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Captain Travis Jackson knows when something smells fishy

“Sometimes, I can actually smell the fish under the boat.”

Captain Travis Jackson with first of Patriot’s two new Diesel engines.
Captain Travis Jackson with first of Patriot’s two new Diesel engines.

Travis Jackson has been here before. Good times and bad. And he still has faith in the sport fishing business. Proof? He’s refitting a 62-foot boat, Patriot, to take passengers down to places like Cabo — as soon as folks feel secure enough to come aboard.

Right now, we’re on Patriot’s bridge here at H&M Landing in Point Loma, talking about Jackson’s secret weapon: he can smell fish. No, truly, Captain Travis Jackson can smell fish when they’re swimming beneath his boat. Especially albacore. He is famous for his “fish nose.”

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It doesn’t hurt that he has been seeking them out for 40 years. Jackson, who hails from Mission Hills, started early. “When I was 12 years old, I bought a ticket on this boat over here, the Vagabond. I paid $13 as a junior, and went on an overnight trip to fish the Coronado Islands. And when we returned, the fellow who I went with ran into a friend named Tom Gillette, who was working on a boat called the City of Imperial Beach. I had just quit my paper route, and we started riding [the boats] several days a week. There were three or four of us kids. They called us ‘Deadheads.’ And all the fish we caught would go in an empty bait tank. And if the passengers didn’t want their catch, they gave them to us, and at the end of the day, we’d throw the gunny sacks into the back of our Ford Pinto station wagon, and head down to Woo Chee Chong’s and sell the fish for cash. The most we got was like $87. But back in the 1970s, that was a lot of money. So I got hooked, and started working on all these boats around here.”

Kerry aboard “Patriot”

Back in the day, there was a lot of cash generated in the commercial fishing industry. “Two thirds of the world’s tuna-fishing industry used to be based out of San Diego,” he says. “There were three canneries here. But the tuna seiners got a bad name for killing dolphins. Also, there was a crunch with the price of fish, and it wasn’t economical for them to continue fishing here in California. This was around 1982-4.”

A lot of the boats went off to Samoa, but, says Jackson, even more of them somehow sank right here. “They just mysteriously sank. Somewhere off this coast, there’s a pile of boats. “‘Tuna reef,’ they call it,” says his business partner, Kerry Rooney.

So what future does Jackson see for San Diego’s commercial fishing boats? “Right now, it’s really uncertain, not just because of covid, but also because of the rise in the cost of fuel,” says Jackson. “Fuel has just gone through the roof. They’re talking $300 a barrel. I purchased 1000 gallons two weeks ago, and it was $3.90 a gallon, plus tax. And in the week following, it went up 70 cents a gallon, to $4.60. That could destroy this industry. Back in the 2008, 2009 crisis, guys were just walking away from their boats. When I had my boat in the ‘90s, I had groups who would charter me three or four times a year. And then ’08, ’09. It was brutal. I had to get a job fueling cruise ships, and then the price of fuel went up so much, they were having a hard time. Then add the cartels down there, shooting each other in turf wars. A lot of people didn’t want to go to Mexico, even on a cruise ship.”

Kerry Rooney working on another drawing/painting for her kids.

Since then, he has worked on tugboats, oil tankers, and for ten years with the Navy on support craft. “We would deploy and retrieve targets around San Clemente island.” Now, with difficult times back, what keeps people like him from walking away from their life at sea again? Captain Jackson sighs. “It’s the freedom. Patriot, for me, is my retirement job. I’m 58 years old now, and I figure I’ve got about 10 years left. But this is a really tough business. It takes its toll on your person. The long hours, the uncertainties. You can get out there at sea and just have rough weather for a week, and you don’t get your rest, and you get bruises everywhere because you’re being slammed around. It’s a tough gig. It’s not for everybody. And covid shut down this industry for a while. It literally tied [boat owners] to the dock. Now, I think boats like ours are probably going to do better because we take smaller groups. One family could [hire] this boat and keep it to themselves, versus going on a boat with 30-35 strangers. That’s the plan. Also, this life is all I know. And besides,” and there’s a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve always prided myself on having a little edge on the next guy when it comes to finding the fish.” He does get help from instruments like this brand new 360-degree gyro-stabilized sweeping sonar he’s showing me. “Plus, I’ll have a 48-mile radar and a 64-mile radar mounted on my mast when we’re done.”

Kerry leans in. “But when it comes down to it, the thing he trusts most is his nose, right, Travis?”

Jackson looks almost guilty. “Sometimes, I can actually smell the fish under the boat,” he says. “Live, swimming fish. One particular time, Jerry Herman, who used to own a restaurant up in La Jolla called The Spot, called and said, ‘Let’s go fishing.’ So we were cruising outside the Coronado Islands, southbound, and I go, ‘Jerry, you smell that? I swear that’s albacore.’ And I turned the boat into the wind, and we drove about 100 yards, and we loaded the gear, and caught enough albacore for the entire day. Albacore have a distinct smell when they swim. You can recognize their oil if you’re sensitive. Barracuda have a different smell. It’s not something I brag about. But Jerry always bragged. ‘This is my boat captain. He can smell where the fish are!’”

