A Day Catching San Francisco Treats

The following appears in the November issue of California Sportsman:

An early fall charter trip up the Bay Area coast from San Francisco made for a productive rockfish haul for five anglers. (CHRIS COCOLES)

By Chris Cocoles

SAN FRANCISCO– I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this metropolis. I love that my parents grew up there; love that I was born there; love San Francisco’s free spirit and its diversity and its tolerance for inclusion; love some of the great food its restaurants offer.

But I hate trying to navigate some of its narrow streets; hate how hard it can be to park there and how the traffic wears you down; hate its NFL and MLB teams (I root for rival franchises!); hate the crowds in the most touristy spots in town whenever I end up there.

So on balance I had a good feeling coming to San Francisco on an early fall Sunday morning. We arrived shortly before 6 a.m. into what we locals call the “City.” Traffic was a breeze, parking a snap at the nearby garage (despite the hefty price tag). And Fisherman’s Wharf – one of those usual tourist traps – was quiet, peaceful and darn near empty, a sight I’ve rarely experienced.

After having pondered a fishing trip with some family members, we managed to secure a spot on a Fisherman’s Wharf-based boat operated

by Capt. Don Franklin of Sole-man Sportfishing (510-703-4148; solemanfishing.com). Franklin and I had collaborated on a San Francisco shark fishing story in 2014, and I knew he was one of the most respected charter boat skippers in the fleet. I figured we were in good hands.

San Francisco landmarks like Coit Tower, Ghirardelli Chocolate and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge made for fun scenery on the trip to Bolinas off the Marin County Coast. (CHRIS COCOLES)

MY BROTHER-IN-LAW ALAN KING and his son-in-law David Laver joined us on our shared half-day charter. Shortly after we arrived and made our way down a ladder onto Franklin’s 32-foot Uniflite boat, the other two members of our party, local San Francisco residents Marcus and Emilia, came aboard. After a quick briefing by Franklin – we would head out of the bay to seek rockfish after he pondered targeting halibut – we stopped at the marina bait station to load up on sardines and off we went.

Looking back as the sky turned from dark to daylight, I could see a lit-up Coit Tower and the downtown skyline. In the other direction we spied Alcatraz Island and then sped out towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

I actually don’t recall ever traveling by boat under the iconic span of the Golden Gate. So while the chilled air kept much of our group crowded into the cabin with Franklin and his deckhand for the day, Ty Harris, I opted to brave the elements as we cleared the bottom of the bridge and hit the Pacific Ocean.

The trip took about an hour and Franklin’s speakers belted out his Beatles playlist. So as we checked out the scenery, we were serenaded by “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” “Hey Jude” and other Fab Four hits. Franklin pointed out a couple land-marks, in particular explaining the lighthouse (and replica Golden Gate Bridge) at Point Bonitas, which has guided ships in and out of San Francisco Bay since 1855.

I struck up a conversation with deckhand Harris, who was filling in with Franklin for the first time but spends a lot of time working with fellow San Francisco-based charter service Flash Sportfishing. Harris, a diehard bass angler and tournament participant, lives in Escalon in the San Joaquin Valley and often when he has multiple shifts will sleep on another iconic San Francisco boat, the Lovely Martha, which Franklin also worked on years ago when he was trying to break into the business.

The clouds never broke away into the sun until we arrived back at Fisherman’s Wharf, but by the time we stopped just off the beach town of Bolinas in Marin County, the water was relatively calm – for most of us onboard – and the weather pleasant. It was time to try our luck.

TWO MOMENTS EARLY ON in our morning convinced me that our captain knew these waters well, and furthermore, that he was respected among his fellow fishermen, having run his boat for just over 20 years now.

As we were slowing down in anticipation of getting lines in the water, Franklin was chatting up another boat in the area and providing his location, a point of interest he called “Sole-man’s Rock.”

“I can’t believe this guy has a spot named after him. Wow,” I told myself. Later in the morning during some down time I asked Franklin about the origins of Sole-man Rock. Simple. One of his fellow captains named it after him. Nothing more. Nothing less.

At one point, one of those other boats drifted by and exchanged pleasantries and updates. As they headed up the coast someone shouted, “We love you, Sole-man!”

“For me, it was a thing where I used to go out on charter boats with my dad. And eventually it came full circle in that not only were the guys I knew and went out on their boats, I became a peer and a coworker of theirs once I got my own boat,” Franklin would tell me a few days later in a phone interview. “So it was like all the guys I grew up idolizing, now I’m working with them.”

The rest of us in the boat felt that love too with all the action the rockfish provided us. At times it was a

dizzying, chaotic and wonderful hot mess of strikes as we reeled up a colorful cavalcade of black, vermillion and canary rockfish.

This was the simplistic yet action-filled fishing of my dreams. We all took our places at various sections of the vessel – I manned the stern – and as Capt. Don and deckhand Ty instructed, dropped our weighted-down jigs and baitfish to the bottom while fishing in water anywhere from 70 to 100 feet deep.

