Bodega Bay wakes up
Coastal roads are almost empty at 5 a.m. except for those headed to the Spud Point Marina. Wisps of fog hang over fields where the cows and sheep graze, but it is clear at the bay and the water is almost mirror flat.
Boat motors are humming at the docks. There is barely a breeze and the air smells fresh with a tang of salt. John Keller, marina manager, fills out the weather board from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The winds are 5 to 15 mph from the north-west, the sea is one to three feet, the swell from the west is 3 to 4 feet with 8 feet between.
The Bodega Bay buoy, known as Jingle Bells by the fleet, is recording north-west swells 4 to 5 feet, the temperature is 54 degrees, and the barometer is at 30.03.
In other words, perfect fishing weather.
Some of the captains are not content to trust NOAA or Jingle Bells. They drive up to Bodega Head, sometimes called Chicken Point, to see for themselves in the early morning light.
Amy Watts and Jason Lozano are looking for Captain Rick Powers’ boat, The New Sea Angler. They are eager to fish for salmon. Keller directs them to the sports fishing center at Porto Bodega.
Keller performs the all-important job of unlocking the restrooms and sells ice and fuel to the fishermen. The Fairwind is geared up and backs away from the dock into the water reflecting the dawn purple and pink light.
Joe Loiseau, who is deckhanding on the Fast Eddie, has been living at the camp grounds in Bodega Bay. He’s sipping coffee and getting ready to prepare bait. The Fast Eddie will go out just two miles, he thinks.
Chris Zito is the captain of the Haida Queen. At 32, he is already a fishing veteran, having fished since he was a youngster. He will head out about 10 miles. He brought in about 40 fish the day before and is anxious to get more while the weather and sea cooperate. He walks his black lab Casey before leaving. Boat dogs are a special breed.
Some of the fishermen laugh as they recall Tuley, the late captain Earl Carpenter’s boat dog. She became a legend at Bodega Bay because she would dive off the boat to the bottom of the harbor and bring back rocks.
She was a Chesapeake retriever, and Earl always sacrificed the first fish to her. Otherwise she went crazy every time a fish was landed, but once she attacked one she was docile the rest of the trip. Very few fishermen would make that kind of sacrifice for their dogs. Salmon are just too valuable.
Casey is much more laid back about salmon flopping on the deck.
The bite is on and hopes are high. Salmon are fat and hungry as they get ready for their endurance run up the rivers. The will not eat again once they enter fresh water, and by the time they spawn and die, they will be haggard and battered. The time to catch them is now.
Salmon are the most romantic of fish. They literally die for love, or at least for lust.
George Abalos is aboard the Donna Mia. At 27, this is his first year as a deckhand in the salmon season. He worked for two years in crab season, a very different kind of fishery. Crab fishing is done close to shore and involves setting out strings of huge crab pots, then later hauling them up. It is laborious, exhausting work.
Salmon is troll fishing. The boats look like mosquitoes, their poles out at an angle with lines either baited or using lures called “spoons” or “hoochies.” They move slowly through the water pulling the lines.
Salmon are caught individually on the lines and reeled aboard, clubbed, then immediately cleaned and iced. Right now the fishermen are day fishing out of Bodega Bay, delivering good loads daily. It helps that the fish are running closer to the shore.
Later in the season when they are farther out, the fishermen will spend two or three days at a time at sea.
Later in the summer, if the catch gets spotty as the salmon head upriver, some of the fishermen will gear up for albacore fishing. That can take them 40 to 60 miles out to sea to catch the fast swimming fish. They are frozen whole on board. It is fast, exhilarating and dangerous.
Abalos, who used to work as a dishwasher, is thrilled with his new profession.
“I love it out there,” he grins. In the morning at the docks, boats humming everywhere, excitement building, it is easy to see why.
ALSO WAKING UP IN SONOMA COUNTY: