San Diego

San Diego, California – March 7-13, 2018

My friends Ben Cantrell (check out his blog here) and Ruoxi Li moved from Illinois to San Diego in mid-2017, and basically left me an open invite to visit. After strategic discussions with Ben in late 2017, we decided on March. It would be a great time for me to escape the tail-end of a northern Michigan winter and with rockfish season opening March 1 the timing would work well from a species-hunting perspective. I’ve recently become a pretty serious runner (I’ve challenged myself to run at least 1,000 miles in 2018) and the San Diego Half-Marathon just happened to be in mid-March as well, which sealed the deal. I flew out of Detroit on a direct flight to San Diego, where Ben picked me up from the airport after 10pm. At their apartment I warmed up a delicious plate of homemade Chinese leftovers before going to sleep.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Ben worked a half day in the morning, so I put on my running shoes and jogged about 5 miles to kick off my first full day in San Diego. I had put in 190 miles of running so far in 2018, all outside and most of it in snow and sub-freezing temperatures, and it was glorious to get a run in wearing shorts and no jacket. On the way back from my run I stopped at Señor Taquero for the best breakfast burritos I’ve ever eaten, loaded with a substantial amount of eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese. After Ben and I devoured our food I discovered the 32-ounce crowler of My Chest Hurts IPA from Snowbelt Brewing Company that I’d brought as a gift to Ben had leaked all over my checked bag. I cleaned up the mess, tied some dropper rigs, and then we headed out for an afternoon of fishing aboard the New Seaforth. After a stop at Squidco for bait and 6 to 10 oz. sinkers we parked at the marina and boarded the fishing boat. Binh, of the local anglers Ben knew, joined our trip.

Heading out to the fishing grounds aboard the New Seaforth.

Our fishing trip was 12:30-5:30pm, and with the ride out to the fishing grounds and back we had almost four hours to fish. I’m not exactly sure but I think we fished the 150 to 250-foot depth range most of the trip. It was the deepest I’d ever fished, and with the heavy sinkers and fishing action I was glad I brought my heavier Nomad travel rod. The action was quick using chunks of squid, with bites generally coming soon after reaching the bottom. My first catch was one of the more common but coveted species (from a culinary perspective), the Vermilion Rockfish. It spiked me good with a dorsal spine, right in the joint of my middle finger, and it stung for a good while and my finger stayed slightly swollen for a couple days. Ben and I got several Vermilion Rockfish and he pulled in a Greenstriped Rockfish from the first spot. The larger fish went in burlap bags with our numbers on them, to be filleted and taken home for dinner.

My first Vermilion Rockfish, and my puncture wound.

Every couple of drops the deckhands would have us reel up our lines and we’d move a few hundred yards to a new rocky spot. Vermilion Rockfish were the most abundant catch (we took home about ten of them) but I was fortunate enough to get some variety. I landed two sanddabs that turned out to be Longfin Sanddab, a more elusive catch than the more common Pacific Sanddab. I also caught a Calico Rockfish, a pair of Halfbanded Rockfish, a Honeycomb Rockfish, my own Greenstriped Rockfish, and a Squarespot Rockfish that Ben envied. At one point a thresher shark surfaced, which the captain pointed out and Ben saw, but it was gone before I looked. There were plenty of seagulls and pelicans around as well, and the sun shone through some hazy clouds and reflected off the relatively calm water, making for some enjoyable scenery.

When the deckhands asked us to reel up for the final time I had tallied seven new species. Unfortunately Ben wasn’t able to add to his species list that day, but we left with a bag full of rockfish fillets. After returning to the marina we chucked Megabait Lures toward a beautiful sunset off the rocks at Quivira Point. It was a pleasant twenty minutes, but we didn’t hook into any fish. Hunger set in and we made a stop at Alesmith Brewing Company for some Speedway Stout and food-truck Pierogis to go. We ate with Ruoxi back at the apartment, and I transferred photos from my camera to my laptop before sleeping.

The seven new species I caught on the New Seaforth are featured above. We doubled up on Vermilion Rockfish on several occasions (see below).

March 9, 2018

Ben worked another half-day Friday morning, so I had a pretty leisurely morning drinking coffee, fixing up some buttered toast with avocado and editing and sorting photos from the previous day. Ben had the doors open, and more than one hummingbird ventured inside the house and then struggled to find the way out again. Ben had to catch a couple of them and release them outside. I told Ben I’d be right back, and went to the nearby 7/11 store. A half an hour later he texted me wondering where I was and I sent him a picture from the top of the mountain behind his apartment complex. Just felt like running the trail up to the top…and it was well worth the views. But Ben was wrapping up work, so I ran back down and we loaded up the kayaks and fishing gear.

