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Rocky Peninsula Is Site of High-Stakes Fishing

For these anglers, the privilege of a spot without crowds is worth the risk. Two men are dead after being swept out to sea Sunday.

June 07, 2005|Natasha Lee and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Tucked amid the towering bluffs and sea-worn shores of Rancho Palos Verdes, below a line of luxury ocean-view homes, immigrant fishermen and old-school anglers make their way each weekend carrying their trusty reels and buckets of bait.

Inching down a steep, treacherous trail along sea cliffs to the roaring surf, anglers like Carlos Trejo often spend long hours at night casting for calico bass, mackerel and barracuda, to name a few.

But on Sunday night, the 38-year-old Hawthorne resident and four unidentified friends were swept out to sea when a giant wave crashed into Point Vicente. Three of the men struggled back to shore, but Trejo and another man, 42, never made it back. Divers, assisted by a boat and a helicopter, helped pull their bodies from the Pacific Ocean hours later.

The incident, according to authorities, highlights the risks inherent to an unlikely community of saltwater anglers that has formed along the promontories in some of Southern California's wealthiest enclaves.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 12, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 105 words Type of Material: Correction
Drowned fishermen -- An article in Tuesday's California section about two fishermen who died after being swept into the sea off Rancho Palos Verdes said that their bodies weren't found until 10:30 p.m., that darkness complicated the search and that a Coast Guard helicopter pulled one of the bodies from the ocean. In fact, the men were discovered about 7:30 p.m., before sunset, and were pronounced dead by 7:59 p.m. They were pulled from the ocean by rescuers on Los Angeles County Fire Department Baywatch boats. One body was later hoisted from one of the boats by a Coast Guard helicopter and taken to shore.

At least 17 such "rock fishermen" died similar deaths in the last two decades on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, according to officials. Many of them, like Trejo, were working-class Latino men who regularly brave the slippery, mussel-encrusted boulders and rock that make up the point's rugged shoreline.

"It can be dangerous out there, very much so," said Carrie Wilson, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "People have a false sense of security, because they think they're on terra firma. They underestimate the danger."

Many rock fishermen regard the fishing off areas like Point Vicente, Inspiration Point and Portuguese Bend as the best in Southern California.

Schools of fish stick close to the rocks, where deep crags and kelp provide cover from predators. The ready supply of mussels provides anglers with free bait, and the treacherous environment keeps many other anglers away -- unlike fishing piers that are often packed with weekend anglers.

"They want to fish where it's not crowded," said Bill Stegmaier, owner of Paul's Bait and Tackle in San Pedro, a supplier to many of the area's rock fishermen. "Fishermen like to fish alone. People can get tangled lines, or their lines cross."

In most cases, the rock fishermen are fishing for perch, bass, sculpin and sheep head to serve at their own dinner tables. "They use the fish to make ceviche, soups -- all sorts of good meals," Stegmaier said.

Experienced rock fishermen say close calls are par for the course, and those with experience will always keep an eye on the water, because even on calm days, rogue waves can knock anglers off their feet.

"Tides can creep up on you," Stegmaier said. "The rocks you walk across could be the ones you pass when you're swimming back."

Anglers who are injured when swept off the rocks, or who aren't strong swimmers, will find themselves in immediate trouble. Waves can slam and grind anglers against the rocks with great force. Also, the chilly waters can quickly enervate a swimmer. Few rock fishermen wear life jackets or protective helmets.

California health officials have warned fishermen to be careful about eating their catches. Because of elevated levels of chemicals such as DDT and PCB, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recommends against eating a variety of fish caught along the Southern California coast. Around this portion of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, for example, people should not consume white croaker.

Lt. Jason Lum of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said officials received a call at 6:50 p.m. Sunday that there were two men who had been swept to sea near the tidal pool area of Point Vicente. It wasn't until 10:30 p.m. that Los Angeles County Fire Department Baywatch divers discovered the bodies of Trejo and the other man. The search was complicated by the lack of sunlight and the large, dark brown masses of seaweed that float on the frothing water like blankets. One body was pulled from the sea by a Coast Guard helicopter; the other was pulled into a diver's boat.

Emergency crews tried to resuscitate the men but failed. One man was declared dead at the scene, and the other died at a local hospital, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Carolynn Petru, assistant city manager of Rancho Palos Verdes, said the shoreline of Point Vicente has been accessible to the public since the early 1950s, when the county opened a trail along the 100-foot bluff. Ever since then, it has been a popular destination for anglers, scuba divers, and naturalists who enjoy searching the pocked tidal pools for starfish and skittish lobsters.

But the shoreline's beauty belies its danger. "Unfortunately, once a year, we have someone who's pulled out in the high tide or drowned," Petru said. "For a non-swimmer, it's really tough."

The state's coastal access act prevents the city from barring anglers from the area, Petru said. As a precaution, the city has posted signs warning visitors of the danger.

"It's a tragedy. You hate to hear these things happen."

On Monday, at the bottom of the bluff, far below the white and pink stucco mansions that line the seashore, hiker George Rivas, 63, strolled amid the sea spray and the roaring surf. He shook his head over the news of the anglers' deaths.

"They do it for fun, but they don't think something may happen," Rivas said. "It's pretty dangerous. I've seen so many people risking their lives."

Times staff writer Eric Malnic contributed to this report.

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