Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sea sickness

I get really bad sea-sickness. Really bad. I also go fishing, on the sea, a lot. Therefore I have tried and tested many different ways of preventing sea sickness. I thought I would post up a 'guide' to avoiding seasickness while fishing (so I can just link to it rather than reposting it all the time in the multiple fishing forums I spend my life on).

These are in order of importance

1. Do not drink the night before. If I get this wrong, the rest is pointless. Even if you don't (think you) have any sort of hangover, your 'nausea threshold' will be reduced.

2. Get as much sleep as possible the night before. This can be helped by (3).

3. Take a travel sickness pill before you go to bed. Take another in the morning >2h before launch if poss. I use meclozine (meclizine in the US). Which comes variously as "sea legs, Bonine, Bonamine, Antivert, Postafen, and Dramamine (Less Drowsy Formulation).

It's definitely not non-drowsy for me. Funnily enough tho I don't actually feel drowsy until I'm off the water.

Others swear by scopolamine.

4. EAT. Have a decent breakfast and take lots of snacks out with you, ginger-based if possible. Whenever you feel queasy, start eating. This is counter-intuitive for many, but it really works for me. Ginger is the oldest anti-nausea drug there is and general blood-sugar levels/stomach distension are thought to be related to nausea.

5. Avoid looking down. Tie rigs on shore. When retying or unhooking fish, look up at the horizon as often as possible.

6. If you feel really sick, just let it out if you can do so safely. You'll feel better for 20 mins at least. I've caught some of my biggest fish while "chumming". Stay hydrated tho!

7. In a kayak, paddling is better than drifting which is better than being anchored. If you keep feeling ill, try trolling lures for a bit.

8. Take a break if you can (and eat something!). I usually feel better within seconds of stepping on dry land and after 20 mins or so I find I can go back out and not feel sick for a couple of hours.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I went Sturgeon fishing on San Francisco Bay this weekend. Sturgeon are about the trickiest fish to catch around here. They come into the bay in the winter, to hoover up herring eggs and eat shrimp and clams. Winter means cold, bad weather; not ideal on a kayak. Also, their food is stationary, meaning you and your bait have to be stationary and thus even colder.

So you have to rig up an anchor, but one that can be quickly released, because another thing about sturgeon is they are massive. The record for the bay is over 9ft. Fish over 6ft are fairly common, in fact, to protect them from overfishing they have to be between 46 and 66 inches long for you to be able to keep them. Being anchored in a kayak when you're hooked into a fish that size is not safe.

They are also "light biters"; it's very easy to miss a sturgeon bite, often you don't even know you had a bite until you reel in an empty hook; the sturgeon will just suck your bait off your hook without you realising. So you have to pay very close attention and keep the rod in your hand at all times.

Finally, sturgeon are hard to find. They're out there, but spread out in the vast shallow flats of San Francisco Bay and the delta system that feeds it. You can go days without getting a bite. I calculated I have spent over 60 hours fishing for sturgeon, In that time I think I had a bite. One bite. That was in 2007.

What a great combination huh? Anchored all day in the pouring rain on San Francisco Bay, in January, staring intently at the tip of my fishing rod in the hopes of getting a bite that in all probability will never come.

I told you I was addicted.

There are other fish in the bay. Among the least desired and most maligned are the batrays, Myliobatis californica. Most fishermen don't like them because they are common and steal bait intended for other fish. They're also not really good eats because they live in the bay year round and are thus considered a little unhealthy for consumption. Plus the best thing anyone has ever said about eating them is they taste like scallops. I don't like scallops. But I do like catching batrays; they can also get very big and are incredibly powerful. This weekend I hooked into a monster that towed me around the bay for over 20 minutes. Here I am whizzing past a fellow kayaker (these are all thumbnails, click on them for the full size picture).


The ray spun me like a top and we came back past again, in this pic you can actually see that the kayak is generating a wake; we were motoring.


Eventually I managed to battle the ray up to the side of my kayak; I shot some video


Here is a still of the batrays head so you can get a better idea of the size. You can see its wing stretching out underwater in the top right of the picture.


