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Day 69 – The Nugget shark: John meets Jaws


Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

We offer the hardy band of This is Reno readers that have come together in the past 68 days, a fish-story now about the Nugget’s Trader Dick’s restaurant, long a point of community pride which has faded into but a fond memory.

The locals have long since forgotten, and the tourists have no clue, that when you were sitting at the bar in Trader Dick’s restaurant in the Sparks Nugget, Interstate 80 is only about 25 feet away. Straight up. A system of columns separated the little umbrella in your Mai Tai from the tires of one of Granite’s big green three-dump-trailer rigs rumbling overhead.

In a triumph of design, a massive aquarium of Ascuagan proportions was built around the three freeway columns behind the bar, those columns textured to appear as a Pacific atoll rock formation. And into this aquarium were placed hundreds of tropical fish, all content to aimlessly mill around the tank, with a wonderfully mesmerizing effect on the bar’s patrons.

But there was an unseen malaise in this seemingly-placid lagoon when Trader Dick’s opened in 1988, for the large school of fish was slowly, inexorably diminishing – the bartenders were the first to notice that it just seemed that there just weren’t as many fish in the tank as there once were.  More fish were introduced. And their number, too, also diminished over time. 

What was happening to the fish in the tank? Were the chefs at the Oyster Bar covertly raiding it on busy Friday nights when their fish lockers were becoming sparse?  Unthinkable…

The bar at Trader Dick's at John Ascuaga's Nugget.
The bar and fish tank at Trader Dick’s at John Ascuaga’s Nugget.

In yakking this story up, I’ve heard various accounts of how the mystery was solved; my own recollection and the commonly accepted fanciful explanation is that an out-of-towner idly sitting at the plank one afternoon, obviously a fish guy, looked toward the tank and muttered under his breath, “Who the hell would put that shark into an aquarium?”

A nearby bartender overheard him, and lights began going on.  Fish people on a grand scale (sorry) were called to the scene and determined that, yes, indeed; a juvenile shark was loose in the tank and should be isolated, pronto, for the welfare of the remaining herd.

The local press got wind of it, the Bay Area press a day or so later including no less than Herb Caen, all of which created a problem for the Nugget’s PR honcho Fred Davis: What do we do with this little beast now?

The little guy was clearly In Harm’s Way, trespassing in an establishment with eight fine restaurants – Shark Fin Soup at Trader Dick’s and the Captain’s Platter in the Oyster Bar come to mind – but PETA would never let the Nugget off the hook for pulling a stunt like that to make the problem go away.

So John did the only right, decent thing to do: He spoke with the folks at the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and when the arrangements were complete, he sent the errant little shark, who after all really had no blame coming in the whole matter, in a Nugget limousine no less, to the Steinhart, where it could eat a more seemly menu and frolic with its own species, maybe start a family someday. To no one’s surprise, a press photographer or two was present at both ends of the journey.

OK – I first wrote about all this in the early 1990s. Piqued by the fact that the Steinhart was scheduled to close in 2006 to be demolished and make way for the new California Academy of Sciences, I called the aquarium in the days just before it closed to the public and its fish were moved to a temporary facility in downtown San Francisco while the beautiful new Academy housing the Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium was being built. I inquired about the Nugget shark’s welfare. 

The California Academy of Science building in San Francisco
Taken from the roof of the deYoung Museum, the new 2008 California Academy of Science building where the little shark lives now. Mt. Sutro and the UCSF Medical School complex in the background. Image: Karl Breckenridge

Well, Stephanie Greenman, Steinhart’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator, and Tom Tucker, the Aquarium Curator, dove right in, so to speak, and filled me in on some background (Tom has since retired.)

Tom pleasantly recalled working with Tonis (Tony) Lubbers, the Nugget’s general manager for many decades, on the transfer of the little creature and recalls it as a nurse shark, allaying my fear that maybe it was a card shark. Given the 35-year lifespan of a female nurse shark and the excellent care it’s receiving, it’s a safe assumption that the little shark is now older, alive, and well, a pleasant alternative to the medium well she might have become in John’s Oyster Bar. I thank Stephanie and Tom, who made this an enjoyable feature to write about and later update. 

As always in matters pertaining to the Nugget, I thank my old U of N classmate Nancy Trabert, so long a fixture in the Nugget’s third-floor executive offices and who will as usual disavow any knowledge of me, for helping me get the year and some details of this fish-tale correct.

And if you haven’t seen the new California Academy of Sciences and the Steinhart Aquarium, wait until we again may move about a little more freely and reopens to the public, then hop on a Muni bus in San Francisco and spend the day!

Have a great long Memorial Day weekend and of course, be safe, huh?

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article or letter to the editor here.

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

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