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BY THE CELLBLOCKS AND THE BAY
Russell Chatham
November 12, 1973
In sight of San Quentin and San Francisco, below the hurtling commuter traffic, lie striped bass of record size offering sport to satisfy any fisherman
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November 12, 1973

By The Cellblocks And The Bay

In sight of San Quentin and San Francisco, below the hurtling commuter traffic, lie striped bass of record size offering sport to satisfy any fisherman

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"Did you look?" Frank asks.

"They're there."

We row around the tilted bow of a derelict tugboat, then past rotted pilings left from the ferryboat days. Over on the approach a yellow bridge-patrol truck moves slowly, its warning lights flashing. Switching on a spotlight, the driver scans the water, catching sight of Frank and me. Then the light is turned off and the truck goes on toward the toll plaza.

Unseen overhead, a nighthawk rasps its singularly forlorn call. The smell of an institutional breakfast wafts unappetizingly across the water from San Quentin, an odor not unlike that of a cow barn in winter. No croissants and chilled grapefruit sections this morning, to be sure.

I visited Inside once when I was 16 and on a school tour. We saw the high comblike cellblocks, the laundry, woodshop, dusty yard and gas chamber—"the little green room." Worst of all I saw the look of confinement on the faces of the hundreds of inmates. Whatever they had for breakfast, I felt certain it would not taste delicious.

There is a fast tide and we must row smartly to pass beneath the bridge, always dank and dripping. Sounds are amplified and echoed, especially that of wavelets slapping against pilings. Reflected light plays on the girders overhead, and just before we emerge I see several bass hovering at the edge but they sink from view almost at once.

Frank rows into the dark and I decide to try the first light. I drop a large buck-tail fly by the piling directly beneath the lamp where the current will swing it into the shadows.

Instantly there is a take and I set the hook twice. This is always the moment when you wonder if the bass will go under the bridge and break the line on a sharp barnacle. But light pressure encourages them to dive toward the boat. Now my bass pulls into the dark and I try to gauge its size. If nothing else, it is a stubborn fish that resolutely resists all the strain I can manage on a 15-pound tippet. Eventually, I land it and mentally record a weight slightly above 20 pounds.

Frank is anchored under the third light where I see angular splashes as fish erupt under a school of bait.

It was Walt Mullen who showed me the bridge and how to fish it shortly after it was built. When we first met I was 16 and he more than 80. My father had known Walt's daughter back in the '20s when they were going to Stanford. "He loved to fish more than anyone I ever knew," my dad recalls.

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