I unhooked the batray and sent it on its way. I paddled back to my anchor and set up again in the rain. I was with a flotilla of other kayakers all hoping for sturgeon. The fishing had been, in sturgeon terms, very good for the last couple of weeks. There were 16 of us out there that day. One legal sturgeon was caught. By ~3.45pm, those of my fellow kayakers who were still out decided to call it a day; the paddle back to the launch was ~30 minutes and they didn't want to get stuck in the dark. I was crestfallen. I couldn't believe the day had gone already.

I stuck it out until they were specks in the distance and then hauled anchor myself for the 30 min paddle back. I got all the way back to ~400 ft from the launch beach when I decided to have one last crack; it wasn’t (quite) dark yet and I had one shrimp bait left. It was a pretty puny little shrimp, one of the two I managed to dig up myself the previous day. Fresh live shrimp are the best bait. I cast out and waited. After 10 more mins of nothing in the rain I called it a day and reeled in……but, well, the shrimp was still twitching. I cast out again and gave it 10 more min…..11……12. Alright, enough, that’s it, time to go……........hold on…….......... there was a tap on the line, another tap, and a slow bend....... I swung the rod as hard as I could and felt a massive weight on the end.

Straight away the fish broke the surface and I saw it was a sturgeon. A big sturgeon. Oh man. Now I was in a bit of a pickle. For a fish this size, on a kayak, it's not uncommon to be fighting them for over half an hour before you can bring them to the boat. There was no way I could fight this thing for half an hour; it would be dark and I would be halfway to Hawaii. Plus, this was a big fish. If I wanted to keep it, which I did, I would have to measure it to confirm it was between 46 and 66 inches. That would mean it could weigh up to 130 lbs. (That's over nine stone to the Brits reading this). To land and measure a big sturgeon usually requires a team effort and a piece of equipment called a sturgeon snare that loops over the fish and allows you to keep it restrained while you measure it. My team had all gone home and I had dropped my snare overboard the week before (I was relying on my team for a snare as well as help with the measuring).

I hollered on the radio, but the guys were packing up and all their radios were off. I could see them packing up on the beach as the sturgeon towed me off into the gloom. It was rather foolish of me to have been out there on my own, but as I was getting into my 61st hour of trying, I hadn't expected this to me The Moment. There was nothing else to do; I buttoned down the drag on my reel and put my back into the fight. Luckily the sturgeon decided to stay local, and towed me round in ever-decreasing circles. A few times I got it close to the boat, but when I reached out to grab it took off again, tearing the line off my reel even with the drag tightened down. After what felt like ~15 years I finally got it to the boat for good. I was very sure it was legal. I hauled it out of the water and into my lap and made sure with the tape measure.



I tried to paddle in to the launch but had to stop short with ~200 feet to go because the water was too shallow to paddle; it was low tide. So I got out and waded my way through the shallows and onto the beach, dragging my kayak behind me. Only one kayaker was left, strapping his boat to the roof of his car. I tried to explain to him what had happened but could only manage a stream of breathless gibberish, waving my arms around like a lunatic. Eventually he figured it out and came down to the beach in disbelief and snapped a few pics for me. The sturgeon finally taped out at 60 inches (my guesstimate is 53 in the video). I have no idea how heavy, "very" is my best guess. I could hardly hold it up.



Even two days later my arms are sore, but I've eaten a lot of sturgeon. It tasted really good, although very unfish-like.

I think I'm done with sturgeon for a long time. It was a lot of fun, but our freezer is full and there's no need to catch another one. My addiction can be placated by batrays, who fight as hard but grow much more quickly and are a lot more abundant.


Sunday, December 7, 2008

An essay about fishing addiction.

It’s Monday. It’s 5am. I’ve already been up almost two hours, prepping and loading the car. I’m bolting down some toast when the phone rings. It’s Andy. He’s already on the road and is just checking in to see whether I am too. “I’m about to leave” I tell him.

All I know about Andy is that he’s called Andy. I have never met him. I don’t know his surname, where he lives or what he looks like. We became acquainted via an online forum. I gave him my phone number and we agreed to meet on a remote beach at dawn this morning, 2 and a half hours north of my home in San Francisco. Sounds like the beginning of a bad crime novel doesn’t it? But I feel perfectly safe. Because I do know one other thing about Andy; he’s addicted to fishing. And so am I.

I’m a scientist. I research addictions, trying to understand how the brain learns about drugs and alcohol. That’s when I’m not fishing, or thinking about fishing, or reading about fishing or buying fishing gear or talking about fishing. The National Institutes of Health defines addiction as “continued drug use in spite of adverse consequences”. Every few minutes my electronic calendar pops up with a list of ongoing work tasks and their due date. All are overdue. I have grant proposals and papers to write, experiments to plan and perform. But instead here I am, at work, writing about fishing. Eventually I’ll get back to my work. When I get stuck, or my mind goes blank, I know I’m going to check the online fishing reports. I checked them 2 minutes ago. I know I’ll check them again within 15 minutes. If there’s nothing new, I’ll check the fishing weather forecast, or a different fishing website. If there’s still nothing new then I’ll reply to the latest email I’ve received from another addict. There’s a lot of us out there. That’s why there’s always something to read about in the online forums and chatrooms. Lately I have discovered the joys of kayak fishing, paddling out to the places where neither the big motor boats or the shore fishermen can access. Obviously being out on the open ocean in small plastic boats is much safer when done is small groups, hence my willingness to meet up with total strangers in the middle of nowhere.

I arrive at the beach late, the coastal road is a lot windier and slower than google maps indicated. The sun is already up and Andy is already out on the water in his kayak, a tandem. In the back is a friend of his in a wicker hat. I am frantic and hurried. I unpack my kayak and jump into my wetsuit. Once all my gear is assembled and my kayak is ready to go, I have to drive the car half a mile back up a hill to park it. I actually sprint back down and into the kayak. I turn on the marine radio and hail Andy, apologizing for being late. No problem, he says, the fishing has been slow so far. I launch my kayak into the calm waters of the cove and start paddling. I start to relax; I love this part of a fishing trip, the anticipation at the start of the day. The water is completely calm and flat. The overnight fog is slowly burning off the mountain tops as the sun continues its rise. The smell of saltwater fills my nose and I am beaming. I paddle out towards Andy but stop short in a kelp bed. The kelp has grown exceptionally thick this year and it’s teaming with fish. Andy is further out, on the open water. Calm, glassy open water. It is the beginning of shark season on the northern California coast and this beach is at the tip of the infamous “Red Triangle” where more shark attacks occur than anywhere else in the world. I am still new to kayak fishing and the thought of being out on the open water in a piece of seal-shaped plastic is not appealing. Not when the fishing is slow. I drop my line down in between the kelp fronds and straight away feel the sharp yank of a rockfish. It’s plate-sized, about 14 inches. I’ll be eating well tonight. Four hours pass by in an instant. I have a handful of rockfish and I am ecstatic. Andy’s friend in the wicker hat is in a similar mood, grinning as he shows me the rockfish he’s caught. Andy has been in this game longer than me and is not so pleased. “I really wish we’d got a Ling” he mutters, “these rockfish are OK but the Lings are so much better, more fight, more meat”.

In these parts, the Ling is King. A big, ferocious, mean, ugly fish with a bottomless appetite and a huge head full of sharp teeth with which to feed it. I have never caught one and can’t really see the appeal when rockfish are so easy to catch and so tasty.

