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Fish Tales

 

Big 'Buts Drive Us Nuts

 

Neal Peters & Bob Tregilus bring us a colorful story of a NorCal halibut adventure ...


The sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation . . .

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, 1940.

I've seen bears and mountain lions on one side of me,
then whales and sharks on the other.

Neal Peters, 1998.

* * * * *

It started innocently enough but with Bob's clothes again covered in blood, innocence was lost in this equation. A crowd was gathering around the cleaning station, asking questions. Heather, who, had just arrived after a five hour drive from her home, to visit this 'Lost Coast' where the largest earthquake fault in the Western Hemisphere meets the sea, exclaimed, "What's that!" She had arrived just in time to see what we drew forth from our large ice chest. Heather, as well as the tourists, quickly grabbed their cameras.

* * * * *

Bob said, "Look, I can only get the last week of July off work, that's it, take it or leave it." At first I was tempted to choose the latter, you see, on this part of California's coast salmon season doesn't resume until the first of August. I then decided, The Bob & Neal Fishing Show, just wouldn't be the same without old Bob. (Plus I could use his truck to pull my boat, the Rocket.) And besides, it was time to target a new variety of fish. Did somebody say, "Halibut?"

Bob pulled in from Reno, Nevada at 6:00pm on Saturday the 25th of July 1998. There was no, "Hi, how's it going?" or "What have you been up to?" or "I need to use your bathroom," just, "So where are the charts?"

"Some here, some at the shop," I responded somewhat dismayed by Bob's, just the facts ma'am, line of questioning, "Why?" I asked.

"Waypoints!"

"Okay, Joe Friday," I quipped. So I gathered up my five or so charts. I use to have several more charts but on a trip out of San Diego many of them blew out of my boat while running from a ten-foot wall of water. The tsunami was caused by a nuclear missile boat running at about forty-five knots. San Diego, is home to the United States submarine fleet who can be hazardous to small boaters.

I remember Bob exclaiming, "What the hell's that!" I looked to where he was pointing but didn't see much, only a submarine heading out to sea.

"It's only a sub, Bob, relax." He sometimes gets a little excited about things, but then I always forget about his fine twenty twelve vision.

"No shit, Neal, I see the sub; I'm talkin' about the wave."

The perfectly formed wave which had rolled off the smooth hull of the fast moving submarine was approaching us fast, I now saw it. I watched for a moment because I could not believe how fast it was moving and how large it was getting. "The damn sub was at least three miles away," I thought, "How could it produce such a large wake?" I did, however, react quickly and fired up the Rocket's Nissan motor. I considered pointing our bow into the oncoming wall of water but not knowing its character I opted to out run it. The sea was rather flat and we were soon doing top speed, about forty miles an hour. Well, I guess I saved the boat, but lost the charts. I wonder if I could bill the Navy?

We spent the next hour studying the few charts I had left. We were looking for safe harbors and for reefs that would be likely fishing spots. Our plan: Trailer the boat up to Crescent City on Sunday, camp there Sunday night, fish on Monday. Then head down to Trinidad for a day of fishing out of the "Bay of Beauty." And finally on to Shelter Cove for two days.

Arriving in Crescent City we found it just as we had left it last winter during a fishing trip; we even camped in the same campground. (Now twice the price during the summer months.) Not being sleepy that night, which is typical for us prior to putting out to sea, we decided to walk over to the harbor and visit Crescent City's commercial fishing fleet. The scars and blemishes on these boats mystified us with their tales of yore; each had its own story to tell. One drag boat had a huge dent in its fifty-foot hull. This major blemish was on the starboard bow. Given all the large iceberg like rocks of Saint George's Reef we could easily picture this boat ramming one in the fog.

"Holy shit," said Bob, "that must have scared the pants off 'em."

I, knowing better, having worked on such a boat, said, "No, it more likely knocked the pants off 'em and dented in a few heads too. That was not a happy night for her captain or crew," I lamented. We returned to our campsite well after midnight.