Our first stop was a beach along Mission Bay, where we met up with a nature enthusiast named Christian that wanted to tag along, capture some photos and catch a few fish. We went down to the water not with fishing rods but with a PVC plunger specifically designed for pumping ghost shrimp out of their burrows. We waded the shallows, with one person pumping the burrows and squirting the mud and water mixture into the shallows and the other two picking up any ghost shrimp that got sucked up and shot out. We took turns pumping, and collected an ample amount of ghost shrimp to serve as bait for bonefish later in the day. We all went to Wendy’s for a quick lunch, and then Ben and I launched our kayaks along a channel at Liberty Station. Christian fished from shore while we paddled out into San Diego Bay. We trolled along the way, and Ben got an early hit but missed the fish. In the bay, we dropped squid and ghost shrimp to the bottom and drifted around in 20-30 feet of water. We each managed to catch a California Lizardfish, but it wasn’t a new species for either of us (I’d caught them in Long Beach during a previous trip to California in June 2014). The boat traffic was relatively light, but we did need to mind the wake when larger boats passed. It was a pretty epic afternoon to be on the bay, despite the slow fishing, with dark clouds rolling over Point Loma and watching a big aircraft carrier coming in to port.

At around 3pm we paddled back to where Christian was fishing. Unfortunately he hadn’t caught any fish, but John Snow was there with him on the shore and waved hello as we paddled up. I resisted the urge to shout “you know nothing, Jon Snow” and said hello back. John Snow runs the awesome website, which features an excellent collection of photos and information about fish found in Mexican waters, as well as a variety of other organisms. It’s been a very useful resource for identifying my catches from trips to Mexico, and the site features a number of photographs contributed by me and several of my fishing friends including Ben, Ken Tse, and George Brinkman. Unfortunately John had to head out and beat rush hour traffic so we didn’t get to talk for long.

Ben, Christian and I moved up the channel to a spot where we could catch Cortez Bonefish. Christian and I cast out ghost shrimp from shore for bonefish while Ben paddled up and down the channel in hopes of a Shortfin Corvina. Christian succeeded in catching his first bonefish before heading out to meet up with his girlfriend. I had a few bites, and got my bait stolen, but failed to hook a bonefish. I did paddle into the channel and dropped a chunk of cut mackerel that Ben caught trolling, thinking I might have a shot at a ray of some sort. I fished a ghost shrimp on light line with the heavier rig in the kayak’s rod holder. All of a sudden I heard the sound of line peeling off the reel as something took the mackerel. I switched rods and set the hook into something that put up a good fight but did not feel at all like a ray. In the greenish, semi-clear water I saw the silver flash of a feisty little shark. I pulled it alongside the kayak, grabbed it with my free hand, and deposited it in the bottom of the kayak between my legs. It was a Gray Smoothhound, a new species I was super excited about! Fortunately, they don’t have sharp teeth, so I was able to take some good photos from my kayak seat without the danger of getting bit.

Gray Smoothhound

While I was photographing the shark, I hooked up with a fish on the light line. I suspected it might be a bonefish, but was mildly disappointed to find a Barred Sand Bass on the end of the line. It was another species I’d previously caught from my California trip in 2014. I released both fish just as Ben paddled up with a big grin on his face. He saw the grin on mine, too, and we exchanged stories of our new lifers. He showed off his first Shortfin Corvina – a nice specimen he caught trolling a lure. It was species #497 for Ben…getting close to that 500 milestone!

Barred Sand Bass

Barred Sand Bass

Ben’s lifer Shortfin Corvina, caught trolling from his kayak. Photo credit Ben Cantrell.

The sun was setting so we trolled as we paddled back to the launch and packed up for the day. We swung downtown to Broadway Pier to pick up our half-marathon bibs and swag bags before heading back to the apartment. Ruoxi had picked up a big sandwich platter for dinner, which would also be our lunch on the boat the next day.

San Diego from Broadway Pier.

March 10, 2018

We got up early Saturday and met Eli (follow his adventures on his blog) at the marina in Mission Bay at 6am. Eli is one of three people I know that’s caught more than 1,000 species of fish on hook and line (the others being George Brinkman, who I’ve fished with in Peru, Florida, and Mexico, and Steve Wozniak (1000fish’s blog), who I met in Ohio in 2017). We hired a private boat for the day, which Eli captained. Our first stop was the bait barge, where we filled the livewell with sardines. Then Eli captained us out to some deep water off the shores of La Jolla (it drops off very quick so we found water >1,000 feet deep not all that far from the shore) in pursuit of Petrale Sole. On the ride out we pensively passed a preponderously populous pod of pretty playful Pacific porpoises. Say that ten times fast.

