Story and photos By Tim E. Hovey
The 85-foot research vessel Yellowfin was anchored off one of the Channel Islands that stretch up and down the Pacific Ocean off Southern California.
The ocean conditions were calm and the big gray ship hardly moved as I exited the galley. Off the stern, the jagged hills of the island were visible. They were covered in bright colors as the sun lit up the wildflowers. It looked like a cool place for a hike. It was late afternoon and our boat work for the day was done.
As student volunteers that summer, we were involved in an extensive fisheries survey of the waters near the coastal islands. Living in the cramped quarters of the ship, we’d rise early to collect and assess the fish species captured in the nets we had set the evening before.
After backbreaking work of hauling the nets and removing thousands of fish, we’d clean and stow the gear, record all the data and get everything ready to set that same gear at the next survey station. Once the day’s work was finished, we could relax until dinner.
The back deck was almost deserted and I almost didn’t notice her. Sitting on the lower deck, I saw a young woman in an olive-colored military jacket fishing off the side of the ship. I had first met her on this research trip; we had both been on the same small skiff that morning and pulled fish from the nets. Her name was Cheryl.
I grabbed a fishing rod and went down close to where she was. I could hear her talking to herself as she made a few casts. I shouldn’t really say I was casting. The rod I had grabbed didn’t have any terminal tackle attached and I was simply pretending to cast and reel.
She saw me fake fishing near her and smiled. My heart skipped a beat. We had had some conversation on the skiff, but nothing significant. I was brand new to the fisheries program and I didn’t know anyone on the ship. However, being the new guy has never really bothered me.
“Who are you talking to?” I asked. She seemed a bit embarrassed that I had caught her. Without looking at me, she answered. “My grandpa told me that if you want to catch a fish when you’re fishing, you have to talk to your bait.”
I thought that was funny and a bit ridiculous. I had no idea that this casual conversation on the back deck of the Yellowfin in 1991 would change my life forever.
WHEN SCHOOL STARTED BACK up in the fall, I would find out that Cheryl was also in the fisheries program. She was a year behind me at Cal State Northridge, but I would occasionally see her in some of the more specific marine biology classes. I started noticing that whenever I saw her or briefly spoke with her, she’d leave me in a good mood.
The following summer we were once again on the same research trip. When the day’s work was finished, we’d both grab a school fishing rod and try our luck at the back of the ship. We’d talk about all sorts of things, all the while waiting for a bite that seldom came. It was that second research trip that made me realize that I really liked having Cheryl around.
We started dating a few weeks before I graduated. With no real employment opportunities looming on the horizon, I accepted a graduate position at the same school, locking in my presence at the university for the next two years.
Those graduate years still remain as some of the best adventures I have ever had. We traveled the road to Baja, fishing and diving in support of our graduate student projects. And every step of the way, Cheryl was by my side.
When time allowed and we weren’t working, our vacations consisted of flying down to La Paz every summer to fish the fertile waters near Cerralvo Island. Our love of fishing was definitely a solid interest for us both. We went as often as time and student funds would allow.
When I graduated with my master’s, I had a job lined up in San Diego. Cheryl still had one year of school left and would remain living local. We decided to give the long-distance relationship thing a try for a while. Every weekend either she would drive down to San Diego or I would drive up to Los Angeles – 150 miles away – for a visit.
After a year of this, I knew that the present situation wasn’t going to work for me. I hated the constant driving and the long distance. I just ended up missing her too much. One weekend in November – for Cheryl’s birthday – I drove up to Northridge and asked her to marry me. Thankfully, she said yes.
AFTER CHERYL GRADUATED WITH her master’s, we found a small apartment in Oceanside and began our lives together. We continued the annual trips to La Paz and fished for fun as often as possible.
Then in 1997 I bought a used Mako 20-foot center console boat. After completely tearing it down to the hull and redoing everything, Cheryl and I began spending most weekends offshore and fishing for whatever was biting in our own boat. During that time I was almost fanatical about fishing and had yet to meet anyone who loved it as much as I did. Cheryl came very close.
Two years later the California Department of Fish and Wildlife hired me as a marine biologist. Cheryl was working fulltime as a pharmacy technician and we had just moved into a new home near the coast. Life was good, and it was about to change.
In 2000 and 2002, respectively, Cheryl and I welcomed Alyssa and Jessica, our two outdoor-loving daughters, to our young family. While we did get out to fish and enjoy the coast occasionally in those early years, it was clear to both of us that our priorities had changed. We sold the boat and concentrated on raising our two girls.
Looking toward the future, I took an inland fisheries position with the state that allowed us to relocate closer to our extended family. And as the girls got older, we started to develop a different outdoor tradition. We’d cart the girls off to the beach and fish from shore. Cheryl and I trained the girls in casting, hook-setting and being patient. Soon they were catching fish of their own and honing their angling skills on just about every trip.
With local lakes close by, we’d occasionally take the girls out on a rental skiff to try their luck catching panfish in the shallows. Excursions like these also allowed us to train them in driving boats and cleaning fish. For Cheryl and me, it became very important that we show our daughters how much we love the outdoors and they were always eager to try new things.
A suggestion from Cheryl during a family camping trip to Lake Tahoe put us on a half-day boat with a fishing guide. We trolled the shallows with small salmon feathers, and we all caught our limits of kokanee salmon, a first species for all of us.
Fishing is now one of our favorite family activities. We all enjoy the opportunity to get out to try our luck. We frequently compete during these family fishing excursions to see who catches the first, most and biggest fish. These family times at the beach will always be a special memory for Cheryl and me.
I REALIZED VERY EARLY on that the career I had chosen was far different than any regular office job. My 9-to-5 days would likely be spent on boats or hauling gear and studying fish populations. My prospects for meeting someone special would’ve been extremely limited in and amongst the dirty nets and stinky fish.
Looking back, I feel extremely fortunate to have met Cheryl as she fished on the back deck of the Yellowfin so long ago. My wife is without a doubt the strongest woman I know and makes me laugh just about daily.
She has been an amazing parenting partner as we’ve raised our girls into self-confident and well-adjusted young adults. She has taught me patience, understanding and kindness. Cheryl has also taught me that my stubbornness and extreme protectiveness are noble qualities that need to be kept and used accordingly.
In other words, I am not going to change who I am to fit what the world is becoming. Cheryl has mentioned that she wants our daughters to pick a man just like me as their husbands. That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.
As we move forward, we still get away occasionally to fish. Anyone who knows my family understands that our free time and vacations will always center around the outdoors, and I believe I have Cheryl to thank for that.
As I reflect on how life has unfolded, I can’t think of one memorable second that hasn’t involved Cheryl. She has been my guiding force to be successful and is the love of my life. She has taught me that there is no higher importance than taking care of my family. And just her presence is a constant reminder of beauty, strength, commitment and humor.
To my lovely wife, happy Valentine’s Day! You, Alyssa and Jessica are absolutely the only reason I live and breathe. Thank you. CS