The halibut experience

  • Wayne Kruse / Outdoor Writer
  • Saturday, July 15, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

For awesome, drop-dead-gorgeous scenic beauty, you go to Cape Flattery.

You go by boat from Neah Bay, and you pause in the center of that narrow passage between Tatoosh Island and the point of the Cape. This is the most dramatically beautiful spot in the state of Washington. Period. Fact.

Looking south, down the coast toward LaPush, rock "haystacks" stand – frozen sentinels in drifting strands of mist. Directly to your left, seemingly only yards from the boat, swells crash and thunder against the unyielding stone of the Cape, throwing tons of snarling white water skyward. On your right, the red spire of the Tatoosh light forms a counterpoint to the weathered, striated, basalt bluffs of the island, stained green with algae and streaked with the white of seabird colonies. Looking back toward Neah Bay, the low morning sun glints off a dozen or more snowy dots against the black, clifftop forest – bald eagles, watching patiently for breakfast.

And dead ahead stretches that great, flat, endless expanse of molten-silver Pacific Ocean. Slightly edgy. Slightly sinister. Always waiting.

Yes, I’ve seen Wenatchee in full, apple blossom splendor, and the Skagit delta at tulip time. I’ve been to the north end of Lake Chelan, and watched the brightly colored sails of dozens of wind surfers in the Columbia Gorge. I’ve looked down at Ross Lake and up at Liberty Bell in the north Cascades, and wondered at the geologic drama of Dry Falls and Palouse Falls.

It’s a grand place to live, bucko, and the grandest place is that tiny spot at the very northwest corner.

If you’re not a boater, you may have to take a charter trip to get there, fishing or whale watching, your choice. And then talk the skipper into going between the island and the cape, instead of simply around the whole thing.

I went again, recently, with Tom Young of Tommycod Charters, on his graceful, venerable old boat, Sixpak, to chase halibut on the Canadian side of Swiftsure Bank.

If you’re an avid angler, halibut are one of the state’s true trophy fish, and there’s always the chance of hooking an 80-plus-pound behemoth. If you’re an avid angler and a true trencherman too, few things beat really fresh halibut, baked in a sour cream and dill sauce, on the table. Those who aim at bringing home the makings are enthusiastic about going Canadian each summer, with two-fish limits and a much longer season, generally, in British Columbia waters.

For some of us, the fish are simply a bonus to the excitement of the trip itself and all it entails. For others, the beauty, the change of scene, the open ocean experience, are a bonus to the real business at hand: catching heavy fish. Whichever way you swing, Neah Bay is a top choice.

American-side halibut quotas at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca – the state’s premier halibut area – are being reached sometime around the Fourth of July, making it necessary for aficionados of the fishery to head for British Columbia waters later in the summer. It’s not more difficult; the length of the run to the Canadian side of the bank is roughly the same. About the only difference is that a trip to the border is necessary to purchase a license.

The standard license run, for anglers from this area, is to head north on I-5 and take the truck crossing option at Blaine. Do the border thing there, drive ahead a half mile or so, and swing into the newish, convenience store/gas station complex on the right. The people at the counter sell hundreds of licenses to American anglers and have the routine down cold. You have options, but the most popular is probably the one-day Canadian saltwater license, which runs a little over $7, U.S.

The drive to Neah Bay is 350 miles round-trip – about five hours, depending on ferry delays and traffic conditions – and you must make a choice as you leave Port Angeles. Swing to the right, on the coastal route through Joyce (if you come back through that small community, watch for the sign at the edge of town which says, "Come again, and Re-Joyce"), if you want to take the scenic route. And it is scenic – a very pretty drive along the Strait of Juan de Fuca with some beautiful vistas.

But it’s narrow, winding, and relatively slow. A longer, but slightly faster, route is to continue west on Highway 101, around Lake Crescent, to the cutoff which runs straight north to Clallam Bay/Sekiu.

