Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#171: Charles Frederick Holder

It's Christmas Day as I finish this. I hope all my readers (including those of other beliefs) had a wonderful day. I'm not referring to the commercial aspects of the holiday, but the more spiritual and humanistic ones. However on the gift issue, Santa was pretty good to me considering I've been a very "bad" boy (although not as "bad" as I've wanted to be). He brought me a new TravTek BC wing, DIN-to-yoke adapter and a larger pony bottle so I could continue researching these columns in greater safety. I didn't really expect to see that brainy beautiful brunette under my tree that I asked for. I just wish Santa had used his own credit card instead of mine to pay for the presents! On to this week's column... and the approaching New Year.

Many decades ago, while still very new to this island that quickly became my home, I discovered something while walking out to the Casino that intrigued me. It was a fairly large rock, about my heighth but fortunately much larger than my girth, located across from the Tuna Club. On it were two plaques memorializing a man named Charles Frederick Holder. I wonder how many island residents, and visiting fishers and divers, have passed by this rock without really noticing it and its significance? At the time I didn't know who this individual was or what role he played in our island's, region's and international history. My curiosity back then led me to look into his life to learn more about him.

As a young man growing up in Massachusetts, Holder had a strong interest in the natural world. I can imagine him doing essentially the same things that I did as a kid while growing up in the emerging Chicago suburbs... walking along creeks and in the woods looking for snakes, turtles and butterflies. Holder was a collector who took specimens for his father which were deposited in New York's Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian in Washington. The specimens I collected were placed in my own museum in my parent's garage, and I charged local kids a nickel to view them (back when a nickel was a lot of money).

Holder was intrigued by the land boom in California during the 1880's, and first visited Catalina in 1886 when Avalon was known as Timm's Landing. He was impressed by the almost pristine nature of the marine environment here with its abundant fish life. Large schools of baitfish were attacked by large schools of yellowtail and white sea bass right in Avalon Bay. However, he was also concerned about a form of fishing that dominated early Catalina. Fishers would bait stout handlines and cast them from shore into the melee, pulling in many of the larger predatory fish. He saw this as a mindless slaughter since most of the fish caught this way were tossed back dead for the sea lions and sharks to eat. In Holder's own words, he was "horrified" and "appalled" at what he considered a "depressing" activity. He recognized that such practices could quickly decimate the island's incredible marine life.

Holder was determined to transform this kind of fishing into something more sporting in which the fish would have an "equal" chance, thus testing the real abilities of the fisher. He was already an active fisher with experience in freshwater habitats in the East, as well as angling for striped bass along the East Coast and tarpon in the Gulf of Mexico. He sent back East for his fishing tackle, and hired local boatman and fishing guide Jose Felice Presiado (known locally as "Mexican Joe") to take him out to try it on our local species. It is reported that Joe was initially amused by this, but was won over to the use of light tackle to catch yellowtail and eventually billfish.

Holder lived in Pasadena with his family, serving as editor of the Los Angeles Tribune and also founded California Illustrated Magazine. He became a major promoter of Catalina and the sport fishing opportunities here. He was also a co-founder of the Tournament of Roses which I find interesting given the organization's use of the former Pasadena home of William and Ada Wrigley Jr. as their headquarters.

In part due to Holder's promotion of the island, the town's beaches were soon dominated by fishing guides and their boats. The Banning family had established regular passenger service and the guides would display their catches in front of the Metropole Hotel to attract customers. Targeted species included the yellowtail, white sea bass, black sea bass, albacore and barracuda. At the time massive schools of blue-fin tuna often churned up large areas of the ocean between Avalon and Long Point. These fish were considered impossible to take on rod-and-reel. However, in 1896 Colonel C. P. Morehouse took the first tuna and soon others were rising to this challenge of their abilities. In 1898 Holder himself caught a 183 pound tuna which was called the first "very large one." He fought this fish for 3 hours and 45 minutes while it dragged him and boatman Jim Gardner some 10 miles. When his catch was widely reported in the national press, Catalina increased in appeal as a destination for sporting anglers.

Holder also stated that catching this large tuna, coupled with his concern about the continuing handline fishing, was what led to his suggestion to form the Tuna Club that year with several fishing friends. The goal was to establish strict rules for fishing that would enhance its challenge and help protect the game fishes of our southern California waters. The Club awarded its now famous "blue button" to those who caught fish using these standards. Holder and his friends in the Tuna Club did much to change the attitude and methods of fishers not only in our waters, but internationally. Their rules and spirit were adopted by fishing clubs throughout the world.

Towards the conservation goals, these fishermen (and they were entirely male at that time) became active lobbyists against the commercial fishing activities in our waters. As early as 1910, Holder expressed serious concern for the decimation of the giant or black sea bass in our waters. Largely through his efforts, the "Santa Catalina Island Fish Reserve" was established in 1913. This very early "marine reserve" prohibited commercial net fisheries within three miles of Catalina, not unlike the banning of gillnets in California waters in 1993 that helped lead to the apparent recovery of the giant sea bass today.

Unfortunately this early marine reserve was later eliminated due to political pressure from commercial fishing interests. I guess some things never change as witnessed by the political pressure exerted by fishing interests, both commercial and recreational, regarding the establishment of a coordinated series of reserves in our state through the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA).

However, Charles Frederick Holder emerged as someone who helped change the consciousness of fishers throughout the world, giving game fishing a "sporting chance" as expressed in the Tuna Club's motto "fair play for game fishes." Not only was Holder a man ahead of his time... he also appears to be a man ahead of our time! I was pleased to read in last week's edition of this paper that the Catalina Conservancy, Catalina Museum and City of Avalon will be honoring Holder, as well as pioneer Catalina botanist Blanche Trask, through a "living history" presentation next March. I hope all of you will take the opportunity to learn more about both of these visionary participants in our island's history. Oh, and a Happy New Year to you all!

© 2005 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Look for my new DVD on the giant sea bass to be released in January.

The Charles F. Holder memorial rock, a picture of Holder himself from Windle's History;
close-ups of one of the two memorial plaques on the rock honoring Holder.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia