The morning after his smelting expedition, Lombard meets a group of two dozen people at the tip of the St. Francis jetty. This is how he makes money when he isn't catching fish to sell: giving tours about recreational fishing and coastal foraging opportunities. The tours are conducted through ForageSF, a local company that organizes wild-food markets and educational programs on foraging foods such as greens and mushrooms.

It's overcast, and a hard wind is up. Lombard shouts to be heard by a group that includes parents, toddlers, and a few twenty- and thirtysomethings. The tour is a combination of sport-fishing tips (Lombard gives detailed instructions on setting crab pots off Baker Beach), detailed explanations of the workings of marine ecosystems (including vital tips on how, where, and when to gather shellfish so as to avoid poisoning), and general aquatic shtick.

"If you actually take a dried candlefish and light its head with a match, it will burn like a candle. I've seen it," Lombard tells his listeners. In another characteristic piece of instruction, he offers advice on preparing limpets, a type of sea snail, for cooking: "You have to take a hammer and just beat them and beat them until you feel like an evil man."

Lombard's reservoir of fish-related knowledge is deep. He spent seven years as a catch monitor for the California Department of Fish and Game and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, where his jobs included interviewing local sport fishermen about what they caught, and accompanying sport-fishing charter boats, or "party boats," on trips outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Fish and Game still uses an educational placard he created on California surf perch and bait fishes featuring photographs he took.

"Kirk has a lot of insight that most people don't because, at least until recently, he was down at the docks talking to people everyday about their catch," says Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara and an expert on Pacific rockfish species who has interacted with Lombard professionally.

On Christmas Day 2010, Lombard was laid off. A lifelong fisherman, he turned to tours and commercial smelt fishing to pay the bills. (The smelt, he says, represent a labor of love, supplying little more than beer money.) As an extension of what has taken shape as his personal brand, he started a blog, the Monkeyface News (www.monkeyfacenews.typepad.com). It is named after the monkeyface eel, a local species of prickleback (not actually an eel) he catches through a distinctive method called "poke-poling," sticking a bamboo pole with a hook and bait affixed to its end into crevices among intertidal rocks.

The tours, which take place along a swathe of shoreline between Marina Green and Crissy Field, have become a minor sensation among foragers and foodies. "I love it," said Jeff McBride on one recent trip. As a transplant from Montana, he explained, he had been looking for a knowledgeable expert on the local fishing scene. In Lombard he had found his man. "People's brains change when they have children," McBride said. "It's the same sort of thing when you harvest your own food and take it home and prepare it. It satisfies the caveman in you."

Lombard is more Renaissance man than caveman. He is rangy, bespectacled, eloquent, and profane, intense of demeanor but vulnerable to sudden distractions. Outside his fish-related professions, he has moonlighted for years as a vocalist and tuba player (not simultaneously) in a local rock band, Rube Waddell. He grew up in subsidized housing for artists in Manhattan's West Village, the child of stage performers, and acquired his love of the outdoors from his grandfather, a Santa Cruz native who, when not singing for Paul Ash and His Orchestra, dedicated himself to hunting and fishing. If Ernest Hemingway and Gilda Radner had through some quirk of time and space managed to procreate, Kirk Lombard might be the result.

True to his background, Lombard's recreational fishing exploits are sometimes akin to performance art. In March, he treated an SF Weekly reporter and photographer to an unusual spectacle: fishing for surf perch through a storm drain in Mission Bay. Casting his line into the drain, which eventually opened on water flowing in from the bay, Lombard caught three fish in quick succession. "You think you're bad? You ain't shit, man," he cried, reeling furiously as a hooked perch gave him a fight. "You live in a drain." A female passerby, incredulous, stopped to gape: "Is that a fish in that little hole?"

Lombard acknowledges that he eats few fish caught east of the Golden Gate Bridge. Except in areas exposed to a steady flow of incoming ocean water, he believes, it's best to avoid most of what's caught within the bay. There are exceptions, including migratory species such as sardines and halibut, which don't hang out in the bay long enough to absorb toxins from urban pollution. All of the fish harvested through the Mission Bay drain were tossed back alive.

But he is very serious about eating local fish. His ForageSF tours invariably include an exhortation to support the commercial fisheries of San Francisco and Northern California, including some that are frowned on by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Lombard is part of a group of local fish experts who insist, contrary to the recommendations of some environmental activists, that the best way to save the oceans is by sourcing your seafood close to home. This, he says, is the common gospel that unites activities as diverse as commercial A-frame smelt fishing, poke-poling for monkeyface eel, and delivering anecdotes to crowds on the brutalization of sea snails.


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5 comments
Nvbro
Nvbro

Belov can afford to be draconian. His resturant is in upper class Sausalito, with a lunch sandwich running in excess of $20. His sponsor is a Microsoft founder. His view on sustainable seafood is the rich get to eat seafood, the poor must catch it themselves our their out of luck.His view on California Market Squid being fine, I do not support. Its a quotaless fishery. Anyone who observed the fleet do its best to remove every squid from Monterey Bay as I did would be hard pressed to call it sustainable. And they did a damnd good job. Yes they left enough to reproduce, but in the process raided the pantry for the entire food web of the area. Its akin to removing the foundation of a building. Also the damage to the struggling White Seabass population in the form of bycatch, by the seiners is disturbing.

Matters2me
Matters2me

Recently watched a PBS special 'Save the Bay', and it is hard to believe that this natural wonder was almost completely destroyed.

Thank you for your great article about San Francisco Fishing, it reminds those of us(including myself) that fish are not naturally frozen or come from a can. Good Old Fashioned Fishing can be a fun family outing while getting something healthy, tasty and sustainable for dinner.

the kid
the kid

The night smelt he referred to are called White Bait and were caught and sold all over the bay area in the 60's & 70's when I worked in the wholesale fish business. Just pull off their little heads and their intestines come out in one fell swoop! Deep fried they are like eating french fries.We used to ask our girl friends if they "wanted to go watch the Grunion run? We would takethem to the beach and make out. Simpler times for sure!

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

They eat smelt on the east coast and even sell them in a bag frozen at my local grocer just outside Cleveland.

 
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