The next morning the wind was blowing strong out of the southwest much to our dismay. We watched the weather for a while from the harbor entrance and after listening to the NOAA weather radio station we decided that maybe we should head south to Trinidad.

As we wound our way south on the Pacific Coast Highway in and amongst the mighty redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, Bob said, "Well dam, I thought we may have had a chance at nailing old grandpa out there on the reef."

He was referring to our winter trip of 1997, when we first fished Saint George's Reef out of Crescent City. Old grandpa is what we figured to be a very large lingcod who ate everything we threw at him. Grandpa ate hex bars, shabby shrimp, two-pound live blues, and an assortment of other gear. Soon as you'd hook him he would swim under a rock with such power you couldn't slow him down and eventually he would cut your line.

"Well, perhaps we will get him on the next trip," I said to Bob. But since then, I'm told, someone caught a fifty-three pound ling out there on the Reef! I wonder if it was at my famous waypoint sixteen where old Grandpa resides?

Arriving at Trinidad we found a campsite near the harbor and then went down to the launch to acquire a mooring for the next night. For those of you not familiar with Trinidad's launch it's different: They pick up your boat by hoist and sit it, not in the ocean, but on a cart that rests on a track. It reminds you of an old time ore mining car mockup you'd find at Disneyland. It's down hill all the way to the water, with big rocks all around your point of splashdown. After lifting our boat and setting it on the rickety old cart the fellow in charge then commands, "Get in the boat boys." We looked at each other rather apprehensively and climbed over the gunwale of the Rocket as commanded. The man then fired up the winch and off we went, rumbling down the rusty old track to the water below. Surprisingly, it worked rather well.

It was a flat ocean, lots of structure below, fish on the screen and beautiful weather. What more could we ask for? Well to start with, "Would somebody please shoot down that damn loud helicopter." It seems as though the Coast Guard decided to run rescue scenarios right next to our fishing spot. It was like flashbacks of San Diego. Try fishing on the US/Mexican border sometime and you will see what I mean. You can't win against the government, unless you vote Libertarian, but since it wasn't Election Day we moved.

With all the fish reading on the fish finder none seemed to be hungry. I finally boated a keeper blue rockfish but it was a very slow day when suddenly, we heard this awful racket coming out of the south. It sounded as though the helicopter had lost a rotor. The noise went on for what seemed like half an hour until slowly, from behind a rock, and into view, came the loudest, slowest, smallest boat in the ocean. Bob and I watched and listened to this noise-boat for two hours. During this time it covered about one and a half miles. While watching and listening to this cacophonic vessel make progress, and I use the term "progress" loosely, you actually could not see it move, but if you turned to rig up some gear, taking maybe ten minutes, then looked back, the boat would be in a slightly different position. Bob and I discussed the noisy apparition, and it was then that I decided it could only be an old Firestone motor making that much noise.

The Firestone was feebly attempting to power a sixteen-foot rental skiff with five nominees for the Darwin award onboard. Suddenly the damn muffler must have fallen off the old Firestone because the noise became deafening and we were at least two miles away. I'll bet people could now hear it in Eureka some twenty miles to the south. The Cook, the Oilier, the Journalist, and the Captain, in Stephen Crane's short story, The Open Boat, were in better shape than this ship of fools! We decided to call it a day. Let the government employees earn their wages if they sink. If the fly boys miss 'em I'm sure the sharks won't. There's always a quieter tomorrow and maybe the fish will be hungry, too.

We motored into Trinidad's pristine picturesque harbor at sunset. It was getting dark and we had to find the old rowboat, tow it to our mooring, then row it back to the pier. We were surprised to find a family of sea otters playing on the deck of the landing where the rowboat was tied. They barely gave us a sideways glance as we glided in and Bob untied the small skiff. With several mishaps, including a lost ore, the ore locks were worn beyond service, we arrived back at the pier. The Rocket did not bother the otters in the least, however, the decrepit rowboat, with paddles flapping about, gave the otters concern so they slipped off the landing and into the luminescent green waters of Trinidad Bay.

In the morning we couldn't find the rowboat so we took Trinidad's version of a water-taxi. Our cabby, maybe thirty-five years old, with an old rowboat, with maybe a ten horsepower outboard on it, was quick to point out that our bow-eye could very well be rotten. He reached deep within his tattered coat and produced an old bow-eye from a boat he said had washed up onto the rocks. I must have looked a bit puzzled; so he was quick to admonish us for tying both mooring lines to the bow-eye of the Rocket instead of one of the lines to a deck cleat. I assured him that our forty-year old hull had a good bow-eye and thanked him for his concern while handing him a dollar for the ride.

Finally we were off to catch fish; at least that is what I hoped. After half a day and one small fish we decided to leave Trinidad for what we hoped would prove to be more fertile fishing in Shelter Cove.

It is a long and winging road that threads us into the Cove. One better have good brakes and nerves of steel, as the track is very steep. It's extremely narrow, especially if you're towing a boat. After a harrowing ride which seemed to last for hours we finally rolled into the Cove; wow, and were we impressed! The weather was clear; the ocean was flat; the campground has plenty of open spaces, and I have never seen so many beautiful girls in one place. Both Bob and I say in unison, "This is the shit!" For an off-the-beaten-track fishcamp, I like it. But we are here to fish for fish, the kind with fins, so we hop in the sack early and try to ignore the "scenery."

The next morning I got up early and made the prerequisite cups of mud using some high-octane French roast in my new twelve-volt coffee maker. While sipping the stimulating elixir I engaged a nearby camper in conversation about Shelter Cove's infamous launch, it's different here as well. The object I am told is to get a low paddle. Okay, I thought, "The Rocket sits pretty low so if I need to use a paddle, I think a low one will work." After getting a little more caffeine coursing through my veins and listening to my tutor for a minute or two longer I finally get the picture. One wants to get a low numbered paddle. The lower the number the earlier you get launched. They give you two paddles: one paddle you take with you and the other is left on your trailer for identification. We score paddle number two that day. The paddles, however, are only half the story; getting into the water requires technology from the farm, did I see some tractors parked around the marina?

"Number two, number two?" we heard shouted. Bob had already gone and parked his truck after dropping my boat off in the marina's parking lot. He had just gotten back as the fellow sitting on the tractor was calling, "Number two?" I held up my paddle and the tractor quickly headed our direction. After the driver got the Rocket's trailer attached to his machine he looked up at us and said, "You boys walking or riding?"

"Riding," Bob was quick to respond and we hopped into the Rocket.

It was a good quarter mile ride down to the water where the tractor really comes in handy. He backs you out into the surf, and wearing waders, he climbs down off the tall machine and releases your boat from its trailer. You better be quick and have your motor ready; there's an assortment of rocks behind you while the beach looms menacingly in front of you. We soon get things under control and slowly maneuver our way out of the protective cove. The Exodus, a charter boat, had about half an hour start on us and was heading north to Punta Gorda. When we saw how flat the seas were, we decided to follow her to the best Pacific Halibut grounds in California. I said, "Bob, is everything stowed?"

"I-I cap'n," was the reply, so I pushed the Rocket's throttle forward and the Nissan ninety roared to life. We instantly jumped to plane and the little sixteen-foot Rocket was soon living up to its name.

"Doing thirty-five miles an hour on the ocean it wouldn't take long to track down that barf barge," I thought. The Exodus soon came into view, as we rocketed across a mirror like ocean. When we got within VHF range I decided to contact her captain and get some information as to where they have been fishing of late. The captain obligingly answered my questions but sounded a little chagrined that we hadn't booked our day fishing with him. I thanked him for the tips and radioed, "Rocket out." As the Exodus receded into the distance behind us, we began to think about making bait as Punta Gorda was now looming off you bow.

