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BOOTLEGGER’S COVE: A NOVEL BY RON TILLITZ
May 1, 1980.
26 MILES OFF the coast of San Francisco. 12 years earlier.
‘NET! COME HERE and get the f—— net ready.”
Gar, the fishboat captain was energized. The diesel engine pounded slowly at trolling speed. The yell was to the other man on the boat, Jeff.
Gar was hunched over the stern rail about as far as one could go outside of the trolling pit without falling into the ocean. It was a glorious spring day, the ocean was flat and that cloudy-green color that salmon love. Seabirds chattered and shrieked at one another, and the smell of coffee and bacon drifted out of the wheelhouse. It was sixty-one degrees in the early morning air.
The gurdy was still winding up as Gar reached over, unsnapping linesnaps from the trolling wire then straightening to coil the monofilament leaders into the leader box. He carefully inspected the split-tailed herring baits, changing the bad ones. He had watched the fish hit and seen the porcelain insulator, out of the corner of one eye, on the first big jump. It was certainly a splitter, and likely a giant one. Gar’s experienced eye guessed the unseen fish to be over thirty pounds as it struggled on the hundred-pound-test leader.
Gar yelled, “hurry up” just as Jeff burst out on deck, excited when he saw the fish running in different directions.
Jeff ran back to the stern and jumped into the pit while reaching for the net in the same notion. He laid the hoop net across the stern rail, with the scoop end hanging out over the water.
“Are we in ‘em, Garaloney?” Jeff rippled with energy. Gar had been given the handle “Garaloney” some years earlier, by his skipper at the time; it was because of his expertise at abalone diving.
“You know it, Jeffer.” Then, to the uncaught fish: “Pump, you mother-f—–! Pump your heart out,” he hollered at the trolling wire that was being wrenched hard.
Now bent all the way over the stern rail again, Gar had the auspicious linesnap, which was jerking madly, in sight. But he did not want to bring it up too high while the fish was thrashing its head from side to side. Not yet. He would not take a chance of losing this beauty.
“Are there any boats coming on your side?” Gar’s stomach was flooded with bile, as if a swarm of butterflies were circling inside. He took a moment for caution, knowing the Chinook would require his full attention for the next ten minutes, which was plenty of time for another boat in the small fleet to get close enough to lock outriggers with them.
“Clear into the middle of next week,” Jeff sang out in his exhilaration. There was nothing like a hundred-dollar fish to spike the adrenaline.
IT WAS OPENING morning, and they had come out of the anchorage at the Southeast Farallon Island at daylight, snooping their way down toward the rest of the Half Moon Bay, California, boats, looking for a spot to fish. They set their gear into the water about nine miles south of the Farallon anchorage at Pa’s Canyon, named after Carl Burlesque. Carl, or Pa, had caught tons upon tons of rock cod dragging Old Pa Rock, located on deep and on one side of the canyon. But there were more than rock cod here. There were salmon, and it was opening day of the season. Gar and his crewman Jeff were trailing their gear across this canyon head in near-perfect salmon fishing conditions.
There were spring murres squabbling raucously all around the boat. The Murre is a streamlined bird, gregarious and social, noted for agile swimming ability, and their presence on the surface of the ocean is usually a sign of fish. Baitfish are driven to the surface by feeding salmon from below. And the murres feed on them when they come up to escap from the salmon. So fishermen watch for these birds.
The whiteness of the famous Pete Seeger song’s, “Little Boxes on the Hillside” at Daly City, and on up into the Sunset District of San Francisco, were just visible from 22 miles off Pedro Point. Perfect opening-weather presented itself with just an occasional lazy swell rolling through. Clear blue sky with some wispy white clouds, and a hardly noticeable six to eight mile per hour breeze, just sufficient to keep the kelp flies at bay.
