Bundled in thick jackets or sporting classic yellow slicker suits, anglers… (Don Leach, Los Angeles Times )
It was almost midnight when someone spotted the banana.
Word on the boat spread quickly. Guys in the back corner were snacking on a bunch, people said, but it was unclear whether they had thrown the bad-luck fruit overboard.
No matter — the damage had already been done.
The Western Pride, a no-nonsense, 76-foot Ditmar Donaldson, was headed back to port without having hooked a single squid.
The 75 or so anglers onboard had expected waters teeming with Humboldt squid, which are known for their mysterious sudden invasions of California coastal waters.
"This is a natural occurrence that happens periodically since about 2003, although we are not exactly sure why," California Department of Fish and Wildlife marine biologist Dianna Porzio wrote in an email. "Humboldt, or jumbo squid, is a short-lived species that has experienced a range expansion in the last decade or so and are probably feeding and spawning off our coast, but they are normally found in deeper water."
Sometimes, though, they ascend from the depths, making for massive sportfishing hauls.
One night last week, about 15 anglers reeled in about 340 squid within about an hour near Dana Point, said Rob Armes of Davey's Locker Sportfishing and Whale Watching.
The only reason they didn't catch more was that they didn't have enough anglers.
"If we'd had 40 or 50 people, we'd have gotten 800 to 900 squid," Armes said. "They were floating all around the boat. They were jumping. They were everywhere."
Squid-fishing excursions have been leaving from Dana Wharf nightly since early this month, said General Manager Donna Kalez, and have been coming back with hundreds.
The cephalopods, which in warmer waters can grow to the size of a small person, Armes said, "eat everything in their path."
"They eat fish, they eat each other, anything," he said, adding that the squid chow down on the types of fish anglers usually try to catch.
Porzio said there are no state season or bag limits on Humboldt squid aside from a general invertebrate bag limit of 35.
The problem is predicting when — and for how long — they'll bite.
On Wednesday, anglers lined up at nightfall, bundled in thick jackets and beanies or sporting classic yellow slicker suits, drawn by frenzied reports of the squids' arrival off San Diego and Orange counties.
Bao Cao, a Fountain Valley resident working in the financial industry, recalled hitting gold on a "crazy" calamari harvest a couple years ago.
"Most likely everyone's going to be soaked with water and ink," he said as he tied a glow-in-the-dark squid jig to a line.
Crew members slice up the squid onboard for $3 a pop, Western Pride crew member Paul Rodriguez said, because the city of Newport Beach "frowns on" the ink stains they leave.
Ripin Young, who said she'd nearly had a panic attack sitting in traffic from San Bernardino, chatted excitedly with her brothers Thomas and Ting about the evening's prospects.
She likes fishing with Davey's Locker, she said, because "they clean the fish for us," and "we always bag the limit."
But on Wednesday, Capt. Dustin Devoe, whose surfer twang periodically crackled over an aging loudspeaker, seemed a little wary from the get-go.
"The last few nights we've caught a few," he said just before pulling out of the harbor. "We're going to make the rounds tonight. Hopefully it'll be the same."
By the end of the night, on the almost two-hour trek back from the San Onofre area, some wondered whether the reports were a little inflated.
Maybe it was the bananas' fault.
"Bananas on a boat are bad luck," Peter Enriquez of Sylmar said.
"Call it superstition, but that's the way it is," said La Mirada angler Joe Flores, ruefully shaking his head.
Numbered burlap sacks hung at the ready, dry and empty.
Anglers — their forearms aching from dropping and, minutes later, reeling in lines at stops off San Onofre and Laguna Beach — hunkered down against the wind for naps.
Santino Simolo, 11, of Garden Grove scampered around the deck and pointed out dolphins racing the bow. Clusters of weather-beaten fishermen traded calamari cooking tips over beers.
For most of the trip, the boat smelled more like the bacon cheeseburgers grilling in the galley than like squid.
"We're telling fish stories because we can't catch fish," Enriquez joked.
He mused that fishing's real benefits come from looking out over the sea, the inky black of the water indistinguishable from the darkened horizon.
"It's like a cheap psychologist," he said.
And although Long Beach angler Brian Smith said he was sorry to miss the squid bonanza, he was actually feeling pretty good.
"Some days you catch 'em, some days you don't," he said. "It's better than being at home."