I eat the salmon heart because the mates on the Wacky Jacky say that this is what you do when you catch your first fish. I decide to chew it, because I can feel a very faint heartbeat in my palm, and I don’t want to feel it down my throat. About the size of a quarter and the color of sushi-grade tuna, the heart is neither tasty nor disgusting, just cold and mildly saline — and rubbery. I get a few claps on the shoulder, approval for playing along with this little ritual of macho bluster. Having been picked on enough in high school, I know when I’m being hazed, and it feels genuine. There’s camaraderie on a boat.
And, slightly ghoulish organ harvest aside, I caught my first fish from the Pacific Ocean, an eight- or nine-pound Chinook salmon that I didn’t even realize was on my rod until disentangling the line from my friend Mark’s. It’s a thrilling feeling, but not the most climatic moment in sports history: Salmon put up a bit of a fight, but as the hooks aren’t barbed, the mates have to scramble to scoop up the fish before you pull them from the water. (You yell, “Fish on!” and that’s everyone’s cue to lower their poles and otherwise avoid making life complicated.)
So although the act of catching a salmon feels largely like an assist, I’m pleased with myself: There are 17 people fishing today, and only five will catch anything at all. (Four of us catch one each, and one college-age kid nabs two, the legal limit.) Mark, a dog-walker I know because we go to the same dog park, has been fishing on the Wacky Jacky a couple of times a year since 1978, and this is the first time that he’ll go home without anything. Something about being on the water seems to magnify the power of superstition, and even though the ice chest’s spare capacity can be attributed to overfishing, climate change, and California’s drought, I feel like a bad-luck charm. Oh, well. My fish goes in the cooler, tagged with an enormous, numbered safety pin driven through its jaw that makes it look like the biggest punk in Thatcherite Britain. After I pose with it, of course.
All this excitement is confined to the stern. Up in the wheelhouse sits Wacky Jacky herself, piloting us through the fog west of the Golden Gate. She’s two months shy of her 88th birthday, making her the oldest captain in San Francisco’s fishing fleet, as well as its only woman. I’d met her at about six that morning, sipping weak coffee and debating whether I should eat anything before learning how choppy the water is, while she greeted the regulars and processed credit card payments and the mates got the boat ready. She’s a small woman with a lot of personality, more of a grinner than a smiler, and wearing head-to-toe red and a black hat. She’s ebullient, but I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side, nor would I want to be a doctor who condescendingly calls her “dear.”
The cabin is ordinary enough: junk food for the passengers, Formica surfaces, lots of photos of people holding fish, various nautical tchotchkes. Accumulated stickers and placards reveal the hardhat politics of a classic-rock station: pro-cop, pro-union, anti-Delta tunnel. There’s a picture of former East Bay Congressman George Miller next to Congresswoman Jackie Speier. It’s foggy and still and the sun is barely up as we take off from the berth next to Castagnola’s, where the F-Market streetcar turns around to head back to the Castro. We pass Aquatic Park’s breakwater, curved like an apostrophe or a bass clef, and then the Fort Mason Center’s pavilions, at which point the city bleeds back into the fog. I can’t see the Golden Gate Bridge until we’re nearly beneath it, but I’m excited to pass under it for the first time in my life. If nothing else, you gain a new appreciation for the effort expended to preserve Fort Point.
I grew up on Long Island and spent summers fishing for porgies and snappers with my dad and my brothers in Long Island Sound from a dinghy powered by an outboard motor. As I got older, I got to go along on trips my father organized for a business association he belonged to, and I have wonderful memories of hauling ugly, asymmetrical fluke out of the Great South Bay on awful, rainy dawns. But I hadn’t been on the water since we chartered a small boat with a few family friends to go for striped bass off of Montauk in the summer of 2008 — a boozy day that ended with sunburns and the world’s sloppiest radio sing-along on the Long Island Expressway — and the feeling of dropping a line into the water and staring at the horizon to keep my internal gyroscope righted gave me an unexpected stab of homesickness.
It’s better than seasickness, and that never comes. One ginger candy in, I feel confident enough to attack the two grocery bags’ worth of food that I brought in the event that the salt air kept my appetite in a state of permanent stimulation. (Which it did.) The passengers, mostly but not overwhelmingly male, trade stories of dorado they caught near San Diego, or three-day marlin expeditions in the Sea of Cortez. You can smell the bullshit. You can almost see the stink lines, even. One of the mates is a quiet chainsmoker, the other has what my uncles would call the gift of gab. He cheerily one-ups one anecdote after another, and not just about fishing exploits, either. One tale involves a mountain lion in Colorado. I find them both to be pleasant company.
We wave to people on other boats, of which there are about 50, including the Lovely Martha, which docks two spots over from the Wacky Jacky. It’s hard to tell which compass direction is which, although a thin sliver of coastline is sometimes visible, but apart from the occasional need to brace my thigh against the side of the boat, the motion of the water is soothing. Jacky keeps largely to herself, scanning the equipment for telltale blips to give her paying customers their money’s worth.
There are no longer plenty of fish in the sea.
“I was born and raised here, and I’m going to die here,” Wacky Jacky says. She was born on Oct. 3, 1928, when Calvin Coolidge was president, and her real name is Jacqueline Douglas. I ask if she was raised on the water, but she declines to get into her childhood.
“I guess I just dove in the waves and fell in love with the ocean. I don’t know how else to say it,” she says. “But my husband went fishing. I went once, and got hooked.” Here, she winks at me and makes a clicking sound on one side of her face, ba-dum-ching-style.
Jacky and her husband, George — a Navy man whose 1944 picture hangs in the cabin; the two were married for almost 61 years — eventually scraped together enough money to buy a small boat. A “trailer job,” she calls it, meaning it lived in their garage and not in a marina. Next, they got a 28-foot double-ended boat they took up and down the coast.
“My kids used to say to me, now this is very famous, ‘Where’s the beef, Mom?’ ” she says. “Now, because they’re all grown, it’s, ‘Where’s the fish, Mom?’ ”
(For the record, Wacky Jacky’s voice and demeanor are wholly unlike those of Clara Peller, the character actress who made the catchphrase “Where’s the Beef?” such a meme in a series of pre-internet Wendy’s commercials.)
Two kindly San Francisco salts, one of whom was nicknamed Captain Balls, encouraged Douglas to get her license and take the Coast Guard exam in the early ’70s, and she bought a converted, 38-foot commercial fishing boat and carried 10 people at a time.
“I had so much experience in the ocean and so forth, and I was more than well-qualified, but it was hard for me to get a license,” she says. Ventriloquizing the gruff old hands who couldn’t wrap their minds around a female sea captain in 1972, she adds, “They thought I was out of my mind, and they didn’t like me because I was a woman in a man’s world.”
She minded her own business and kept her chin up, and three years later, borrowed money — “I hocked everything but the kids,” she says — to buy the boat that bears the Wacky Jacky name. George helped her maintain it, and she’s had it for 40 years.
Over time, she became a grand dame of sorts; her nickname is the Queen of the Fleet. Now that she’s a veteran, she’s treated respectfully, but it took a long time to get there.
“The younger generation has a different outlook to women,” she says. “I think they appreciate women more than the old-timers. They hated me. It was terrible.”
There were mean pranks, one of which involved stuffed dolls in some fashion, but Jacky would rather discuss the fruits of her years-long charm offensive against the “president and vice president of the I Hate Wacky Jacky Club.”
“He’s been fishing with me,” she says, a little sneakily. Another captain named Tom McGee, who’s nearly 100 years old and living in a retirement home, used to lay down clichés in the if-you-can’t-take-the-heat vein — until Jacky won him over, too.
“He was pretty tough on me, but guess what? When he retired, he came fishing with me,” she says. “He called me ‘partner’ after I’d been working a few years. I can’t explain how I felt. The floor could open up, and I’d go right down in it. I was so thrilled and so honored because I’d always admired the older captains, and he turned out to be a softie. He came fishing with me ’til he couldn’t walk anymore.”
Hazing notwithstanding, Jacky remembers those early years fondly.
“I would say I didn’t have a tough time,” she says. “People came. I don’t know why, but I was so fortunate. At that time, you could go out and please your people a lot faster than you do now, because fishing is a lot different.”
It’s not just that the limits have gone from five salmon per person to three, and now two, or that the ancillary rules and regs are onerous. Jacky is clearly wary of speaking too freely about the fights over water that pit conservationists and the fishing industry against farmers. As an ambassador for the community, and someone who serves on the Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association and other boards, it’s smart politics to avoid needlessly wading into controversy, but the subject also simply upsets her. All she will allow is that, “I feel they should take better care of our eggs and not dump them in the heat.”
And she’s pretty rigorous about following the law, having had undercover agents fish on her boat. One way people sidestep the two-fish limit is by claiming someone else caught them, but she dismisses the very thought.
“Can you see me passing off a fish to some little boy, 10 years old?” she says.
Still, the pleasures of “that ocean life” remain as strong for Wacky Jacky as ever. She calls her line of work a mini-vacation, noting that, “Whatever problems you’ve had or whatever’s going on in the world, you forget about it.”
“Go out there,” she adds, “and the main thing you’re looking at is that fishing rod, and you’re waiting it for it to zing, zing, zing.”
Initially, I find this to be less true than I anticipated, since cell service was quite good a few miles from shore, and it was only about 10 minutes after posting a pic of me eating the salmon heart on Facebook that a vegan friend told me what a bad person I am. To me, catching your own food and declining to waste the quote-unquote gross parts is the most ethical way to eat meat, but uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t press the issue. So maybe she was right.