Beyond the normal smells of an older wooden boat—deck caulk, fir, bilge water, and always diesel—the ocean offered its salty aroma. It smelled this morning as shrimp taste. Just exactly like shrimp taste, Gar observed, while scrutinizing the salmon’s latest run, along with the smells of different paints lingering in the air. The topside smelled of lacquer, while the bottom paint reminded him of early school days. It was a smell like crayons or clay, with an underlying reek of tar.
GAR HELD THE kill cord high and over the back of his hand, pinching the line tight to his palm with his right thumb. The linesnap was just six or eight feet away. The fish had mellowed, swimming just behind and slightly away from the boat. The game now was to ease the fish closer, inch by inch.
Gar pulled long and slow on the line, surfacing the silvery prize sufficiently to inspect both its size as well as the position of the hook. The fish was a monster for this time of year. Normally the fish are smaller in the spring, but this one was by no means small.
“I’m bettin’ thirty eight,” Gar guessed, meaning what the fish would weigh at the dock, which would be after it was dressed, because salmon must be cleaned and gilled as soon after being caught as possible.
“I’m taking overs,” Jeff countered.
“He’s hooked good,” Gar said, breathing out.
A suck in, then exhaling, “Come on, baby. Come to papa.”
Another in and out: “Atta boy, don’t be shy, just get….” Now holding his breath, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” The fish was starting to sit on its tail while head thrashing again. The thing fought with an admirable frenzy, tearing up the water and becoming a blur of manic activity. Water splashed into the air for thirty feet around. But it couldn’t last. No fish could sustain such mortal activity.
When the fish was again within reach, Jeff had the net ready. The fish’s head was within swinging range, accordingly Gar grabbed his gaff, but instead of gaffing it Gar turned the gaff’s hook out away from the fish and clubbed the giant perfectly on the soft spot between and above the eyes, knocking the beast into fish incoherency.
“Good Morning!” he breathed reverently.
All over but the hallelujahs now, Gar let the fish drop back in the current to just astern of their positions while Jeff simultaneously slipped the dip net behind the fish. Jeff levered the net up over the rail of the stern. It took Gar’s help, grabbing low on the handle, then on the far side of the net, to lift the fish over the rail. They flopped it onto the deck where another couple of whacks to the noodle were delivered to insure its capture.
Elated, the two fishermen let go with a jubilant, beginning-of-the-season-scream, then turned back to their work. The fish would go thirty-eight pounds, easy.
Gar increased the speed of the boat a little bit, kicked off the autopilot, and spun the wheel thirty degrees for a slow turn. He did this almost automatically, and spoke to Jeff.
“I’ll turn your way so you can run your bow line. I better run us back up through that spot before we get too far away. We’re in ‘em. I can feel it. I love this canyon. It never lets me down. And we found it all by our lonesomes.” Gar loved finding his own fish. It was an integral element of his independent nature.
Jeff was busy on his side, and then he called for the net. Gar already running his bow line back out, paused the gurdy for fifteen seconds to net Jeff’s fish then set the net back in its position hanging slightly out over the stern. Jeff’s fish was a keeper, but would only go about eight pounds dressed. It was a nice medium, and he told Jeff that.
Jeff took two more keepers off that wire, and shook two shorts, laughing all the while. This was good fishing, and if it stayed just like this they would break the hundred-for-the-day mark. And with a decent grade of fish to boot. That was always the goal. A hundred fish or better for the day.
WHEN THE BOAT was pointed straight back on their reverse tack, north toward the island, Gar took a moment to run up to the pilothouse and check their position on the Loran and make a mark on the chart. He left Jeff to tend the lines. They fished eight leaders on six lines, for a total of 48 hooks in the water. Gar wanted to insure they were going to pass back over the canyon head again, right at its tip.
