At high noon, two hours before the tide would peak in San Francisco Bay, a shout went up on The Rock.
The cheers were for a man named Kenny, who had just landed the biggest striped bass of the season here, a 30-pounder.
He had hooked the fish surf-casting into the fast current that runs between The Rock and the Seal Rocks a little further offshore. High on the bluffs above him, tourists at the Cliff House saw the sudden activity on The Rock, but few knew what it was all about.
Kenny knew it was a big fish by the pull, and it did what big fish do when hooked here on an incoming tide, which is to run north with the current toward deep water, heading for the bend around which lies the Golden Gate Bridge.
Kenny's first job was to stop the fish, which meant holding on until the striper quit running, and to ignore the maddening impulse to tighten the drag. (You always want to tighten up on a big fish out of fear it won't stop running, but you mustn't or it will break off.)
When the run ended and the fish lay still out in the deep, gathering strength, Kenny scurried toward a corner of The Rock, taking fast little steps and holding the rod tip high, until one of the other fellows could get to his line and grab it by hand. The two were now a team.
The Rock is a rich place to surf-cast but no place to try to land a fish -- too high and steep. You can't get down to the water to use a net or gaff. The angler with a decent fish must get to shore to finish the fight.
Kenny and his "telegraph" man communicated by a nod, with the surf crashing below so loud it would have drowned out words. Then Kenny flipped his reel into free spool and took off, rod high, in a precarious sprint down 30 yards of ancient, five-foot-wide stone causeway connecting The Rock to the mainland. It was a 30-foot drop to the water on either side, if he fell.
The man standing telegraph held the line tight in his hand while Kenny ran, and felt the weight of the big fish out in the ocean.
When Kenny reached the rocky shore he re-engaged the reel and hurriedly took up the slack. When the man standing telegraph felt the line go taut from Kenny's end he released his grip and it was back to one man, one fish. Kenny raised a signal thumb as his rod bowed with the weight of the striper. Still on!
It was just a matter of time before Kenny, fighting his 26th striper of the season off The Rock, wore the big fish down. Soon a black boil appeared on the surface, a weary fish coming up, and then the big striper rolled up among the slippery rocks on the crest of a breaker, defeated, and stayed there as the water ran out.
David Gee waded down barefoot into the cold water, stuck his thumb in the great fish's mouth and hauled it back up the rocks.
The tourists in Cliff House and Louis' Restaurant next door could hear the cheering. Down below, everyone was agog over the size of the striper. The men who gather daily to fish here are more accustomed to 10-pounders.
It was just another day of surprises on San Francisco's other Rock. This is not the tourist Rock, Alcatraz, which lies off downtown in San Francisco Bay. This rock lies around the bend at Point Lobos, on the ocean beach, and it's a much smaller rock, big enough for perhaps 50 men. But it's a fantastic place to fish from, within the city limits. "Within five miles of here," said Bill Barnhart, a professional deep-sea diver who has fished here 23 years, "you're looking at the best striped bass fishing on the entire West Coast."
For surf-casting, said Barnhart, no place compares with The Rock.
"I've been here days when the wind was blowing so hard the waves hit and spray would come shooting up over you, but you were catching fish, so it didn't matter."
Nights are even better, he said, and even more dangerous.
"Caution," say the signs off Point Lobos Avenue, where sand trails lead down the bluffs to the man-made causeway to The Rock, "Cliff and surf extremely dangerous. People have been swept from the rocks and drowned."
"Sure," said Barnhart, "people who don't know what they're doing."
When Barnhart, a native San Franciscan, first started coming here, he didn't know what he was doing, either, and wasn't allowed on The Rock at all. "The old-timers had a rule: 14 years old or you couldn't cross the causeway."
So he waited. When he was of age, the old-timers took him aside and showed him the ropes. "It's funny," said Barnhart, 37, "all the old-timers are gone now. When a new kid comes, I'm the guy who does what they did for me."
The Rock can be good any time of day or night from May through September, when the stripers come out of the Sacramento and San Joaquin estuaries to forage in the ocean, Barnhart said, but prime fishing time always is the last 2 1/2 hours before high tide.
The current runs hard then, sweeping schools of anchovies through the slough and into the Bay.
The crowds gather for that tide, standing sometimes two deep, casting out two-ounce white bucktails and working them slowly through the surging current. "Coming out," they shout before each cast. "On the hook!" signals a hookup.
Barnhart said there is government talk every year about closing the causeway to The Rock as a safety precaution.
"They want to put a fence up because people drown," he said. "People do drown, but you could count them on your two hands. It's mostly drunks and tourists, anyway.
"But they'll never close this rock down," said Barnhart firmly, his fishing friends murmuring their support. "Not if I have anything to say about it."