No, this is not just another fish story about fishing the great Gulf of Mexico, or about the “One that got away”, or about how the “Big Water” can be dangerous or even about catching my biggest fish. It is however, about a week of fishing that I will never forget. About twenty years ago, one of my life-long fishing buddies, who by the way is my eldest son, Steve, had just graduated from, nearly a year long, highly sophisticated and competitive NAVY electronics data school. He also was promoted to E-4 after only 12 months of active duty. Being an old airforce retiree, I felt that his mother and I needed to be at his graduation, even if it was Navy. So, Jacky and I started saving our pennies, robbed all our piggy banks, stopped paying all the non-important bills and were able to fly the cheapest rate to California for this proud event.
I guess my story actually starts shortly after an eventful flight and landed at San Francisco International Airport, because from that time on his graduation and promotion seem to take a back-seat to a man’s second favorite sport. Steve was there to meet us and he looked great. A year of hard study and “controlled” Navy life was agreeing with him. As we traveled the busy interstate to Vallejo, to his apartment located just outside the gate Mare Island Navel Base, the only thing Steve talked about was FISHING!!! And I thought that all this time he had “nose to the grind-stone”, studying every waking hour. Needless to say, his mother’s attempt to tell him all about the family and friends back home, fell on deaf ears. To hear him talk, you’d think that the Navy had sent him out there on a fishing expedition instead of attend a tough electronics school. By the time we reached his two-story apartment duplex, he had completely outlined the whole week, right up until we were to board the airplane back to Biloxi.
Within minutes after arriving at his apartment, I had changed my clothes, kissed Jacky goodbye and we were on our way to pick up bait to go fishing while there was still some daylight. The bait consisted of live grass shrimp, which was sold by the pound in a cup and really seemed quite small compared to our beautiful Gulf white shrimp. Plus there were various types of bottom dwelling minnows. Some resembled our bull minnows, while others were like nothing I had ever seen before. We arrived at one of Steve’s regular fishing piers well before dark and the tide was just starting to fall. The pier was on the Naval Station, located near the mouth of the Napa River, which empties into the San Pablo Bay along the great Sacramento River. Here Steve informed that the tide makes a 3-5 foot change. So we were there at the right time and should be in for some good fishing. He mentioned that like most experienced fishermen in Mississippi, the ardent anglers there also fished the tide.
As we rigged and baited, Steve seemed to be upset for forgetting his can of WD-40. Since we were only going to be fishing a few hours, and he had brought along a couple of extra rods and reels I really didn’t see any real reason to be alarmed if one failed to work right. But he was still upset with himself as he made his first cast. The tide was moving out at a noticeable rate and the last rays of sun were becoming history. Fishing was a little slow, but it did give father & son a chance to catch up on all that had happened in our lives during the past year. Plus he briefed me on the various methods and techniques he had learned out there were different from how we fished on the Gulf of Mexico and the inshore waters of Mississippi.
Shortly after dark, some fairly large fish started slapping the top of the water just inside the shadow of the pier. “Stripers!” Steve shouted, as he grabbed one of the lightweight rods and motioned for me to do the same and follow him to the other side of the pier near where all the “slapp’n” was coming from. Careful not to let our shadows show on the water, we cast parallel to the pier just to the edge of the shadows. One the first cast we were rewarded with a sharp strike that bent the light rods nearly double. As the white flurry of action neared the pier, Steve landed the fish and released it as gently and quickly as possible. Thinking that mine was bigger, I played it longer, only to find that it was also too small to keep. We managed to entice a dozen or so strippers to go for an artificial bait, however, none of them qualified as “keepers”. And were quickly released with no harm but a sore mouth. Also during the course of the evening we think we might have missed a couple of hits on the big rods with the live bait. But, since this is not the meat of my story let me conclude the happenings of that evening by simply saying that we headed for “da” house shortly after 9pm without a “keeper”. However, I felt that the companionship we shared will be kept.
The next morning, we were up and dressed shortly after dawn, as this was graduation day and things were to get off to an early start. The ceremony was very nice and quite short, making it possible for us to go by Special Services, rent a boat and motor, rush on back to Steve’s place, change our clothes and be on the water shortly after 10am! Now that’s what I call gett’n it on! This trip we were going after Stergeon. I could not help but notice that Steve made a special point not to forget his deluxe size can of WD-40. We motored around the Southern end of Mare Island and at a half mile off the SouthEastern corner, I gently lowered the anchor, just at the edge of a good looking tide-rip. Steve rigged the heavy duty rods that had about four feet of 60 lb. test braded wire leaders, with a bright new 6/0 stainless hook and we were ready for some serious fishing.