When our line hit the ocean floor, we’d reel up a few cranks and then jig the rod up and down. Most of the time it was mere seconds before our rod tips would bend. There was no need to set the hook, just reel quickly and anticipate what was on the other end. As it turned out, the port side of the boat, where my family members Alan and David were fishing, was on fire.

I’d look back seemingly every few seconds after regularly hearing “Fish on,” with Franklin or Harris scrambling to help pull in either perfect eating-sized rocks, smaller ones not worth keeping or tiny specimens that made for perfect lingcod bait. On the starboard end Marcus and Emilia were also scoring some nice catches, while I had a steady number of bites and more than a few keepers. My highlight was hitting a double of feisty vermillions that would eventually be a great meal I had with some friends later in the week.

About the lings: We kept hoping for one of those behemoths to swallow our smaller rockfish on the way up. More than a few times our crew was convinced a bigger lingcod was hooked up, only to slip away.

In all, our boat managed to bring up three lingcod, including one by David that was just big enough to surpass the 22-inch minimum length. Marcus also landed a ling, but after a quick photo he had to release his after it came short when we measured it.

About the only downer of the morning was that Emilia got a little queasy. But after resting in the cabin for a while, she was our charter’s MVP when she came back out and scored not only some nice rockfish for her and Marcus to take home, but the second keeper lingcod of the morning. Even at our worst our group managed to have the best time.

Alan King (above) and his son-in-law David Laver fished the hot side of the boat. (CHRIS COCOLES)

ON THE JOURNEY BACK to the dock, Ty fileted our limits (David grilled up some of our haul that night back at Alan’s house in San Mateo with the rest of the family). The sun broke out as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge again, play-by-play updates from NFL games broadcasting on Franklin’s speakers. Back at the dock, we grabbed our cooler and baggies stuffed with filets, settled up the bill and then headed up the ladder.

Midday at Fisherman’s Wharf was quite a contrast and a reminder of my love-hate relationship with San Francisco. The quiet and peace I’d encountered early that morning was now a circus of tourists clogging the streets.

But as tired as my arms and legs were and in a rush to get back home to catch the end of the Sunday afternoon football games, I was happy to be a part of this mayhem. CS

Editor’s note: Next month, we’ll have a story on Sole-Man Sportfishing skipper Don Franklin’s work with local kids in the San Francisco Bay Area.

San Franciscans Marcus Greer (top) and Emilia Tongson joined our charter and each caught a lingcod. Tongson was able to take hers home. (CHRIS COCOLES)



A drawing Don Franklin made early on in grade school of himself on a boat off San Francisco provided an inkling of the career he would go on to pursue as an adult, a charter fishing boat captain. (CHRIS COCOLES)

It was toward the end of high school in the mid-1980s when I started to wonder what I wanted to do with my life. That’s typical at that age, and second only to my prized Atari game – I was a Defender and Space Invaders nerd – was my school’s career center computer.

I don’t remember much about the computer’s technology, but I know we could periodically come in, request information about careers and the printer would spit out a bunch of content about specific vocations. I was so obsessed with fishing and the outdoors I chose to get feedback about “fish and wildlife specialists.” I remember being excited about the description of what these professionals do, and less enthused when, at the time, jobs were scarce and hard to come by.

I settled for combining my love for writing and sports and studied journalism at college enroute to that field, but I always wonder what might have been if I had followed through on my first passion.

I was reminded of my choice while fishing with fellow Bay Area resident Don Franklin (page 67), who’s been a charter fishing boat captain out of San Francisco since the early 2000s. Though Franklin, an Oakland native, has also been working for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department since attending San Francisco State, I asked him if he too always had a desire to make a living in the fishing industry.

“For me, it was a thing where I used to go out on charter boats with my dad. And eventually it came full circle in that not only were the guys I knew and went out on their boats, I became a peer and a co- worker of them once I got my own boat. So it was like all the guys I grew up idolizing, now I’m working with them.”

But it was more preordained than that, something that really hit home during one of his recent birthdays.

“My mom gave me a picture that I had made in like the first grade. And it was me on a boat in San Francisco, and I had (drawn) the Golden Gate Bridge,” Franklin says.

“I asked, ‘Where did you get this?’ She saved it. She asked me, ‘How did you know what you wanted to do what you (now) do?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how. I was just meant to do it.’”

In getting to know Don, both that day on the boat and in a phone chat we had a few days later, I learned we had baseball in common as youngsters in the Bay Area. We both rooted for the Oakland A’s and some of the elite baseball talent his city produced – though Franklin admitted he was also a huge fan of the great Willie McCovey of the rival San Francisco Giants – and we ultimately got involved in sports (I write about them; he coaches kids as part of his job with parks and rec).

But I commended Don’s commitment to living out his dream he drew on that piece of paper so many years ago. I guess in some ways these years I’ve spent at California Sportsman at least have given me a taste of what I could have become. I’m just grateful I can share Capt. Franklin’s story. -Chris Cocoles