Aboard Apollo, Tracking the Ghosts of the Channel

Captain “JJ” Gerritsen is the skipper and owner of the Apollo (the Greek god of the Sun, clarity and truth), a 65-foot-by-22-foot aluminum-hulled, understatedly luxurious fishing boat. JJ, 41, has been a captain for 22 years, eight of which have been on the Apollo.

“I still just love it after all this time,” says the captain.

Every year beginning in June, JJ’s crew heads out to sea from San Diego until the following February, moving up the Baja Coast following pelagics like tuna and albacore. They reach Santa Barbara by March 1 for the “Rockfish” opener and stay until about mid-May.

“During our time at the Channel Islands we are mainly fishing for rockfish, halibut and a few other species, but we are really hopeful we run into some white sea bass,” says JJ. “We get plenty of rockfish and some sheep head, halibut, sculpin and cabezon, but the prime sporting fish we are after is the elusive fish we call the ‘ghost’ – the white sea bass.” The “ghost” is a mild-tasting, mid-firm white-meat fish that eats mainly squid and when the squid are in the water around the islands, that’s when you find it.

When Captain JJ says plenty of rockfish, he isn’t exaggerating. Between 18 fishermen on a two-day trip, we each caught our limits – 20 apiece. Rockfish, according to the captain, is a “general term for a vast variety of fish fourteen inches to eighteen inches long weighing two to six pounds that inhabit stony, kelp reefs about one hundred eighty feet in depth.”

In this vast league of ocean dwellers comes members of all colors: blue, brown, kelp, olive, black, copper, calico, yellow-tailed and gopher rockfish and bass and the best known, the red snapper, which is actually called the Vermillion rockfish for its brilliant orange-red skin color.

There were also “whitefish” with their rainbow iridescent pectoral fins that fight like a trout and larger lingcod of 24 inches plus and, of course, halibut. All are good eating and of mild taste.

Captain “JJ” and his number-one deckhand (soon-to-be-captain), 19-year-old Jesse Martinez, took excellent care of the fish from the un-hooking of our plentiful catches to the measuring, tagging, cold storage and filleting. It was like watching a sushi chef, knives flashing, un-wanted pieces flung overboard to hovering seagulls and the fillets flicked aside, soon to be plastic-sealed and cold-stored.

I booked the trip through Steph Franklin, who arranges fishing charters from San Diego to Santa Barbara when he can find time between being assistant dean of students at UCSB and running his catering business, Simply Marvelous BBQ.

“We are looking for a clean, well-run boat, good food and a fisherman with a good attitude – no macho stuff,” Steph said.

And that is what we had. Traveling out to sea across the Channel always comes with some risk. The wind can blow hard and the swells can rise up to 18 feet. It is wise to stay in safe harbor sometimes at the worst of times, but with an experienced captain, the risk can turn into a rewarding experience.

The trip was rough at the start; we tossed in our bunks on the night ride out and awoke to 12-foot swells eclipsing the horizon as we gazed at the plunging stern. Sea legs were soon found and thankfully the weather only improved as the day wore on. It also helped to be catching fish.

We fished around San Miguel Island and close to the “backside” of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, where steep island cliffs descend vertically into clean, deep blue water. Cormorants and gulls perch on these sandy, rock-layered cliffs for a rest as a formation of brown pelicans wheel around the high ridges. Dry waterfalls are abundant along these cliffs, which would be magnificent to see after a rain.

At night, the boat offered a clear unobstructed view of the night’s constellations while the boat’s floodlights lit up the sea below in search for squid. Alas, we only saw inch-long pink shrimp darting about in the lights and very few squid, hence no white sea bass. We anchored and were rocked to sleep in our bunks the second night.

Our cook provided us with penne pasta and venison sausage marinara sauce one night and chicken breast over garlic mashed potatoes topped with cheese sauce and bacon bits on another. Breakfasts and lunches were equally as good. We were even served chocolate brownies and cookies hot from the oven as we fished from the rails of the boat.

This is not how I remember fishing in the old days.

For more information on charters with Steph Franklin send an e-mail to fishingwithsteph@yahoo.com or visit www.simplymarvelousbbq.com.

Tackle Box Tidbit

The eastern slope of the Sierra trout season is now open. Consider June, Mammoth & Crowley lakes as well as the East Walker and Upper and Lower Owens rivers.