THERE'S NO explaining superstition. Wherever luck turns mysteriously bad, you'll find an explanation -- and possibly, a fix. Take the banana.
For some reason, saltwater anglers bash this fruit, which they fear brings bad luck. It's a superstition that's been around for decades -- perpetuated by recreational and commercial fishermen who also spit on their baits, never wash a lucky fishing shirt or hang garlic to ward off evil spirits.
It may have started in the era of tall sailing ships, when banana cargo sometimes contained the deadly Brazilian wandering spider. Banana spiders are fast, aggressive and venomous. Somewhere in the past, bananas, boats and bad luck may have gotten mixed together.
Though some anglers tolerate bananas on boats, many believe in the banana curse and don't want to invite its wrath.
Years ago, as a teenager fishing out of the old Pacific Landing in Long Beach, I met a galley cook on the half-day boat Estrella who was convinced that even a single banana, secreted in a tackle box, contained beneath its yellow veneer enough bad karma to shut off a barracuda bite faster than a toxic waste spill.
"Damn things," the cook would mutter, when action suddenly waned and he noted some Midwesterner with a one-day license and a rental rod, peeling back fishing's forbidden fruit. "We ought to frisk these people before they get aboard."
You could buy a bowl of cereal in his galley -- but never a banana.
Speaking of cereal, veteran angler Jim Hendricks, associate publisher of Trailer Boats magazine, almost broke up a friendship when a buddy showed up at Jim's place to go fishing. "He was handing me stuff for the ice chest," Hendricks recalls, "and I spotted this Tupperware filled with cereal. I logically asked if he had bananas too and, when he said yes, I made him go into the house and eat them on the spot."
Hendricks is so adamant about the banana jinx he doesn't allow banana muffins on his boat. Forget about lathering up with Banana Boat sunscreen.
Branny Ford was once the skipper of the party boat Happy Man, out of Marina del Rey. He used to announce over the public address system before departing: "No skateboards, no motorcycles and no bananas allowed on board." Guess which two items he was only kidding about?
A few days before, Ford says anglers landed 28 legal-size halibut, but when they returned the next day they found no halibut, but did find bananas in some paper sacks.
Longtime angler and scientist Bill Boyce once worked as a biologist-observer on commercial tuna boats, where he found plenty of Portuguese fishermen who feared the banana. Off Costa Rica, Boyce says, crews would occasionally encounter floating boxes of bananas; they believed they might as well retire their jack poles or nets for the day.
Portuguese superstitions flourished when the tuna-boat industry came to ports in San Pedro and San Diego. Crews not only shunned bananas but hung cloves of garlic over the bow to ward off bad luck and greased boat rails so evil spirits couldn't climb in.
Jed Welsh, 96, has seen generation after generation of anglers embrace the banana curse. But he's proved them wrong.
Welsh has caught sailfish off Central America while trolling a banana. He says the crew cut a banana peel into strips -- resembling today's popular vinyl-skirted lures -- and then rigged the peel on a hook. "Greenish-yellow ones worked best," he says.
"I don't know how long this banana thing has been around," he says, "but my dad first sailed to Catalina Island in 1878, and he said he heard about [the curse] back then."
Of course, I don't believe the jinx. Yet I do recall a trip with Hendricks and fellow angler Kit McNear during which Hendricks discovered a banana in my gear. The day before, the sky was cloudless and the sea was placid amid a frenzied calico bass bite. This day, even though I was forced to consume the stowaway fruit as soon as Hendricks discovered it, we caught practically zilch, got the anchor hopelessly stuck, lost a marker float, were socked in by fog and followed by marauding seals.
To this day, Hendricks maintains, "If that's not scientific proof about the banana jinx, I don't know what is."
Chuck Garrison is a freelance writer based in Blue Jay, Calif., and author of "Offshore Fishing: Southern California and Baja."