I come from a long line of fisherfolk. My grandparents had a tiny cabin on a Quebec lake. We visited some summers. My grandfather let me drive the big white speedboat at a snail’s pace while he smoked cigars and trolled for trout off the stern. Once, when I caught one bigger than his catch-of-the-day, he “accidentally” knocked it back into the lake with the net. On the dock, we’d sunbathe while he cast lines overhead with a precision worthy of the movie A River Runs Through It. At the lake, we ate trout and eggs, trout salad, baked trout. I survived on spoonfuls of Cool Whip. (Photo above is editor as a teenager with Kay Rubbra, my grandmother, and our bass catch.)
I’ve not only fished off my grandfather’s dock, but also in ice-cold Sierra lakes with my backpacker dad, and with my own kids. Once we sent my tween daughter and godson out with a professional guide and they came back with a beautiful salmon, which our friend then gutted and served up as sushi right there on the shore. I get chills thinking of their experience, catching and eating something of such natural perfection on a wild river, not a supermarket in sight.
This issue of ESTUARY is all about fish, not fishing. But I mention fishing here because of the way it connects us to our food and our ecosystem. When we fish we interact directly with water and wildlife. But the study of fish, right here in our own Bay and Delta, also affords this intimacy. There are scientists in California who know more about steelhead gills and smelt otoliths and sturgeon scutes and salmon eggs than they do about Britney Spears, Jimmy Garoppolo, extra virgin olive oil, or any other thing or person of celebrity.
As an editor, dedicating an issue to fish feels like centering the region’s relationship with its waterways and waterbodies. Forget the fires, the floods, and the harmful algal blooms, and think about the basics: without our interest in fish, as a challenge to catch, as a symbol of the wild, as an indicator of current health or slow planetary death, as a miracle that lives underwater where we can’t live, so much of our work would occur without a reference point.
In this issue, we share both the heroics of saving a fish near extinction as well as the secrets of some sturdier, healthier natives. We detail how South Bay fish are faring now that so much fish-food-producing marsh habitat has been restored in their environs. We examine how our incessant habit of driving everywhere is not only warming the planet but also leaving behind shreds of rubber that are creeping into fish guts and poisoning Pacific Coast coho.
Our stories discover fish in bone-dry streams under boulders, and tally steelhead in two entirely different watersheds: one urban, one valley, but both often starved of flows by human diversions. And we even take a moment to drill down, once again, into the perpetual failure of the best-laid plans and policies to actually protect our beloved salmon, especially in drought when there isn’t enough water to go round. In this sharing of fish tales, we invite you to marvel at the swimmers off our shores and riverbanks. Good fishing.
Growing up in Arkansas and Georgia, I used to go fishing with my father. Just hook and line, for bluegill, crappie, and the like. It was a challenge to my attention span; I tended to get distracted by birds and forget to watch the bobber. I remember losing one fish because of an anhinga that flew over. But I enjoyed the result, dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried. Lunch on the fishing trips was always Vienna sausages, straight out of the can, and saltines. Once when I wasn’t along, my father caught a largemouth bass of sufficient size that he decided to have it mounted, which was probably a relief to my mother who would otherwise have been expected to cook it. He had heard from a coworker that there was a taxidermist somewhere in the vicinity, and drove the bass, on ice, down the backroads of Thomas County, Georgia, looking for him, getting lost repeatedly. He finally broke down and asked somebody who was working on his car where the taxidermist was. “I don’t know about no taxidermist, but there’s a guy down the road a piece that stuffs fish,” was the response. The fish was duly stuffed, and it’s still somewhere in my storage unit. Joe Eaton
I never fished as a kid. In fact, my first time fishing was last year when my husband and I joined a Fish Emeryville charter aboard the Sea Wolf. We left the Emeryville harbor at dark o’clock and headed out the Golden Gate with the sun rising behind us. It was a treat to be out on the water at dawn among those enmeshed in maritime culture. The sea was too rough to go to the Farallones as planned, so we headed north and fished for rock cod and lingcod in deep pockets of water along the coast. I rented all the equipment needed and caught plenty of fish, all of which were stunningly kaleidoscopic. I had my fill of fishing after a few hours and turned my attention to watching birds, observing the surface of the water, and motoring below that beautiful bridge–always a spectacular experience no matter how many times I’ve done it. We ate fresh Pacific cod from our freezer for several months, and I look forward to doing it again. Aleta George
Tell Us Your Favorite Fishing Memory or Fish Story
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Brian Sak: Having fished for just over 50 years makes it impossible to select a favorite memory. Each outing has been special in its own way, with the time spent on the water with family and friends evoking a range of emotions. My father, carrying me as a kid on his shoulders across a roaring river to get to his favorite hole, warms my heart. Watching my oldest daughter, landing her first fish by walking backwards up a steep bank (because she didn’t quite get the idea of reeling yet), keeps me laughing to this day. While seeing the tears in my youngest child’s eyes, as I sternly made her hold a bass by its lower lip for a photo, saddens me. Of course we all have the infuriating fish that got away story. The list of memories goes on — some incredible, some not so good, and a bunch in between. With the best part being that I plan on creating many more.