As I loaded up my hook with a couple of the largest grass shrimp, I noticed that Steve was “lubricating” his bait. By that I mean, he was spraying his shrimp with WD-40. I could not believe my eyes! What in the world was he doing? I laughed and joked, asking him if that would make the bait slip through the water easier? He just smiled and offered me the can of WD-40. No Way!!! I smiled back, shook off his offer, thinking it was a joke and made a neat cast right into the middle of a large slick that looked very promising. No sooner did my bait hit the bottom and the tip of my rod began to bob up and down. My heart did a flip, as I had a bite already and I got ready to set the hook. I stole a glance at Steve to see if he was looking and his rod was doing the same thing as mine. What bothered me was that he acted like he didn’t even notice. When I asked him about it he said it was the strong tide moving against the line and I would know when I had a bite. Here I had been fishing for well over 50 years and he was going to tell ME when I had a bite! Boy, while I was giving this some thought, he sat straight up, pointed at his rod tip and said ”Now that’s a bite!”
Sure enough, his rod bent down slowly then back up again. Just as it was starting to bend down again, Steve set the hook with a powerful upward swing of the rod. For a brief moment, it appeared that he was hooked on the bottom, for the rod to bend double as he applied maximum pressure to the 60 lb. test line. But then the rod gave a quick shake and the fight was on! Sometimes he pumped and gained a little line, much like when we hooked a big stingray in the “Gulf”. The next moment he would reel in line like there was nothing on the other end. After about 20 minutes of this give and take, the “take” started taking and the giv’n became rare. Soon a dark shape appeared just below the surface about ten feet out from the boat. At first, it looked like a fair sized shark to me. “It’s a nice sized sturgeon!”, Steve loudly exclaimed. “Get ready Pop!” You’ll have to use that little gaff-hook when he gets tired enough that I can get him up close to the boat. He advised between puffs of hard labored breath. Looking around for a gaff, Steve pointed to the gaff-hook, tied to a 10 foot long piece of heavily cord. After seemed like forever, the big fish rolled to the surface, “Plum tuckered out”, and Steve skillfully lead it alongside of the boat to my waiting “gaff”.
At what I thought to be the appropriate time, I stuck the large treble hook into the oval shaped mouth of the prehistoric looking creature. With an accompanying karate yell, I stood up and jerked the heavy fish into the boat. Just as it hit the bottom of the boat, the tired and lifeless form suddenly started beating the heck out of the boat. But, before it could do any damage, Steve quickly gave it a hard love-tap on the head with a lead-weighted fish equalizer. Since it was only a stunning blow, he hurried and put it on a heavy, nylon stringer and flipped the fish overboard. By the time he got the end of the stringer secured to the boat, Mr. Sturgeon started coming back to life and was not too happy. But, outside the boat was the best place for him, as large sturgeon have been known to tear up a small boat before they could be subdued.
Since my bait had not been touched, I cast right back into the rip, hoping to catch one before Steve could get back in the water again. I really needn’t to have hurried, as Steve was methodically re-baiting and made a point to show me that he was giving it a good shot of WD-40. During the next 20 minutes Steve caught 2 more, smaller sturgeons and released them unharmed. I finally got the message and sheepishly asked if I could borrow his can of WD-40. Not letting me off the hook, he replied “Gee Pop, ya think it will help?”. As my lubricated bite hit the hit the water and disappeared beneath the surface, a tell-tell oil slick moved on with the tide. Much to my joy, within minutes, my rod tip began to quiver and bounce about. Much like a big ol’ sheephead is nipping at your bait. True to his promise, but much to my aggravation, Steve advised me that I now had a bite. As I felt a heavy tug on the line, I set the hook and was disappointed not to find a heavy resistance at the other end. As luck would have it, my first catch of the day was not a sturgeon or an elusive big stripper, but was just a small juvenile stripper, referred to by locals as a “shaker”. (They just “shake” em off the hook).
This time when I baited up I was not the least bit too proud, but I sprayed on a generous amount of WD-40. I still recall back as a small lad, one did better without man made sources such as aftershave lotions, insect repellants, gasoline, oil or petroleum by products on your bait. But I was also taught that “When in Rome, do as Romans do”. So, here I was intentionally spraying on an oil by product directly on my bait. I mean on purpose! Before the day was over we caught several more sturgeons and a couple “Shakers”, however none large enough to keep. But the remainder of the week went much better. Great Fishing! I must admit that I did hold out each day and try to catch a fish without using WD-40 at first and just got “out fished”. Not WD-40 no big fish! By the time we had to leave the beautiful tributaries that flow into the San Pablo Bay I was convinced that WD-40 was the “name of the game”. And as I told you at the vey start of this story, “HARD TO BELIEVE-BUT TRUE!”