Merry Christmas, CS readers! Here’s a great holiday story from our December issue about how one San Francisco charter boat captain shares his love of fishing with local kids in the Bay Area:
By Chris Cocoles
SAN FRANCISCO–Don Franklin still owns a piece of fishing gear from one of the longtime San Francisco Bay charter captain’s earliest memories as an angler. It’s a Penn 500 that he caught Sacramento River catfish with as part of a rod and reel combo his dad gave him as a birthday gift years ago.
“I don’t have the rod but I’ve had the reel rebuilt a couple times,” Franklin says, a testament to its personal importance to him and about the activity that became a dominant portion of his childhood.
“If I could catch it, play with it and then I could eat it, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of that memento and the ambition he had to pursue a career on the water (California Sportsman, November 2022) that has inspired Franklin so many years later to help motivate the next generation of fishermen and-women.
His San Francisco-based fishing charter business, Sole- Man Sportfishing (510-703-4148; solemanfishing.com), has been going strong for 20 years, but it’s his primary profession that has allowed Franklin to give back. The Bay Area native works as a coach and mentor for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, and one of Franklin’s jobs is hosting a summer fishing camp for local youngsters. The camp is now back after a Covid-affected absence and is making a difference in helping kids learn about fishing.
And that is just one part of what’s been a memorable experience in Franklin’s 20-plus years skippering his boat out of Fisherman’s Wharf.
“It’s been a learning lesson; it’s been a lot of work. It’s been a lot of joy. The making of the memories of people is what makes it worth it. I get to encounter a lot of different people and different walks of life. But we hold the common thread of fishing. And that’s kind of the really cool thing – that I may not always remember faces and names, but then I’ll recall the time when we went out and caught something and we were able to create sort of life-changing memories and experiences, and that’s the thing that kind of keeps me going.”
WHEN FRANKLIN WAS YOUNGER, his father would get Don out on boats with the San Francisco Police Youth Fishing Program. And as the San Francisco State alum would eventually follow in Dad’s footsteps working for the city’s parks and recreation department, fishing outings with local kids stoked the fire in Don Franklin’s desire to get involved with fishing boats himself.
“And from there, it became a thing of bugging the captains; ‘Do you ever need help?’ What they noticed was, ‘Hey; this one’s pretty good.’ Eventually they started letting me pinhead on boats and then it became I started working on boats. So my trial and error was with Frank Rescino on the Lovely Martha (still one of the staples of the San Francisco fleet),” Franklin says. “He needed a deckhand one day for salmon trolling. He had 32, 33 (anglers onboard). It was raining, he closed the door to the cabin and he goes, ‘You wanted to be a deckhand. Deckhand.’ So that was my first trip ever with 33 guys in the rain, so I had to go salmon fishing and handle the whole boat. And I survived it.”
Perhaps that from-frying-pan-into- the-fire scenario was the epiphany the 20-something deckhand needed to eventually get his own boat, which happened in the early 2000s.
“I think I learned a little bit about how to run the deck and take charge. You learn how to manage the deck and with different fisheries. You learn to read people kind of well,” he says. “And I think my strength is that from the ones I learned from was this: It’s not a fishing experience; it’s a customer-service business. And you have to get those customers to get them to buy in.”
Now a salty veteran on the saltwater, Franklin sees his role as a fishing mentor to clients – both old and young – similar to his primary SFRPD job coaching junior high-level students in baseball and basketball.
“You have to be able to communicate effectively what the game plan is, how we’re gonna do it, when to do it,” he says. “Sometimes, I don’t understand how and why the fish do what they do. But just from the experience of doing it so many times, you start to learn trends. The game is changing now just because the conditions are changing and you have to adapt with it. It’s just what we always do.”
THE SUMMER KIDS’ PROGRAMS that resumed recently following the Covid pause have evolved over time for Franklin.
“I had originally set up two fishing camps, one that concentrated strictly on shark fishing in (San Francisco Bay). The other one concentrated on everything else,” he says.
Eventually, through trying a few different formats, he settled on a streamlined week-long series of educational experiences and then actual fishing trips on the water.
“I have the kids for a week and have one or two days of orientation and three days fishing. Two of these days could range on anything from rockfish to halibut to potluck to salmon. And on the last day we’ll try to make it a shark fishing trip,” he says.
What he’s also dialed in is how to ensure the kids stay engaged without getting “pooped,” as Franklin puts it. Sessions are usually limited to around four hours at a time.
And as Franklin notes, he gets “all walks of life” among the youths who participate in the camps. He sponsors scholarships for underprivileged kids in the community, those who also get to be a part of the camps who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. That represents about 40 percent of his students who learn about fishing and get to be a part of the sport after the orientation sessions.
“My parents raised me to give back if you’re in a position to,” he says. “And not that I’m rich, but I can kind of give back.”
Franklin recalls a few moments that illustrate what his youth camps have meant to him and the community. One was when his boat – filled with campers – sailed past San Francisco’s Pier 48, the site of the Chase Center, the sparkling home arena of the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors.
“One of the kids looked up and I asked him if he ever went out (on the bay) before. And he looked over at the skyline and he said, ‘I live over there.’ He lived in the public housing project. He’d never been on the water before and never had seen the bay from that perspective,” Franklin says.
“For some of the kids, you could tell the fish they caught, they’d go home and it was a real meal and a real treat. And on one of the salmon fishing trips, we got limits, and one of the dads of the kids came down to the boat one day and said, ‘Thank you for doing this for my kid.’ And you could tell they really needed the fish in the household.”
Perhaps most satisfying for Franklin, the kid who still owns that Penn reel that started him on his fishing odyssey, is influencing the next generation of San Francisco’s fishermen. Take Hunter Nguyen, who was a participant in a past camp for the guy everyone calls Sole-Man.
“I ended up hiring him as my team worker in the summer, and he went from there and I hired him as a deckhand and so now he works for a different boat,” Franklin says, “And he actually earned his captain’s license last summer.”
“He’s my spawn.”
And hopefully one of many more who, like their mentor, will fall in love with fishing at a young age. CS
Editor’s note: Contact Don Franklin of Sole-Man Sportfishing (510-703-4148; firstname.lastname@example.org) for more info on his kids’ fishing camps or to book a charter out of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.