Chris Manning normally went surfboard fishing in the early morning with the other regulars — Roy and Vicky, Steve, Russell, and the other Roy. But with the ocean as flat as a lake and the water at 70 degrees, he headed out one warm September evening last year. Walking from his house in North Pacific Beach, Manning carried a soft-top surfboard, a backpack containing his rod and reel and, in his unlimited optimism, a large fishing net. This evening that net would come in handy.
Since the waves were almost nonexistent, Manning easily launched his board from the beach at Tourmaline. He wasn’t interested in catching the common calico bass, although it makes the best fish tacos. He was hunting for big halibut, which stay close to the shore, just outside the surf break. Catching any fish on a surfboard is a blast, but halibut are in a league of their own. Not only are they big and flat, making them hard to bring up off the ocean floor, but they have large teeth and are smart. If you let a halibut stick even a bit of its nose from the water before it’s in your net, it will flick off your lure and be gone in a second. It takes skill to land a small halibut; the big ones can be downright scary to handle while balancing on a surfboard.
In 1999, the California legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act. This directed the Department of Fish and Game to review and redesign the state’s marine protected areas. The secretary of state appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to review proposals for the South Coast Study Region and recommend changes to the Fish and Game Commission. The La Jolla Cove is an example of a local marine protected area. “Saving the fish” is a nice idea, and it gives people a warm, green feeling.
The commission has declared about 16 percent of California’s coastline a marine protected area. There are three types of protected areas: open for both commercial and sport fishing, open for sport fishing only, and closed for any kind of fishing, including spearfishing. Tourmaline Surfing Park has been included in the South La Jolla State Marine Reserve and will be closed for any kind of fishing.
As Manning took his first cast, using a rubber Halloween-colored fish-trap lure, the fog began to roll in from the west. After a couple of hot days, the natural air-conditioning effect at the beach kicks in. Now he was alone on his board in the fog, with visibility less than 20 feet, an eerie feeling.
The best part of ocean fishing — something that freshwater fishing doesn’t offer — is that you can never be sure what you have caught and is now swimming under you. Thousands of fish and other creatures abound in the oceans. This adds more thrill when you first feel that tug on your line. However, surfboard fishermen can usually guess from the way the line pulls what kind of fish they have caught.
Manning didn’t paddle out to the kelp beds, about a half-mile offshore, but instead he stayed closer to the beach. He caught a few small calico bass, a two-foot barracuda, a couple of small mackerel, and an ugly fish called a lingcod. The best reason for using a rubber fish trap is that you don’t catch the “garbage” fish, like stingrays and shovelhead and leopard sharks. These bite only on real bait such as anchovy or squid.
Most fishermen in California think the Marine Life Protection Act process was flawed. The South Coast Study Region extends from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border. One person on the region’s five-member Blue Ribbon Task Force works for the Western States Petroleum Association, and two members work for companies associated with marinas. Some people believe that the task force’s goal was to avoid talking about the real problems we have in the ocean, such as pollution caused by street runoff and commercial trawlers dragging the seabed floor with their huge nets just outside the three-mile limit. The task force wanted Californians to think that because of the new marine preserves, everything is just fine in the ocean, so we don’t have to worry about the fish anymore.
Manning, like other surfboard fishermen at Tourmaline, is upset that beginning January 1, his local fishing grounds will become a state marine reserve, and all fishing, even from the shore or from a surfboard, will become illegal. Fishermen don’t understand why the commissioners could not ban commercial fishing and leave the solitary fisherman alone. At the very least, if you can get out to the kelp beds without using a motor, you should be able to fish. Locals at Tourmaline don’t mind strict regulations for taking fish, even though they know the limited number they take has no real impact. The Marine Life Protection Act did not require fish counts in order to establish a baseline, so it will be impossible to know if the state marine reserve is doing any good. The locals believe the fishing area off Tourmaline is healthy; in fact, they think it’s in better shape now than anyone can ever remember.
Actually, Manning is less angry than his fellow fishermen. “I’ve been in many parts of the world where the ocean is completely fished out,” he says. “We’ve always been conscientious fishermen and only take legal fish. Of course, I’m not happy about the closing of my particular fishing grounds, but I will drive my car to a legal fishing area if it will help keep our ocean healthy.”
The best way to catch a halibut is to lightly bounce your lure along the ocean bottom. Halibut dart upward when they see the lure. They sort of inhale the lure, like they would a small fish, and the moment the fisherman feels that, he has to give a sharp pull. Manning felt that light tug on the line and gave a tremendous pull upward on his rod. Right away he knew he had a big one from the gigantic tug directly downward. He had it hooked solidly.