Fishing is boring, unless you catch an actual fish, and then it is disgusting. — Dave Barry
The way my friend Jen tells it, her boyfriend Rob arrived home from work an hour before sunset on Friday evening, fishing pole in hand, and said, “I’m going to catch us some dinner, wanna come along?” I got the call from Jen as she was loading the car in front of her Clairemont home. Jen told me that she, Rob, and their neighbor Mike were heading to La Jolla Shores, and then she casually tossed in a polite, “You can join us if you like.”
“Wait, let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re driving to La Jolla? To try to catch a fish? Because you want to eat it? Rob just came home from work and was, like, ‘Let’s go catch dinner?’ That’s the weirdest freakin’ thing I’ve heard all week. Hell, yeah, I want to come.” Worried the sun would set before I could witness Rob’s demonstration of the food chain in action, I yelled to David, “Put on your shoes, beh beh, we’re going out!” as I rushed upstairs for a jacket. Ever amenable to my continuous whims, David was at the door and ready for adventure by the time I bounded back down the stairs.
The sun was low on the horizon when David and I pulled up at Kellogg Park. It wasn’t until we reached a small set of cement steps leading away from the sidewalk that it occurred to me that I would have to walk on the sand. It was too cold to remove my shoes and socks, so I grabbed my pants at the knee, hiked them up, and tiptoed gingerly across the soft earth.
The beach is not my scene. The thought of swimming in unchlorinated water gives me the willies. I’m convinced parasitic microorganisms will find a way to enter my body, and who knows what kind of creatures might brush against me in those cold, dark, wild waters. I don’t sunbathe, a pointless pastime that not only increases my risk of skin cancer, but also gives me a raging headache. And then there’s the sand. A night at Guantanamo would be like lunching at Nordstrom’s compared to the excruciating torment of the sand granules that glue themselves to my skin to chafe, abrade, and irritate.
As I inched my way closer to my friends, I made the mistake of checking out my toes. At first glance, I thought the sand was black, but when it began to undulate, I realized I was looking at flies — billions of them. I had been breathing through my mouth to avoid inhaling the putrid, salty smell of rotting kelp; but the moment I noticed the flies, I clamped it shut and suffered the stench, which was preferable to tempting pests with an open mouth. Still holding my pants as high as I could and taking slow, I-hope-sand-doesn’t-get-into-my-shoes steps, I finally came to where Jen and Mike stood. Rob was several feet away in the wet sand, a silhouette against the sunset.
“Has he caught anything?” I asked.
“Only kelp,” Jen answered. Mike extended his arm and offered me a clear plastic container filled with some kind of white-wine-and-ice-cube concoction. I declined, and Jen continued, “We have MasterCard as a back-up.” David walked closer to the water to chat with Rob, who joked about being a vegetarian and fishing for salad.
“What’s with all these flies? Something die over here?” I said.
Jen gestured toward a woman and young girl playing in the sand closer to the sidewalk. “That lady and her daughter are visiting from Texas,” she explained. “When we got here, she walked up to me and asked, ‘Are all the beaches in San Diego this filthy? This is La Jolla, the resort town, right? Where I’m from, people clean up the kelp every morning on the beaches.’ I hadn’t noticed before, but when she mentioned it, I looked down and saw all the trash and the kelp and the flies.”
“Yeah? I wouldn’t know,” I said.
Jen and I joined David and Rob by the water, our feet making sucking noises. The only thing worse than sand is wet sand. Rob drew the long fishing pole back like a golfer and swung toward the water.
“You should try this,” Jen said to me.
“Yeah, no, I think I’ll pass.”
“It’s fun, come on, I’ll show you.”
“I’m just not into it,” I said. “What if I throw that thing and accidentally hook a bird? Or a person? Not cool.”
“I’m not letting you leave until you try.” Jen seemed as stubborn as her red hair implied.
“Fine,” I relented. “But I’m not going as close to the water as Rob is. I don’t think I could deal if my feet got wet.”
Jen and Rob shared a look, the look of two outdoorsy people who don’t mind getting dirty; when confronted by someone like me — a person who prefers things more “sterile,” one for whom grime is the stuff of nightmares — all they can do is shrug their shoulders.
“Didn’t you tell me you had fun that time you went fishing with your dad?” Jen asked as she handed me the pole.
“Yeah, but that was on one of those half-day boats, so I didn’t have to stand in wet sand.”
Jen rolled her eyes and gave me a brief lesson in surfcasting. I raised the pole over my shoulder and gave it a good throw, letting my thumb off the line as I did so. The uni-paste-slathered lure landed in the shallowest part of the surf a few feet in front of me. I reeled it in, a laborious task, and found that I had caught a giant cluster of kelp. “I’m sorry, I can’t touch it,” I said. “When I caught a fish while out with my dad, other people took it off the hook for me.”
“That wasn’t fishing, Barb,” David cut in. “Fishing without touching water or fish is more like some video game.”
The honk of a horn sounded behind us and our heads flipped around to find a lifeguard getting out of his truck. Rob, wearing his fishing license around his neck, ran over to greet the man. “Is it okay to fish here?” I asked Jen.
“I didn’t see a No Fishing sign among all the other ‘No’ signs,” she replied. Mike pulled the kelp from the hook while the rest of us watched Rob laugh with the lifeguard and then raise a pair of binoculars to look in the direction the guard’s finger was pointing. I turned my eyes to the shore, where sandpipers were hopping along and probing the wet sand with their long pointy beaks. I followed after them for a few minutes, pretending I was reporting live for Animal Planet. Golden peach- and rose-colored light glinted off the waves as the sun dipped into the ocean. I watched the colors shifting in the sky and the iridescent twinkling of the water, and for a moment, forgot about the smell, the flies, and the sand, and inhaled deeply.
Rob returned and explained that apparently we were standing in a protected area (exactly what was being protected, I don’t know, but the popular guess was some rare species of fly). The lifeguard had admitted the signage was poor with regard to the No Fishing rule. Under all the red “No” signs was fine print on a small black-and-white posting that, half-a-tiny paragraph down, said something like, “The taking or possession of sea life or artifacts is prohibited.” Nothing about fishing specifically, which was how everyone had missed it in the first place.
“So,” I said, trying to suppress my smirk. “Where do you want to eat?”