‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the dock, not a creature was stirring, ‘cause it was 6 o’clock. The boat was all scrubbed and ready for show, we waited for passengers and their gear we would stow. We expected six men, or so we had thought, but a father and daughter walked down from the lot. Plans had changed, and this captain wondered why, but what happened that day gave me a good cry.
Nick was a repeat client, one of my favorites. His group of guys loved to fish, laugh, spin tall tales and enjoy the splendor of nature. I was surprised not to see their familiar faces.
Nick pulled me aside and explained that his 13-year-old daughter had been stressing over holiday plans, buying presents, missing her friends who were away on vacation, and generally being a terror around the house. He figured she needed to get away for a day and mellow her teenage moodiness. So he had canceled out the guys this time and brought her along instead. He warned me that she might be a bit testy.
I walked on over to his daughter, Krysta, introduced myself, showed her the boat and introduced her to my deckhand, Captain Tiffany, who picked right up on the situation and said, “I’m really glad to have another girl aboard.” That made Krysta smile faintly.
But after the safety equipment orientation, when we were shoving off, we could hear her start in on her dad. “Daddy, it’s foggy and wet, and my hair is frizzing. It’ll look terrible for days. It’s cold out here. Why do we have to go so early? Tomorrow’s Christmas, and now I’m not gonna be ready. I don’t wanna be here without my friends. Why are you making me do this?!” From the bridge, I glanced down to see Nick just taking it all in and letting it slide. From that day forward, I’ve called him Saint Nick. He’s a top-level dad.
Halfway across the Santa Barbara Channel, the sun rose, a crimson red, with a flash across the horizon. Krysta grew silent and just stared at the sunrise. A few miles farther, a hundred playful dolphins raced in from our starboard side to ride the bow waves and stern wake, taking turns on the waves in their highly social manner.
Nick took Krysta up on the bow, where she could lay on the bow pulpit and stretch her arm down to within inches of the water. After a few minutes, a dolphin came up and her hand brushed along the graceful animal’s back. She jumped up with wide eyes and a broad smile. She rode quietly and pensively the rest of the way to the west end of Santa Cruz Island.
Today was all about experiences, so I set a course for Painted Cave and carefully eased the WaveWalker into the huge sea cave. I looked down to see Krysta in absolute awe. Next we cruised along the stunning cliffs, around the end of the island, and anchored at the edge of a kelp bed in a picturesque cove.
Tiffany and I began establishing a chumline into the kelp and brought out fishing rigs set up and ready to use. Saint Nick wisely selected a rig with a white jig and we pinned two whole squid on the treble hook. He lowered it to near the bottom and began gently rocking it. Then he handed it to Krysta and showed her how to casually work the jig up and down. Nick picked up a live bait rig and began to pin on a lively sardine when Krysta shrieked.
We all looked over and saw her holding on tight while her rod bent double and the sensitive tip throbbed to wild head tosses. Saint Nick coached her through the battle, and 15 minutes later we boated her very first ocean fish — a 22-pound white seabass.
After that battle, Krysta sat down to rest. The sun was up, the wind was calm and she took her jacket off. Now she looked comfortable, and was obviously amazed by the fight with the big fish — and even had a look of pride at having won the battle. But there was more to come.
We had kept up the chumline, and by now the calico bass were massing at the edge of the kelp and making quick forays into the open water between the kelp and the boat to boil on chum fish. Father and daughter jumped up and grabbed the light rods and reels Tiffany had rigged and baited. They both cast and instantly hooked up with wild and willing calico bass. Saint Nick taught Krysta about keeping just the legal ones, and letting the big spawners go, in order to keep the bass population healthy. She understood and seemed to enjoy letting the bigger fish go with great care, while — as Tiffany had taught her — telling each one, “Thanks for the wiggle!”
Dad and daughter spent the next couple of hours catching calico after calico after calico, releasing most of them. Krysta was laughing, chatting and cracking jokes the whole time. The bite finally slowed. They had some good-eating fish in the box and memories of many fish released, so they paused side-by-side to gaze at the beauty and serenity of the island setting.
Krysta nuzzled against her dad, put her hand in his, kissed him on the cheek and quietly said, “Thank you, Daddy, this is the best Christmas present!” Up on the bridge, this supposedly hard-bitten, salty ol’ captain was wiping a tear from my cheek. That moment touched on the heart and essence of why we fish. That was the most inspiring day of my career.
— Capt. David Bacon operates WaveWalker Charters and is president of SOFTIN Inc., a nonprofit organization providing seafaring opportunities for those in need. Visit softininc.blogspot.com to learn more about the organization and how you can help.