California Waypoints – The First Salmon Expedition

By John Platt Hurwitz

It’s six days ‘til salmon season opens in California; the initial part of the season focuses on Pt. Arena south to Pt. Sur. We fish out of Half Moon Bay so that means we have a few days to get ready. Late last week we finished bringing in the crab gear and stacking it in the yard. While a good crab season comes to an end we hope for a good start to a productive salmon season. As we make the switch, my mind drifts back to another salmon season.

It was around April 1972 that Irene and I, bona-fide greenhorns, bought our first boat, the Alice E. We were enchanted by the whole idea of fishing for a living. What could be better? I loved to fish and she, a very very dedicated wife, was ready to follow me anywhere and everywhere, and surprisingly, she did.

In those days salmon season opened on April 15 and ran through the end of September. I had finally mastered the little things like putting down the poles, running the gurdies and she had a fair idea on how to steer. We were day fishing out of Ft. Bragg, putting in long days for one or two fish. Our great plans of living off the sea began to dim a little.

One evening after another fruitless fourteen hour day we came in and were tying up the boat when another skipper stopped by and informed us that the Bodega Bay boats were catching four hundred pounds a day. He asked us if we would like to run down to Bodega with him and another boat. We said we would talk it over and let him know right away.

We found Bodega on our chart and saw it was quite a long trip and we had never ventured out of local waters. We made the choice to go and informed the other two boats, asking when they wanted to leave. They said, “Great, we’ll leave sometime tomorrow morning.” We were excited – our first “trip!” We had heard the term and sort of knew what it meant. Wow! We were actually going some place where they were catching fish… and imagine, 400 lbs a day!

The Alice E was a classic 28 ft clipper stem Monterey. White with red trim, she had a wheelhouse just large enough for the two of us to sit side by side on a bench behind the wheel. There were two doors to the wheelhouse, one on the port side and a small sliding half-door on the rear that served as a back rest to our bench. Irene found this door handy when my temper got the best of me after losing a fish. She’d slide the door closed to ensure none of my salty uproar would find her as a target. Our sleeping quarters were located in the foc’sle, a separate compartment located directly in front of the wheelhouse. Down a short ladder were two bunks, one port, one starboard, and in the peak, a small one-burner propane powered stove. Our electronics consisted of a CB radio (referred to as the Mickey Mouse or just mouse) a compass, and a chart. That was it.

We hurried to the local market, put on supplies and were ready to go the next morning. I can’t remember why, but our small fleet didn’t leave the harbor until some time in the afternoon. By the time we emerged from the jetty at the mouth of the Noyo River and set our course south, the weather was already nasty. Wind out of the northwest and sloppy. The other boats were close by and I could see that they were struggling too. Our initial calamity occurred when a five-gallon propane tank fell from its rack in front of the foc’sle. It started rolling around in the bow, hitting the bulwarks and then rolling down the starboard side of the boat banging into everything as it moved aft. “Grab that tank,” I shouted at Irene, “it’s a bomb rolling around like that!” She sprung into action, like 49er free safety Ronnie Lott. She tackled that tank and just as she grabbed it and stood up, we took a wave over the starboard bow. She was knocked against the wheelhouse her face four inches from my window and drenched head to toe. That Kodak moment of Irene with water dripping from her hair, her face, and the searing glare in her eyes as she stared at me through that window is forever etched into my memory, kind of like one of those life-threatening experiences. My feeble explanations about how I couldn’t change course, I didn’t control the ocean, the captain has to stay at the wheel in heavy weather, fell on deaf ears. After securing the tank we once more turned south toward Bodega. All quiet in the wheelhouse.

Not long after the propane incident, we got a call from one of our running partners saying they thought we should anchor up in Mendocino Bay for the night. Ok, I replied, we’ll follow you. We looked at each other; we had never anchored up before. How hard could it be, we had anchored a rowboat once. Actually it went off without a hitch and we were rapidly becoming veterans at this fishing game. We had traveled about ten miles south of the harbor and were now safely anchored up and ready for something to eat. Irene fixed dinner; we ate and promptly fell into our bunks. I think it was about 1:00 am when Irene reached over from her bunk and shook me awake. What’s wrong? I asked. “Honey, our shoes are floating,” she said her voice rising in alarm. “No way,” I muttered to myself as I jumped into the water, fumbled for the flashlight and went looking for the problem. After a lengthy search, I reported to Irene that I thought I had found the problem and would start repairs immediately. Her job was to man the pumps to keep the water low enough so I could see what I was doing. The problem was a very loose packing gland. I found something that served as packing and about 4:00 a.m. we dropped into wet bunks exhausted. The packing gland was no longer leaking; now for some sleep. Just as I closed my eyes, I heard a clunk, clunk, clunk. As I lay there trying to identify the sound, the radio crackled and a cheery voice said, “Good morning, you guys, time to pull the anchor and get going.”

That was our first trip and it hadn’t even got exciting yet. We did get to Bodega, arriving in time to be blown in for 11 days straight. We even managed to catch one fish for our efforts. The day the wind stopped blowing, we cast off the lines from the Tides Wharf and headed north for Arena and Ft. Bragg.

If you’re new at this game, I hope your first salmon trip is safe, successful, and especially memorable…!