Bait and Tackle

     The first thing I did when I checked into a vacation rental in Carlsbad was go to the bait and tackle shop. After growing up fishing in Baja, I haven’t owned a fishing pole in many years.
     So I grabbed a couple poles, and the high school kid helping out asked me if I was looking for a “conventional” pole, which apparently means for fishing off a boat, and which, to my slight embarrassment, was what I had in my hand.
     When I said I was looking for some gear for shore fishing, Hugh, the tall, thin, older black man who ran the shop, suddenly straightened from his inventory books, brought out a step ladder and began pulling down the long, elegant rods that allow you to cast a line way out into the sea.
     I chose a ten-foot pole colored dark red and dark gray, and a simple, black reel that, compared to the worn and sand-infused reels we had in Baja, was a miracle of engineering that allowed hundreds of feet of nylon fishing line to sail silently off the drum and then be pulled back in easily by rapidly turning an ambidextrous handle that can be screwed into either side of the reel.
     Going through the racks of sinkers and hooks was easy.
     I had the weights well remembered, 2 ounces for very light surf, 3 ounces on average and 4 if the waves were heavy. The hooks I just remembered we always had to rein our imaginations in a bit because you would put a big hook on the line hoping for that whopper and in the meantime your sister was killing you because she had put on a modest hook that the fish couldn’t see.
     There aren’t many independent bait and tackle shops anymore, most of them wiped out by Walmart, Sports Authority and the like. This shop right by the tidewater inlet that separates Oceanside from Carlsbad doesn’t have a name outside other than “Bait and Tackle,” open 365 days a year.
     I bought a couple dozen worms and a couple small sacks of mussels.
     And a fishing license, about $50 bucks for the calendar year, didn’t matter what month you bought it in. You had to have it on you whenever you were fishing and the paper is waterproof. I was all set.
     I fished the incoming tide on an overcast afternoon at Carlsbad State Beach. There had been a storm out to sea and the water was dark with sediment and unmoored strands of kelp tough for the fish to see the bait.
     But the gear was sweet. I still knew how to cast and the line flew off the drum quietly, ending with the small, satisfying splash of sinker and baited hook out beyond the breakers.
     I always thought the beach here had a bit of magic. Especially on the overcast days or in the early evening when it was practically empty.
     The pelicans cruise along in offset lines, sometimes over the waves using the updraft off an incoming breaker for lift, then flapping big wings to gain speed, and sometimes gliding high over the dirt bluff behind the beach using that bigger updraft as the ocean wind comes on shore and gets pushed up the bluff’s face.
     I often wonder where those giant birds, that remind me of prehistoric beasts, are going to. Once in a while, they pull up and slow down, to start fishing, like this afternoon.
     The sea was rich for them, as one pelican after another circled up and up, then tucked its wings to plummet down down and crash into the water. But they took all my fish.
     I caught not a one that day.
     In the night I came back and fished a low tide, just for fun. You never catch anything at the low tide, but it was a dramatic and beautiful night. The air was fresh and salty. The moon was low and red and big out over the ocean with black clouds building on the enormous swath of horizon.
     I use a white bucket I had snagged from the clean up crew’s equipment at the rental, for bait, a cutting board and a dull knife. I open up a mussel, push the hook through the lips and anything solid and walk into the water to cast the whole hopefully appetizing package out into the waves.
     But I still wasn’t catching anything. It was getting on to midnight. So I decided to try one last time, and put a wriggling night crawler on the hook. Standing there, with the waves rushing up around my legs, I felt the telltale tap tap tap of an interested fish out there in the dark ocean. And then the hard tug, meaning he had hooked up.
     I reeled in a nice, pretty small but definitely edible corbina. Then trudged, satisfied, with bucket and pole through the sand and back to the rental.
     The next day, I managed to pull in a good sized perch, and the total was enough for a fine meal. And I swear there is nothing like it, you cannot get fish in the store that has the flavor and melt-in-your-mouth quality of a fish you just caught and grilled.
     And so it was that the beach exercised its magic. It wasn’t Baja but it wasn’t bad and it sent me away at the end of the week relaxed, rested, tanned, bearded, with body and spirit restored.


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