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The Leviathan

Josh Churchman gets in touch with his inner Ishmael


Josh Churchman is a West Marin resident who runs his small commercial fishing boats out of the Bolinas Lagoon and Bodega Bay in Sonoma County. He's 67 and has been fishing his whole life. 'The Whale That Lit the World' (Hidden City Press; $12) is his first book. Here are some excerpts.

The Fishing Disease

. . . To this day, whenever I see a new body of water, I wonder what kind of fish might be living in it. I wonder what I could use to catch some of them. My mom taught me not to keep fish I wasn't planning to eat, but she didn't kill my love of fish or fishing.

Fishermen are a strange breed of people. It is almost like we have some kind of ancient disease. The disease is strikingly different for each individual it infects. For some it is a freshwater disease that takes a fisherman to rivers and lakes. For others, it involves an ocean.

The disease may come on suddenly, later in life, or it may be present at birth and follow the fisherman to his grave. Some people have it strong in their life, and then it just vanishes. Some people can be cured, but not very many.

Of all the diseases mankind faces in this world, it is far from the worst affliction someone could encounter. Water is most of what we are, and what is a fish if it is not all about the water? Wondering what lives in that water, and how to catch it, defines a fisherman. Turning it all into a profession is just one of the more advanced symptoms of a deeply infected individual.

People who love to fish dream of finding a really good spot and having it to themselves. Secrecy is just one of the many idiosyncrasies that go along with living with the disease. A close friend will ask you where you caught those fish, and your gut instinct will be to evade without really lying, to minimize and deflect an open, honest answer.

It has been said that ninety percent of the fish are caught by ten percent of the fishermen. I do believe that this is true. However, the ten percent is never the same ten percent year after year. Some guys get hot, and then they are not. Some people improve with age, and some do not.

People will say fishing is all about luck, but luck is such an elusive creature. Bad luck is just as common as good luck.

If you are lucky enough to find an exceptional spot, you would be a fool to show it to very many people. An older frustrated fisherman once told me, "What takes years to learn takes minutes to copy." He was surrounded by other boats.

For the past thirty years, I have been a very lucky fisherman. I didn't feel particularly lucky at the time, but in hindsight, I was living the "good old days" and did not recognize it for what it truly was. I had a lot of fun making money catching fish. Having fun and making money do not combine very often.

Fishing is a hard way to make a living, or it can be a way to not make a living. Fishing can put you in some of the most beautiful surroundings this world has to offer, or it can put you in places that are so dangerous that you have to be lucky to survive. . . .

The Cordell Bank

Cordell Bank, located fifty miles west of San Francisco, is part of an underwater mountain range that sits perched on the edge of the continental shelf. The top of the bank lies 120 feet from the surface. A mile west of that high spot, it drops off the continental shelf to six thousand feet deep.

Eleven thousand years ago, the Cordell Bank was oceanfront property. Sea levels have risen 340 feet since then. The Golden Gate Bridge would have been built over an immense river rather than ocean. This ancient river system mave have helped carve the deep Bodega Canyon that bends around the western edge of the Cordell Bank.

Mysterious things live around the Cordell. It is not only fish and birds and whales and dolphins that like this spot. Drifting in a boat, with the engines off, there are shadows under the surface that can't be clearly seen. More creatures live here than any other place I have ever been. You can't see what the shadows are, but they are certainly felt in your sensory soul.

I often feel I am being watched when I fish the bank, watched by intelligent life forms that are curious about me and why I am there. I sense their demand for a certain amount of respect. I am a visitor, not a local boy.

It would be ridiculous to try to pretend that these feelings do not exist. It is as though the spot is sacred and protected by the guardians of the deep. I have seen white sharks here that rival, in size, the model they used in the movie Jaws. I have seen several blue whales that might have set world records for size. Eighty or one hundred feet long and weighing two hundred tons each. I saw a white sperm whale at the bank that could have been related to Moby Dick. It is the creatures I haven't seen that scare me the most.


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