It was a simple collection of spring colors out the window of the cabin: green ocean, blue sky, nothing elaborate, a chill in the air, and a sunny glare sparkling on the smooth sea. Gar watched the other boats rising and falling on the green swells, a busy pair of men in every stern, the outriggers rocking as if a pair of knitting needles, giant knitting needles, had been poked into the amidships of each of the shiny-white trollers. Every boat had their pair of men working the stern, the bows plunged meanwhile slowly forward, all in identical directions, no one at the helms. Trails of burnt diesel smudged the otherwise perfect sky. Chatter spilled from Gar’s array of radios. He did not hear good fish reports from those boats that were not on this spot.
THAT DONE, HE ran back and jumped into the pit. The float line that he had idling in was just up into position and without slowing the gurdy, Gar pulled the handle on the float board and set the float well out of the way behind the gurdy and wire. He had witnessed floats laid in the deck bin kicked over the side by lively fish not yet knocked out. And this was unacceptable.
The two fishermen ran through the rest of the gear, joking back and forth, thinking life wasn’t too bad. And when finished they had thirteen keepers on deck with a solid eight-pound average weight. These were decent-sized fish for spring fishing. With the big splitter, the average was likely over ten pounds for the moment, but that average would be reduced as they continued to catch school fish of the seven-to-eight-pound variety.
This is how the fishing went. The gear was run, and the fish were cleaned. All of this with seagulls circling, diving, and screaming harshly behind the stern. The oily smell of the herring baits, and the fresher smell of salmon blood filled the air. Gar ran up to the pilot house, telling Jeff over his shoulder, “I better check in with the boys, real quick.”
IN THE WHEEL house, he first tried the radio called the Mouse, also known as the Mickey Mouse. This is fisherman-speak for the C.B. radio. Switching to the Half Moon Bay fleet’s “secret” channel nine, Gar whistled a “Phweee-phwuuu” (that was a sort of secret whistle.)
Michael, Gar’s hero, mentor and role model (and, some would say, the best salmon fisherman ever) came back smartly.
“Is that you, Lips?” Gar, in addition to being called “Garaloney”, had inherited the handle “Lips” because years before when he had deckhanded with a very serious fisherman named Nardo, he was never allowed to come in out of the summer sun. His lips were burned raw for several months straight.
“Wall-to-all, and tree-top tall. How they bitin’ for you? Come back? “ Gar replied.
“We’re just out front of home, moving steadily up and out. And we have three little rags for the morning. Not much doing.” Michael responded. A Rag is a barely-legal sized salmon.
“Oh boy, doesn’t sound too awfully shiny. We’re on that favorite canyon of mine and Pa’s, and we’ve go an unlucky number, with one monster for the morning, over.” Gar tried to downplay his excitement.
“You got green or brown water?” Mike asked.
“Well, it was all green—the good green—but now I see an occasional puddle of brown. I don’t know yet if it’s the good brown or the bad brown. We’ll see. But I have lines going, and things look plenty fishy. I gotta go. Lotta rips, too,” he added as he threw down the mike and ran out the door.
“Keep gettin’ ‘em Lipaloney. We’ll see you soon.” Mike clicked off, in a hurry to get to his gear.
Mike was grateful to Gar for the report, and wanted to get to Gar’s location as quickly as possible. Although he was the mentor and role model to an entire generation of Half Moon Bay salmon fishermen, Michael McHenry was not too proud to listen to good advice when he found it. Fishing is an utterly pragmatic endeavor. You go where the fish are if you want to catch them.
SUSAN STARED AT Gar with glittery, gold-flecked brown eyes, then her eyes narrowed dangerously. This was always the sign that she was about to unload, and Gar tried to prepare himself. She slammed her hairbrush onto her make-up table, rattling the mirror and punctuating the explosiveness of her words.
“Damn it, I’m tired,” she said to Gar, her voice just under a shout. “I was on my feet for twelve hours yesterday at the restaurant. My wrists hurt. My ankles are swollen.”
“I know, sweetie,” Gar tried to placate her, but it wasn’t easy once she got started.
