Chef Marc was busy at the grill turning out platters of eggs and hash browns as Captain James Smith turned over the California Dawn’s massive diesel engines, warming them up for the adventure to come.
On deck co-captain and deckhand for the day, Chris Smith, stood behind the live bait tank and gave a comprehensive yet light hearted potluck fishing seminar to the 24 anglers aboard, passing along knowledge he’d acquired over four decades on the water.
“Halibut are a scratch fishery here in San Francisco Bay,” related Chris. “Most of the time we aren’t going to have multiple hookups going at once. It’s going to be one fish here and one fish there. If one of your neighbors down the rail hooks up and then your rod starts wiggling, don’t assume it’s another fish and set the hook. It may well be that your neighbor’s fish has crossed your line. Wait a second or two before you make a move to be sure what’s going on.
“Halibut are one of those fish we love to put into the box because they are so good to eat. The last thing you want to do is jerk the hook out of a fish’s mouth with an ill advised hook set. If we work together as a team, we’ll maximize success,” he was advised.
Such was the scene during the opening moments of the 2016 Couple’s Challenge aboard Berkeley’s California Dawn on June 2. If you aren’t familiar with the Couple’s Challenge, it’s a very special charter boat trip that I’ve been hosting for the past 10 years. It’s a day when couples, husbands and wives, boy friends and girl friends descend on the California Dawn for a day of live bait potluck fishing.
Throughout the day a running tally of all the keeper fish is kept. The sex that puts the most keepers into the box is declared the winner and they earn bragging rights for the rest of the season.
Historically when the men win the contest it tends to be a landslide victory with the ladies convincingly crushed. On the other hand, it’s the ladies that have won the contest more often. I don’t ever recall the ladies really dominating the men. Generally, the women have won by a margin of 10 fish or less, but a victory is a victory whether the opponent is beaten by one point or one hundred points!
This year’s contest was sponsored by the Fish Sniffer Magazine, my YouTube fishing show, Fishing The West With Cal Kellogg (Google Fishing The West With Cal Kellogg) and the folks at Abu Garcia, Penn, Berkley Trilene, Pro-Cure and Yo-Zuri.
As a result, there were lots of prizes up for grabs including Penn rods, Abu Garcia reels, spools of line, crankbaits, Fish Sniffer caps and more!
With an incoming tide pushing hard into the bay, bait and gamefish alike were being pushed back toward the East Bay shoreline, so our initial run after clearing the Berkeley Marina’s breakwater was short.
“We could go out and hit some rocks for bass, but instead I’m going to start out on the flats near the end of the old Berkeley Pier. There is a lot of scattered bait in that area and we should pick up a mix of both bass and halibut,” James predicted as I shot video footage of him in the Cal Dawn’s pilot house.
In the past I’ve fished hard during the Couple’s Challenge. If the deck looked pretty evenly stacked I’d fish on the men’s team. Years when I figured the men had too much of an advantage, I’d join the ladies team and anything I put into the box would count toward girl’s tally.
In contrast I didn’t even bring a rod along this year. I figured the guys wouldn’t need any help and with crackerjack lady anglers such as my wife Gena and the legendary Julie Hilton aboard the boat, “Team Bras” was clearly going to be well represented.
This freed me up to shoot video for the next episode of Fishing The West and I ended up getting some awesome footage!
Chris had prepared the crew for “scratch fishing” and that’s just what we experienced. Ten minutes in the first fish of the day, a shaker striper, was landed and released in the starboard corner. A bit later a dude fishing up near the starboard bow nailed a keeper halibut putting the men into the lead.
As the morning went on, a steady mix of keeper stripers and halibut went into the Cal Dawn’s fish box and a parade of shaker halibut were landed and released, pointing to a great future for our bay and coastal halibut fishery.
Despite fishing hard things seemed stacked against the ladies. All morning long the men put keeper after keeper into the box and it seemed like when the ladies hooked up it was almost always a shaker.
Just when I was thinking that the men were blitzing to a landslide victory, things started to change. Late in the morning the men’s rods went cold and ladies’ rods came to life. It was a subtle shift at first, but then it became a full blown female rally with the ladies putting 3, 4 and 5 keepers in a row into the boat. Only the sound of crickets could be heard coming out of the men’s team.
Gena put a limit of halibut into the box and Julie stepped up banging the biggest fish of the trip, a halibut just shy of 14 pounds!
Once the tide changed, we headed over to the straits behind Angel Island for a shot at stripers stacked up for the start of the outgo and the ladies put the finishing touches on an impressive come from behind victory leaving the men shocked, confused and frustrated…a familiar state for most guys when dealing with the fairer sex!
When we headed back to Berkeley for photos and fish cleaning the total score for the day was an impressive 13 halibut to 14 pounds along with 33 stripers to about 7 pounds. We probably brought 40 or 50 shaker halibut to the boat that ranged from 12 to 20 inches, along with a sprinkling of shaker bass.
I’d like to thank all the folks that turned out for the trip, the crew of the California Dawn and my sponsors at Berkley Fishing, Penn and Abu Garcia.
The food was great, the girls were pretty and prizes were plentiful. If this sounds like your brand of fun, join us next June for the 2017 Couple’s Challenge!