Rock and roll rock cod


"What would you like to have for dinner on Father's Day?" my wife asked.

"I'll think about it," I replied as I went out to make a "Honey Do" run (wife request) to the post office and the grocery store.

Milk was on the list, and Whole Foods was next to the post office. They always offer free samples. How could a guy resist free organic food?

The sign at the seafood counter said, "Local Rock Cod, $8.99 a pound." OK, 1/3 pound fillet per person and you will have happy diners, but where's the challenge, the fun, the sport? Especially on Father's Day.


Click Here

When I came home I announced that I wanted fresh fish that I caught for Father's Day, and since that rock fish looked so good, I voted for a day trip out of Bodega Bay, about an hour and 15 minutes drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A friend had a boat that we could launch there. Piece of cake, or so it seemed — fillet of Chinook salmon and crab cakes for dinner seemed perfect.

As the sun rose on Father's Day, I checked the NOAA weather report — 5-foot swells, WNW wind increasing to 20 mph by noon, 3- to 4-foot wind waves by mid-day, and air temperature on the coast in the mid 50s. Small Craft Warning, and the wind chill — brr. Trip canceled.

"Let's go up there anyways and have some of your favorite chowder at the Spud Point Crab Company cafe," my wife suggested as a way to soothe my damaged dream.

I agreed, taking along a crab trap to toss in Bodega Bay from a pier across the street from Spud Point Cafe, which incidentally is where Alfred Hitchcock bought clam chowder when they were shooting "The Birds" there in 1962.

The town of Bodega Bay is perched on the west shore of the Bay, and Spud Point is located on the north side of the bay, right near where we would have launched the boat, if the weather was calmer. Got there. As lunch was being ordered I went over and tossed in a crab net off the Marina Pier across the street.

There were only four other people there, all dressed very warmly as the northwest wind was indeed whipping over the hill. I tossed in the trap and quickly walked back to shelter and some of the best chowder on the planet.

When I went back to check the crab trap half an hour later, the bait was gone and no crabs were in sight.

"Seals," said one of the other crabbers. "Got to put your bait in wire mesh cage or they steal it."

A check of the signage at the foot of the pier reminded me of the warning about voracious pinnipeds in this place. Out in the Bay, I saw a black head bobbing in the water. I could have sworn there was a grin on his face.

OK, sight-seeing. Bodega Head, which is a strange granite bluff that bisects the San Andreas Fault on the north side of the entrance to Bodega Bay, protects the harbor.

According to the Pomo Indians, it is a sacred place to commune with the spirits. The view is spectacular, and on this day, with the wind racing down out of the north, we did not spend too much time trying to make contact with the spirits, before climbing back into the car.

Looking northward at the oncoming green-blue waves sprinkled with whitecaps that were landing on the rocks below us, I saw what looked like a whale surface a couple miles to the north. "Look, a whale," I said, pointing. Obviously, the spirits were with us.

"Look closer," my son advised calmly.

I did. It was not a whale, but a boat, slowly moving southward, presumably toward the shelter of Bodega Bay.

For the next 15 minutes we watched the captain, who obviously knew exactly what he was doing, slide along through the waves, not too fast or too slow, and always riding with the waves to keep the boat and its passengers safe.

As the boat came closer, I recognized that it was the aqua and white 65-foot New Sea Angler, captained by Rick Powers, one of the best-known charter boat skippers in the area.

Rick did a masterful job of guiding the New Sea Angler into the bay. As we watched, I thought about Pomo legend about Bodega Head being a place of dreams. Well, going out fishing on this day had been my dream, now at least I could see what it would have been like if I had gone out. Were my dreams accurate? We drove back to the dock, arriving just as the New Sea Angler was docking.

As always, the story was that I should have been there last week, when the sea was flat calm. "Sure, " I said, but in the modern age, I was directed to a website where I could see proof that indeed the Chinooks were moving into shallower water, and when the water lays down, Powers had been average a fish or more per rod.

However, on this day, the wind had behaved as NOAA had predicted, and so they had not scored on salmon, but Powers had moved in closer to shore to go after rockfish just offshore from Fort Ross State Park.

The answer to "How did you do?" came back as a line of hardy 15 fishermen came off the boat, each carrying a heavy sack. The contents of the sacks were revealed when the fishermen got to their trucks — 10-fish limits of vermillion, copper, brown, olive and black rockfish for everyone, plus a few cabezon and ling cod; sacks running about 35- 40 pounds each.

"And how was the water?" I asked.

The angler shook his head and asked not to be named, admitting that about half the boat had spent time chumming for fish with their breakfast. Nonetheless, he was smiling, as the other half of the time had been spent hauling in rockfish.

Let's see at $8.99 a pound for rock cod filet back home, was the trip worthwhile? Assuming 15 pounds of fillets, the day was most definitely worth it financially, and despite some seasickness, everyone said they were coming back.

Rockfish are a blessing to fishermen. They are abundant, tasty, and not that hard to catch, and there are over 50 varieties. I tie my own shrimp flies and feather jigs for rockfish. They usually work as well as bait, and when you are in good spot, a doubleheader is not uncommon.

You can catch shallow water rockfish and cabezon from shore, but be prepared to lose gear. They don't call them rockfish for nothing. They hang out around rocky areas and kelp beds.

Boats are definitely a better way to catch them, but what the real old salt shore fishermen do is go poke-poling, which involves probing among the rocks for fish that hide in crevices when the tide is out.

To go pokepoling, you need waders, a pole and hook, some bait and a tide book. As the name implies, the pole can be a piece of wood — bamboo works just fine — about 8-10' long. Typically people attach a foot-long wire clothes hanger with a loop in the wire on the end to the business end of the pole. If you want to be a real pro, a B'n'M fiberglass telescopic "Black Widow" pole is less than $10.

To the end of your pole attach a #2 snelled hook. Bait is a piece of mussel, squid or anchovy. Bring along a burlap sack for your catch, which can be rockfish, eels, cabezon, surf perch, and sand dabs.

The best time to arrive for poke poling is about three hours before low tide, and of course, the lower the better, as it lets you get access to pools and crevices that don't get as much play. Remember to move slowly and methodically. You may want to use a wading stick for balance. Stalk 'em. Think like a great blue heron. A minute is about as long as you need to poke your bait into a likely spot. Even crevices a foot wide can hold surprisingly big fish. There is no size limit on rock fish or eels. Cabezon keeper minimum size is 15 inches.

Fishing is about dreams, as much as what you catch today. Looking toward next year, the rock cod fishing season has been extended another 10 weeks next year — June 1-Dec. 31; the limit of cabezon has been raised to three, instead of two; and ling cod keeper size limit has been dropped from 24 inches to 22.

Some people grouse about the complexity of California's fishing regulations. Well, thanks to modern technology, you can now check them out online on a map where you click on where you want to go, and the regs for that area will pop up. No longer a need for a research assistant to make sure you are legal.

Oh yeah, the rock cod fillets from Whole Foods weren't that bad for dinner. Neither were the crabcakes.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.