Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Tahoe Fishing & Downrigger Cameras

I was up in the Sierras over the Memorial Day weekend, skiing at Heavenly in South Tahoe (yes, skiing in May - first time I'd seen shorts and bikinis on the slopes!) Having neglected to bring my fishing tackle, and finding myself surrounded by so much beautiful water, I consoled myself by doing a little research on the local fishing scene.

As you'd expect with a lake as big as Tahoe, there's a significant charter fishing business there, with boats going out after mackinaw (lake trout), rainbows, brown trout, and landlocked kokanee salmon. Some of them get downright huge - the record Tahoe mackinaw tipped the scale at over 37 pounds! Here are a few fish photos from one of the local charters.

One of the niftier discoveries I made while reading up on the Tahoe charter fleet was that you can now hook up underwater cameras to your downriggers, allowing you to watch the fish on live TV as they go after your lure (or, if it's a slow day, to just watch your lure for hours while nothing happens). To see it in action, check out these photos and videos taken with the Strike Vision camera system from Walker Downriggers.

As you'd also expect with a lake that size, Tahoe has its own legendary lake monster, known affectionately as "Tessie". While Tessie hasn't showed up on any fish cams yet, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before it does. Whether the camera would survive the experience is another story.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Salmon and Dramamine

Salmon season having commenced around the lovely San Francisco Bay, I found myself reminiscing recently about my first (and only) offshore salmon adventure a couple years ago aboard a boat chartered out of the Berkeley Marina. (Check out the nifty Google satellite view!) I forget what the boat's name was, since at the time I was running too fast down the dock to notice. My friend Rob had invited me out on the charter a couple days before and had mentioned it would be leaving at 6:30 am, so I should get there around 6:00. I've never been much of a morning person, and found myself torn from slumber at 6:10 that morning by an urgent call from Rob and the question, Where the hell was I?

Astonished that I had actually awakened before the departure time, I somehow managed to stumble out the door and into my '67 Mercury Cougar (long since sold), a smelly, surly beast of a car which for some reason consented to start at that early and chilly hour. To its credit, the Cougar was very fast - albeit in a rattling, scary sort of way - and I gunned it down Ashby Ave and up highway I-80, covering the three or so miles to the Marina in time to buy a fishing license and jump on the boat just as it was throttling up to head for the Golden Gate.

The charter was a fairly steep $65 a person, and on the ride out I consoled myself thinking of all the salmon I was going to haul home to feast upon. We passed beneath the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge and westwards towards the Farallon Islands. Shortly after we'd left the bridge behind I began to have my doubts about the advisability of the whole trip. Specifically, its gastrological advisability; specifically, I was getting seasick as hell. It was quite rough out, to the point that the captain decided against his original plan of trolling for salmon and rigged everyone up for "mooching" instead, which involves fishing an anchovy bait 30 to 40 feet beneath the boat.

Soon everyone was standing along the gunwales, rods in hand, mooching their anchovies along beneath the boat, hoping for a salmon to take an interest. Except for me - by this time I'd given up on salmon, given up on my $65, given up on talking to Rob or anyone else, given up on just about everything except survival, and was lying flat on my back in the cabin, hoping to pass out.

But it was not to be, and after a half-hour or so I decided that perhaps going outside, getting some fresh air, and looking stoically out over the ocean might feel marginally better than staring morosely at the fiberglass ceiling of a pitching boat. So I lurched out onto the deck, where a smiling crew member, utterly unperturbed by the oceanic chaos that surrounded us, set me up with a rod and an anchovy. Joining the other fishfolk along the rail, I unspooled 30 or so feet of line and waited for a salmon. A helpful soul mentioned that looking off towards the horizon could often help calm a queasy stomach, so I gave that a try for a while until I retched over the side, after which I decided the horizon could go to hell. After another bout of quality retching someone else handed me a couple of Dramamine, which I downed eagerly, figuring that a belated drugging was better than no drugging at all.

The Dramamine worked well enough for me to focus a bit more on fishing rather than mere survival. This was a good thing, since a several fathoms down something grabbed my anchovy and took off with it. After a vigorous fight I reeled in a flashing silver salmon, which the same smiling crew guy netted and hauled over the side. It wasn't huge - about 20 inches and five pounds - but it was a beauty, and as I admired that gleaming chinook I realized I was feeling a whole lot better.

