After spending a month of my summer running off to Samoa Beach every chance I got to practice casting my line, fishing alone lost its luster. I had so many questions and theories building up in my head, I felt like I was going to burst if I couldn't talk about it. I wanted to find someone I could share this learning experience with and decided to post on my Instagram asking if any of my friends would be interested in fishing together.
As time slowly passed, my anxiety started welling up. Will my friends in their early 20s bother with this "old man" sport? Will they have the time between school and their part-time gigs? My heart leapt when I saw a single reply. Ava Mark was a friend I'd met as a freshman at Humboldt State University and lost touch with when she moved to China to study for a year. She let me know she was back in Humboldt and just starting to pick up fishing, too. And she offered to tag along next time I went out.
The rest is history. Mark has been there for many of my first successful catches — from squealing and wrangling a slippery monkey face eel together to flinching and fighting a flopping, spiny rockfish. We collaborate on recipe ideas for our catches, tag team scouting new fishing sites and — the best part — cheer each other on when things get tough, which is often in this sport. I couldn't have asked the universe for a better fishing buddy.
Shortly after I found my footing and started my adventures with Mark, I was picking up some hooks at Pacific Outfitters when someone mentioned they knew a guy named Yeng who was "a pro" and "the guy" to learn angling from. I thought it was just some person trying to hype up his buddy and didn't pay much mind the first time, but then his name popped up again chatting with people while picking up more gear.
Legend has it, Yeng Thao is an incredibly skilled fisherman who knows all the techniques for any kind of fishing, whether it be salt or freshwater, where all the best local fishing spots are and even has crabbing, clamming and foraging skills. He sounded like some grandmaster of nature I had to meet. The last person who brought him up told me Thao had his own local fishing Facebook group and encouraged me to join. Shortly after I joined the Humboldt County Surf and Jetty group online, I started posting a lot of my technical questions and noticed Thao regularly providing extremely thorough answers, including links to how-to videos. I jumped on the opportunity to meet him one day when I saw someone ask if anyone was willing to teach them how to toss a fishing net and Thao offered a lesson near Stone Lagoon.
I had imagined some kind of big, burly dude in his late 30s, skin tan and cracked from the sun and salt water — maybe gruff with a big beard. But at Stone Lagoon, Mark and I met a calm, soft-spoken 25 year old just a few inches taller than me . However, right from the start it was obvious the rumors were true. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the area, and was reading the tides and even the seabirds' movements to see if there were any fish around. Thao, who's Hmong, grew up fishing with his father and the rest of his family. He recently graduated from HSU as a wildlife major and he's a far more adventurous eater than me — he will pick sea snails off rocks and eat them right then and there. The same goes for fresh fish eggs found on eel grass. He says as long as it's deemed safe for consumption, he'll eat it.
Thao was very thoughtful and clear when explaining how to set up and toss a net, and very patient with us newbies. "You'll eventually learn to see the patterns. Nature has a lot of patterns if you watch it long enough," he told us. "The best fishermen would tell you that they are constantly learning. Whether learning about the same species they have fished their entire lives or a new species they want to catch. To become at least a good fisherman you have to be willing to learn the life history of a fish. You have to enjoy learning about their habits, what makes the gears in their brain tick. Put yourself in their fin." His goals as a fisherman have evolved over the years, he says. "I used to be all about catching fish, the biggest one, the most number of fish, out-fish the guy next to me. But now it's about the joy of seeing other people catch fish because I know how it feels, so I know the look on their face is genuine."
Since meeting Thao, he has become a kind of big fishing-and-foraging brother to Mark and me, and we take the liberty of bugging him plenty with all our questions and fishing memes.
Fishing is an ancient, universal activity that knows no boundaries in age, demographics or culture, and can bring people together in the name of the most primal form of bonding: eating. As disconnected and divided as we may feel during this pandemic and in this political climate, I find solace in witnessing time and time again, not only the selfless kindness our Humboldt community, but also how many people are willing to share a helping hand to lift me up as an angler, an advocate and a cook.
The ocean doesn't care who you are — what only matters are your skills and respect for it. Because of this, it has led me to meet all kinds of people I'm proud to call my friends. I hope the rest of 2021 will bring tight lines, good eats and good people.
Kitty Truong (she/her) is a dedicated foodie who's always looking to catch her meals sustainably.