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Stella Burch held on as hard as she could.
Still, whatever was on the end of the line was so powerful, it yanked her from one end of the boat to the other.
After brief instruction with the fishing crew, Chris Kenny and his 6-year-old son Shane prepare to leave the Dana Point Harbor for a four-hour fishing expedition on Sunday, June 13, 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The fishing crew give instruction before leaving the Dana Point Harbor for a four-hour fishing expedition on Sunday, June 13, 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A fishing boat leaves the Dana Point Harbor for a four-hour fishing expedition on Sunday, June 13, 2021. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Brian Burch and his daughter land a 56-pound white sea bass on a recent trip with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching’s Sum Fun. (Photo courtesy of danawharf.com)
“I was feeling like the fish was tearing off my arms,” the 11-year-old North Tustin girl said. “My fingers were almost purple.”
She called for her father, who had handed her the rod right before heading to get a burger.
Less than a minute later, when he turned around, he saw her doing all she could to work the reel.
“Her face was intense and full of struggle,” Brian Burch said. “She was 100% invested in reeling the line in.”
About eight minutes later, the father-daughter duo – with help from a deckhand – reeled in the big fish. Everyone on the boat had gathered behind them waiting to see what was going to come up.
“When we finally got it on the boat, everyone went into a little bit of shock and the talking stopped,” said Chad Ditzler, a deckhand on Dana Wharf Sportfishing’s Sum Fun.
Stella jumped for joy; she couldn’t believe how big the fish was.
“I think it was a little of a shock,” her father said. “I don’t think she understood that fish grew so big.”
The white seabass is the largest fish hauled in on the fishing charter this year and it was caught during a Sunday half-day kids’ fishing clinic.
“They’ll never forget that,” said Donna Kalez, who operates the charter based in Dana Point Harbor. “That’s a bucket-list fish.”
That experience is one that Kalez hopes might inspire youthful anglers to take up the sport – one she says leads to a greater love of the outdoors. That’s why she started the fish fishing clinic more than a decade ago – in part, drawing from her own experiences growing up fishing with her brothers and father. The 30-minute clinic is held on Sundays and is coupled with a half-day out on the water, which costs $59 for an adult and $10 for a child. The clinics are limited to 15 kids.
“Sometimes it can be overwhelming for first-timers if they’re just with adults,” Kalez said. “I started the clinic as an introduction to fishing. Some kids will only come on Sundays; others use it as a jumping-off point to do full-day or even week trips.”
Once the boat heads out, the captain and crew know they’ve got novices abroad. They take time to explain what sportfishing is, what fish might be seen and how to use the rods and reels. They also demonstrate how to use live bait. Then when fish are caught, like in Burch’s case, they help haul it aboard and clean it and explain any interesting facts about the species caught.
They also emphasize safety. Fish spines and hooks can be dangerous. With that in mind, the crew teaches the kids to have fun safely.
“It doesn’t matter if you catch a 56-pound white seabass or a 10 inch-sculpin, just having the line in the water leads to so many thoughts of what could be lurking out there,” Ditzler said.
Raised with a love of the outdoors and familiar with fly-fishing in the Sierra, Burch said he got interested in ocean fishing after going out on a regular fishing trip with Dana Wharf the month before. He had so much fun, he started following the company’s social media and that’s when he learned about the kids’ fishing clinic.
He told his neighbor, Mark Tomaino, about the opportunity and the two decided to take their kids out on the water to see if they might like it.
Besides Stella, Burch also brought his daughter, Brooklyn, 7, and Tomaino brought his son, Hudson, also 7.
“We thought it would be really cool to see if they like it,” Burch said. “I like to expose them to different things. If something sticks, great. If not, we move on.”
The trip, on June 6, had already been more eventful than Burch expected. There was a pretty good bite during the first three hours, and the group had caught calico and sand bass.
“Around 4 p.m., the bites had started slowing down,” Burch said. ” I hadn’t eaten lunch and ordered a burger. I baited the hook for Stella, dropped it down, handed over the pole, and said, ‘Good luck.’ As I’m walking back, I see Mark and Chad helping her. Mark’s eyes were like, ‘She has something big.’”
Burch began videoing his daughter as she fought to reel in the fish. After about eight minutes, she said, “Dad, I can’t do it anymore.”
That’s when he took over.
He held on another eight minutes and worked to reel it in. Burch landed it with help from Ditzler, but not before a large sea lion tried to grab it. Sea lions often follow fishing boats out of Dana Point Harbor just waiting for an opportunity for an easy snack.
“I knew this was a big one,” Burch said. “But, I didn’t realize how big until the captain looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘This is the biggest white sea bass I’ve caught on my boat.’”
Seeing the large fish, Burch said he felt “tremendous respect for it. It was something that had been around a long time.”
The fish was also 52 pounds larger than any rainbow trout he had ever caught.
But beyond the fish’s size, the overall experience is something Burch won’t forget.
“I will definitely do it again,” he said.
And, while Stella impressed many other kids and their parents on board that day, part of the fun was being there with her dad.
“I’m very close with my dad,” she said. “It felt like a really good father-daughter thing. My dad said it was a ‘once in a lifetime experience.’”
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