32.9° N, 118.5° W: California's Desert Isle E-mail
Written by Matthew B. Davault   
Friday, 20 June 2014 00:00

I could barely sleep the first night aboard the M/V Islander, an 80-foot long-range charter out of San Diego. It wasn’t the lurching and listing of the vessel as it traversed the large rolling swells of the Pacific, which seemed to be amplified by the location of my bunk at the bow of the vessel. It wasn’t the loud throaty rumble of the dual 450hp diesel engines that power the Islander great distances through adverse conditions. I couldn’t sleep because I am a kayak fisherman embarking on the trip of a lifetime. Visions of clear turquoise water teeming with life sloshed in my mind as we made the 58 nautical mile trip. The destination was San Clemente Island, the southernmost component of California’s chain of Channel Islands. This desolate island was forged of ancient pyroclastic rock thrust up from the ocean floor by tectonic forces. San Clemente’s violent birth was immediately evident as I stepped onto the deck in the smoky grey light of morning. We had finally arrived. 

WX Islander2

Breakfast was already being served at 5am. I stood spellbound on deck, observing the majesty of this place. Rick was our cook, a Latino gentleman in his sixties with a warm smile and kind eyes. Without having to ask, he handed me a plate of fried eggs, potatoes, and bacon and told me to have a seat. With the enthusiasm of a child, I quickly gobbled my breakfast and chugged two cups of coffee so as not to waste precious fishing time. I like to be on the water early. I prepared my gear and suited up, along with the 20 other members of NCKA (Nor Cal Kayak Anglers), our local kayak-fishing club. The stern of the boat was fitted with an aluminum gate and a deployable platform system originally installed for divers. Standing ready at the gate was Deck Boss Karl, a spectacled man who takes fishing very seriously and wants nothing more than to see his clients succeed. By Karl’s side was the senior deckhand Jarod, whose stubbly beard gives way to a mischievous smile. With an enthusiastic hang loose gesture, Jarod is a jovial soul who easily befriends everyone he meets. Additionally, at the stern was Matt, a soft-spoken and hardworking young deckhand with bleach blonde shaggy hair. Matt was a greenhorn with extensive sailing experience but limited knowledge of the art and science of fishing.

  Eastern side Deck Jarod

“Are you ready?” asked Karl as I approached what would serve as a gateway, both in and out of the wild desolation that is this place. Whatever happens beyond the confines of this boat would be entirely up to me to contend with, be it the glory of a successful hunt or the indifference of an unpredictable marine wilderness. “Yes” I replied. Karl and Jerod simultaneously reached up to the kayak rack system, which securely accommodated all 21 fishing kayaks through the pitch and roll of a high seas journey. My 13 foot Ocean Kayak Trident (dotingly named The Intern) came sliding off the rack, over the rail, and was lowered into the gin clear water. “Go ahead and step down onto the platform” directed Karl. Eagerly, I made my way onto the platform, and took two steps down the ladder, which lead directly into the water. Throwing my right leg up and over the seat of my kayak, I heaved my center of gravity over the kayak and sat down. Karl held my bowline, while Jerod steadied the stern of my kayak with a long gaff pole. My feet were firmly planted on the rudder control pegs. Matt promptly appeared on the dive platform handing me my fishing rods, paddle, and bait bag. At nearly the same time, Jerod gave a final nudge with the gaff while Karl tossed the bow line to me. I was now on my own. This routine would become well rehearsed in the coming days.

launch Pyramid Bait talking strategy

With a strong backstroke, I swung the bow of my kayak 180 degrees and set my sights on the beach known as Pyramid Head Cove. On the southern tip of the Island, Pyramid Cove is a known haunt of California halibut, white sea bass, and yellowtail jacks. Optimistically, I paddled into the transition zone between smooth sandy beach and rocky outcrops. Isolated stalks of kelp undulated in the current. With a live greenback mackerel on the flyline and a live anchovy on the bottom, I drifted carried by the wind and current. A steady stream of eager kayak fisherman emerged from the boat one by one, driven by the primordial instinct to harvest what the sea may provide. As I drifted further and further from the boat, I truly felt a sense of unity and oneness with the ocean. Seals darted under and around my boat. Birds glided effortlessly above the water’s surface in an eternal search for fish. It seemed as if success had already been achieved and I hadn’t even felt the strike of a fish. This bliss continued as I drifted across my own personal stretch of oceanic solitude. Before long Jason, Captain of The Islander, radioed to inform the group he would be relocating the mothership to anchor up and wait for us to drift in. The drift was fast…perhaps too fast. I grabbed a stalk of kelp and wrapped it around my paddle leash in order to hold steady in a single location. There I remained for some time, and brought to the surface a few small calico bass. They were not the elusive white seabass or the pelagic yellowtail I was pursuing, but in that moment it was perfect. The remainder of the day played out in similar fashion, lacking the glamorous big game fish for, which Southern California is known.

