"These shorts are supposed to be blood-resistant," says Ricardo Lopez as I gingerly step into a four-person charter fishing boat in Dana Point, California, at 5:30 AM. I try not to fall in the water or ask what kind blood those shorts were supposed to be resistant to specifically.
It shouldn't be peak yellowtail (hamachi) and yellowfin tuna season in Southern California yet, since their seasons are typically late summer and early spring. But according to all of the fisherman gloat on social media, bluefin and yellowfin tuna have recently been biting like crazy.
"El Niño's strange weather patterns have California's water unusually warm and consequently have made this year the best season in my 33 years of fishing—it's crazy," Lopez says as he puts on his fishing boots, slips on his sun-protective clothing, and pops a Dramamine pill to prevent seasickness.
"People have been catching tuna within three to five miles from the shore in places like Newport and here, some pushing over 150 pounds. Something crazy is going on," he tells me. "Without El Niño, you would have to go 40, 50, or even 90 miles out to even have a chance of catching one."
Lopez is a childhood friend of chef Ricardo Diaz, who has earned the nickname "The East LA Emperor" for his mark on LA's pioneering Mexican-American food scene that includes the concepts behind Guisados and fideo house Colonia Publica in Whittier. They, along with Diaz's 11-year-old fishing prodigy son Fausto, invited me to come along with them to their 500th full-day fishing trip together and I—a seafood fanatic who is nonetheless unfamiliar with the deep sea's habit of making you feel like a vomit-swirling human faucet—eagerly accepted their gracious offer.
I had shown up at 3:30 AM only wearing my Converse, my camera, and the brightest punk rock band shirt I had—no water, no snacks. I'd never heard of Dramamine until we got to the boat and I saw everybody popping pills. Of course, nobody brought a spare. But whatever, I thought. I've survived the bumper boats at Golf N' Stuff in my youth and have ridden all of the log jammer-like rides at every local amusement park, so I was sure I could hang.
But nope, I'm not even in the boat for 30 minutes before I start dry-heaving and find myself down for the count in ol' Alexandria's berthing quarters.
Soon enough, however, a 30-pound yellowfin bites one of our local sardine-baited lines and I realizd that this is finally my chance to truly understand the hard work that it takes to reel in the beautiful and utterly delicious fish. So I shoot back up, shaky sea legs and all, and participate in the muscle-building experience that is reeling in tuna. I mean, if Fausto and his 75-pound frame can do it (and make it look so easy), surely my 135-pound, 26-year-old body could do it too, right?
But it is not easy. I only last a couple of minutes against the prized fish that can grow as much as 100 pounds per month.
Luckily, with the expert help of Lopez, Diaz, Fausto, and our locally renowned boat captain, we managed to hook it, as well as six yellowtails and a single calico bass in various sonar-guided spots around a 15-mile radius of Dana Point. We then stuffed all of the fish in a trunk-like section of the boat until they slowly stopped loudly flailing around, probably in the same manner of some serial murderers.
This sonar assistance in locating schools of fish and having the captain fillet the fish that you catch is part of the deal when you rent out a small charter boat, which can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 plus tips for the "full-day" option ($200 to $300 is just for the cost of the fuel used alone). The filleting process of the trip in particular was something that I will never forget. The formerly squeamish teenage raw vegan inside me was not expecting the sheer volume of blood and guts. Scales and pieces of gills were all over my shoes, my shirt, my hair, my camera. Some even got in my eye.
Secondly, seeing the boat captain skillfully butcher the fish and produce these elephantine slabs of that same pristine, squishy sashimi that I shell out half of my paycheck for at sushi restaurants was a turning point in my life. I now truly understood why seafood is so damned expensive, and it is worth every penny.
Oddly, despite it all, I can't wait to head out. But I think it has something do with the amazing fish tacos that Diaz cooked for us afterwards at his home.
Next time, however, I won't forget my Dramamine.