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The Sea Forager

Kirk Lombard is your guide to fishing off the beaten path

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Kirk Lombard scans the shoreline and the surf, and says he hasn't been to this spot in West Marin for a couple of years—but he has a knack for knowing just where the surfperch are and the best time for catching them.

It's nearing the end of a flood tide in Bolinas, and I'm fishing with Lombard along the channel that leads into the Bolinas Lagoon. He whistles sharply in my direction and points to the spot, a cut in the shoreline where there's a drop-off and the perch are hanging out, very close to shore.

"The big ones are close in," he says. "Don't over-cast." I keep catching little ones. The ubiquitous surfers of Bolinas paddle nearby as heavy surf washes across the channel and seals pop their heads up. We're fishing with light-tackle spinning poles, perfect for these small, scrappy panfish, with rigs consisting of three small hooks attached and baited with bits of rubber sandworms. We've got small pyramid sinkers that are supposed to grab the bottom; the tide's still running a little strong but will ease off before too long. It's a pitch-perfect, blue-skies day.

Lombard is the author of the just-published Sea Forager's Guide to the Northern California Coast (Heyday; $22), and the Half Moon Bay resident has driven up the coast and through the city for a late-morning outing in West Marin. For his effort, I've presented him with a hand-hewn wooden gaff I plucked off a remote spot last year north of Agate Beach in Bolinas. He's psyched ("I need a gaff! Thanks!") and tells the story of a guy who lost a big halibut boatside just the other day—because Lombard's boat didn't have a gaff on it.

The tide is just about right and the fish ought to be biting. Lombard is a little hoarse after the previous night's outing—a publication party for his book that featured him and his wife, Camilla, singing sea shanties for a boisterous and appreciative crowd in Oakland. He's a 50-year-old man with two young children and says that his three-and-a-half-year-old boy already has the fishing bug—about the same age when Lombard got bit.

Lombard's guidebook is a lot of fun to read and a real standout from your typical fishing guides, which tend to be heavy on the "how to catch the big one" information but usually do not come with evocations of Marcel Proust or Tuvan throat singers (the latter are mentioned by way of comparison to croaking bottom-dwellers). Lombard is a passionate angler who admits that he weeps for certain baitfish. And Lombard's book also comes with a heavy and appreciated through-line that highlights his conservation ethic, delivered lightly, as one might encrust a halibut fillet with corn meal—along with lots of entertaining, fish-specific haiku and footnotes that are by turns hilarious and informative, or both.

Lombard has a real knack with the sharp observation delivered deadpan ("Anecdotally speaking, the least inhibited people catch the most clams"; "To be clear, it's no problem shoving your hand into the gills of a lingcod. Pulling your hand back out is where the problem lies"). Lombard thinks you should work a little for the fish or other creature you've foraged, and distinguishes between fishing consumers and fishing citizens. The former will pry big fat mussels off a rock with a crowbar. The latter will put on a glove and get down and dirty with the work. Lombard wants you to get down and dirty.

Kirk Lmbard is a New York City native who moved to the Bay Area in 1993 to get married. That didn't pan out. When that relationship went south—"The chick ran off with a modern furniture designer"—he stayed in the Bay Area and started working for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission as a fish observer (the job was part of a joint program with the then–California Department of Fish and Game; it's now called Fish and Wildlife). He'd jump on party boats and do fish surveys for the agency from public piers, which served to help him grow his expertise in the fishes and fauna of Northern California.

Before he worked with Fish and Game, Lombard fronted a band called the Rube Waddell, named for an early 20th-century professional baseball player who was famous for his on-the-field antics that included abruptly departing the pitcher's mound to go fishing. The band toured all over the country and Europe. "Waddell was sort of my life before I started working for Fish and Game," he says.

Lombard is influenced by old blues recordings and the music of Captain Beefheart, and he played harmonica and tuba for Rube Waddell, which got its name after a house party in San Francisco that found Lombard regaling attendees with stories about the old baseball player—they really loved the one about how he wrestled crocodiles. One of his band mates listened in and afterward told Lombard, "We need to call this band the Rube Waddell." To that point the band had been called Hellbender. Lombard was going to write a book about Waddell but instead left the pitcher's mound himself and wrote a book about fishing.

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Youtube is now replete with Rube Waddell songs and Lombard instructionals on how to properly dress a squid. The former videos are characterized by songs like "Down in the Hole" (hey, that's where the surfperch are today!), a barrel-house blast of crunchy, gutbucket honky-tonkery. The instructionals are quite useful if you don't know how to dress a squid, and The Sea Forager's Guide also has lots of handy hints for prepping fish for cooking, and recipes too.

Performance and entertainment is in Lombard's blood—and Sea Forager jumps off the page like a school of manic flying fish, a lively and learned book with writing of playful bluntness on subjects such as the relative culinary value of surfperch which may be described as "meh." Performance is met with his personal ethic around fishing. Lombard recalls one career day in nursery school when he was a youngster growing up in New York's West Village—his father and grandfather were both Broadway actors—and he declared that he wanted to be a conservationist when he grew up.

Fast forward four-plus decades when Lombard was working as a conservationist and came to understand firsthand that there's a lot of unethical fishing and poaching going on along the piers and boat-rails, and that "if everyone's going out there and winging it and following their own rules, it's not sustainable."

Indeed, Lombard's concerns about overfishing created an ethical dilemma for him over whether to write this book at all. Did he really want to be encouraging more people to go fishing? "I thought about it long and hard," he says, and talked with his publishers at the nonprofit publisher Heyday, in Berkeley, who convinced him to write the book. His guide provides the technical basics, the how-tos, but Lombard says, "I didn't give anyone any advantage they couldn't get from a Fish and Game pamphlet." But there are also lots of advantages to his book that you won't find in those handy, state-issued how-to guides, including many illustrations by San Francisco artist Leighton Kelly.

Some of Lombard's first fishing adventures took place, as they often do, with his father, the late actor Peter Lombard (he died in 2015, and Kirk dedicated his book to him). Peter Lombard was in a bunch of Broadway plays and perhaps most notably played Thomas Jefferson in the bicentennial-era production of 1776.

With a laugh, Lombard says his dad wasn't much of a fisherman, but grandpa was—Lombard's first-ever fishing trip was with his grandfather in Santa Cruz, when he was around four years old. We'll save that story for the moment, but after that first fishing adventure, Lombard's next memorable outing was when his father was doing summer stock theater on the East Coast and took young Kirk fishing on a rented boat on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Lombard recalls the fishing-with-dad story with relish, or perhaps tartar. "Dad didn't know anything about fishing, but he knew that I loved fishing. He always tried. He knew that me and my grandfather had this bond," Lombard says.

They got in the boat and headed out onto the lake and "we just started trolling this gigantic lure all over the lake," Lombard recalls. "A giant muskellunge hit it and I got that fish all the way up to the boat and the line snapped. I cried and I cried and I cried. My dad would tell the story about that fish at parties, at dinner, and finally, after the pain of having lost it had disappeared, the fish was replaced by this really good story, and that was the consolation and the lesson from it." The other lesson is that to this day, Lombard will jump into the water to make sure he doesn't ever lose a big one like that again. Jumping in the water and chasing fish is kind of his signature.

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