Today, we are fishing for smelt. It is afternoon. The tide is attacking my shins, and the water deposits thick, milky foam on the shoreline. I hold my smelting net, a shimmering web of fishing line, threaded with two-ounce lead weights on the periphery. When extended, it spreads to form a great circle, capable of cinching tight when I run up shore. The throw line, noosed to my wrist, is old nylon rope, and it scratches the soft underside of my forearm. Because I am 12, my net is part mermaid braid, a beautiful thing, older than I am, and I trust it.
My father stands a few feet away. He is wearing a green windbreaker and shorts. I am in my gym shirt from middle school and nylon pants rolled up. It is a cold, gray day on the northern coast of California. We are both barefoot, withstanding the chill of the Pacific, waiting, watching the waves for a sign of the fish running. I know to look for their silver bellies flashing in the waves as they spawn—their candy bar-sized bodies packed in dense schools. I know to throw my net the moment I read their movement, but it is difficult to see; the sky is swallowed by fog, there is no sun, and the ocean is rough, churning in the wind.
We are the only ones on the beach today with throw nets. Other smelters dot the shoreline; their bodies form strange half-ghosts in the fog down the coast. They are mostly men who wear waders with thick-soled boots and camouflage caps, and hold long, A-framed nets that attach to their waists and dip easily into the waves. The A-frames are popular, a newer invention, but the poles of their frames jut out like unwieldy stilted legs. Whereas they can only go back and forth in a straight line, my father and I dance with our nets, pulling and moving as we please. We hold them as we might hold a pile of priceless fabric, folded and bundled around [End Page 51] our upturned arms. Ours is a delicate process, a physical and satisfying catch.
The Lost Coast of California is a place of winding highways, people lost to fog and redwoods, towns that host canneries and abandoned industry. It derives its name from beaches that disappear in the tide, and from hidden, inaccessible stretches of rocky shoreline. Last summer my family retraced John Steinbeck and Ed Rickett’s journey through Baja California, and we all miss the heat, the food, the sun. Here, we wait in the fog for a run of smelt, wrap ourselves in beach towels, and watch the slow release of the tides. A mile down the beach is our campsite. It sits among gentle dunes where Roosevelt elk graze against a backdrop of red-rocked bluffs. In the heart of the bluffs is a canyon, carved by streams headed for the ocean, whose walls are overgrown with ferns. It is a place so green the sky seems to turn a disorienting shade of pistachio.
I look to my father for a sign. He is squinting into the waves, as if divining. I wade farther out into the waters and look into the murky slip of a crest.
“Wait,” he says, “you’ll see it.”
A wave crashes and sends a thousand tiny crystals of spray into the air. My hair forms tight curls in the moisture. I’ve smelted before, but today it is especially hard to see, and my feet are numb, my pants waterlogged and clinging to my legs. Although I don’t enjoy being cold, I prefer smelting to the strange and terrifying underwater world of abalone. I prefer it to hours in the sun waiting for an elusive marlin, or casting a shiny fly for a sharp-toothed pike. Among all the activities with my father, my perfect communion with the sea is digging for Pismo clams. I enjoy sliding the pronged fork into the sand after the bubbles that ripple the surface. I like the thwack of clamshells against each other in a plastic bucket. But in...