Addiction has many facets. Tolerance is a common one; the need to take more of a drug to reach the same effect. Two months later, another 2 and a half hour drive, this time south down the California coast. Now my wife, Lisa, is with me, she is also afflicted. A few weeks before I had taken her out kayak fishing on the ocean for the first time. We went to the same rockfish spot I went with Andy. In the car on the way up she was nervous, about sharks and seals and waves and cold. On the way back she was like an excited child after their first ride on a rollercoaster. When are we going again, when, when, when. This time there’s just the two of us, riding an angry ocean off the Monterey coast. I am covered in my own vomit. My seasickness pills have failed me. Again. She is anchored in the kelp, catching blue and black rockfish on every cast. I am rolling in the big swells out in the open water, catching nothing and pausing every 20 minutes to throw up and wipe the sweat from my sickly pale brow. I stick it out, because the open water is the deeper water and the deeper water is the Ling water. I don’t care about rockfish any more, I just want a Ling. I have been out every weekend since that trip with Andy and I have not caught a Ling. I can think about nothing else. Three hours pass, more slowly this time with the vomiting and the lack of fish. I eventually cave in and join my wife in the kelp beds. “We really should go in” she yells across the yawning swells, “you look terrible”. I swill my mouth with Gatorade “just one more try” I croak. My Ling need overrides everything. I use some seawater to rinse the latest episode of vomit off my wetsuit and drop my line down. It hits the bottom and is then yanked with a force that sets my heart racing and makes my legs go numb. This has to be it!
I feel the line grinding against the thick stems of the kelp as the big angry fish fights back in the water under the kayak. I am terrified I will lose it. I say nothing to Lisa, who is fishing with her back to me. I gain some line, I lose some line. I manage to ease it out of the kelp and eventually up to the surface. It is indeed a Ling. A big one. I reach behind me for the landing net and the fish goes crazy, thrashing the surface. Lisa hears the commotion and turns to look, she gasps as I net what looks, to her, like a baby seal. “What the…..?’.

No seal, but a very angry 31 inch Lingcod with a lot of very sharp teeth. The color comes back to my face, I am ecstatic. Dinner is excellent.

Gateway drugs are another big theme in addiction research. Does experimenting with cannabis really lead to the use of hard drugs? I had been a shorebound fisherman since arriving in California in 2001. A few fellow shorebound fisherfolk had purchased kayaks and raved about them, but I wasn’t sure. “You go out on the ocean in that little thing? The Pacific Ocean? In the Red Triangle?”. As a very young child, perhaps too young, I watched Jaws. I spent the next few years in the shallow end of the local swimming pool, terrified of water that was too deep for me to see the bottom, water that would obviously be filled with man-eating sharks. I wouldn’t go in the ocean without a snorkel on so I could see what was beneath me (how pointless is that, being able to see the shark before it rips you in two?). Even with my snorkel on, once the water got a little too deep, I could hear the infamous music getting louder and louder in my panicking brain. The fear has not abated in the intervening 30 years.

Moving to California was the first time I had the chance to actually see, with my own eyes, water containing Great White Sharks. I never, ever went in it. The thought of being on it in a kayak was suicidally stupid........until I saw how many fish they caught. A former shore-fisherman turned kayaker offered me the chance to “try it” one weekend. “I’ve got all the gear, you can borrow a spare kayak, there’s loads of us going, you’ll be fine………” I explained his proposition to my wife. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing “You’re terrified of sharks! You have a phobia! You’ll be a nervous wreck the whole time”. “……yeah, but the fish” I protested, “………look at all the fish they catch”. I agreed to try it. Once. Just to see. If I hate it, then, well, I’ll know won't I? It was all arranged. July 21st 2007 at Bean Hollow State Beach on the San Mateo coast. I cancelled at the last minute, friends had organised a camping trip and I invented a hundred reasons why I had to do that instead. Feeling an equal mix of disappointment and relief, I informed my kayak fishing “dealer”. “No problem” he said “we’ll be going again for sure”.

The following Monday I opened the local newspaper and spotted a headline that froze my blood.

“Fisherman escapes from shark attack off San Mateo County coast”

Unbelievable. One of the group I was supposed to have gone out had been attacked by a Great White. The shark had been knocked him out of his kayak and then proceeded to munch on the bow while the fisherman tried to scramble back in. No-one was hurt. This was only the fourth, maybe fifth, time this had EVER happened in California; a shark attack on a kayak. The timing was, well, spooky to say the least. That was it. No kayak fishing for me EVER. It’s just not worth it.

