On the ‘California Dawn’ at dawn

It’s an early rise, but the reward is a haul of halibut and stripers
By: George deVilbiss/Special to Gold Country News Service
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Berkeley is about a 90-minute drive. When the alarm sounded at 2:30 a.m., the groans were obvious. But when you want to fish for halibut and striped bass, you have to get to bay waters early.

James Smith, skipper of the 50-foot California Dawn, said boarding time was about 5 a.m. with a 6 a.m. departure. When I arrived at the Berkeley docks at 4:45, there were already a handful of eager anglers aboard. Up to departure time, there was a steady stream coming through the K-dock gates to board.

I’m early enough that I get my favorite spot, on the starboard side near the rear of the boat. It’s close to the bait tank, too.

Smith comes from a full line of fishermen. His dad, Jim Smith, skippers the well-known Happy Hooker, also berthed at Berkeley. His brother, Steve, runs a large sport fishing operation in Alaska.

While dad is highly successful, those who have gone out with both consider James more successful. Of course, there’s the friendly competition between father and son and for a while on this day, their boats drift together at various sites.

Many party boats throughout the bay are doing a “potluck trip,” targeting anything that might bite — stripers, halibut, rock cod.

No need to bring breakfast or lunch on board. The boat’s cook shows up about 5:30 and soon has breakfast burritos and hot coffee ready. The burritos are massive, easily worth the $5.

When the boat pulls out at 6 a.m., there are 25 anglers aboard. First stop: the bait receivers for a few scoops of fresh, live anchovies, and then it’s out to the open water of San Francisco Bay.

As soon as the boat gets around the breaker wall of the Berkeley harbor, the deckhand, Darrin, holds a session on how to fish the areas we’ll be at and, for the uninitiated, how to properly hook an anchovy onto the live bait hook.

Smith deadheads directly to the Rockpile, northeast of Alcatraz. It can be a tough area to fish. As the name implies, there are many rocks on the bottom — big rocks. If you have any hope of getting bit, you must have your anchovy down among the rocks.

You constantly “feel” for the bottom, constantly adjusting your depths, sometimes quickly reeling to get your weight off the rocks and other times letting out more line. Anglers get hung up and break off gear while others are bringing in stripers.

We quit the Rockpile and drift to the west side of Alcatraz, a sandy bottom where you can put your rod in the rod holder and drag bottom. A few stripers and halibut are caught. Then, it’s back to the Rockpile and later, back to the sandy bottom off Alcatraz.

I’ve felt the thrill of bites, stripers gulping my live anchovy. My rod has literally doubled over with a 15-pounder under which Darrin, the deckhand, deftly slips the net. That and a nine-pounder fill my limit on stripers.

There are times when numerous fish are being fought at the same time. Darrin is kept running, and there were times James had to bail out of the wheelhouse to lend a hand netting fish.

I’m not targeting just striped bass. My rod takes another dive off the rocks of the Rockpile. The fight this time is funny. The fish isn’t fighting, not like a striper anyway. We’re playing tug-of-war, the fish trying to stay on bottom and me cranking it up. When the net finally slides under him, it’s a seven-pound greenling, the largest lingcod caught that day.

When the bite tapers off, Smith heads the boat a little farther north to make a long drift along the sandy bottom on the west side of Angel Island. Numerous keeper halibut are netted along with a few shakers that are returned to grow larger. More stripers are added to the box.

A few small dog sharks were brought over the rails, unhooked and returned to the bay unharmed.

At 4 p.m., Smith heads back to the docks. Fish have been handed out, and it’s time for the weigh-in for the biggest fish pot.

My striper easily is the largest bass, and another angler had a large halibut. When the two were put on each side of the balance beam, the halibut barely edged my striper. It was the closest I had come to winning the big fish pot, and I was so excited at that weigh-in.

Although I didn’t have any halibut, I was thrilled with the three nice fish I brought home.

Darrin sets up shop behind the boat and begins filleting fish. While I can quickly fillet fish, I knew I was going to be bushed by the time I got home so I had Darrin take care of them for me. At $5 for a limit of stripers and $3 for a halibut, it’s worth not having to deal with fish carcasses at home.

Smith specializes in halibut and striped bass in the spring and summer in San Francisco Bay, moving his boat in the winter to Martinez to concentrate on sturgeon in San Pablo Bay.

I’ve had a number of readers ask who I’d recommend for halibut, striper and sturgeon fishing, and I always recommend James. Every person I’ve referred has written back with glowing reports.

You can call James Smith at (510) 417-5557 or (510) 773-5511.

Contact George deVilbiss at