While the Wacky Jacky used to head out 100 days in a row each summer, things are more varied now. After Jacky’s husband passed, she threw herself into her work, going for rock cod, sturgeon, bass, or whatever the prevailing currents churned up. In all these years, I ask her if she’s ever seen any of the mysteries of the sea, hoping she’ll tell me about a coelacanth or a colossal squid by the Farallons, or ball lightning or St. Elmo’s fire in a storm.
There’s been none of that, but she’s had a few run-ins with the sublime. Once, a 20-foot great white shark smacked into her hull while she was mooching, or drifting, over the Bay.
“It didn’t hurt him or hurt me, but it was a shock!” she says. “And I screamed — oh, did I scream. I was so shocked to see that. I wish I had a camera on it.”
Another time, a whale concealed itself from hunters using her boat.
“They were outlawed, but you didn’t dare say anything on the radio when there was a ship out there ready to harpoon a whale,” she says. “The whale was going around Point Reyes real slow, inside of me. None of us said a word. He just stayed right with me, hiding from the whalers, and I didn’t want to go that far. I didn’t want to go all the way around the point. I wanted to fish in Drakes Bay instead of going around, but I thought, ‘Well, this whale’s going to get killed if I don’t do it.’ Maybe he thought I was a mama whale, but he stayed right with me until that ship went away and didn’t see him.”
When it comes time to pass on day-to-day operations of the boat to one of her mates, Jacky intends to write about that encounter in a children’s book. (She’s planning a cookbook of favorite salmon recipes from other captains in the fleet, as well.) The other marine mammals the Wacky Jacky bumps into are sea lions, which tend to grab salmon right off the fishing lines.
“Everybody says, ‘Well, they got to eat, too,’ ” she says. “They’re multiplying. In the old days, I think the commercial men took care of them, but we won’t go there.”
There are special moments that have nothing to do with fishing, too. A woman waited until she and her husband were on the boat to inform him that she was pregnant — “I wish I’d known she was pregnant, but she didn’t show it,” Jacky says — and they and their son keep in touch to this day. There was also an on-board wedding near Point Bonita that was a total surprise to the bride, something which strikes me as an inauspicious beginning to a marriage, but Jacky disagrees.
“How could she resist it?” she says. “He had flowers, he had his family and her family. It was beautiful, just gorgeous. What a thing to think of.”
Pioneer among women that she is, Jacky is more upset that the gender ratio among captains appears to have reverted to the mean over the years.
“I’m disappointed. When I started, I had women deckhands, too. I had Bea Morris, she was Hawaiian,” she says. “I had this gal Gigi, and now she’s the head of teaching at the Coast Guard in San Diego.”
Still, she’s just happy at the arc her career has taken.
“I love love. I have more love than I’ve ever had,” she says. “The fleet loves me, my kids love me. I didn’t have that when I was a kid. It’s really remarkable.”
She credits her longevity to — no surprise here — the regular consumption of salmon, but also to exercising and staying active. I watched Jacky climb the ladder from the boat to street with four full tote bags in the crooks of her elbows. She took her time, and one of her mates was there to steady her, but it’s an impressive sight. And her dedication is leavened by a little bit of silliness.
“I always dress up for Halloween, she says. “I’ve been a devil, a witch. They call me a cougar, too, the young guys, so I went dressed as a cougar. I have a good life, and I’m living it and I’m happy about it. As long as I can keep fishing.”
I don’t see a coelacanth, but there are plenty of humpback whales spouting. I’d been certain that if the fog didn’t burn off by noon or one, then it wasn’t going anywhere. But just before two, some holes appear in the marine layer, and about half an hour before we turn around and head back to the Wharf, it clears up sufficiently that you can see the city — the Presidio and the Richmond, anyway. (Marin is much more dramatic.) And from one angle, you can see the eastern span of the Bay Bridge through the Golden Gate Bridge. Apart from the times I’ve gotten so hot at Marshall’s Beach that I had to dive in to cool off, I’ve never looked at California from the sea. You appreciate it not as the west coast of a landmass, but as the eastern shore of an ocean, the vastest ocean.
I’d brought a plastic flask of bourbon in the event that I had something to celebrate or it got so cold on the water that I couldn’t stand to have my hands exposed, and Mark and I pass it back and forth. Going home empty-handed is actually a continuation of his luck; on his prior trip on the Wacky Jacky, the water was the choppiest he’s ever seen it. (Jacky likes a heavy sea, because it “enhances the fish.”) Still, he’s a Wacky Jacky loyalist — and a lifetime fisherman, having grown up in Minnesota catching walleye, Northern pike, and panfish.
“I’ve watched over the years some of the interactions with the public and the other captains, and they’re kind of gruff,” he says. “They’re old salts, and I just don’t like that kind of atmosphere.”
Another advantage to fishing on the Wacky Jacky is that those other captains tend to let Jacky leave the port first.
“There were a couple of times where she laughed it off,” Mark says. ” ‘We’re gonna get to the best spot.’ She’s paid her dues, that lady.”