Calico flatty selfie with goat

That evening, after Chef Rick’s hearty dinner, Karl took center stage in the galley with a talk on tackle and rigging. “I have seen all your rigs. This is not Nor Cal”, he explained. “This is extremely clear water and requires simple rigs with minimal terminal tackle and gaudy hardware.” He shared a local rig known as the Spider Hitch, which is essentially a modified dropper loop, effective for drifting bait on sandy bottoms. “Keep it clean, and get shallow” said Karl with an uncompromising tone. “You are in world class calico bass water. Take full advantage of your kayaks and fish the shallow water, which is out of reach of the big party boats and even small skiffs.” 

The following morning started much like first, with a long drift over a shallow beach; prime halibut territory. Armed with new insight and the new spider hitch rig, all 21 kayak fishermen left the mother ship and drifted at varying depths across the beach. Not a single halibut came in that morning. San Clemente Island was proving to be much more challenging than anyone expected. After lunch, the mothership motored around to the eastern side of the island, which is sheltered from the capricious weather of the open ocean that dominates the western side.

sheephead islevert sheepclose

Smooth concave rock gently sloping from the crest of the island, gained near vertical geometry as it plunged straight into the depths. Isolated piles of sharp craggy rocks on the shore broke up the symmetry of the landscape. Deep ravines cut vertically through the rock, testifying to the power of erosion. This would be the next location of our efforts. The deep earthy rumble of the engines suddenly stopped. Again, one at a time the launch crew assisted eager fishermen to descend into the flat glassy water. Our anglers began to find more success. Some fished very deep water and found large cooperative boccaccio, while some went shallow for a decent bite of ocean white fish. As to be expected, some tenacious (or stubborn) anglers, including myself, remained resolute and fished the lonely mid-water column in search of yellowtail, which paid off with nothing more than a halfhearted takedown on the fly line.

Day three started quite routinely: quickly eat breakfast, suit up, and line up by the dive platform. Little did anybody realize that this day would achieve a legendary status; we were going to fish the western side of San Clemente Island. The western side of the island presents every bit of wrath and fury the Pacific Ocean possesses. Lofty long period swells continually roll in towards shore and explode like fireworks against the battered rocks. The perpetual rumble of the surf is interrupted only by the incessant barking of the local seal population that calls this primitive coast home. The gnarled and cavernous shoreline gives way to a kelp forest extending for hundreds of yards, only to end at a depth of 80 feet, where the bottom gives way to deep open water. If ever there was an intimidating shore line, this was it. The surf was formidable, the seals numerous and assertive. The presence of the Landlord felt imminent.

Rickey making sashimi  Allen ricklunch shore

At this time I admitted defeat by the yellowtail and was content to take Karl’s advice to tangle with San Clemente’s famous calico bass. With a 6-foot spinning rod equipped with 30 pound braid, 20 pound fluorocarbon leader, and a Carolina rig baited with cut squid, I began to fish. I worked pockets in-between the kelp stalks, almost immediately I felt the tap of a fish on my line. Patiently I waited for the right time to strike. My line went taut and began to move parallel to my kayak. Slowly but firmly I swept the rod tip to the 12 o’clock position and felt it load up.

RockGoat Twins El Jefe

An incredibly scrappy fight ensued with the fish making a drag peeling run right into a thick tuft of kelp. Testing the limits of my 20-pound leader, I horsed the fish out of the deep cover where it desperately tried to remain. As it came to the surface I could see the crimson red stripe of an adult male sheephead. His jet-black head contrasted beautifully with the snow-white lower jaw, which was filled with large conical teeth used for crushing crabs and sea urchins. With the fish now floating beside my kayak, I grabbed the line twelve inches above the beak-like mouth, slid the fish into my lap, and pinned him down under my thigh. The fish writhed beneath my leg but its fate was already sealed. Onto the game clip he went. This scenario was repeated over and over, cast after cast. Some made it to the safety of the kelp where they escaped, but most did not.

fishkraft Stealth SheepFlock FK Calico

Mixed in the catch were occasional Calico Bass, whose powerful and spirited fight cannot be described with words. Also caught were a few different species of perch, a sculpin, and a few ocean whitefish. A radio call and a paddle wave was all it took to get the attention of Senior Deckhand and Skiff Operator Mike. Within minutes Mike would arrive in a small inflatable skiff, bringing with him fresh bait and refreshments. He took my catch with him and put it on ice. I skipped lunch that final day as the action could only be described as relentless, and I was unwilling to miss a single moment.

gohome deck underway sealed fish San Diego

By 4 o’clock, I was exhausted and weak as I made my way back to the mother ship. I had caught well over 50 fish, mostly sheephead with some exceeding 10 pounds. I kept my daily limit of five sheephead, consisting of two large males and three medium sized females; as well as four whitefish and three large calicos. After boarding the boat, I cleaned up my kayak, removing all equipment and preparing it for the long trip home. Sore hands and sunburnt, but giddy with the excitement of the day, I retired to my bunk as the Islander started our return trip home. I laid my head down on the pillow. Contrary to the first night, I slept like a baby.

 

 

 

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