Just south of Laguna Beach is a quiet little town called Dana Point. Quiet, at least, for Orange County standards. When it was discovered in 1835 by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., he described it as “the only romantic spot on the coast.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but it has certainly grown into one of the only Orange County harbors of note, and it remains an excellent spot for surfing and fishing.
Dana Point Harbor is special to me because it came at a really developmental time in my youth as a man as well as an avid fisherman. My pure love and deep sentimental connection to fishing may have come from my earliest youth memories (e.g., Swan Lake + Sacramento Delta, or Beaver Lake + Grand Lake in the midwest), but my cocky confidence came from my wild adventuring as a young man.
There’s no better place to be a young man fishing than Dana Point. Dana Point has good enough fishing that my growing wealth of knowledge and experience made me a really effective fisherman, and it’s a small enough, popular enough area to give me an audience. I could catch massive fish — for all intents and purposes, sea monsters — like hulking barracudas, and haul them from the waters like a fishing god. The onlookers (and there were many) were just mesmerized.
The truth of it is, Dana Point — specifically Dana Wharf — was one of the places I could actually get a job for the summers and be motivated enough to actually get excited about work each day. I worked on the sport fishing boats straight through high school and college summers, doing both long range and short range trips for tourists and avid fishing clients.
Which means I got the opportunity to fish the harbor and neighboring waters.
I fished off the boat, on the boat, around the boat. Anywhere I could. We’d come in from working on the boats out in the harbor, tie up, clean, and I’d take sardines or anchovies and cast them off the side. These massive big barracuda would come ripping across the surface and take my bait, only to get hooked into an epic struggle (which I’d inevitably win, of course). I’d look up after wrestling in these huge barracuda to find people watching from the wharf and from the land. Talk about boosting my ego.
Even when I wasn’t there and wasn’t working, I’d take my expertise and experience from these trips and try to show off a little, however I could. My buddies and I would go out on the harbor in these little skiffs and they’d taunt me, telling me I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, and I’d fish for all I was worth to prove I was. Those days, I’d slam white sea bass all day long, enough to fill a bait barge it seemed. I knew they were wondering how I was doing it, but I knew by then a simple truth of fishing. Knowledge and technique go a long way.
In addition to human spectators, there always seemed to be a number of seals causing a nuisance to fisherman. Especially when I was much younger, going out on inner tubes and casting plastics around the harbor for halibut, the seals always seemed to be around, no matter how much we chased them off. They’d steal our bait or scare the fish off, and then they’d slide onto the rocks or the shore and just laugh about it. What a racket!
As I’ve gotten older, I don’t fish in the ocean as much as I used to, but it’s definitely a home away from home and has a special place in my heart. I spent countless hours down there as a kid making money — making good money for high school and college standards. Maybe I blew it all as beer money, but I still think that counts as a good cause.
Now when I go back, I spend a little less money on beer and a lot more time on land. There are great restaurants and lots of little shops, and an overall electric atmosphere. Just what you’d expect from the most romantic spot on the coast.
If Richard Dana could see what his little harbor had become, I like to think he’d do the same things I do. Catch up with the owner and some of the locals at Dana Wharf, swap tales of the glorious days when we were fishing gods, and keep thinking, “I need to bring my kids down here.” That’s the thing with places like Dana Point, they’re meant to be passed on. Kind of like I’m doing now. If you make it out there, shoot me a note and let me know.