Early morning, I.B. pier. “You Americans don’t like fish heads, but that’s the best part of them!"
  • Early morning, I.B. pier. “You Americans don’t like fish heads, but that’s the best part of them!"
  • Image by Joe Klein

There’s something about the hour before dawn at the pier. Out there in the dark, all you can feel is the ocean rollers hitting the long pylons beneath your feet, coming in to land after rolling their way across — who knows? — maybe the entire Pacific. Looking west, black nothing. No sea, no sky, and in the predawn fog, no stars. Just one great black spooky void. For all you know the great mythical sea monster from Baja might be opening his jaws in front of you at this instant, ready to chomp.

Honorata: “I will dry them,” she says. “For tuyo, a breakfast."

You hold onto the rail fast, even though it’s as cold as death. You try not to sway when each unseen roller below you strikes the pier.

A kind of vertigo hits you at the sense of movement. It troubles your inner ear — and your inner sense of wellbeing. It makes you want to react, to pitch yourself forward. It would be so easy to let go, to give in, to fly into the night, the ocean, the void…

Ruth. IB’s top-water fish are anchovies, sardine, perch, queenfish, Spanish mackerel, and bonita. The bottom-fish that come around the pier are croaker, sculpin, sand bass, a few small catfish, flounder, halibut, the occasional lobster, and crabs.

“Ay! Huli!”

The words come from 20 feet away.

A whole string of words follows. It sounds like Tagalog, the Philippine language. “May na huli akong! Malaki kabayan!” It’s not until later that I’m told this means something like, “A catch! I have a big catch, countrymen!”

A little buzz of voices ripples out. The man who called out the first word, “huli!” — catch! — is shouting as he fights a mighty battle with an unseen force from below.

I move along the rail toward the sounds. One word keeps coming up: “pating!” — shark.

Now I can make out the shadow of a small man with a big pole that’s bent and twitching. Other shadows have gathered around, friends offering a string of advice. The voices rise to yells when the line screams out and the pole seems to leap from the man’s hands.

Suddenly it’s slack. Silence. Then shouts. They must be telling him to wind in. He starts frantically reeling, and there’s another jerk. He fiddles to release the catch on his reel, but the line twangs taut. He yells. In the graying light I see the silhouette of a knife blade swiping. The fisherman falls back. The end of his line dangles uselessly from his straight rod.

For the first time he sees me. “Too big,” he says in English. “Too big.”

This fall morning, months later, in broad daylight, IB pier looks more prosaic. The waves are as huge as they were on that summer night. They sweep along like logs under a carpet, sending a shudder through the pier’s timbers. And I hear those words again.

“Ay! Huli!”

Except this time it’s an old woman in a huge, wide-brimmed straw hat held down by a scarf tied under her chin. She’s just tall enough to see over the wooden railing. She reels in her line from the gray waters 20 feet below and brings up a five-inch perch, wiggling over the rail. She maneuvers the hook out of its mouth and tosses it to flap in a white plastic bucket on top of a half-dozen other diamond shapes gasping away.

She catches the swinging line, leans over to the lower rail she’d been using to chop up mussel meat. She stabs a piece onto each of the two hooks, then drops it over the edge and swings it back out into the surf.

This is one of those fresh, foggy, cool mornings that braces you. Life is worth living. The pier is busy with fishing people, mostly Filipinos. They haul out their grocery carts filled with plastic buckets and pipes (to hold their rods vertically) and head for their favorite spots. Local drunks lean over the rails contemplating life, lifted after the day’s first beer. Down in the water the waves are immense, ocean-sized. Surfers ride in under the pier, despite the sign telling them to keep 150 feet away. “Back off!” one fisherman yells down to them. He wants to toss his line.

The beach end of the pier is the end to be on right now. It’s a rising tide, and the old lady says that’s when the anchovies come seeking food around the pier legs, and the mackerel are coming in after them. And the blue-topped bonita are following the warm waters in to feed on the mackerel. And the sand crabs are coming in with the tide to eat the detritus collected on the bottom over the last half-day. And the perch are coming in to feed on the crabs…But the warm waters of summer are long gone; pickings are leaner this morning. People, mostly women, are catching only perch. Not such a bad fate. “The perch love those sand crabs,” says David Dubert, one of the few men here — and one of the few Anglos. “Perch have a good set of teeth on them. They can nibble through those shells, no problem. So when you eat a perch, you’re getting two meals for the price of one.”

David Dubert knows about food values: he’s lean, short, muscled, 52, and runs a Pizza Hut not far north of here. Today, as on most of his off-days, he’s strolling down the pier with a brown-bag beer in hand.

He’s so mad that IB authorities are about to make this illegal, he’s considering leaving town — after 40 years.

But mostly he’s mad that more people don’t live the pier life as fully as the Filipinos do. “I’ve been fishing off the pier for all this time,” he says. “I’ve seen fish get fewer and most Americans give up on them. But not these people. I’ll tell you, it was these wonderful, generous people — the Filipinos — who taught me everything I know about saltwater fishing. I came from the Great Lakes. Freshwater fisherman. These people, they know the life that’s going on underneath, what the fish are doing, who’s eating who. Just look up here: 80 percent Filipino! That’s because they use this pier. This is not sport for them, this is food-hunting. You can just about live without ever visiting a supermarket from what you can catch on this pier. The fresh air, the quiet — this is a social center, but see? Most of them are old. They were brought up in the Philippines, on the fish they had there. They had to learn a whole new ball game here. And I got it all from them. Others could learn from them, too.”

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