The photo does not do justice to how many porpoises (ok, so technically Pacific White-Sided Dolphins) there were here, nor to their playfulness.

Ben and Eli had stout rods and conventional reels spooled with adequate line to fish depths well below 1,000 feet. Our deepest drops hit over 1,400. To avoid tangles, we limited ourselves to two rods at a time and Ben and I took turns dropping. Ben and Eli had made their own deep drop rigs, and Ben went all out with his customized “Bedazzle Drop” rig featuring colored beads, a bait cage stuffed with squid and sardines, and even an electronic mini-disco ball that emitted different colors of light. The hooks were baited with a mix of shrimp and live sardines.

Unfortunately, we had no action at all in the very deep water. I took the opportunity to nap in the cabin, and to eat sandwiches and granola bars. We progressively worked our way shallower, but still nothing bit until we reached legal rockfish depths, at which time we switched to more conventional rigs and began using a third rod. I landed a Greenspotted Rockfish and a Pacific Sanddab in around 350 feet of water, and Ben caught some Pacific Mackerel that we saved for bait.

Eli photographs Ben with a 16″ Pacific Chub Mackerel

The best action came in the 100-120 foot depth range, and we started getting immediate bites on every drop. Most of the fish were Ocean Whitefish (another species I’d caught in my last trip to California). I brought what would have been a lifer Kelp Rockfish to the surface, only to have the hook pull free and I lost the fish. Fortunately, I got a second chance and boated one later. I also got a chunky Gopher Rockfish and a couple of Olive Rockfish. By this time, light sprinkles had turned to a solid drizzle and the wind picked up. I was chilled, even in a Patagonia fleece and rain jacket. Ben hadn’t brought a jacket and was soaked and cold, but he was hammering fish on a red and gold Megabait Lure tipped with bait. Ben caught the only three California Scorpionfish (AKA “Sculpin”) of the trip and hauled in a mess of mackerel. Eli also pulled in a steady mix of mackerel, ocean whitefish and sanddabs.

The big fish came in the last hour of fishing. Ben hooked into a something heavy on the same Megabait he’d been using all afternoon. It didn’t take a long time to pull to the surface, but it was certainly a nice fish and the biggest catch of the trip up to that point. At first glimpse, seeing a broad brown shape appear from the depths, my mind went to ray. But we quickly identified it as a California Halibut. It measured out at 27.5 inches and was a new personal best for Ben. Within 15 minutes, Eli eclipsed that fish with a 35.25 inch, 19 pound halibut. I not-so-subtly reeled in my squid-baited hook and added a whole live sardine. But as the boat rocked in the wind, driving drizzle into us and chilling our bones (I thought I vacated Michigan to be warm!) our drift speed increased and the bite cooled off too. It was time to head back in and return the boat. I didn’t get my big halibut, but it wouldn’t have been a new species, and I was plenty happy with the 13 species I’d accumulated so far on my San Diego vacation.

We returned to the marina, cleaned up the boat, and bid farewell to Eli. Ruoxi made a superb breaded-chicken meal with delicious creamy barley, topped off with cream-cheese Danishes for dessert. Ben filleted both halibut, which yielded a significant amount of meat, enough so that his food-saver unit overheated before he could vacuum seal it all for the freezer. We didn’t stay up late. Not only was our half-marathon the next morning, we’d be losing an hour of sleep due to daylight saving time.

March 11, 2018

Ruoxi was kind enough to drive us into town and follow our race. The start line was in downtown San Diego, near Petco Park – home of the San Diego Padres major league baseball team. The finish line was inside Petco Park, entering the tunnel in left field, down the third-base line toward home plate. Having hit my sub-two-hour half-marathon goal (1 hour 58 minutes) in my previous half-marathon (Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan, October 7, 2017), and with several other races ahead of me in 2018 I really didn’t care to push for a new personal record. Ben and I ran the whole race together. It was a great course, following the waterfront for the first several miles and with great views of the city. There was one tough hill around mile 9, where Ruoxi was waiting to say hi as we ran past. Our finishing times were just over 2 hours 19 minutes. We took some photos in the stadium, drank chocolate milk, and caught up with Ruoxi just outside Petco Park. We walked through town and found a restaurant where Ben and I engulfed a couple of burgers. I thought about ordering a beer, but opted for coffee instead.

After lunch we went back to the apartment and napped. Later we noticed a nasty smell was emanating from the garage, which after some investigation turned out to be a container of squid and ghost shrimp that had rolled forgotten behind the seat of a kayak and apparently leaked. We hosed it down with soap and cleaned up and reorganized our stuff a bit, but did not end up fishing that day. Ben and I teamed up to deliver a fish-taco dinner that evening, using rockfish and also some older Ocean Whitefish that Ben had on hand.