“And then I get home and you aren’t there!”
“I’ve got to get ready for the salmon season. You know that.”
“All I know is that you’re never home.”
Gar thought of this exchange as he raced from the pilothouse back down into the pit. He couldn’t get the scene out of his mind, and it troubled him. But he let it go when he reached the activity on the stern of his boat, allowing the reality he faced there to displace Susan’s scowling face. Seagulls cried mockingly overhead, as if sent by Susan.
“You okay?” Jeff turned from his work and noticed Gar’s blank stare.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Gar replied, turning to his work.
Gar’s face almost never scowled. Six feet tall and stoutly built, he was a jovial and handsome twenty-eight-year-old man with a square jaw and piercing blue eyes. His eyes were the color of the sea, and, like the color of the sea, always changing hues and always a little different every time you saw them. And Susan was his pretty counterpart. At least she used to be. But he couldn’t think of that now.
“Yeeehaahh,” Gar let go, trying to lighten his brooding mood. He had tremendous financial obligations, and the pumping of the salmon lines was a promise of relief.
IT WAS MAY 1, 1980. The year that the United States Hockey Team upset the Russians at Lake Placid; the U.S. hostage situation in the embassy in Iran continued while President Jimmy Carter sat on his hands in frustration; “ABSCAM,” whatever that was, broke in the news; and eight U.S. service members died trying to free the Iranian hostages. The Shah of Iran would die in July, and Ronald Reagan would sweep Jimmy Carter in the November presidential election—489 electoral votes to Carter’s paltry 49 electoral votes. The Eagles, Billy Joel, and the Doobie Brothers dominated the pop radio charts.
Ruminations of Susan kept intruding upon his work. How could that have happened? He kept trying to equate the state of the relationship to one of the Eagle’s hits: Lyin’ Eyes? Or, maybe, Desperado?
“Minkia buntana, a freakin’ submarine just came up alongside of us,” an Italian voice broke over one of the deck speakers. One of The Yukon Gang, and Gar and Jeff cocked amused ears.
“Don’t worry about them,” another Italian voice came back, “they won’t eat too much.”
“Afundagulu,” the first guy, Mario, came back in mock indignation, and Gar and Jeff chuckled.
The year previous, he and his girl friend—no, he and the one and only love of his life—had somehow gone their separate ways. They had lived together for a time in young lover’s bliss in Susan’s mother’s duplex. Sue’s brother lived in the other half.
During his initial six months of residence there, Gar bought his first boat, the 44-foot Visit. It was an old, yet stout, wood, Tacoma-built halibut boat. He pondered this as he stood on the Visit’s after deck, working to make the boat’s payments. He bought it from an older mentor and role model, Geno, and somehow managed to get a floating interest loan for the full purchase price from Production Credit Association. It was very unusual to borrow the full price with nothing down, but Gar had an excellent reputation and his parents cosigned the note, using their home and restaurant as collateral.
Additionally, Geno, who was well into PCA himself with a new and bigger boat under construction, also cosigned the loan. This kept the old Visit in the family, as Gar grew up in Half Moon Bay and attended the same high school as Geno.
Maybe it was the boat. Was that it? Gar still wasn’t sure. It was supposed to have been the living arrangement, but that didn’t completely add up. They had been so much in love that Gar had failed to recognize that his living, unmarried, with Susan in her Mother’s duplex, was causing dissension between Sue and her parents.
It was only when he came home from a busy month of fishing salmon far away from home, and Sue announced that she was moving a couple of hundred miles south to San Luis Obispo–in the mountains–that Gar figured out something was wrong. Unfortunately, he did not understand what was happening quickly enough to prevent it. He knew only his side of things. That Sue was moving to the mountains and that he, with the weighty financial responsibility of the boat, was relegated to a life on or near the ocean.
Gar had gone from being so in love he could hardly eat, to being frightened, lonely and in pain. Almost overnight his life became an existence of hard work and harder drinking. It was a life that hid, but never fully relieved, the bewildered hurt.