Accommodations and restaurant facilities in Neah Bay are limited. I hedge my food bets by having dinner on the way over at the Breakwater Restaurant in Sekiu, and buying a fishing-day lunch to go either at the Breakwater, or at a Safeway deli in Port Angeles. I also pick up fishing morning doughnuts and a Thermos of coffee at either of those two places.

I usually stay at The Cape Motel, within walking distance of the Neah Bay marina. It’s spartan, but acceptable, as fishing trip accommodations go. Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, a cooler (large enough to accommodate ice and a substantial volume of fish fillets), warm clothing (even in summer) and, if you’re prone to motion sickness, a patch prescription.

And that brings us to the fishing trip itself.

Yes, well, it has to be said. Fishing halibut on the open ocean is not an hour with a fly rod on Blackman’s Lake. It’s a long, hard day’s work, usually with little sleep. It’s sliding around the deck in the swells, banging against the deckhouse on one swing and against the rail on the other, and trying to brace yourself against both, all day long.

It’s not finesse; it’s brute strength. You’re fishing two pounds of lead and an artificial squid at between 410 and 470 feet. Do the math. If you raise and lower two pounds, that far, 30 times a day, you’ve lifted a Volkswagen off the ground by the time the diesel fires up and Young heads for the barn.

This is one of those excursions you label "interesting," as opposed to fun and games.

Still, it is an exciting trip. The open Pacific carries a slight but unmistakable edge that adds a degree of spice. There are a lot of fish, some of them very large indeed, and taken in its entirety, it’s one of the most memorable hook-and-line experiences an angler can find in the Northwest. It’s one of those trips you wouldn’t want to go on every day, but one you’ll always regret never having tried.

The long run out and back – three-plus hours each way – gives you time to get to know your fishing companions for the day, and to swap some lies. I’m an accomplished liar, so I was able to pretty much overpower the rest of our group that day – the father-son tandem of Brent and Shaun Stevens from Bothell, and Ed Baines of Mukilteo, a commuter to his position as a construction project supervisor for the Port of Seattle at SeaTac Airport.

Our deckhand for the day, Rob Moss, was a Neah Bay native, a Makah, an athlete who still holds most of the offensive basketball records at the high school, and the bearer of an unfortunate tale. He was buying and operating a commercial fishing boat, very successfully, when he turned the wheel over to someone else one day, as he’d been fishing hard and was badly in need of sleep. So was the helmsman, apparently, since he fell asleep at the wheel, ran the boat aground, and sunk it.

So at 34, with a wife and four children, Moss has been forced to start all over, taking work where he can find it in a community without a lot of opportunity. He was probably the hardest-working, most attentive deckhand I’ve ever come across on a charterboat, and I’ve been around a few.

We did well that day, but then so does almost everyone on these trips. We didn’t happen to hit any outsize halibut, such as the 60-plus-pounder Everett tackle shop owner John Martinis found a couple of weeks earlier on a similar trip, but we all landed our two-fish limits of 20- to 30-pound fish. We also boated a number of really nice yelloweye rockfish in the 12- to 15-pound range, and one ling of about 15 pounds.

Moss filleted all the fish on the trip back, and I noticed he was putting aside strips of skin, tails, fins and the like. I figured it was probably for crab bait, but he had another idea in mind. As we came abreast of Tatoosh Island, and headed east toward Neah Bay, hugging the coast closely, Moss started tossing his cache of fish debris to the gulls. With a purpose.

Pretty soon he pointed skyward, and here came a big, adult, bald eagle, watching the action beneath his wings closely. He wouldn’t dive on one of Moss’ offerings directly, instead waiting until a gull had picked the piece out of the water. Then, here he came, wings folded like a diving falcon, dropping straight at the bird with the prize.

As you can imagine, it didn’t take the gull long to decide his priorities in the situation. He dropped the piece of fish skin, the eagle picked it up as it hit the water, and both flew off, winners.

It was quite a show.

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