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Fisherman's fest honors Bodega Bay's salty dogs


Next weekend's 37th annual Bodega Bay Fisherman's Festival couldn't arrive at a more dire time for the iconic salty dogs of the sea it aims to celebrate.

With the local salmon industry on hold and bottom trawling a bust, the only option right now is crabbing — and it hasn't exactly been a banner year for Dungeness.

Sonoma County is littered with festivals that pay homage to fading traditions and industries. The Apple Blossom Festival in Sebastopol perseveres even though the apple cart left town years ago. Butter and Egg Days still draws big crowds even though Petaluma is hardly the Egg Basket of the world it once was. Ditto the Cloverdale Citrus Fair.

But does anyone remember the perennial spring favorite Prune Blossom Festival? One day it could happen: a Fisherman's Festival with no fishermen.

"You know who the endangered species is?" says Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello. "You've gotta think about it: It's us."

Before the festival kicks off with the annual boat parade and blessing of the fleet, we check in with three generations of the Bodega Bay fishing industry:

Harold Ames

Age: 81, retired

Boats: Robert Croll and Sea Farmer

When did you start fishing? "I was just a kid, with my dad back in 1941."

At what point did you imagine this would be your career? "I just started out doing it because that's all there was to do in Bodega Bay. I grew up with it. My dad started in 1922 and I just kind of fell into it."

The heyday: "It was probably in the '60s. On a really good day, you could catch around 100 salmon. ... We could get maybe 7,000-8,000 pounds of crab on a good day. The boats were better. When World War II was over, we got the LORANs (Long Range Navigation systems) from the government. That was a big help because now you could tell where you were on the water."

Compare that to today: "Now we're not fishing. All they're fishing is crabs. After the first couple of weeks of the season, the crabbing falls way off. You got more competition; bigger boats come in, with more crab pots. It used to be if a person had 100 pots, that was a lot. Now they've got 500."

How important is the Fisherman's Festival and the blessing of the fleet as a way of paying respect to what you do? "I think it sells a lot of food. People come and watch the boats go out. The guys like it. It gives people a chance to see what you've got."

Can you imagine a day when there's a Fisherman's Festival but no fishermen? "No, I can't. I think you'll always find some fishermen. Not all of them will participate in it, but some will."

Do you think your grandchildren will be able to do this for a living? "My grandson Joe Mantua is 36 and so far he's doing OK."

Tony Anello

Age: 61

Family boats: The Annabelle and the Cape Ommaney

Owner: Spud Point Crab Company

Years fishing: 41

What was the dream when you started? "In 1970, we bought a boat (The Miracle), and I just decided it would be a good life. It's been in our family forever. My grandfather came over from Sicily and fished in Monterey and Fisherman's Wharf. And my dad fished before the war and a little after the war."

The heyday: "From '71 to '80, we had three different fisheries that were very lucrative. Salmon from '71 to '79 was really, really good. You could end up with anywhere from zero to 125 fish in a day. Back then, the fish was worth anywhere from $1.75 to $3.50 a pound because they were shipping a lot to France. By '73, I made enough to pay the mortgage off on my house and buy a new truck."

Compare that to now: "We're looking for next year to be a little bit better than this year in crabs. The only thing we've got, really, is the hope for a season that they'll give us — if there's enough salmon to catch. If we catch too much, then we may not have a season next year. So we're just kind of playing it by ear."

How important is the festival as a way of paying homage to what you do? "The more exposure we have to the public the better. But right now with the green movement, a lot of the people don't understand that we are not rapers of the ocean, we are definitely stewards of the ocean. We're not respected as much as we used to be. As for the blessing of the fleet, I grew up in a religious family, so we like to have our boats blessed. We're Italian people and we have our Catholic faith, and we'd like to keep the tradition going."

Can you imagine a festival without the fishermen? "The average age of the captain out here, they're in their 60s or late 50s or even older than that. We have probably, like, six guys who are under 40 fishing out here. My youngest boy, he chose fishing as a career and it's going to be pretty tough for him to make it. But we're eternal optimists."

Lester Elmore

Age: 46

Boat: Miss Heiley

Years fishing: 34

What was your dream when you got into fishing? "I started when I was 12, going out with my uncle and in two days we'd catch 6,000 pounds of fish. It was amazing."

The heyday: "In the early '80s, we were in the money everywhere we went — herring season, crab season, salmon season. It was a fun time. On a good day of salmon, it would be 50 to 100 fish, easy.

"We never really had the northerly or southerly influence of other boats who came down. There's a lot more competition than there used to be."

Compare that to now: "Now I'm stuck with a boat that all it has is a salmon permit and we haven't fished for two years now, quite possibly going on three years. I've done crabbing with my brother-in-law (Paul Wedel) the last couple of years. I quit fishing for almost two years, sold my boat that had the crab permit and the pots. But my feet just aren't made for the pavement."

How's the crabbing this year? "It's on the increase. Last year was really bad. But it goes in a seven- or eight-year cycle and we're on the increase on the catch. This year, we had to travel out of town. We spent December, January and part of February in Crescent City and we did well. The guys that stayed home caught a few crabs but not a lot."

How important is the festival to what you do? "I used to love it. Every year, I would decorate. I got a wall full of plaques for first place grand sweepstakes. Last year, I didn't go because what are we celebrating? We don't have no season."

Can you imagine a festival but no fishermen? "It's happening. I remember when we first started doing this fish fest, there would be a steady line of boats from Lucas Wharf all the way to the end of the jetties. Last year, there were maybe 15-20 boats. What are we celebrating?"

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.