The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #2 — 1950

Newport Beach Fishermen Ply Trade in Ancient Way

“Fishing is like poetry; men must be born so.”—Isaak Walton. “If my sons thought of becoming fishermen, I’d break their heads. It’s a dog’s life.”—Jess Van Riper.

Walton was an angler and Van is a fisherman and maybe the difference in their points of view is that Walton earned his living in other ways and Van drags his from the rocky bottom of the bay off Newport Beach.

For Van is a follower of the oldest trade on earth. Fishing was man’s first commerce. Ancients headed their dugout canoes into the Mediterranean surf and brought back fish with net and hook and spear.

Sold From Boats—They beached their canoes. Their wives and children met them on the sand and cleaned the catch. And it was sold from the beached boats. Jess Van Riper and about a dozen other men ply their trade off Newport in much the same manner as the ancients. Before dawn they head their 16-foot flat-bottomed dories into the sea and by noon they are back, their boats beached. Their wives and children are cleaning the catch, setting up gaily-striped umbrellas over the boats and selling the fish on Newport’s sands.

Day in Their Lives—This is a day in the life of Jess Van Riper and the dory fishermen of Newport. It’s not yet dawn. The moon is a ruddy fingernail. The sea is quiet. Restless. Moving with a hushed sound against the white sand. The dories are ghostly in the pale light. Across the Newport town square the fishermen arrive singly. Yawning. Stretching their arms. Waddling across the pavement in their rubber hip boots. Dick Talstra. A Hollander by birth. A big man. In his 50s. Has been fishing from the tiny dories here for 15 years. Muttered a word of greeting to Paul Phegley.

Sips Coffee in Café—Paul, 36, lean and sharp faced. Felt hat pulled over his sunburned forehead. Stands listening to the sea. Sniffing the air. “Good day for it. Me for coffee,” he says. He sips the hot coffee in a café, open early for the fishermen, and talks: “My brother Henry came out first in the ‘30s. Got himself a dory and an outfit. I followed. Then you could pick up a whole outfit for this work for $90. And you could pull a living from the sea. Not too much, but a living. “Then there were men fishing here who’s been at it for 50 years. I don’t know how long dory fishermen have worked this coast.” He looks at the waitress. “What do you say Mae?” “I was born here 47 years ago,” she tells him. “They were at it and had been for as long as anybody could remember.” Paul goes on: “Then it was a two-man job. You rowed to the fishing grounds. Some used a small sail. Now, since the war, we’ve got outboards motors. It’s easier that way. “We stuck to it. Things got pretty good. People like to buy fish straight from the sea. Fresh. And we sell it cheap—25 cents a pound for rock cod and the salt water trout. And 30 cents for the gray fish, gray shark and halibut and such.

Quit in Wartime—“Just before they made us quit in wartime, the fish were really running. Once, in 1942, I got into the albacore. I caught 1124 pounds. In a 16-foot boat. And brought it ashore. I was wallowing in fish. The ocean was up to the oar-locks. “I rowed it in, got almost to the beach. When I hit the surf, I sank. But we saved the fish.” He sips the hot coffee, takes a drag on a cigarette, says: “I’ve quit a couple of times. Took jobs on the big boats, the tuna boats during cold winters. But I always came back. “After I’d piled up a little cash I took off for Louisiana once, bought a farm, swore I’d never go to sea again. But, something gets into you. Farming the land I kept smelling the ocean. I came back.”

Get Under Way—He drains the coffee cup, flips a coin on the counter. “We’ll, let’s make a day,” he says. Dawn has reddened the hills over Newport and now all the fishermen are here except two who have put out early. “That’s to get the first spot,” Paul says. “First man on the beach with his catch pulls his boat nearest the boardwalk and gets first crack at the customers.” The boats are being launched now. Fred Davenport, fishing here off and on since the early 20s. Small, white-haired. Leans onto his boat shoving it out for launching. Van jumps to give him a hand. And Big Tom Walker. And Henry Phegley, Paul’s brother, still at it. And young Harold Stadge, 21, with only two years on the beach. His father was a fisherman.

Rolled in Surf—The flat-bottomed boat slips on rollers down to the surf. It takes the sea, waves slapping its sides. Fred clambers aboard. Begins rowing. Van says, “He’s after the junk. Denio and Sanders made for the black cod—the salt water trout. Henry will fish junk. Tom and I and Paul and Dick will go after the red fish—the rock cod.” They don’t divide up the grounds deliberately, just arbitrarily. Too much red fish and too little other kinds give the customers too little choice during the sales. Van’s boat hits the sea now, rolls in the wash and quivers through the surf. He rows it slowly out about 50 feet. And slips the motor into place. And jerks it on.

Paul Rips Ahead—Roar fills the silence. Paul’s plywood craft, lightest and fastest on the beach, rips ahead, only the flat stern of the boat in the ocean. Dick is beside him and Van behind. Tom Walker is in the rear, his motor popping and coughing. Light is in the air and the sea is green and clear and placid when Van reaches the red fish grounds, about four miles out. He cuts the engine. Stands. A squat, red-faced man. High cheekbones, wide-set blue eyes. A stocky man with thick brown forearms. This Van Riper became a fisherman as soon as he first saw the sea, back in 1936. He had been born on an Iowa farm, had followed railroading, had turned West. He saw the sea from this beach and brought an outfit from Paul Phegley.

Full Equipment—An outfit is two 1500-foot lines with hooks set every three feet. It’s the 16-foot dory, worth at present prices about $300, tubs to wind his line in, gaffs to catch floating fish and hipboots and his $350 outboard. He had never fished before, but now it’s a nine-months-a-year job with him. Working a seven-day week, and a 16-hour day except when it’s cold or too fogged-in. The three winter months Van builds houses on a tract he owns (and has been bought from fishing) in Costa Mesa. Now, braced bent-legged in the rolling boat, squinting toward the shore line, he stands watching.

