The plan was to have the first day at home with just my wife and our newborn son, Noah since the first days after coming home from the hospital. Then the phone rang.
iPhone screen: KEELER CELL. Squinting eyes chose the green button.
“Hey Brandon, are you sleeping?”
It took me a few seconds to respond, mainly because THE voice inside my head that’s always at odds with the other was thinking: “You idiot, he gets back today, not Sunday at 6 a.m.; Carin ain’t gunna be happy (voice has poor grammar and curses a lot and pokes head in writing once in a while, FYI).
“Hey Keeler, I thought you get back tomorrow?”
“No, we are behind the Excel, we’ll probably unload around 9 or 9:30; still coming down to grab a fish or two?”
After a bit a ‘splainin’, it was down the I-5, stiff coffee in hand; at least it allowed giving the Check Point a crowd check and reminiscing. (Bites over, squid’s cycled out, but it was fun while it lasted.) Then it was past Oceans 11 and thoughts revolving around how hopefully my soon-to-be-released "plan" should mean no more grinding poker way-too-many hours a month... a pat on the dog's head and scrub behind the ears and it was onto Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar--three of my favorite places to fish. Not so much for the fishing being better than other spots, but for the solitude. Thoughts raced back to Swamis, last season and the one before, and huge seabass and yellows in the fall. Still, it was hard not to think of that bluefin sashimi.
While I’m not usually much of a fish monger, and giving away fish gives me more joy than eating it most of the time, this time around a bluefin for some poki and sushi was sounding pretty good for a little celebration coming up. Plus, I wanted a rundown and to check out the scene on a day that had the Excel return from an epic 14 day and the Shogun—boat Keeler was on—and Independence return with bluefin scores on a grade not seen in way too long.
“Oh, you would have loved it, Brandon, for a while you could underhand a bait on 60-pound in the bow and get bit,” said Keeler, motioning a downward swimming sardine with his hands with a pile of 50- to 75-pound bluefin, 18- to 30-pound bluefin and solid 18-to 30-pound yellows at his feet. “Pick whatever bluefin you want of the smaller ones; grab a yellow if you want, too.”
My 35-years-my elder boat partner went on to tell me how there were spots of the big stuff and spots of the small stuff, and it was the spotter plane with Ted Dunn’s (who owns a slice of the Shogun) pen program that turned them onto the fish. Keeler was impressed with the new Shogun crew that had Aaron Barnhill at the helm; but still, the rundown got cut short. Some other buds came to grab some fish and Keeler was eager to hit the road. Of course he asked how the seabassing was, and when I whispered "5 for 5 last 5 trips; and there's a new one nobody is on" so it wouldn't seem like I was bragging to his buds, he just smiled and gave me the "I'm coming down this week!" look.
The road was calling, but there was the Excel, and to not swing by and say hi would have been bad. It was after the jackpots have been weighed up, the boat scrubbed (again) and all that jazz. Insert Roecker pic:
I met my wife after working the long season in 2004 (pre-WON, obviously), and if my backpacking buddy/Excel chef Jason Fleck had been sitting next to me like he easily could have, I never would have sat next to Carin on that flight to South Africa. Now Jason has a daughter and is married, his brother Justin has a son and is married, and the guy I’ve known the longest--Mike Pritchard, who I worked on the Producer with when I was in my late teens and he was just barely old enough to buy me beer—is back on the Excel, and is married to the same girl from the Producer chapter, Melody, and their son is turning into a little man.
We talked local seabass, the dogs ran around (my dog Fritz finally got on the big boat) and Justin said that the night bites on the Hurricane were the best he’s ever seen. Underhand a sardine on the edge of the lights and watch a 150 pounder eat the bait, is how Lumpy (Justin) described it while holding “Little Lump.”
I walked off the boat thinking about how much things have changed, but how much things have stayed the same: we all love fishing, and this time of the year it’s hard not to get excited and want to get turned around and right back out there, no matter if the turn around takes a week or just a few hours.
And then Shawn Steward—who ran the Excel the three seasons I put in my time—sent me a text: 4 over 50, 8 over 38, 2 @ 24, 28. Big one went 57. He and I don’t get to do the cow thing as much as we’d like, but we’ve found the local substitute in these big seabass.
In the end, we’re all here ‘cause we love fishing. It’s all one big family, this fishing industry, the roots overlap and there’s two ends: those in the trenches, as in the actual fishing part, and then there’s those on the beach trying to make a living off what they wish they did more of.
Fishing and family are beautiful things.