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Captain Travis Jackson with first of Patriot’s two new Diesel engines.
Captain Travis Jackson with first of Patriot’s two new Diesel engines.

Travis Jackson has been here before. Good times and bad. And he still has faith in the sport fishing business. Proof? He’s refitting a 62-foot boat, Patriot, to take passengers down to places like Cabo — as soon as folks feel secure enough to come aboard.

Right now, we’re on Patriot’s bridge here at H&M Landing in Point Loma, talking about Jackson’s secret weapon: he can smell fish. No, truly, Captain Travis Jackson can smell fish when they’re swimming beneath his boat. Especially albacore. He is famous for his “fish nose.”

Sponsored
Sponsored

It doesn’t hurt that he has been seeking them out for 40 years. Jackson, who hails from Mission Hills, started early. “When I was 12 years old, I bought a ticket on this boat over here, the Vagabond. I paid $13 as a junior, and went on an overnight trip to fish the Coronado Islands. And when we returned, the fellow who I went with ran into a friend named Tom Gillette, who was working on a boat called the City of Imperial Beach. I had just quit my paper route, and we started riding [the boats] several days a week. There were three or four of us kids. They called us ‘Deadheads.’ And all the fish we caught would go in an empty bait tank. And if the passengers didn’t want their catch, they gave them to us, and at the end of the day, we’d throw the gunny sacks into the back of our Ford Pinto station wagon, and head down to Woo Chee Chong’s and sell the fish for cash. The most we got was like $87. But back in the 1970s, that was a lot of money. So I got hooked, and started working on all these boats around here.”

Kerry aboard “Patriot”

Back in the day, there was a lot of cash generated in the commercial fishing industry. “Two thirds of the world’s tuna-fishing industry used to be based out of San Diego,” he says. “There were three canneries here. But the tuna seiners got a bad name for killing dolphins. Also, there was a crunch with the price of fish, and it wasn’t economical for them to continue fishing here in California. This was around 1982-4.”

A lot of the boats went off to Samoa, but, says Jackson, even more of them somehow sank right here. “They just mysteriously sank. Somewhere off this coast, there’s a pile of boats. “‘Tuna reef,’ they call it,” says his business partner, Kerry Rooney.

So what future does Jackson see for San Diego’s commercial fishing boats? “Right now, it’s really uncertain, not just because of covid, but also because of the rise in the cost of fuel,” says Jackson. “Fuel has just gone through the roof. They’re talking $300 a barrel. I purchased 1000 gallons two weeks ago, and it was $3.90 a gallon, plus tax. And in the week following, it went up 70 cents a gallon, to $4.60. That could destroy this industry. Back in the 2008, 2009 crisis, guys were just walking away from their boats. When I had my boat in the ‘90s, I had groups who would charter me three or four times a year. And then ’08, ’09. It was brutal. I had to get a job fueling cruise ships, and then the price of fuel went up so much, they were having a hard time. Then add the cartels down there, shooting each other in turf wars. A lot of people didn’t want to go to Mexico, even on a cruise ship.”

Kerry Rooney working on another drawing/painting for her kids.

Since then, he has worked on tugboats, oil tankers, and for ten years with the Navy on support craft. “We would deploy and retrieve targets around San Clemente island.” Now, with difficult times back, what keeps people like him from walking away from their life at sea again? Captain Jackson sighs. “It’s the freedom. Patriot, for me, is my retirement job. I’m 58 years old now, and I figure I’ve got about 10 years left. But this is a really tough business. It takes its toll on your person. The long hours, the uncertainties. You can get out there at sea and just have rough weather for a week, and you don’t get your rest, and you get bruises everywhere because you’re being slammed around. It’s a tough gig. It’s not for everybody. And covid shut down this industry for a while. It literally tied [boat owners] to the dock. Now, I think boats like ours are probably going to do better because we take smaller groups. One family could [hire] this boat and keep it to themselves, versus going on a boat with 30-35 strangers. That’s the plan. Also, this life is all I know. And besides,” and there’s a twinkle in his eye, “I’ve always prided myself on having a little edge on the next guy when it comes to finding the fish.” He does get help from instruments like this brand new 360-degree gyro-stabilized sweeping sonar he’s showing me. “Plus, I’ll have a 48-mile radar and a 64-mile radar mounted on my mast when we’re done.”

Kerry leans in. “But when it comes down to it, the thing he trusts most is his nose, right, Travis?”

Jackson looks almost guilty. “Sometimes, I can actually smell the fish under the boat,” he says. “Live, swimming fish. One particular time, Jerry Herman, who used to own a restaurant up in La Jolla called The Spot, called and said, ‘Let’s go fishing.’ So we were cruising outside the Coronado Islands, southbound, and I go, ‘Jerry, you smell that? I swear that’s albacore.’ And I turned the boat into the wind, and we drove about 100 yards, and we loaded the gear, and caught enough albacore for the entire day. Albacore have a distinct smell when they swim. You can recognize their oil if you’re sensitive. Barracuda have a different smell. It’s not something I brag about. But Jerry always bragged. ‘This is my boat captain. He can smell where the fish are!’”

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