Editor’s Note: We are saddened to hear about the passing of Jerry Esten and wanted to offer condolences to his family and friends. I had the pleasure of working with Jerry while getting his articles on BD and I was lucky enough to meet him in person at The Fred Hall Show. I can truly say he was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about fishing in SoCal, especially the history of it because he was a big part of the story. He will be missed, though I’m sure his famous jigs will continue to catch fish for those lucky enough to still have some. I thought it would be very fitting to bring back Jerry’s first story on BD because he shared so much of that really cool history. So enjoy and think of Jerry next time you head West for adventure on the water.
Jerry also wrote this BD favorite: A History of Jigs in California Sportfishing
I arrived in California in the spring of 1950. The beaches were empty when compared to the ones I knew in the east. The waters were teeming with fish.
I kept wondering why “everyone” wasn’t moving here. Little did I know that hordes would be coming.
In the early 50’s I was always amazed by the tales “old timers” told us of the glory days of fishing in Southern California. Stories of yellowtail stacked like cordwood on Redondo pier.
It never occurred to me that I would, one day be one of those “old timers”!
Ed Reis of PCS did a fine book called, “Tales of the Golden Years of California Sportfishing.” I came to California as the era was ending. There was still excellent fishing
I flew here from the east coast. The plane was a DC- 3, a two-engine propeller driven aircraft. It seemed like we made a dozen stops before arriving in Burbank where I could see my white haired father from the air as we approached the Lockheed Air Terminal. He asked me what I’d like to see first. I said “The Ocean.”
Less than 30 minutes later we were in Santa Monica-Ocean Park. Yes, in those days without freeways Burbank to Santa Monica in thirty minutes was not difficult. Both sites had sportfishing operations as well as an amusement pier. I spent much of my boyhood in Atlantic City and the place was much like what I had seen, except the water looked clean and the beaches were empty.
I had sold ice cream on the beach summers in the New Jersey resort and thought I’d do the same here. It was impossible since the folks on the beach were scattered so far apart!
The next morning I took a streetcar on Venice Blvd. It took me to Santa Monica where I boarded the “Indiana”. I rented tackle from Versal Schuler who ran the bait shop on the pier.
Mr. Schuler told me about “Rock Cod” and how to catch them.
I confess I thought I was hot stuff when I filled 2 burlap sacks with mostly Boccacio, often called salmon grouper. They were neither a salmon nor a grouper, but certainly had a catchy name.
The trip home was an adventure because the streetcar wouldn’t let me take my catch on board! I ended up taking a cab, a good trick too, since my funds were very limited. The cabbie agreed to accept some fish as part payment.
It turned out my father and I did have fishing in common, and he was gung-ho to go out again.
He had linen line that we dried on a big wooden spool, lest it rot from the saltwater. Monofilament was just being introduced and linen was about to become a thing of the past, happily.
When I first saw Paradise Cove, I was thrilled. There were miles of kelp beds, the likes of which I had never seen. It was a great place, even if you don’t fish. I am sure you’ve seen this place in the old “Rockford” TV series. For me, it was love at first sight.
Captain Jack Ward was the firs skipper I got to know.
Jack had the good looks of a movie star and knew his way around Santa Monica Bay. Jack began his career at Malibu Sportfishing, operating the old Lenbrooke. That vessel is still fishing regularly out of the Ventura area Captain Ward soon acquired his first boat and moved his operation to Paradise Cove. Jack eventually founded Cisco’s in Oxnard and was very successful. Jack was good to me and tactfully showed me the right techniques.
My friends and I decided we had enough of, “You all shoulda been here last week”. We decided we would fish every Monday no matter what.
I don’t recall the fare on the all day boat, but I am sure it was well under 10.00 bucks.
Our dedication paid off handsomely with fine catches of the three “Bs”, barracuda, bonito and bass. It was not unusual to catch 8-pound calicos or better. I took a few near 10-pounds, but never over that.
By this time my pals Bob Onstad and Jack Burke were very enthusiastic jig fishermen. There were days when the “barriers” were so thick we actually sat down and had a cold drink. It was too dangerous with all those darn amateurs flinging jigs with abandon.
Big barracuda too, “logs” they were called. Ten and twelve pounders were common. Both bonito and barracuda loved the shiny metal jigs and we could easily out fish most all on board. No immodesty here, we were fishing multiple days a week. Most who rode the party boats got out when they could, but there is nothing like experience. The crews, by the way, could out fish us most of the time. The typical passenger was not a dedicated fisherman. They often had the worst tackle and were not great at using it. Winning a jackpot with little competition is easy. Not bragging at all, my pals and I had most of the catch, so we had the odds on our side. As you all know, someone who has never fished would often catch the big one; much to our chagrin. We loved half-day trips because we had two shots at a jackpot!
