By Paul Lebowitz
"When everybody's gathered together, we feel a wave of energy," Craig Davis says. A youthful 60-something who began fishing from kayaks back in 1974, Davis is the brain behind California's Albion Open tournament. The people who come from far and wide are the heart.
In 2013, the beat was strong, as 160 registered to fish the early August event. Counting the families who fill every available space in the Albion River Campground, some 300 are here for the fun, fish, and spectacular food.
Take Jed 'Jedmo' Abuan's clan. Jedmo Nation sprawls over eight campsites. Anglers walk into the compound with gifts of rockfish and leave with bellies full of pig roasted whole and goat stew so fresh the main ingredient was cropping grass a night earlier. Jedmo Nation feeds everyone—all are treated as one extended family.
"All the differences are put aside. The conservative guys, the Democrats, the pot smokers and the drinkers—it all gets put by the wayside for a moment, and we all love it," Davis says.
Now the longest-running tournament in the state, the Albion traces its history to the Elk Rockfish Derby founded in 2005. "We really didn't know how it would turn out. The first Albion there were maybe 45 people," Davis says as he sweeps his arm around the hopping, happy campground.
The people are here despite an unfortunate recent history of rough weather. It kept catches down the past couple of years. The winners couldn't venture far from the salt-stained highway trestle that spans the river at the head of Albion Cove. 2013 will be one for the record books. Anglers will fish far up and down the rugged coastline.
Rob Bray's sunny-day stringer tallies up to more than 27 pounds, highlighted by a beautiful king salmon. Victor Gonzalez one-ups him by a pound. The crowd gathers around, excitement growing. Then smiling Joe Flores steps up to the scale. 'Bloodbath' checks in with 31 pounds of salmon, rockfish and cabezon.
Later at the awards ceremony, his boisterous group of friends—they call themselves the A-Hulls—shower Flores with champagne and parade their hero around on their shoulders.
The fishing competition gets top billing, but the main event is the culinary throw-down that comes next. Calling it a potluck doesn't do it justice. One locally harvested delicacy follows another: abalone sashimi, piles of rich uni, lip-smacking home-cured salmon, slow-smoked barbecue and every example of the fried arts. There's a lot at stake: bragging rights and piled-up plates. It's like family at the holidays; everyone rubs shoulders around picnic benches and makeshift tables.
It feels natural. "I don't want to get all corporate and stuff. It would spoil the camaraderie," Davis says.
The 2014 Albion Open is set for July 25-27, but you'll want to make friends now. The entire campground is already sold out.