No Dory, but plenty of fish, fun found on Morro Bay charter fishing trip

Fishing with Virg’s Landing out of Morro Bay

The Tribune spent a day on the water fishing for rock fish with Virg's Landing, a fishing operation that has been around since the mid 1950s.
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The Tribune spent a day on the water fishing for rock fish with Virg's Landing, a fishing operation that has been around since the mid 1950s.

I only had one thought before my fishing trip last week — don’t get sea sick.

So I loaded up on the essentials: Dramamine, water and one of those motion sickness bracelets that probably doesn’t do much good.

I had been on the open ocean before, but not for a long time. No, I’m just old and my sea legs are gone. Just last weekend, I nearly got sick on the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios while kids cheered and went for round two. If I was going to write a story about this fishing trip, I was determined it wouldn’t include a passage about me chumming the waters with my breakfast.

I arrived at Virg’s Landing bait and tackle shop at 5:45 a.m. I hadn’t been up this early since I was up this late, I thought. Still, I was excited. These were the same type of trips my father would take my brother and me on when we were teens, back when I had an iron stomach.

My personal guide was Bruce Harwood, manager at Virg’s Landing. He gave me a brief rundown about the history of Virg’s, a company that has been around since 1954. He had made his way up from Southern California 10 years ago and worked as a cabinet maker in Atascadero until the recession hit in 2008. A couple of years ago, Harwood — who has been on the water since he was 4-years-old — landed a part-time gig at Virg’s. He now works full time and beams when he talks how he helped develop the company’s full-size bait and tackle shop.

We boarded the Fiesta, a 55-foot wood-hull sportfisher, and the crew was busy preparing for the trip. Burlap sacks for holding the catches of each crew member were hung. Rods were rigged. Nick Mendoza, a large, thick-shouldered middle-aged man and the skipper of the Fiesta, circled around the outside, double checking everything with a lit Camel cigarette dangling from his lips.

Deck hands Simeon Villalobos and Mathew Perlertte, the younger men charged with the real grunt work, joked with each other. I made small talk with Villalobos, who grew up in Templeton.

“You surf?” I ask.

“Nah,” he jokes. “I’ve made too many enemies out there.”

The early morning fog still obscured the top of Morro Rock as we left the harbor. “Oh crap,” I thought as the Fiesta left the calm waters of the harbor. It’s a little rough but not too bad. I’ll be OK if I just concentrate on the horizon.

I had to break eye contact with Harwood as he filled me in on the long fishing history of Morro Bay to concentrate on the horizon. The once vast fisheries just outside the harbor that once contained salmon, yellow tail and albacore tuna are not what they used to be. They are still around in much smaller numbers farther north, south and in the open waters, but today we head north in search of rockfish and lingcod.

The fishing population has been depleted, but Harwood said Virg’s has worked with Cal Poly to collect data with the hopes that it doesn’t get any worse. Right now they consider it to be healthy and making a comeback. With all the changes to the number of fish, one thing has remained the same: Tourism helps drive Virg’s. Harwood estimates that 65 percent of his customers come from the Central Valley. A large group of FFA students from Lemoore High School were aboard that morning, illustrating his point.

After an hour and a half of cruising, we stopped at a kelp forest just off the coast of Cambria and readied our rods. The issued set-up is a one-pound weight with two hooks, though some anglers brought their own rods and were using artificial lures. The bait of choice are small cuts of squid that Harwood had to special order from South America because the local population of squid is down this year.

The method goes like this: drop the weighted bait until it hits the bottom, then reel a few cranks and wait. We start catching rockfish almost immediately.

About five minutes in, I pull up a nice red rockfish. Skipper Nick pulls out his phone and snaps a picture of Perlertte and me with the catch.

“Smile, ladies!”

I have a feeling he uses this joke a lot.

Perlertte places my catch in my sack with my lucky No. 13. Meanwhile, people are pulling up fish left and right. Villalobos and Perlertte do their best to help everyone, taking fish off of hooks, re-tying rigs and freeing snagged hooks from the reef below. Villalobos even finds time to cook up some breakfast burritos and burgers.

I order a burger and a Dr. Pepper. I re-upped on my Dramamine, and I’m feeling fine. Others weren’t so lucky.

A family of four has their heads on the table in the galley. One of the Lemoore High students got sick before we made our first stop, and he was pretty bummed.

Overall, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. This fishing is relatively simple and on this day, after bouncing around to a few spots, everyone on board catches their 10 rockfish limit along with about a dozen lingcod.

As we cruise back, Villalobos and Perlertte filet the more than 300 fish for each passenger — as the sea gulls swarmed — for an extra dollar apiece. Totally worth it.

Villalobos found out I was working on a story and offered some advice: “Let everyone know we cater to bachelorette parties.”

Despite the lack of a soon-to-be-bride, the FFA crew counted the trip as a success.

“Every year we go on a retreat with the new officer team to get to know each other a little bit better,” Lemoore High student Kayla Babb said. “It was fun. I can’t speak for Brian because he was sick, but I think most of us had fun.”

Luckily I didn’t get sick either. And now I have fish tacos for days.

Book your own trip

Virg’s Landing Morro Bay, 805-772-1222, www.virgslandings.com

Patriot Sportfishing Avila Beach and Morro Bay, 805-595-7200, www.patriotsportfishing.com