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SPORTS WEEKEND : THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

This Is the Lore of the Lure of Fishing

April 24, 1998|PETE THOMAS

Ocean fishermen were in a dream world last spring, summer and fall, enjoying what will go down as one of the most action-packed seasons on record.

And they're anticipating the arrival of more yellowtail, albacore and yellowfin tuna in the coming months.

"But that's all because of El Nino," says Ed Ries, a lifelong fisherman who lives in San Diego.

What Ries means is, fishing used to be ridiculously good almost every year when he got hooked on the sport, in the early 1930s.

Ries went out every chance he got while growing up in Santa Monica, catching unheard-of quantities of bonito, bass and barracuda locally, and pooling resources with his friends for an occasional trip to San Diego, where the real action was.

In 1935, he points out, a San Diego newspaper reported that more than 100,000 yellowtail and 13,000 tuna were caught that year in that area alone. Keep in mind, this was by a tiny fleet of boats with limited speed and range.

Yellowtail were as prized then as they are now, if not more so, Ries recalls. A 1938 excerpt from his diary tells of an early-season trip to the Coronado Islands just south of the border on Nick Johns' Aztec.

"At 0900, the bite switched on and my partner and I dredged up 21 yellows between us," he wrote. "The boat total was 167 fish. They were what we called 'firecrackers'--fish averaging 12-15 pounds each.

"We hauled them up to Santa Monica in the rumble seat of the Model A Ford coupe and peddled them to Ralph's market for 10 cents a pound, cleaned, heads on."

Those were the good old days, to be sure, when fish populations were enormous and sportfishing was just beginning to evolve.

And anyone with $14.95 can take a nostalgic plunge into the past because Ries, a sportfishing historian, has finally written and published a book on the period titled "Tales of the Golden Years of California Ocean Fishing 1900-1950."

"I decided I better do it now, or I might never do it," says Ries, 79, whose columns appear regularly in South Coast Sportfishing magazine.

The soft-cover book is nothing fancy, but it chronicles well the colorful beginnings of sportfishing off our coast. The photographs alone tell the story of a time when men sought their quarry attired in white shirts and neckties. When piers were crowded, fishing boats were, appropriately, called tubs and sportfishing barges, many of them converted tall sailing ships, dotted Southern California waters.

Fishing was done largely with bamboo rods and reels spooled with linen line and wire leaders. And judging from old photographs of yellowtail hanging by the hundreds from racks stacked 30 feet high, catch-and-release was not on anyone's mind.

It also was a time when such treasured species as albacore and bluefin tuna were regularly found inside the channel between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland.

Charles Frederick Holder, "founding father" of local ocean sportfishing, is referred to extensively in portions of Ries' book. Holder called yellowtail "the fish of the people" because they were so readily available and sought after by the everyday angler.

But of the albacore he professed, "I believe no fish will so impress the stranger; not only for their vast numbers but for their tameness.

" . . . To test their tameness, impale a sardine on your gaff and lower it down. In a moment a 30-pounder has seized it and you have gaffed him and lifted him in. But I advise you not to tell the story, as no one will believe it, though it is one of the easiest things to accomplish when these fishes are biting in their normal fashion."

Anyone who has been involved in a full-blown albacore bite can appreciate what Holder was saying.

Ries traces the evolution of the local fleets and cites a few of the rare accidents that, in part, led to the enactment of regulations and improvements in design that have helped make today's vessels as safe as they are.

Ries devotes an entire chapter to barges, from the rundown Paproca off Long Beach, which opened for business off Long Beach in 1921 and accommodated more than 100,000 anglers in its first five years, to the elegant Star of Scotland, a four-masted windjammer that had sailed the seven seas, only to end up as a smelly fishing barge in Santa Monica Bay in the 1930s.

Then there was the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, and the hysteria that followed. One of the victims was the barge Kohala, which was blown up by United States warplanes acting after the single-torpedo attack by a Japanese sub on the S.S. Absaroka outside of San Pedro Harbor on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Ries, working on a minesweeper at the time, witnessed this attack, as well as the raining of bombs that followed on Christmas Day, in hopes of sinking a sub believed to be still in the area.

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