Fishing Lesson

     Over the weekend, I took a swim in the Pacific.
     On my way to the water, I passed by a woman sitting in a beach chair bundled up and reading a book, next to a couple fishing rods.
     I asked her if she had had any luck.
     It was low tide and a calm day, not the conditons for much success casting a line in the water.
     The sun was getting low and streams of cloud and moisture were coming from the edge of the sea towards shore, a typical evening pattern along the coast here and in Baja.
     She said she had caught two good-sized perch within 20 minutes, but gave up because her feet were too cold. Her husband was still out in the water with rod in hand.
     I spent a good part of my youth on camping and fishing trips in Baja and we were always pretty secretive about the good fishing spots we found. So when I asked her what kind of bait she was using, I was prepared for a wary answer.
     Because the bait is the key. If you have the wrong bait, you will get nary a bite. But if you have what the fish want, you will catch a nice mess of fish.
     She motioned me to a package on the beach chair next to me and told me to take a look. It was a package of orange and purple gummy worms. She said some kind of scent was spread on them to attract fish.
     “You cut a two-inch piece of that and wind it around the hook,” she said. “A number two or number three,” referring to the size of the hook. She was giving me the keys to the castle.
     “Fish don’t have a chance,” I said.
     “No they don’t” she answered.
     She said they had had good luck catching spotted croaker with the same bait and described a blue lure they used to catch halibut. But it was amazing, she said, how the halibut managed to stay right at 19 inches long when the legal limit is 22.
     I had talked some time ago to a young guy on the same stretch of beach down in Oceanside, who told me that if you found the sand crabs, then you would find the fish.
     So I asked her about that.
     She agreed but said the sand crabs were few and far between, and tiny, this year. Normally during winter, she said, they are big suckers, holding thumb and forefinger about an inch and a half apart.
     I asked her if she had any information on why they were gone.
     “No idea,” she said.
     She also pointed to the stretch of beach that was the good spot. “That’s the fishing hole,” she said.
     I shook hands and walked off with that trove of precious knowledge.
     The water was good and cold but the waves were perfect for body surfing. The sun was just above the horizon in an array of orange that looked like it was burning holes in the clouds, irregular circles with dark orange rims and lighter in the middle.
     As I walked out, I saw on the darkening water just a little ways past the breakers a pod of dolphins cutting in circles, with sea gulls and pelicans fluttering and diving in the water around them.
     It was a feeding frenzy as the dolphins coursed and turned in teams of two, their dark gray backs and fins shining slightly. It seemed like they were herding the fish underneath as they pushed their tails sideways through the water, creating a violent spray.
     I watched as one young dolphin soared entirely out of the water and scissored at the peak to plunge back into the sea, its broad tail fin outlined against the fading light.
     One pair of dolphins was pushing through the water in my direction and I moved deeper to get a good look. The beasts are remarkable in their strength and speed, body contours perfectly suited for agility and efficiency in the water.
     As the sun touched the horizon, I was getting cold and it was time for a glass of wine. I turned to go to shore and a lone pelican came gliding along the lip of a wave just a few feet away. It was surprising to see how big its carcass was, how fast it was moving and how much distance it covered with wings outstretched, in a long, long glide. A galleon of a bird, sailing the sea.
     On the way up the beach, the white-haired husband who had been fishing asked me, “Are you Canadian.”
     “No, why do ask?”
     “They’re the only ones I’ve run into who like to swim in cold water.”
     “Ah,” I told him, “you get used to it.”
     The couple packed up their rods,beach chairs and bait box and walked back to their van. I dried off and poured some red wine, the last surfer came in, the deep red and orange at the edge of the sea was fading, the giant wash of clouds had turned to gray, the water to black, and the beach was quiet.

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