I bought my first kayak four months later.

My wife, afloat on the Red Triangle on a very calm day. Most shark encounter reports begin with the words “the water was calm, glassy”.

One of the biggest mysteries in addiction science is why only some people develop drug and alcohol problems. Most people drink alcohol at least once in their lives. Over 40% of people (in the USA) will experiment with an illegal drug at some point as well. Yet “only” ~15% will develop a genuine problem. Some people can drink and abuse drugs for years and decide one day to just quit, without a problem. Others are doomed from their first drink. Most people have been fishing at least once in their lives. Many enjoyed the experience and, when my “hobby” comes up in conversation, they express a genuine interest in coming along. I’ve learned from experience to just cut to the chase; tell them how early they’ll have to get up, how long they’ll be sitting in the car, how cold they’ll be, how likely they are to vomit and how prevalent the Great White Shark is. Some make polite excuses. Most just don’t reply to the email.

These non-fishing friends share many of my other interests and values, we agree on politics, music, sport, food, religion, we’re roughly the same age, have similar jobs. The contrast with my fishing friends couldn’t be more profound; they’re a diverse bunch, all ages, from all walks of life. Most are people I would otherwise never come into contact with and we generally have very, very little in common. Except, of course, for fishing. Conversation is never awkward or difficult; we talk about fishing for hours and hours. Should the conversation move to another topic, it will die in seconds. Well, I guess it would, because it rarely does.

Am I really addicted to fishing? More importantly, is it really a problem for me? Obviously a genuine addiction, especially to drugs or gambling, is completely debilitating. I am not trying to be flippant or make light of what is a real problem for millions of people whose lives are ruined every year. My life may be consumed by fishing but it is not in ruins. There are many theories about what happens to the brains of drug addicts. One prevalent theory is that the “motive circuit” of their brains becomes completely hijacked. This circuit processes environmental information and directs behavior accordingly. You see something in your environment that signals something good is available (eg: a krispy kreme logo) and your motive circuit will direct you towards it, performing a cost-benefit analysis as it does so. Everyone has this motive circuit, it contains elements with very scientific sounding names; nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area, prefrontal cortex. A conversation between those parts of the brain might sound something like this;

”ooo, there’s some food!”
“eat it!”
“no wait, pay for it first or you’ll got to jail”
“no wait, it’s a donut, you had one of those for breakfast and you’re getting fat, eat a salad.”
“Ok, I’ll get a Casear”.

What happens in the brains of drug addicts is that those parts of the brain who contribute the “wait” part to the conversation are completely overpowered, their voice is not heard, the results of cost-benefit analysis are not considered.

“ooo, there’s some cocaine!”
“take it!”

It’s currently not clear whether the “wait” voice of the conversation is gagged, or the “take cocaine” voice just shouts a lot louder.

I’m not addicted, I’m obsessed. Very, very obsessed. It’s my guess that the same parts of the brain are involved; in my brain and the brains of thousands of people like me, the “go fishing” voice is the loudest and sits at the head of the table, but still listens when it's told to shut up. My point is that the parts of my brain that are telling me to go fishing all the time are still answerable to those parts that tell me I really should go to work instead. But the fishing voice is really, really loud. And persistent. My wife is the same, except that she thinks about cooking. All the time. Thankfully fishing and cooking obsessions are very compatible

One of the most obvious signs of addiction is withdrawal. Fishing is governed by a myriad of rules and regulations, especially in California. The season for rockfish has just closed. Fishing for rockfish is easily my favorite type of fishing, it involves catching lots of tasty fish in beautiful surroundings. All summer I have planned my life around rockfishing. Now it is closed and I am in withdrawal. In keeping with the tolerance theme, all the other types of fishing I used to do, those that are not closed, well, they no longer seem so appealing, tho' I am trying them anyway to stave off the withdrawal. I have also entered into therapy; writing this essay. It has kept me occupied, allowing me to think about fishing for a while. Now it’s time for cold turkey.

Are you addicted to fishing? Let me know, write your story and post it here. Group therapy is more effective than doing it on your own.