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Even just one decade ago, bass fishing was "wide open," Anfinson recalled. "You could get limits in a heartbeat. Now, you're lucky to get a few stripers mixed in with a few halibut."
Although commercial striper fishing is not permitted, thousands of recreational anglers in the Bay Area still try their luck at catching striped bass. But veterans say the quality of fishing is nothing remotely close to what it once was. One of these old-timers is James Smith's father, who knows the unfortunate story of the bay as well as anyone else. Although his son is banking on a future in fishing, Jim Smith Sr. speaks a gloomy prophecy: "Fishing is over with."
The elder Smith is a 63-year-old party boat captain who has operated the Happy Hooker for decades and still takes customers after striped bass, halibut, and sturgeon, as he has done for forty years. He recalls vividly when three-fish limits of striped bass were the norm, with the fish often averaging twenty pounds. From San Pablo Bay to Alcatraz to Crissy Field to Ocean Beach, the action was often so fast that the senior Smith ran two trips per day, returning to the dock before noon to pick up a fresh load of customers and returning to the hotspot for another go. For some years, Smith supplemented his income by fishing commercially for local Chinook salmon, but he dropped out of that industry in 1990.
"I could make as much in the party boat business as in salmon fishing, so I quit," he said. "But every year since then, business has dropped."
Today, the limit is two stripers per person per day, and bass heavier than twenty pounds are rare. Fish weighing ten pounds are considered large, and the bulk of the catch now consists of adolescent striped bass called "schoolies" and weighing just two to four pounds. Although fishermen can still go home with limits on a fairly regular basis, it's often a gamble. With most party boats charging more than $75 for a day of fishing, anglers today often think twice about paying for a boat ride on the Bay, Smith says.
"I sometimes call old customers of mine to see where they've been, and they've taken up golf," he said. "We once had lots of company trips with twenty people or so, but there were too many bad days and unhappy fishermen, and some of them have just stopped sending their employees fishing."
Keith Fraser tells a similar story. "Forty years ago, my God, it was unbelievable," said Fraser, the owner of Loch Lomond Bait Shop, which opened in San Rafael in 1970. "We had catch-and-release days of a hundred fish regularly. You could catch all the bass you wanted, anytime. Now, fishing is good at times."
The same can be said for the populations of white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America. California has prohibited commercial fishing for the species since 1917, and sport fishing — first allowed in 1954 — has always been regulated by a one-fish bag limit and strict size limits. Yet numbers provided by the Department of Fish and Game show that quality of fishing today is less than what it once was: Party boats, which have been required for decades by the Department of Fish and Game to report all sturgeon kept, took an average of 1,900 fish per year from 1966 to 1970; 525 from 1976 to 1980; 500 from 1986 to 1990; and just 240 for the past decade. Last year's catch of about 175 fish was the second lowest on record.
Today, sturgeon fishing has a reputation as a sport of tremendous patience, a pastime of long slow days on the bay. According to Fish and Game data, to catch a single keeper sturgeon, which today must measure between 46 and 66 inches, requires an average of 50 hours soaking a bait.
"Sturgeon fishing is about gone," Smith said. "I once had 27 limits of sturgeon in a day and in four days I caught 84 and each day was tied up at the dock before 12:30. Now if I get 84 in a season I'm lucky. Hell, I'm lucky to get 44 in a season."
The fish may be smaller, too. Although fifteen-foot-long white sturgeon weighing nearly a ton have reportedly been captured in the Sacramento and Columbia rivers, today 100-pound, six-foot-long fish are considered exceptionally big, and most sturgeon caught weigh less than fifty pounds. The official California state record is a 468-pounder caught in July, 1983 by Joey Palotta in San Pablo Bay.
Fraser saw that fish.
"I drove up to Crockett to see him bring it in," Fraser said. "I begged him to put it back, and I almost, almost had him convinced to release it. I worked on him for an hour, but another guy came along and said, 'You can't just let a fish like that go,' and they killed it. It had a hundred pounds of roe inside it — a billion little sturgeon. The fish was so alive, and he was so close to putting it back, and it would still be swimming out there today."
The maximum size limit on sturgeon today is a protective measure designed to preserve such individuals of breeding age. Similar "size bracket" systems, as they're known, have been in place in Oregon and Washington for several decades longer than in California. Possibly as a direct result, more larger fish are found in the river systems of the Northwest.