THE DAY WORE on, and as a result of Gar’s radio conversation with Michael, the fleet moved into the area. The water continued its change from olive green to coffee au lait(which would bring the hake as the sun set), and the murres got so fat feeding on the anchovies that the salmon chased up to the surface that they were unable to fly back to their island roost. Shearwaters, looking like black, long-beaked seagulls, worked the area for bait, along with albatross, cormorants, and the odd pelican–which look like a rocking chair falling out of the sky when they dive for bait.
Jeff sauntered into the cabin and announced: “We had 157 fish for the day; they’re all iced down, and the deck is ready to go for the morning.”
“Good job, Jeffrey,” I’m going to cook you a steak dinner so good you’ll be wanting to pay me to work on this boat.”
“Yeah, right,” Jeff went back on deck to smoke.
A SUCCESSFUL OPENING day under their belts, they ran up to anchor at the Southeast Farallon. Gar got busy cooking the steak dinner during the hour-long run up to the anchorage. Jeff, brown-haired with more blond highlights than Gar, was still new at this. This was his second season. He was a quick study, though, and a hard worker. And he was an even harder partier. With Hollywood good looks and shocking silver-blue eyes, women found him irresistible. A few inches shorter than Gar, his aggressive assault on girls gave them little chance to say no. He was a younger, better- looking version of Gar, and he would become a highline salmon fisherman one day.
Jeff was a very simple guy because he only liked two things: women and work. But mostly women.
AFTER SMOKING on deck, Jeff came in to find Gar talking on the radio –one of many in the pilothouse. He was speaking to Sully.
“Okay, Sully.” Gar was boisterous and jovial. “What channel do you want to sleep on?”
Tim Sullivan had the Marilyn J, a 55-foot steel boat, and was a fisherman equal to Gar; unlike mentor to both of them, Michael (Mike McHenry), who owned the 61’9″ long, 18′ wide, Merva W. Being equals, they checked back and forth with each other quite often while Michael, the proverbial “Old Bull,” aloofly observed from the perfect space he liked to maintain. There is a hierarchy among men who go to sea. It is everywhere and has always been observed.
“Let’s keep it right here with the squelch turned up, or is it down?—I never remember. But, anyway, do you have me squelched now?” Gar asked.
“Got you fine,” Tim answered. “You got me?”
“I already had you. Good night, Sully. Chhheecck you in the morning. What time do you think, about 4:30?”
“Let’s see, twenty minutes to get out of here, an hour to where we should be. It gets light at 5:30. I don’t think that’s enough time, unless we drop the gear in a little early and tack down to the spot?”
“Let’s do that. I’m tired. See you in the morning.” Gar finished.
“Throw Jeff a cookie.” Tim got in the final work.
“Hey, Lips!” Michael asserted his dominance.
“What’s up, Mackerel?” Gar came back brightly.
“You haven’t sung the song yet,” Michael demanded.
“All right. You’re right. Here goes.” Gar clicked off a moment to take a breath and get ready to sing his signature song. The song, The Salmon Song, has several verses, but Gar only sang the chorus tonight. With a sort of even tempo, similar to the tune of “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah,” Gar keyed the mike and the song boomed out:
“I like salmon fishing,
Salmon fishin’s all right,
And I like salmon fishin’,
Cause the beach is in sight,
Oh, if I had my wayyyy,
I’d salmon fish ev-e-ry dayyyy;
And go in at night,
And f— everything in sight!”
This was greeted by a moment of radio silence, during which Gar knew the men in the other boats were chuckling among themselves. After a moment, the sound of Michael’s voice came over the bulkhead speaker.
“Good night, Lips. You did good. See you in the morning.” Mike closed that day for business.
