By Elliott Stark
When it comes to fishing, Southern California is a kingdom all its own. It boasts the US West Coast’s only billfish fishery and its richly abundant waters have been attracting anglers since the days of Zane Grey. The physical dynamics of the oceans and current in many ways define the approach of the anglers and captains who ply its waters. The culture of fishing runs deep—what happened here in the formative days of sportfishing was, in its time, as impactful and profound as any place in the United States—and perhaps the world. The coastline is also densely populated by people with a deep connection to fishing and to the ocean generally.
It is the combination of all of these factors that produce a type of sportfishing captain with a skillset and perspective all their own. This is the story of the California Captain. Understanding the amalgam of variables that defines their environment is the first step in determining how and why members of their ranks are increasingly prominent in the winner’s circle of marlin tournaments far beyond the cold, greenish waters of their homeports.
The Physical Setting
In terms of geographical location, Southern California sits at roughly the same longitude as coastal Georgia and South Carolina. In terms of water temperature and seasonality of its marlin and tuna fisheries, however, Southern California shares more in common with southern New England—each sits at the edge of billfish habitat. What accounts for the mismatch between longitude and water temperature?
The east and west coasts of the United States are dominated by ocean forces that are nearly exactly opposite. The East Coast is coursed by warm northerly flowing currents that transport water from the Earth’s equator. The Gulf Stream is the dominant force in fisheries across the East Coast—from Florida to Maine, before it juts easterly across the Atlantic Ocean toward the British Isles. The Gulf Stream, in fact, is one of the world’s largest and most powerful warm water currents. The West Coast of the United States, on the other hand, is bathed by cold, polar water that is transported by the California Current. The California Current originates from the North Pacific Current as it spins off of the Subpolar Gyro. The effect of this cold-water transport is evident in everything from the fishing to the weather to popular culture. It is this cold, polar water that drove Mark Twain to once say, “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”
Cold water also defines the distribution and seasonality Southern California’s pelagic fisheries. Water temperature is one of the main determinants of where you can find billfish. During warm weather months there is a striped marlin fishery that varies quite a bit year to year. In El Niño years, when water of the Pacific are warmer than other years, there will be more striped marlin and even a scattering of blue marlin and wahoo in Southern California. No matter how you slice it, however, Southern California’s waters lie largely within the extremes of desirable habitat for marlin. This is an important fact when considering the makeup of a California captain. With a boat and a few days, nearly anyone could figure out to catch sailfish in Guatemala—at least every once in a while. To catch swordfish or striped marlin in Southern California, however, requires a unique skillset.
A Culture of Watermen (Lots and Lots of Watermen)
California is the most populous state in America. It’s beautiful beaches, rich farmland, hospitable climate, and natural beauty has been attracting people to the state for hundreds of years. From gold rushes to people escaping the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to the many who try their hand at acting, the attraction to California makes sense to most anyone who visits the place. The Pacific Ocean plays a prominent role in the lives and outlook of folks residing in California. From surfing to board shorts to fish tacos and the vertical jig (and, yes, doing yoga on stand-up paddle boards), the ocean’s influence has led to many of California’s chief cultural exports. Three factors come into play when considering how the demographics of southern California influence the development of the California captain. The first: people of California really enjoy the ocean.
The second: there’s an awful lot of people in California. The third: when it comes to marlin and tuna, the fishable zone of southern California is compressed. For the purposes of this article, we assume the fishable area to be roughly 170 miles—from about Oxnard to the Mexican border. By some estimates, the population of South-ern California was some 24.12 million people in 2018. This is roughly the same as the populations of all of North Carolina (10.38 million), South Carolina (5.08 million), and Georgia (10.52 million) combined. The net effect of the three variables is simple: there are lots and lots of people trying to catch a relatively small body of fish that is available in a relatively small area for a relatively short amount of time.
While access to regular shots at billfish might be limited for the majority of the anglers and crews in Southern California, the waters are home to a diverse variety of fisheries and a thriving fishing culture. Many of the port cities have marinas and fishing clubs that operate out of them. These clubs commonly have tournaments and active social scenes to keep networks of anglers engaged in the SoCal fishing scene. Gary Graham grew up fishing in Southern California and has been a fixture on the scene for decades. Graham describes a culture of fishing that remains largely the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago. “Kids that are skilled and grow up learning how to fish are introduced to a network and really taken care of,” Graham begins. Like many others, Graham’s introduction to fishing came from his father.
“My father fished with a window washer who worked from 5am to 1pm every day. He’d then fish in the afternoons. The culture really has not changed much. These guys were experts fishing the kelp beds and they taught me how to fish,” Graham says. “In Southern California, a lot of the guys who have evolved with a spark for sportfishing—those who are dedicated—have had the opportunity to capitalize on their passion and become the greatest captains here currently.” Much like other places, there are a number of influential captains whose impact and influence link the early days of California sportfishing to the high liners of today. “Take a guy like Dave Hansen. His father, Don Hanson is 86 years old and has been involved with swordfish since he was a kid. Steve Lassley’s first job was with Don Hansen.”
The sport boats of California exert unique influence over the fishing traditions of California. Known as head boats or party boats in other places, the California sport boat brings dozens of people out fishing for a variety of species. From same day and overnight trips targeting white sea bass and calico bass to the long range, multiday tuna and wahoo trips the sport boat is a California institution. Many a California Captain can trace his fishing lineage to this point of entry.
Captain Dave Hansen runs the Wild In Sac, a 65-foot Hatteras, and operates www.yoursaltwaterguide.com—a website that provides access and information on all things fishing in Southern California. He came by a life in fishing honestly. “My father owns San Clemente Sportfishing, a fleet of nine sportboats. I started fishing with dad at three years old and knew from eight or nine that I wanted to be a captain.” He came up through the ranks and began running a sportboat by the age of 20.
When asked how the sportboat background prepared him for running a sportfisher, Hansen paints a clear picture. “There are lots of ‘microwave captains’ with one skillset. I’m not an expert at anything but am good at lots of things. Catching fish for 60 or 70 people is quite a bit different than catching fish for one or two. Conditions change daily, clientele changes daily—availability of bait dictates what you can do,” Hansen explains. “Experience as a sport boat captain gives you the ability to roll with everything. Some of the main skills are being able to talk to people and to work while tired.”
Sportboats give many would-be crewmen their start on the water. Colin Sarfeh, marketing manager a Pelagic Gear, grew up fishing on these boats and well understands their impact on shaping the fishing scene in Southern California. There is a hilarious term for kids who frequent these boats—fishing so often that they are granted free passage in exchange for helping the crew. What is a dock rat in some places is a pin head in California. “A lot of guys get their start by pinheading from a young age. Each port has a handful of these guys,” Sarfeh says. From there they are introduced to the sportfishing scene and integrated into the network that ultimately produces captains and tournament winners.
The Resulting Skillset: The California Captain
The California billfish and tuna scene is defined by a relative scarcity of shots, quite a bit of fishing pressure, and an established network of passionate fishermen. To regularly produce fish within this landscape requires a finely tuned skillset. Captain Evan Salvay (our featured Young Gun this issue) provides context.
“Success here requires you to be good at hunting, breaking down large stretches of water. It requires that you effectively maximize use of your electronics and equipment. In many ways, we have a limited entry season here. You have to fish hard and be prepared. There’s lots of pressure and to be successful you must be technically competent,” Salvay relays thoughtfully. “The fishery rewards technical proficiency.”
Longtime California headliner Captain Jim Kingsmill provides further perspective. A policeman for 30 years, Kingsmill learned fishing from commercial guys. He now runs a two-boat operation—the Chaser, a 54-foot Viking, and a 47-foot Pacifica, the Joint Venture. “The fishery is totally different in California. Sight fishing is so different. There is no consistency in current and it’s hard to pinpoint where fish will be. Success requires following signs that will lead to fish—things like knowing which birds are associated with different fish. Then there is the availability of live bait, which changes through the years,” Kingsmill explains.
“In Southern California, a lot of the guys who have evolved with a spark for sportfishing—those who are dedicated—have had the opportunity to capitalize on their passion and become the greatest captains here currently”
“When you leave the harbor, you’re fishing in three miles. There is a three- to 60-mile band, the fish can be anywhere. You’re always looking, your head is always on a swivel. In other places you have a long run to the fishing—when you pick up and run, you’re not missing anything.”
The centrality of observation and awareness to the fishing in California is best explained by how the fish bite and where they are hooked. In most every other place in the world, marlin are hooked behind the boat while trolling. In California, the striped marlin and swordfish are targeted by slinging a live bait to tailers or sleepers from the bow. California captains get very few shots from the back of the boat. This defines much of their perspective and skillset.
Captain Greg DiStefano is the only Californian ever to win an InTheBite Captain of the Year award. Many of his tournament exploits are set aboard El Suertudo, Guy Yocom’s Cabo-based 80-foot Weaver. “One of the things, in my opinion, that’s different for the west coast captain is that sight fishing is so important. You are locked into binoculars all day working for a few shots. There are very few opportunities here—the more you’re in the gyros the more fish you’ll see. Training yourself how to look and how to pay attention is huge,” DiStefano explains. “In Southern California, most boats have two or three gyros each. In the White Marlin Open, I bet there were three gyros in total.”
When asked how a background in the California fishing scene translates to fishing Cabo and other places, DiStefano points to a direct benefit. “It makes you pay attention to the water around you, not just to the boat. Where guys from other places might pick up and run, this background helps you to pick up the binoculars and look.”
Evolution and Perspective
Captain Pete Wishney is the owner/operator of the Foxi Lady, a Hatteras based out of Dana Point, California. An all around awesome and hilarious guy, Wishney never met a fishing adventure that he didn’t like. Pete and his wife Denise recently returned to California after an extended tour of all of the best places to fish in Central America and the Caribbean. Resulting from his travels, Wishney well understands how a California fishing background can prepare you for fishing in other places.
“Southern California is much more live bait oriented than other places. Reading the water—the bird life and the color are very important here,” he begins. This solid understanding of the importance bait and the ability to read the water translates to other places. “There’s the old truism, ‘Where there’s bait, there’s fish.’ In California you look for little white terns. When they start fluttering (as opposed to flying), don’t wait to see fish, just throw your bait in. That idea translates very well to Venezuela in April and May when the blues show up. If there’s a frigate around, just wait for him…”
Captain Peter Groesbeck personifies the diversified skillset that results from integrating a California fishing background into skills picked up in other places. Groesbeck’s father had a 40-foot Wheeler in the 50s—his father caught his first marlin in 1956 out of San Diego. In the early 70s, Groesbeck’s brother bought a sportboat called the Prowler—Groesbeck fished aboard it quite a bit. This body of experience augmented quite a bit of time crewing on stick boats for swordfish. The first time Groesbeck went to Cabo San Lucas was 1970—and he’s been traveling there ever since. Groesbeck was part of the Bad Company fishing team for many years and ran a mothership/gameboat operation that spanned the Pacific in the mid-1980s. These days Captain Peter is at the helm of a three Viking Fleet with boats in Half Moon Bay (near San Francisco), San Diego and Quepos, Costa Rica.
“In the early days in California from May through October, there were lots of albacore, marlin, tuna and swordfish. From October through April, we’d head to Cabo. We’d spend some time in the boat yard then we’d do it again.”
“In Mag Bay we’d get lots of shots. This elevated the fishery in California. We started to inputting some of the East Coast guys to get better out of the back of the boat—using ballyhoo and dredges, and the like,” Groesbeck says of the evolution. The result of the integration of some east coast tactics and perspectives into the California, live bait perspective produces a sort of best practice. “Some times we run and gun, sometimes we troll. You just can’t be one dimensional. We integrated this into the build of our new 72’. We have enough equipment to anchor anywhere—we have bait tanks on the bow and bow rails. We can throw poppers to tuna and kite fish.” The basic idea is to be ready for anything and to be able to effectively mesh a variety of fishing styles to fit any situation.
Captain Steve Lassley: The Essential California Captain
In many ways Captain Steve Lassley embodies the essence of the California Captain. In addition to a pile of tournament and sportfishing accolades that is too long to be listed here, Lassley spent 30 years as a commercial swordfishermen in California.