Fish tacos with Vermilion Rockfish and Ocean Whitefish.

March 12, 2018

On Monday Ben had to work again, so I downloaded the Lyft app on my iPhone and used the service to get me a ride downtown. I spent several hours exploring the San Diego Zoo, which I highly recommend. After seeing nearly every exhibit in the zoo I did the Skyfari, an air tram that transports riders over the zoo from one end to the other. I was hungry, so I jogged to the nearest Poké Go (not to be confused with Pokémon Go) and had a poke bowl: a mix of rice, chunks of raw tuna, seaweed, and vegetables. It’s hard to find good seafood in northern Michigan, and I needed my fix! I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around in Balboa Park, a large greenspace adjacent to the zoo. The park is filled with trees, walking paths, architecture, gardens, fountains, pools, tourists, performing artists, museums, eateries, and gift shops. Strolling through the park was a very relaxed and worthwhile use of my time on a sunny afternoon. At around 4:30 I caught a Lyft ride back to the apartment. On my final evening in San Diego we had plans to do some night surf-fishing for sharks.

Ben and I geared up for the big fish and hit the road before dusk. After loading up on Taco Bell take-out we reached a beach access site and met another local angler and shark fishing enthusiast Tom (check out Surfers were leaving the beach as we descended the trail to the water. Ben lent me his 13’ surf rod and pre-made leaders, and I’d brought along a sufficient reel spooled with good line to go with it. The three of us each used one rod a piece, with a glow sticks fastened to each rod tip so we could see them in the dark. Tom’s was blue, mine green, Ben’s red. We used heavy spider weights and baited our hooks with mackerel halves. To cast our lines we waded belly-deep into the rolling surf and lobbed the baits as far out as we could. Ben and Tom had chest waders. I did not. Instead, I wore board shorts and water shoes, and two layers of fleece Patagonia shirts with a waterproof jacket over. I brought a belt and cinched it as tight as I could around my waist, over my rain jacket, in what was mostly a successful attempt to keep my upper body warm and dry. The result was that I stayed more comfortable throughout our four hours of night surf-fishing than I had expected to.

It didn’t take long for Ben to get a nice hit. His fish ran to the left, toward my line, and ended up getting tangled with mine, but he was able to land a decent Tope Shark (AKA “Soupfin Shark”). It was not a new species for him, and it left me envious. Due to the tangled rigs I had to cut my line and re-rig, but I cast a new bait out soon after and got some light bights that may have been lobsters, which tended to pick away at our baits. Tom actually landed a lobster later in the night.

Ben’s Tope Shark (AKA “Soupfin Shark”). Photo by Tom.

Maybe an hour after the first shark, Ben got another hook-up and this time I reeled in my line to get it out of the way. After a longer battle, we identified the fish in the breaking waves as a Broadnose Sevengill Shark, the species Ben wanted most (and a species I of course would have loved to catch!). We slid the shark onto the beach and I took photos and video clips while Tom unhooked the gray and black-speckled shark and measured it (81 inches long!). Ben posed for a few quick pics and then pulled the shark out past the breaking waves by the tail to release it. We shone our lights to make sure it swam off alright, and then reset our lines. I would get many light bites, which may have just been lobsters or could possibly have been sharks toying with the bait, but by 11 pm I had not caught anything and I was ready to call it a night. It was not to be my night for a Californian surf shark. At least I got one shark species, my Gray Smoothhound, during my trip and I ended up with a total of 13 new species. Coming into the trip I’d had a 10-12 species goal in mind, so I was content with the results. Ben, Tom and I packed down the rods and Ben and I headed back to the apartment.

Broadnose Sevengill Shark, a new species for Ben!

March 13, 2018

I had a 10:30 am flight out of San Diego and Ben gave me a ride to the airport. As we were leaving his apartment he noticed the garage door was slightly open, about 18 inches, at the same time I opened the passenger side door in his car and saw the glove box open and stuff on the seat. We both came to the quick realization that someone had invaded the car during the night. Only the Garmin GPS unit was gone (excluding the power cord…), and Ben didn’t notice anything else missing. The scariest part was knowing the perpetrator could have accessed the inside of the house via the garage while we were asleep. The spare car key was sitting on the car seat too…perhaps the car would’ve been gone if it wasn’t a manual…

Probably the closest I’ll ever get to the Las Vegas Strip. Not enough fish here.

I had a three-hour layover in Las Vegas on my return trip, so I grabbed some pizza and a beer and brushed up on my Spanish using the Duolingo app to pass the time. On the Vegas to Detroit flight I enjoyed finally watching Thor: Ragnarok. After landing I completed the four-hour drive home to Gaylord, arriving around 2 am. The next morning came quickly. Hopefully, my next exciting adventure does too…