A trip to lingcod alley

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Fishing the Fiesta off Southern Big Sur

BIG SUR — “Stand by the gaff, starboard side aft!” echoed down the rail. Dino Martinez was on again, pinned in the corner by a big fish. It fought him every inch. It had to be a lingcod, a big one. The Glendora resident plugged away on the handle, rod bent nearly double.

Captain James Ottens of Los Osos was on deck, drawn by the excitement. “Don’t miss him,” he teased his deckhand as Martinez laid out his fish for the gaff shot. It was a hefty gator with a mottled, olive hide and a head and jaws nearly large enough to swallow a bowling ball. From the bulging belly, maybe it had.

Hours earlier under an inky sky the Fiesta out of Virg’s Landing had charged out of Morro Bay. The 55-foot fiberglass hulled sportfisher had 16 anglers aboard, 9 shy of the maximum for this limited load full-day trip dubbed locally as long range. She was making 12 knots across a calming ocean that only a day early had been whipped to froth by high winds.

PORTRAIT WITH A GATOR — Angler Dino Martinez of Glendora looks on as deckhand Ventura Garcia of Guadelupe shows off one of his lings.

This was the regularly scheduled Wednesday Big Sur Special, a trip also run on Sundays. In the pre-dawn gloom, sleepy anglers were piled up in the warm galley, or sat huddled on benches on the aft deck. There was plenty of time. The boat was on a three-hour run north to wilder waters. As they’d see soon enough, the long ride past Heart Castle on its hill and the jagged rocks of Piedras Blancas would be worth the effort. They were headed to remote Cape St. Martin in lower Big Sur.

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Big Sur is a magic place. The isolated stretch of pristine coastline where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the sea is rarely fished. It spans 90 incredibly scenic miles. Most people experience it from shore by driving the slow, sinuous curves of Highway 1. They marvel at the views of the ocean from the heights of the road carved precariously into unstable mountainsides, but most never get close enough to smell the sea. Aboard the Fiesta, the scent of the sea promised excitement: big reds and plenty of lingcod including the jumbos.

In the wheelhouse Ottens was at the helm. He sketched out the day’s plan. “Today we’re going to start off White Rocks, fishing the area there, and if we do well and we get a good amount of rockfish on the boat we’ll look for shallower water and see if we can put some lingcod on the boat,” he said.

MATT THORP OF Bakersfield (left) with a nice double. Assisting him is deckhand Aaron Neeley of Morro Bay.

Soon enough the boat arrived, and Ottens set up on a cluster of pinnacles. “They’re right on the bottom guys. Let ‘em go. 280 feet,” he said over the P.A. Jason Johnson of Kingsburg was among the first to hook up. Eventually he hauled up a nice vermillion. Reds came over the rail one after the other, fish to 7 pounds, mostly caught on simple rockfish gangions festooned with feathers and sweetened by a strip of squid.

Up on the bow, good friends and boat regulars Jason Anderson and Jim Webb, both of Cambria, held court. The two members of the Cambria Fishing Club expertly worked jigs and swimbaits for their jumbo reds, each good-naturedly talking trash as they dueled for the biggest fish. “Be sure to mention the club,” one said. “We’re a diverse group of fishermen. There’s always room for new members,” the other responded.

Down on the starboard rail, second ticket Bud Birchfiel of Atascadero broke out a purple and black Flat-Fall and proceeded to slay the fish, reds first, and then before you knew it, he was winching in lingcod. “Eight-, 10-, and 12-ounce jigs in red or purple and black do the job. Dark colors,” he added. And all available in Virg’s impressively remodeled tackle store, complete with an unmatched array of location specific irons, oversized swimbaits, and customized gangions.

HITCHHIKER — Wayne Rivera of Bakersfield with his hitchhiker ling, victim still in its jaws.

Matt Thorp of Bakersfield was next with a nice double, a red plus a ling, and then it seemed half the boat joined them in battling lingcod. Deckhands Aaron Neeley of Morro Bay and Ventura Garcia of Guadelupe were quick with the gaff, while Andrew Oliver of Grover Beach pitched in as the third deckhand.

Wayne Rivera of Bakersfield hooked a small rockcod (a rarity in these water) and let it soak hoping something bigger would strike his second hook. Instead he was rewarded with a hitchhiker ling — a great upgrade — which came up with its wicked fangs buried deep in a small red.

“We’re almost at boat limits for rockfish guys,” Captain James announced. “We’re going to run about half an hour into shallower water and see if we can get some more lings,” he said. He might as well as said, “We’re off to lingcod alley friends.”

A BIG SUR special shown off by angler Maurcio Penate of Moreno Valley. Aboard the Fiesta, this red was average sized.

On the way he told me how he got his start in sportfishing. He grew up in Bakersfield hours from the sea, but his grandmother got him hooked on trout fishing. Then he followed his parents west when he was about 25. “I was watching the newspapers for jobs and I saw a position coming up for Virg’s Landing: help wanted in the tackle shop. I applied and they put me to work emptying trash cans and sweeping floors, loading up tackle boxes, that kind of thing,” he said.

Before long he let them know he wanted to try getting a spot on one of the boats. “They put me on a 2-day fishing trip as the third deckhand and I went out and helped them catch fish and just did what the other crew were doing. When I was done they gave me a couple hundred bucks. I went home and called my grandmother and said you’re never going to believe this job I got. I help people catch fish and they pay me money to do it,” he said. He loved it, still does.

Meanwhile, the anglers geared up for battle, the energy electric on deck. The regulars knew what was in store. Those new to the boat were in for a treat. And that’s when Dino Martinez found himself in the corner, hooked to his monster. The gaff hit home, hoisting a 21.7-pound lingcod onto the deck. Lingcod came aboard one after the other, some rivaling but none besting Martinez’s fish. Unfortunately for the lucky angler, he hadn’t entered the jackpot, but he likely qualified for the season-long $10,000 Virg’s Landing Lingcod Jackpot fish-off. Instead, Jason Anderson of the Cambria Fishing Club cashed in on a 14.5-pound ling. He paid it back to the crew.

THE FIESTA IN tight off the spectacular lower Big Sur coast, henceforth known as Lingcod Alley.

“I only fish with Capt. James, the best captain and crew in the fleet,” he said. “Captain James is one of the best. I’ve been fishing Virg’s for 30 years,” added his buddy Jim Webb.

The Fiesta pointed south for the 3-hour ride back to Morro Bay and the great rock that guards its harbor entrance. Back at the dock everyone left with hefty sacks of rockfish and lingcod. Lingcod fishing doesn’t get any better in California. Big Sur gives up the goods. Everyone caught at least one. The trip ended with full limits on reds and lings for everyone.

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