He was a huge man six feet three, three hundred sixty-five pounds, one pound for every day of the year if you thought of it that way. The first time I saw John I could imagine him in a wrought iron helmet with ox horns protruding from each side, his crinkly red beard and bright blue eyes making him the picture book Viking. I could envision a massive spiked mace in one fist; the other hidden behind and firmly holding a large round hammered shield. An imposing and fearsome figure. I was at once intimidated and fascinated by the immense confidence he exuded. Watching Hockenbrocht from a safe vantage point the first few times we were near I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge about fishing and a myriad other subjects. How old was he? He did not look much older than his late twenties. Where had this intriguing fellow acquired such experience and expertise in such a few years? I wanted to find out. So I decided to become his friend.
I soon discovered my new friendfor we did become close friendsto be a most complex individual. Bright and opinionated to the extreme. Warm and liked by those who saw beneath the façade. Unlikedeven despised by those who never took the trouble to see beneath the surface. A man with a huge laugh and normal sense of humor but who, not surprisingly, was almost too fragile whenever the joke was on him. Yet John was never vindictive.
During the years I knew John I became privy to many stories involving him and his close buddy, Don. One especially comes to mind. It was when he and Don were part of the shark fishing/bat ray clique, fellows that met at dusk in public access facilities in places like Newport Bay or on the seaward end of the Seal Beach pier and together fished well into the night. When the daytime crowd had gone and they had the place to themselves. Guys who used stout conventional tackle with heavy pyramidal sinkers and massive shark hooks baited with chunks of sea arrow squid. Food to entice the large sharks and often hundred and fifty pound plus bat rays who cruised the inshore and bay waters. Guys loath to accept an outsider or fraud.
One evening John and Don had staked out a place on the public dock on Balboa Island in Newport Bay, baited up and cast well out into the bay waters then laid their rods flat in click mode on the dock. Normally, an occasional click would indicate the action of the current on their terminal tackle; a rapid and constant clicking would signal time to pick up, throw the reel in gear and set the hook. This time John had just turned his back when out of the corner of his eye he saw his rod launch like a thrown spear straight out into the bay. For once he had forgotten to put the reel in click mode and somewhere out there a big "battie" was running straight down current with John's expensive gear in tow.
Most fellows would have given it up right then. Not John. Next thing Don knew John had jumped aboard a small cruiser then pulling into the adjacent fuel wharf, talked its owner into taking him out in the direction his rod had disappeared, and from somewhere had found a grapnel. While onlookers crowded the wharves and passengers aboard the Balboa auto ferry watched John balanced on the boat's stern doggedly casting and retrieving his borrowed grapnel. In the minds of all his chances of success were nil.
When after a dozen or more tries his dripping rod appeared from the depths loud cheers erupted. When it was seen that the fish was, in fact, still attached and Hockenbrocht was engaged in a mighty struggle the place went wild. And when John brought his catcha one hundred-pound plus bat rayto the public dock, removed the "Battie's" stinger to add to the considerable collection in his hat then released the fish, he and his epic fight instantly became the stuff of legends.
Copyright 2000, John McKim