Bass were the most fun. Some days they were so hot they would hit our jigs sinking. We would fish a small lure and keep our Penn reels in free spool as though it were live bait.
One day I caught seven bass in succession on the sink! Not much skill was needed for that. I was testing a lure design and after that demonstration, Capt. Bill Hutchinson said in his best Oklahoma accent, “I think this one will work okay!” He was right.
After an unusual Sunday night rainstorm I woke to a sunny spring day. After the torrential rains of the night before I wasn’t sure that the “Cove” would be running a boat.
I called my pal Jack and we agreed to go to the landing and see what’s what. The place was empty, Except for one solitary pier angler. Harry in the bait shop said, “We cant’ run a boat with 2 fares; you need at least 4 fishermen for us to run.” We asked the lonely pier angler if he would join us for a virtual private trip. He agreed. We asked Harry for 4 tickets on the Betty-O. The 3 of us divided the cost of the fourth ticket.
As luck would have it we ran into a wide-open yellowtail bite at the Big Kelp Reef, mere minutes from the pier. We caught near limits of nice sized fish including yellowtail, and then spent our time gaffing fish for Captain Bill and Bob Packard the deckhand. Here was a case where we welcomed the crew fishing. I will never forget the comments of the lone pier angler that we “talked in” to going on his first party boat. “That was pretty good, wasn’t it?”
I have always wondered if he realized what a special day it was.
The first half of the 50’s were cool water years. It wasn’t until 57, 58, and 59 that we had warm water years. The term El Nino had yet to be coined.
Those three years were fabulous. I heard tales of fellows using beer can openers, casting from the rocks at Ballona Creek. Harry Edelson had a tackle shop near by. Harry told me that the “church key” type beer can opener was not easily gotten. It seems he and avid fisherman had corralled them all! They caught barracuda! The beer can openers were not as effective as a manufactured jig of which there were many. I had my favorites. Barney Killian’s “Streamlined Dodger” was a chrome and red gem. The barries and bonito went for them big time.
I probably hold a record for losing jigs. In those days the fabled “Candy Bar” was all of $2.50! One day at the Coronado Islands, I lost a bunch and kept borrowing pal Bob’s. It got very expensive and Bob was not pleased. By the way, the competition out of San Diego was fierce; shoe-in jackpots no longer existed.
It occurred to me I could make my own. It would be fun and between Bob and Jack alone we could use and lose many.
I started building my own lures in 1957. It was lucky timing to be sure. I had no idea what I was doing, but lady luck seemed to smile at me.
Redondo Beach was very different and reminded me of run down Atlantic City, a beach town where I spent many summers. It too was a bit run down. I felt right at home. As you readers know, Redondo is an up to date place now days, lots of waterfront eateries and expensive condos.
I will never forget boarding “The City of Redondo” it was big and beamy and well run by Captain Jack Baker and his crew. Captain Jack befriended me and was also one of the first people to buy my lures.
I was usually lucky on “The City” and made sure I tipped well when a jackpot was won. Good tips meant good service and good service meant getting a nice mackerel for bait when scant few were in the bait tanks.
One day the skipper baited my hook and told me, “As soon as you are hit, stop the fish NOW!” I wasn’t too sure what his point was, but I was hit at once and taken into the rocks by what the skipper said was a big yellow.
“You blew the jackpot kid” the skipper said. Readers, take note of what the crew tells you. They are out daily and know what’s going on! I never made that mistake again. Captain Jack loves to tell the tale of how he would buy small jigs for forty cents and sell them for $2.50. When fishing was hot, he would guarantee that the buyer would catch fish, or their money back. He was rarely wrong!
Redondo has a big underwater canyon right out in front. Over the years just about everything has been caught there. Besides the usual fare we took bluefin tuna and big white seabass.
Even today when I am involved in a kayak event I am asked, “Where would you fish?” I always say, “I’d go for broke, fish the canyon, strike out, or be the big winner.”
Redondo Sportfishing had a fine fishing barge as well. Just a short water taxi ride and you could have a great day. What a place to take a beginning angler!
The taxi ran often. You could fish all day or quit when you chose to. In the 30’s many barges existed.
Paradise Cove had a barge as well. Sometimes things can be too good. An acquaintance asked me to take him and his sons out fishing for their first time. I, of course, supplied all the tackle.
On the taxi ride to the barge I could see big bonito breaking the water.
I told Dick, listen, here’s what you need to do, okay? It took little skill to place a shiny jig in that mass of boiling fish. The neophytes listened, and were thrilled at the fish we all caught. I am talking about big fat, football shaped tuna-like bonito. Eight pounders were not at all unusual.
The funny thing is that on the trip home they figured, “boy that was easy!” I don’t think they ever fished again.
Sometimes, things are so easy they are not appreciated.
“Paradise” had a tackle and bait shop on the end of the pier. The cove owner, Mr. Joe Morris was an innovator. Joe suggested that I make a giant jig as display piece for the tackle shop. I did. It was an attention getter being around 16 inches long. People would ask, “what do you catch with that thing?’
One day on a lark I took one aboard Captain Ward’s new boat, “The Gentleman” I got snickers from the regulars as I lowered it over the stern. Viola! Barracuda showed up en masse and all on board did well.
I got lots of laughs as I caught the tiniest barracuda you ever saw; they called them “pencils.”
They were snagged on the big 14/0 hook that was intended for recovering bodies. Why? Who knows? My theory is that they were joining the school and were snagged, or maybe their eyes were bigger than their stomachs?
Skipper Bill Hutchinson ran the Betty-O and had a wealth of fishing knowledge. One sunny day with a boat full of passengers we had a very nice day, no yellowtail, but a smattering of nice bass, bonito and barracuda. Our bait was poor, “pinhead”anchovies.
There were big spooky yellows around, but they were not interested in the tiny baits. Jigs wouldn’t do it either. Fish need to be excited to hit with abandon. It was minutes to the cry of “lines up, we’re going home”. As the lines were being reeled in Bill winked at me and said, “Get your jig ready.” Why I wondered?
I learned from Captain Jack at Redondo to listen to the man that knows. I was ready. Captain Hutchinson went to an old Coke box, the kind with the bottle opener on the side. The caps, once removed, dropped into a box and accumulated. Bill looked at me and said, “Now” as he broadcast hundreds of bottle caps over the stern.
I don’t think I made more than a few cranks of my reel when I was hooked up to what proved to be a 28-pound yellow, and a certain jackpot.
Bill’s method was no different then that of commercial fisherman who used large volume water hoses to simulate baitfish. Or maybe yellowtail like Coke?
Once on an afternoon run on the Betty-O, Captain Bill did something unique. He free gaffed a basking black sea bass. Bill cut the engines, leaped off the bridge, grabbed a gaff, and ran to the stern’s starboard corner, where he neatly gaffed a stunned black sea bass. Bill had spotted this great fish basking on the surface and “beaned” it with the Betty-Os bow! The fish ran around 200-pounds.
If you ever visit Bob Morris’s Beach Café at Paradise Cove you can see Captain Bill’s photo among an array of wonderful old photos from the collection of Bill Beebe.
World Record Bonito
It was the summer of 1978; a young deckhand named Gino Piccolo worked with Captain Bill. They had tied up by the bait receiver for a quick lunch before picking up the fares for the afternoon run. They spotted the big fish chasing bait, mackerel that were after baitfish that were out of the bait receiver.
Bill commented to Gino, “I never saw a bonito that big!”
They went in to pick up the eager anglers for the afternoon run. They took the Betty-O back to the area where the big fish was seen, but no sightings were made.
A few days after that sighting Bill and Gino were working on the bait receiver when they spotted that huge fish chasing bait again. Gino quickly threw a jig expertly and was promptly hit. The huge fish weighed in at 22-pounds, 3 ounces.
Gino was the proud owner of a world’s record. Since that day a new record has been posted. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife lists the “new” record by Kim Larson at 21-pounds 2-ounces. Not as big as Gino’s, so there is some confusion there. Young Gino’s fish was weighed on certified scales at the Malibu Seafood market.
How I wish I had taken more photos! As luck would have it my Son-in-Law’s Grandparents were avid anglers. These photos were taken by Bill Beebe and are here courtesy of David Brown. As you see the catches were remarkable. I likely fished with this happy couple and never knew it.
These photos were from the late 50s and early 60s!
Can you believe catches like these occurred off of Santa Monica? No wonder I am spoiled.
Santa Monica’s Sportfishing operation is long gone. Paradise Cove lost a major part of the pier during a storm of 1983 and it was never rebuilt. Malibu was acquired by the state and is supposed to have a Sportfishing operation once again. The reconstruction of the pier has been plagued by contractor disputes and litigation. Hopefully these will be overcome and Malibu will, once again have an excellent fishing operation.
Since this was written Malibu once again has a sportfishing operation!
Malibu is easily reachable by thousands of people from Los Angeles and the populous San Fernando Valley. It will be nice to be able to go fishing on a moments notice! The old “Aquarius” Is back in operation and is now called The “Scorpio”
I was very fortunate to meet many in the industry. I was befriended by many and got lots of good advice.
Many of those old timers are now gone. They will never be forgotten. I was too young to fully appreciate the fine treatment I received from so many. Captains Jack Baker, Jack Ward and Bill Hutchinson are gone. I was lucky to know them.