As it turned out that was the only fish I caught that day, and in fact was only one of three salmon caught by the entire boat, which had about two dozen anglers aboard - pricey fish, when you work out the price per pound. Not a great day for fishing, and the rough conditions were probably to blame. While I was happy to have been one of the lucky few, I was even happier to see the massive piers of the Golden Gate Bridge loom back into view, and to feel the solid timber of the Berkeley docks under my feet again. Broiled that very evening and seasoned with dill, pepper and lemon juice, the salmon was delicious - and since I hadn't been able to keep a thing down all day, I'd worked up quite an appetite.

And that was my first salmon charter. Was it worth it? Ummmm...sure. Will I be doing it again anytime soon? Ummmm...no.

Monday, May 09, 2005

The Jacksmelt - An Underrated Coastal Catch

Continuing my habit of honoring overlooked and underappreciated fish, today's featured piscine is the jacksmelt, a long, skinny, silvery fish found all over the San Francisco Bay and its environs (I first made its acquaintance while fishing near the Berkeley marina). It ranges from Baja California in Mexico all the way up to Oregon, and is frequently caught on piers and jetties or while surf fishing.

While they're not huge fish (the longest ones get up around 17 inches) they put up quite a fight for their size, and they're not at all shy about jumping on your bait. I caught several of them on anchovies, but I'm told they'll bite on blood worms, pile worms, and lots of other things; the excellent Pier Fishing in California site has recommendations on different rigs and baits you can use to catch them.

From a culinary perspective, they're not the finest fish you'll ever eat - they have quite a few bones, and not much meat on them - but they're not bad breaded and fried, and I suspect you could grill or smoke them with some success as well. Some people use pickling brine to dissolve or soften bones in particularly boney fish; pickled herring is a good example, and I know it's done with shad too. So maybe pickled jacksmelt is worth a try as well.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Dardevle - What a Lure!

I've always had a fondness for vintage lures, the ones whose classic simplicity brought in the fish by the boatload long before batteries, chemical attractants, flashing lights and various other bells and whistles (both literal and figurative) came into the picture. One of these old-school favorites is the Dardevle (or Daredevil, or Daredevle - spellings seem to vary widely. As far as I can tell the original is Eppinger's Dardevle, which features the devilish logo that made such a memorable impression on me when I was kid).

The tackle boxes of my grandfather and great-uncle, two early angling influences, both featured Dardevles galore, many of which must've dated back decades to judge from the wear and tear on their enamel and the bends in their hooks. Eppinger's been making this spoon since the early 20th Century, and I'm sure their competitors have been making knockoffs for almost as long.

The history of the Dardevle name is an interesting one...according to the Eppinger site, it was originally named the Osprey by inventor and company founder Lou Eppinger. Towards the end of World War I its name was changed to Dardevle in honor of the "Teufelhunden", or "devil dogs," a fearsome nickname given to the 4th Marine Brigade by its German foes during the Battle of Belleau Woods in 1918.

The classic Dardevle is the distinctive red and white striped model, a deadly lure for pike, muskellunge, bass and trout...in fact, most fish that like to eat other fish. But there are a number of other color schemes as well; for instance, there's a green and yellow version that this article speculates attracts vegetarian pike.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the name Dardevle/Daredevil/etc. is often used to describe similar-looking lures (much as people will use "Kleenex" as a generic name for tissue). For instance, this fine article on pike fishing in Ontario includes a photo of some handsome "Daredevil" lures that aren't by Eppinger but definitely look like they'd get the job done. I think fish respect a good design, no matter who makes it. They're just not as brand-conscious as us.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

In Praise of the Pumpkinseed

Today I've decided to honor the pumpkinseed sunfish (or punkinseed, if you prefer), a feisty and charming little fish that for many kids, myself included, played a starring role in their introduction to fishing. Though they don't get much larger than 7 inches in length, they can put up an impressive fight, especially if you're not that big yourself - and even as an adult I've sometimes had a pumpkinseed on my line and mistaken it for its larger cousin, the bass. They certainly have a bass's voracious appetite, and will go after baits that any reasonable fish would consider out of their league.

The pumpkinseed is also an extraordinarily pretty fish, dappled with vibrant shades of orange, blue and yellow and sporting a jaunty red spot on the ear flap behind its gills.

Worms are probably the best all-around bait for pumpkinseeds - though a full-size nightcrawler would definitely be overkill. You'll often find them hiding out in areas with weeds or submerged debris - another habit they share with bass. Don't be surprised if the lunker that feels like a largemouth turns out to be just a little smaller, and a lot more colorful.