in the current--a hole, or trough. You can scout out the beach ahead of time and find areas where waves come in and dissipate sharply. That's a deeper area, so you want to cast there. Troughs tend to hold fish."
Surf anglers study the tides, riptides and beach geography, from the broad expanses of Bolsa Chica to the coves of Laguna. Such study is part of the fun and the challenge, anglers say.
In fact, of all the recreation activities on Orange County beaches, none makes a more studied use of the sand and waves than surf fishing. Many anglers tie their own flies or dig for sand crabs to use as bait. Others fish at night, during grunion runs, using the silvery fish for bait and casting for the halibut, calico bass and white sea bass that linger to feed on the grunion.
Gasich says, however, that a lot of know-how isn't necessary to have a good time.
"I've talked to people who have gone out at the absolute worst time of day, and they've come back with fish," he said. "You don't have to have a lot of knowledge, just the willingness to go out and do it."
Mason Stoller of Huntington Beach, who has been fishing for more than half of his 11 years, goes out two or three times each month and now is consistently catching bigger fish than his dad, who taught him.
"He's more patient, and finds the holes better than I do," Guy Stoller says. "We fish in Huntington, Newport, Seal Beach. About this time of year we start to throw for halibut or corbina. It's spotty right now, but they'll come in when the weather warms up."
Stoller hopes he can match his surf fishing record for halibut, which he set a few years ago: a 24-inch fish caught with 2-pound test.
During the recent Perch Derby, a contest spanning six months, Mason earned first place in his division with a 1-pound, 1-ounce fish. He's now entered in the Corbina and Croaker Derby, again sponsored by Let's Go Fishing. In this derby, young anglers will be able to cast closer to shore, because corbina often come in so close that their backs are visible.
Last month, Let's Go Fishing store owner Bill Gaul gave out the derby awards--rod and reel sets, fishing boat passes--at a barbecue at Corona del Mar State Beach, where he grilled hot dogs and burgers for the kids and bacon-wrapped teriyaki tuna steaks for the grown-ups.
"Surf fishing is a perfect family sport," Gaul said. "People who live inland want to cool off in the hot months, and come down and fish on the beach in the evening. You fish awhile, barbecue, get a little sand in your food . . . great fun."
For Mike Thomas, even though he spends a fair amount of time untangling his kids' fishing lines, a few hours' surf fishing is far preferable to getting in line for stick-and-ball sports.
"Where else can you spend quality time with kids for free, and have that much fun?" he said. "It costs you an arm and a leg at a baseball game, and you have to listen to drunks and profanities."