Personal Perspectives

Surf Fishing In a Golden State

"Surf Fishing In a Golden State"
"Surf Fishing In a Golden State" ( Michael Carl)

People flock to the California Coast in the summer—some to cool down in hot weather, some in search of good waves, some to fish in the surf and some to photograph any of the 1,200 miles of inspiring coastline. In spring 2015, I happened to be doing the latter. The hour before sunset typically creates the most dramatic light along the Pacific Coast and draws photographers like myself to the shore in a mass migration.

Another migration was also taking place just off shore. It was late spring and large numbers of striped bass were swimming out of the San Francisco Bay estuary into the Pacific Ocean. Stripers, the common name for striped bass, migrate to the ocean to feed on the bounty of pelagic fish, such as anchovies, found there. When stripers start feeding on these tiny fish, the odds of hooking one from the beaches of San Francisco all the way south to Half Moon Bay significantly increase. News of good fishing travels fast in these days of digital media and it’s pretty easy to tell when the stripers are biting—fishing rods outnumber surfboards near the water.

The other clue that stripers might be feeding nearby is the sight of diving brown pelicans, gulls and terns. When pelicans and terns are crashing into the water, it’s easy to imagine stripers herding and chasing bait to the surface. The huge schools of anchovies look like a black blob stretching for hundreds of yards just beyond the shore break. I’ve witnessed porpoises and seals also join the feeding frenzy and the water just boils with activity.

Preview A fisherman stands on the ocean's edge holding a striped bass.
(Michael Carl)

The evening this photograph was taken, I shared the small beach with three fishermen, one surfer and a dog. Setting up my tripod in the sand, I scouted the horizon. My focus was on the warm colors and diffused light and much less on signs of feeding marine life. But as a fisherman myself, I kept watching the rods in the surf in anticipation of a hook-up. As the sun started to set on the horizon I captured one of the guys casting out into the surf as the waves unfurled at his feet. I managed to get only a few more photographs as the sun dropped and the sky darkened.

It’s common these days for someone to say, “You’re golden.” I take that statement to mean—you have everything you need. That’s also the statement I would apply to that evening on the beach. Not only did I capture the color and light a photographer lives for, I witnessed a complex marine ecosystem providing for a variety of its members. Yes, even one of the guys on the beach caught his dinner! Just as I was about to break down my tripod and pack up the camera, the angler in the photograph hooked into a striped bass. Now that’s my definition of surf fishing in a golden state.


This photo submission was on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History alongside those taken by photojournalist Brian Skerry in the exhibit Portraits of Planet Ocean which closed on October 4, 2015. See a slideshow of other winners.

November 2015