A Skillet Full of Fish

Santa Barbara California spearfishing freediving A calico bass might of been the first fish I shot as a kid while spearfishing. They seemed to be the most common, best tasting game in the water at that time. Which merely means that they were largely the only fish I was observant and skilled enough to routinely catch sight of as a floundering young freediver.

In other words, the meager water skills I possessed as a kid were nonetheless sufficient enough to enable me to bring home small kelp bass more often than anything else. I always hoped for the halibut, and I nabbed a few lobsters, caught a fleeting glance of a couple white seabass, but mostly came away with calicos.

I was always stoked to shoot a calico. In later years, however, as I got more experience in the water, and came to better understand the sea life community surrounding coastal kelp forests, both perennial inhabitants and seasonal visitors, and the potential to take larger, more highly prized game fish, kelp bass lost their attraction.

California beach Santa Barbara Channel IslandsWhereas I had previously been proud, or at least happy, to bring home a calico for dinner, they became almost an embarrassment at times when compared to halibut and white seabass and yellowtail and lingcod.

Calico became the grubby little fish you lied to your buddies about having shot to cover the big game jackpot you were hiding on board and didn’t want them to know about.

“Get anything?” He shouted over the gunwale as our boats idled beside each other in the Santa Barbara Harbor entrance.

“Not much. Just a few calicos,” my buddy replied, hoping they wouldn’t see the bloated cooler bag stuffed with limits for four guys of 40 to 50 pound white seabass, big fan tails sticking out.

We’d drive up to a favorite spearfishing spot and, right after killing the engine, somebody would grab a pole with an iron on it and hurl it as far as he could, then crank it in, hooking a calico. “A couple of tacos,” they’d say with a shrug, downplaying the catch while throwing it into the cooler. Then we’d suit up and slip into the water to see about shooting some real fish. Big WSBs.

Santa Barbara spearfishing white seabass catchJack in blue with a friend and well over two hundred pounds of freshly caught white seabass shot somewhere in Santa Barbara County.

But what about the pellucid waters of late fall or early winter, when the weather is exceptional, the swell nearly nonexistent, the seawater invitingly pacific and clear, yet when the halibut have moved into deeper water far offshore to spawn, and the white seabass have migrated away, and the reefs have mostly been plucked clean of lobster?

This during an epic drought in California, when the Los Padres National Forest is drier than it has been in at least a century, when the creeks and rivers meandering in silence through the forest have been nothing but desiccated crusty cobblestone pathways for months or years.

Well then, in these conditions, the pull of the sea becomes irresistible for a saltwater junky like me despite the lack of bigger game fish. I mentally cannot bear to stand on the coastal bluffs of Santa Barbara County overlooking the Pacific Ocean, peering through the shimmering, crystalline aquamarine waters, and refuse its offer.

Jack Elliott spearfishingJack heading out. (c) John Pierpont

I kicked out into the sea scanning the rippled sand bottom hoping to spot a laggard halibut perhaps confused by shifting weather patterns and ocean currents and temperatures. But the submarine forest was mostly vacant apart for several varieties of small fishes. That is except for those other perennial residents, calico bass.

I was fortunate enough to cross paths with a respectably-sized calico among a stand of kelp and manage to get off a well-placed shot. I was stoked to have fresh fish for dinner and something wild and healthy I harvested myself   to offer my children.

Yet were I too walk by somebody on the beach afterward, traipsing back to my truck hauling my gear, I’d shy away from letting them see it and have no interest in letting it be known that I had a calico bass. Unlike hiding larger game fish so as not to attract people’s attention and give away a prime fishing zone, with a calico I’d actually by embarrassed.

When I got home, however, and prepared the fish and its brilliant white fillets completely filled my iron skillet, sputtering in rich butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows and freshly-pressed olive oil, I understood the silliness of my earlier feelings of embarrassment over a supposedly inadequate catch. I came to appreciate that I need far less to be satisfied than I sometimes think, that I can be a tad greedy, and that I’m far more fortunate than most of the seven billion people on this planet, nearly half of whom purportedly still cook meals over open flame campfires for lack of modern technology.

I hear from friends and see their photos of lunkers, the big flatties, big croakers, big tunas, but what do I have to complain about with a skillet full of fresh fish I caught myself? Halibut and white seabass are exceptionally tasty, but a couple of calico fillets cooked properly are pretty good, too.

Santa Barbara freediving spearfishing bassThe centerpiece of one night’s modest dinner for the small family Elliott. Center mass shot, not bad, eh?

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3 Responses to A Skillet Full of Fish

  1. George Armstrong says:

    Jack, I was certified in 1975 and for over 20 years dove the channel islands. Among my great diving friends calico was never anything to be embarrassed of. And these were highly skilled divers who caught a lot of game. Indeed the flesh was considered one of the more delicious, more in fact than white sea bass, and anyone who could get a limit of this speedy fish was considered an expert spearman . No, they didn’t have the awe of a whitey or even a yellow tail, but they were a lot harder to spear than lingcod, or vermillion rock fish and considered better tasting. Myself, I was quite content to spear vermillions, calicos, and halibut. Alas, diving aboard charter operations such as Truth Aquatics became too expensive for me so instead of exploring sea mounts I started exploring the LPNF and Sierra’s. So, no need in my eyes to be embarrassed and kudos to you for bringing fresh fish for your family to enjoy.

  2. Clint Elliot says:

    Damn tasty any day and even better when you haul it in yourself. To this day I believe the best fish I ever had was one shared with your uncle and myself by a fisherman in Baja down south of Bahia de Los Angeles. We rode out to a remote uninhabited bay on our motorcycles and happened on a fish camp. Just a little wood shack nestled between cactuses on the rocky shore. We had just watched an Osprey snag a fish out of the bay in front of us, swoop up and drop it on a large Cardon cactus, impaling it on its thorns and then land and proceed to tear it apart and feast. While we were watching this amazing spectacle of untouched nature, a fisherman walks out of the shack. He invites us in to rest a bit and have some coffee. While we were sipping on our coffee and getting the low down on the area our host invites us to share his dinner he was cooking up. Fresh Cabria bass he had just caught. About the size of your Calico. Filleted right in front of us and into the skillet. To this day my mouth waters at the thought of watching those fillets smimmering in that skillet in butter and garlic, topped with fresh squeezed lime juice and served with hot tortillas.

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