BY TIM E. HOVEY
I’ve never been much of a birthday guy. As far as gifts, I’d rather spend time with friends and family, instead of sitting in a circle opening presents. In fact, this is the honest truth, in a lifetime of birthdays, I can only remember one present; a Shimano TLD reel given to me as a total surprise by two of my good friends when I was in college.
My point is those that know me understand that I will always be treating my birthday just like any other day. And that goes double for age milestones.
A few days before my 50th birthday, my aunt called asking me to bring my family up for a birthday BBQ at her place on Saturday. With little fanfare, the plans were made. There is no place I’d rather spend my free time than with family.
Less than an hour after my aunt called, my cousin Jim called and said that the party plans had changed a little bit. He asked if I could meet him at the Santa Barbara harbor at 3:30 a.m. the day of the gathering for a quick run up the coast to chase white seabass. He didn’t have to ask me twice.
By the time I got to the harbor, Jim had already launched his boat. The 24-foot Sea Sport was completely decked out with everything needed to fish the California coast. Jim had been following the fish report for the central coast and he stated that huge schools of squid had showed up and the white seabass had followed. The plan was to get on the fishing grounds before light and jig up live squid for bait.
Ninety minutes after leaving the harbor, we were slow trolling the area metering the squid beds. Jim cut the engine and we dropped squid jigs into the squirming mass. Within twenty minutes we had filled the bait tank with fresh squid and we were now ready to fish.
We motored around the area, referencing the fish finder. Jim found a good looking spot and we rigged up. Fishing 30-pound test, we drifted live squid on weighted hooks. We didn’t have to wait long.
Jim was holding the boat rod when I saw him tense up. He leaned forward and waited. Seconds later he set the hook into something solid. The unseen fish took off, ripping drag from the reel. I cleared out the deck to give Jim some room. After a few minutes, Jim pulled the white seabass from the depths next to the boat. I slipped the gaff point under the fish’s chin and hefted it aboard. The 32-pound white sea bass bounced on the deck before we guided it into the fish hold.
We celebrated our quick hook-up as the sun peaked over the horizon. We each grabbed a fresh squid from the tank and baited up. As we worked the drift, Jim looked over and pointed to me. “Next one’s yours birthday boy!”
Jim ran us back to the head of the drift and we started fishing again. Jim was dumping ice on the sea bass in the hold when I felt the tick of a bite. I pointed the rod tip towards the bait and watched as line freely peeled off the reel. I waited two seconds, engaged the reel and set the hook. The fish’s violent response nearly ripped the rod out of my hand.
After a 5-minute fight, I wrestled the white seabass to the surface near the boat. Jim brought the gaff up under the head and lifted the fish over the side. Seconds later it was bouncing around the fish hold with the first sea bass. In a lifetime of fishing, that white seabass I caught off Jim’s boat that day was the largest I had ever caught.
The bite started to drop off as the sun came up. We decided to change tactics and slow troll the edge of the squid beds using a set up called a bottom bouncer. Jim pulled out a rig that consisted of a huge salmon flasher, a 2-pound bottom weight and a squid lure. We rigged up two rods, pinned fresh squid on the hooks and sent them to the bottom. We loaded the rods into holders and started slow trolling, bouncing the rig off the bottom.
During the second run, Jim’s rod bent sharply and line began to peel off the reel. He grabbed it and leaned it towards me. I smiled and shook my head. “Bring him in!” I said. I didn’t care who caught what. I had spent an amazing morning on the water with great company. We had fish in the boat, and anything else was a bonus.
As Jim fought the fish, we were both convinced that since the bite had occurred right on the bottom, it was likely a large halibut at the end of Jim’s line. When it came to color, we were both shocked to see it was a third sea bass, just as big as the first two.
With three fish in the hold and plans for the afternoon, we cleaned up the boat and pointed her back towards the harbor. Back at Jim’s place we filleted the fish, vacuum packed the pieces and dropped them into the freezer.
I cleaned up and meet my family over at my aunt’s place. Jim and his wife showed up a bit later with a bag full of fillets from the day on the water. We talked about the morning trip and the amazing bite. We ate tri-tip and had cake, and I’m sure gifts were handed to me and opened, but I couldn’t tell you what they were.
Jim ended up selling his boat a few years after that trip and that was the last time we fished together on the Sea Sport. Every time we get together, we talk about the trip. The memory of fishing the coast with Jim on my birthday ranks right up there next to the Shimano reel. I can tell you this, I don’t know what I was actually doing on my 20th, 30th or 40th birthday, but I remember what I was doing for my 50th, and I always will.