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OUTDOORS PETE THOMAS

One Day at Sea and These Kids Are Hooked

May 23, 2003|PETE THOMAS

AVALON — Sonya Garcia went through 20 baits without a bite, but her smile never wavered and her attitude remained as refreshing as the breeze flowing gently over the ocean.

"Fishing is a fun sport because it has patience," the 9-year-old said, dropping another piece of squid to the bottom, content to soak in the sunshine and be among friends.

Further down the rail of the big white boat, Adilene Casillas, who had just reeled in a colorful bass, gave a different assessment of her first fishing trip. "It's fun because you get to catch fish and see how pretty they are," she said. "Mine was real pretty."

Just as pretty, judging from the look on her face, was the sight of the fish, after being set free, dashing back into a blue-green world strewn with amber strands of kelp.

And then there was Alexis Saldana, the most pragmatic of the bunch. "Why do I like fishing?" she said, repeating a question. "Because I don't have to learn anything."

Indeed, Wednesday was a glorious day for many reasons in and around Avalon, whose older residents were busy preparing for the first busy weekend of a new tourist season. But it was especially so for some of its younger citizens, who were treated to a rare day of fishing aboard the 72-foot Toronado.

"It's really cool because we get to miss school, and because it's really fun," said Eloy Rodriguez, 10, after catching his first of several small perch, whitefish and mackerel.

Surprisingly, Catalina's children, the sons and daughters of maids, store clerks, garbage collectors, restaurant cooks, electricians, plumbers and painters, do not get many chances to enjoy the fun and bounty of the shimmering universe beyond their shores. Some play soccer, baseball and basketball, and most of the boys own skateboards, but few of their parents own boats or give fishing much of a thought.

Thus, the fourth- and fifth-graders of Catalina's only school, a K-12 facility that's part of the Long Beach Unified School District, were incorporated into the 976-Tuna Youth Fishing Program. Once a year, they are invited aboard a boat provided by Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach, on a trip funded by the conservation group Catalina Seabass Fund and carried out with the help of the youth fishing program volunteers.

The program has taken more than 10,000 kids fishing in the last decade, most of them from the inner city on the mainland. But 976-Tuna founder Philip Friedman decided to expand his operation to Catalina three years ago to give another group of youngsters a chance to feel the salty spray on their faces and the tug of a fish on the hook.

"I was incredulous at first because I thought that all of these kids, who are surrounded by water, would be fishing all the time," Friedman said. "But a lot of them are the children of service workers from Mexico and other places, living in cramped housing, and they just don't get the chance."

Despite the geographical differences, Friedman added, there's no difference between children who step aboard a deep-sea fishing boat for the first time.

"Their smiles are the common denominator," he explained, pointing to a sea of smiling faces aboard the Toronado.

One of them belonged to Sam Zayas, 10, who was accompanied by his father, Francisco, who came to Catalina from Mexico a year ago to work in construction but whose family has been in the country for only three months. Sam caught one of the first fish, a colorful sheep- head with long, sharp teeth he couldn't help but admire.

"I like the fishing but I also like the sea lions, the sharks and especially the lobsters," he said through a translator, reeling off all of the creatures he knew were lurking not far beneath his little feet.

His father, standing by his side, laughed and explained that he occasionally catches lobsters for the dinner table.

Among those sharing the stern with Zayas was Rodriguez, whose mother works at a hotel in town. Asked what he wants to do when he grows up, he kept his eyes fixed on the end of his pole and stated, "I want to fish some more."

Fishing "is fun, but you have to wait a long time to catch something," said Elizabeth Silva, 10, after reeling in an olive-colored whitefish. "But there's a boy up there who helped me and I finally caught one. It was shaking a lot. I was scared."

For three hours, the children cried almost in unison, "I need more bait."

Given the run of the vessel, they peered into a tank brimming with squid, slippery critters that shot back with ink and water every time someone became bold enough to try to grab one.

They learned how to work their reels, untangle lines and, in some cases, to unhook their own fish, all of which were released. Between bites, they stuffed their faces with hot dogs and guzzled soda.

"They work hard all year in school so this is one of their rewards," said Martina Johnson, who was supervising the activities along with fellow teacher Tina Keene.

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