“What a dumb song.” Angus, who was forever contentious, once again tried to dampen the evening’s spirits for Gar. Gar had not noticed him in the fleet of boats that arrived on his “Pa’s Canyon” fishing hole. Maybe he went another direction, and was just now running up for the hot bite. This seemed likely, as there was definite venom in Angus’s voice. He had long been a self-appointed rival of Gar’s. And he vied, like another sibling, for Michael’s attention. Perhaps because Gar was from Half Moon Bay, and Angus wasn’t, it made him jealous. Whatever the case, Gar was constantly plagued by Angus making everything a contest. But this night he did not respond to the taunt.
THE FIRST DAY of the salmon fishing season finally through, Gar stepped out on the back deck to look at the number of boats that had joined him in the anchorage, and his nose was immediately shocked by the ammonia smell emanating from the many tons of bird shit on the island. There were about a hundred anchor lights twinkling in the night, reflections of the boats’ cabins and deck lights distorted by the lapping water made the whole scene magical. And over it all flashed the rhythmic and benevolent beam of the Farallon Island Lighthouse, situated high atop the southeastern most island in the group. The lighthouse’s probing, revolving beam lanced the darkness of the night, offering a benign reassurance to the men under its sway.
The boat creaked at anchor, as wooden boats do. It creaked and rocked softly in the surge of the Island, and the wind-driven rotary-turbine ventilator that capped the exhaust stack over the propane stove made a “tick- tick” sound in the cabin at a pace consistent with the wind speed. This night the ticking gyrations were a slow and measured cadence. In thirty knots of wind it could tick wildly, many beats to the second.
It had been a good day. Maybe 1,300 pounds, at an average price of perhaps $2.00 a pound, figured out to around a $2,600 day. Gar needed to make about ten times that before he could start thinking about making the boat and insurance payments for the year. He had his work cut out, all right.
He plugged in an eight-track tape of Hank Williams Sr.’s greatest hits, and hit the bunk while it played itself out. There was no need to take off rain gear before going to bed because he rarely wore it. Levis, the traditional blue or red, plaid cotton shirt, and tennis shoes for running back and forth from cabin to pit, these were all that he normally wore. And the only thing that came off tonight, before getting into bed, were the tennis shoes. Normally he would strip to his boxers and get in between sheets, but tonight he could only kick off his shoes, fall into the bunk, and pull up a sleeping bag he kept folded for quick naps.
His thoughts turned immediately to Susan as he listened to the soulful strains of Hank Senior. They became the jumble of confused uncertainty they always did when he thought about her and what had gone wrong. He had enjoyed a very successful opening day of the season, yet he didn’t think of that. He thought of her, and wondered why this should be so.
The lighthouse beam flashed its way faintly and regularly into Gar’s cabin, and was the last thing he saw before sleep overtook him. The boat rocked gently at anchor, and the occasional brief flashes from the lighthouse’s beam were a peaceful comfort.
May 2, 1980.
ANGUS IS ONE of those type of guys who carefully saves his partially used tube of Chap Stick from one season to the next. It is said that he has had the same tube of Chap Stick going for six years. He winces when he looks at a bill in a restaurant, if he looks at it at all. He doesn’t buy bananas because they sell them by the pound, and he doesn’t like to pay for the weight of the peels. He’s a cheap bastard.
As the Z-Squad saying goes: “Nobody likes a cheap bastard.” Gar flew a blue stay-sail with a white “Z.” Michael was the president of this elite squad. Gar had joined late in the game, but he nonetheless took it seriously. Angus was never a part of the squad at all, though he clearly wanted to be.
THOUGH THE ALARM was set for 4:30 a.m., Gar woke up tossing well before them. He was still angry about Angus’ comments. After he made his dig about the Salmon Song, Gar discovered him on another radio frequency telling someone he didn’t get called to the Pa Canyon spot until late. This thinly veiled criticism implied that Gar had purposely not called Angus to the spot.
The wind was on the increase, and this was already building more swell.