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Ab Regs, Then & Now

By a 4-0 vote in December the California Fish and Game Commission decided to close the 2018 recreational abalone season because of “ongoing environmental conditions that have significantly impacted the abalone resource.” The closure affects this year’s recreational season, which would have been scheduled to open on April 1st. The Commission's vote was based on the findings of the “Abalone Recovery and Management Plan” adopted by Fish and Game a dozen years ago. In the interim Fish and Game has taken actions that both shortened the season and lessened the number of abalone an individual could take. As part of the December 2017 decision the Fish and Game Commission has asked the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to work up a new fishery management plan.

Nearly a century ago the attitude concerning abalone procurement was much different. This report from a local newspaper, in March of 1925, describes the entrepreneurial spirit of two Little River residents typical of the era: “Capt. Ambrose Babcock and Clarence Pritchard departed early Monday morning in Pritchard's car for Lake county, going via Boonville, Ukiah and Blue Lakes. They carried a heavy load of abalones and mussels for which they expected to find ready sale. They will be gone about four days. The fame of our abalones and shell fish has spread through Lake county and quite a number of people who are more or less acquainted with this section, drive over occasionally for a mess of shell fish. Last Sunday two auto loads of people from over in the valley arrived here and managed to find their way down to the beach where they camped for several days.”

Obviously the auto loads full of people continued to expand exponentially over the ensuing decades, providing a boon to local businesses. The rules and regulations regarding abalone were less stringent in the 1920s, as shown in the following account that involves the same Captain Babcock a little over a year later (June, 1926): “Last Saturday morning Capt. Babcock and Bun Pritchard, taking advantage of an extra low tide, proceeded seaward in the captain's dory with the intention of replenishing their larder with a supply of succulent abalones. The day was propitious with a calm sea and soon they were pulling shoreward with 78 of the finest abalones you ever saw. But— here comes the sad sequel of the tale. As the bow of their boat grated on the sand, they were greeted by a stern minion of the law in the person of Ovid Holmes, game warden, who proceeded to measure each and every one of the 78 abalones and to his horror found two that measured a fraction of an inch less than the required seven inches. He was about to arrest both the transgressors, but the gallant old skipper valiantly shouldered the blame and became goat and refusing to plead guilty and pay a fine was placed under arrest and charged to be present in the local Justice Court… to stand trial before a jury of his peers...”

“At best they can't hang him until after the trial. In the meantime the captain is released on his own recognizance, whatever that means, and has lost his appetite for abalone soup. Next time he goes out he will take a pair of calipers and a tape measure along and painstakingly measure each as taken.”

Captain Babcock received a relatively small fine. In today's court system 78 abalone would land you a prison sentence. The article and the attitude of its author, newspaper editor Auggie Heeser, describe a time when the taking of six and a half dozen abalone of a morning was regarded with nonchalance. In some ways it was comparable to the view of one-two generations prior about the killing of buffalo on the plains.

Ovid Holmes was a respected game warden of his time. I ran across a field correspondence he sent to his superiors in early November, 1937, in which he states, “Hump Backs were first noticed this year in the Ten Mile River and the Garcia River about October first. Relative to the Garcia River I couldn't say as to just how far these fish migrated up the stream. However, in the Ten Mile River they were seen spawning about five miles up the stream, from its mouth. I might also say there was quite a run of them, ranging in size from 5 to 6 pounds. Also many people were interested to know what kind of fish they were, and whether they all took my explanation as to the species, I couldn't say. Though I haven't heard of any one sending one in for identification, though I asked several to do so. I might say this also; seven years ago (1930), I caught a male of the same species in the Ten Mile River, November 7th. and the following year on February 6th; I have not seen or heard of them since those two years in these streams along the Mendocino Coast, until this fall. Also there seems to be a much larger run of them this year than in the previous years mentioned. Whether this is true or not I couldn't say for sure as in the years previous the water was riley [sic – most likely he meant roily] as we had had several freshets and the fish could not be seen. However, this year the water was clear and many quite large schools of them were seen causing quite a lot of talk around here. There is no doubt the fish hit this section every so often and spawn here. Further than that I cannot tell you any more about them.”

Most likely, what Warden Holmes described was a pink salmon, the smallest of Pacific salmon, usually weighing in between four to five pounds with a length around two feet. When males approach their spawning stream their backs turn dark brown to black, contrasting sharply with their white bellies. By the time these males head up their spawning stream they often have developed a large humped back appearance as well as hooked jaws called a kype. On this part of the Albion we called them hook-bills, and today are even rarer than an abalone.

(Big and small fish tales can be found at

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