Boats Float Nearby—Dick’s boat floats nearby. Paul’s is a mile away. Tom’s is still behind, still chugging out. “Which way’s the current, Dick?” Van shouts across the quiet water. “Down and in.” “Down and in. Like yesterday.”  “Maybe it’ll go up and around.” Van watches the shore.  “School tower’s square over the palm trees,” he calls. “Down and in.” Dick says again. The rock cod likes its schools. The fish huddle together in vast groups—miles wide. The fishing grounds are marked with floats and as definite as the boundaries of a city block. Knowing the current is vital. A misplaced line will be dragged by the current away from the fish.

Drift of Boat Watched—Van sights the Newport High School tower above a tiny black toothpick of a beach palm and watches the drift of his boat. When he believes he’s right, he jerks the motor on, zips to one end of the grounds and, steering with one knee, flips easily across the grounds, tossing out the hooked line with an easy cowboy motion, the throw of a man flinging a lariat. Weights drag the line and set it down 600 feet. The cod are deep-water fish. They huddle to the ocean’s rocky bottom. Van leaves his line down less than 15 minutes. While it’s down and the dory is drifting easily, he talks.

Wife Meets Boat—“Fishing’s been good to me but I wouldn’t let a son of mine follow it. One is in SC—studying electrical engineering. The other’s in Chicago working for General Motors. Fishing got them started. Pays for their schooling. But the hours are too long. There’s no days off. It’s not a way to live. “And we all work at it. My wife’s young one, he’s 15, he’s out every afternoon baiting these 1500 feet of hooks. With anchovies or sardines. Pay him $2.50 or some other kid that. “And the wife meets the boat. She’s down at shore by 10 a.m. to wait me coming in. I might get a good catch the first throw and be in by then.  “She sets up a striped umbrella—that’s for the crowd and to keep the sun out—over the boat, and I put up an oar to hang the scales on, and she cleans and weighs and sells the fish. She’s out here toil dark. I’m on the beach or fishing from dawn to dark. No Sundays off. “The rest of the fishermen are about the same.” Van waits, watching his lines, squinting at the shore line. Then he says, “I’d better make $20 a day to make wages. That’s figuring $1.50 for bait, 60 cents for gas, $200 a year for lines, $150 a year for the motor and $2.50 for baiting. Let’s pull them in. See if we’ve got fish. He begins hauling in the line. At first there’s nothing. The sea is clear. The silver hooks can be seen coming up 90 feet through the water. Van’s muscular arms pull steadily at the nylon cord. Empty hooks and more empty hooks. Even the bait gone. Now there’s something else. Pinback sharks. Wiggling their slender gray-black bodies on the hooks. About two-feet long.

Tosses Lines Back—Van rips them off the line and tosses them back. “One time I went out,” he says, and picked up 247 pinbacks. So many were coming I started counting them. Useless beggars.” There are almost 200 feet of empty line before the first fish is on. Bloated, red, great-headed, its bladder pulled out from the change in pressure. From being jerked away from the deep water it loves. Eyes puffed and staring glassily. “Now they come,” says Van, “now the floaters.”

Fish on Every Hook—As the pressure changes, the cod swell and pop to the surface, dragging the line and other fish behind them. Now almost every hook has a fish on it. Behind the boat, they begin dotting the surface in a long, irregular line. One or two lose their hooks and float on the current. Van rows toward them, gathering them in with the gaffing hooks. On the moving, burnished water their gleaming rusty-red bodies glow in the sudden sunlight. It takes over an hour to pull the catch in. It half fills the small boat. There are about 350 pounds.

Gives Him Freedom—As the outboard motor carries the dory toward the beach and the afternoon’s sales Van repeats: “A dog’s life. But there’s something about it. An independence. A freedom. You owe no man, you depend on no man. It’s your life and your way of life. “It’s proud and it’s insecure and it’s dependent on wind and waves, whatever the weather decides to do. And the fish. Who knows how long the cod will stay here before they move on and we have to find something else to fish for? “A dog’s life. I wouldn’t have it for my sons. But for me—I wouldn’t change it for the world. —Cecil Smith, Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1950

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Additional articles on the history of Newport’s Dory Fleet

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Through The years—-through-the-years/

  The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #1 — 1934—-looking-back-1/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #3 — 1969—-looking-back-3-—-1969/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #4 — 1971—-looking-back-4-—-1971/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #5 — 1973—-looking-back-5-—-1973/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #6 — 1988—-looking-back-6-—-1988/

The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #7 — 1989—-looking-back-7-—-1989/




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3 Responses to The Newport Beach Dory Fleet — Looking Back #2 — 1950

  1. Jesse Van Riper was my grandfather. I was very close to him. He began fishing in 1937, fished for 17 years minus the ww2 shut down, which I didn’t know about. My dad b as

    Baited hooks and went out some. They used jigs for albacore. Dad said sometimes 4 fish would hit, one on each line. My Dad is still alive. I will be seeing him next month. My grandfather was thought to be lost in 1938 I think, as a giant storm. Probably a chubasco, or hurricane. If I can replicate or tape it t, you might have a great story. Let me know if there’s an interest. Jesse was my mentor in some respects. Thank you so much for these stories. We may have photos, etc. Bill Van Riper.

  2. Carol says:

    I have a dory built in 1950’s. Walnut seats, oak gunnels (need refurbished) with two long oars. Was repainted in 2005. New seats then. Oars new then.
    How can I find it’s worth for selling?

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