This is California's 'Lost Coast.' I have been here before, but on horseback. Bob, too, knows this country as we both lived in these mountains some twenty years ago. From the vantage point of the sea, however, one can get a wide angle view that encompasses the ruggedness of the terrain; while exploring on horseback, you can only "feel it" in the seat of your pants as your field of view is limited to mountains, valleys, and ancient Redwood trees thick as an old seaman's beard. Here, the infamous San Andreas Fault turns from its north-south trace and veers west into the Pacific as can be attested to by the height of the mountains; which, rise to 4,000 plus feet along this unfettered coast. Rise, is a weak choice for a verb so I will chose, jut; the mountains jut from the water forming immense cliffs and cavernous valleys attesting to the geologic upheaval this country has witnessed in the distant past. Here the great Pacific tectonic plate is grinding, crunching, and crashing into the North American plate.

The reason this is called the "Lost Coast" is because few people live here, the terrain is too rugged for towns. Although Shelter Cove, a town of 300 or more souls, sits in a rare flat expanse amongst these towing chunks of metamorphic rock, the rest of this coastline is more rugged than a spiny lobster's carapace. These mountains are as epic as, War and Peace, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Moby Dick, they are epic in both breadth and grandeur. And, standing tall amid the bishops, rooks, and knights is the King, Kings Peak that is. Eagles soar about the King's towering crown, while at his knees dolphins play and Pacific Halibut kiss his toes. The very bowels of the Earth are turned inside out here, twisted and convoluted, sinuous and spiny, jutting toward Apollo's fiery chariot thanks to Poseidon's San Andreas Fault.

Juan Rodgriquez Cabrillo was perhaps the first European to see this part of California. He sailed as far north as Cape Mendocino in 1542. And the Englishmen, Francis Drake, sailed this coast in 1578. Both Cabrillo and Drake missed the opening to San Francisco Bay. (Good thing too, if the 'potato patch' did not sink them then the currents, sand bars, and tides inside the bay would have.) I wonder if they stopped and caught some halibut as they passed Punta Gorda on their voyages of discovery? It would be unfortunate to have lived a life exploring the mighty Pacific and not to have tasted halibut. As Bob and I emerged from all these thoughts of tectonic upheavals and history we figured that if Captains Cabrillo and Drake missed out on fresh Halibut we sure as hell were not.

"Time to make bait," said Bob in his, to the point, perfunctory manner.

"Okay, Mr. Spock," I said, "Where do you think are some logical coordinates?"

"There," said he, pointing at a minor point jutting out from the vertical mountains. I concurred as we were about a mile offshore and in perhaps 250 feet of water. Generally, we fish in sixty to one hundred feet for bottom fish, whose name were "bait" for this trip. As we glided to a stop over the spot, where our fish finder showed a burr of action, the blue cod swarmed about our boat even before we plunked our shrimp flies overboard. Perhaps they thought the white hull of the Rocket was a giant squid that they could prey upon like an unfortunate peccary that steps into an Amazonian river containing a school of piranha. We caught numerous blues in minutes; the sound of thumping in our ice chest told us it was time to move out to deeper water and hunt larger prey. Bob filleted and released our catch while I motored the Rocket into position.

As I located us in about 200 feet of water, over a sandy bottom, I could tell by the matter of fact look on Bob's face that he was ready to fish. The ocean was lake flat, with very little drift, so we were able to use small eight-ounce weights to get our blue cod fillets down to the bottom where we hoped some halibuts might be lurking. We drifted our baits slower than a tortoise can run, when the Exodus pulled up about a quarter mile off our port beam. The Exodus was in perhaps 250 to 300 feet of water and that worried us. It's the fisherman's psychosis to stand on one side of a stream and cast to the other side; likewise he will wade across the stream and again cast to the opposite shore. The fish are never lurking where one stops to fish and that other guy is always in a better spot than you are, even if he isn't catching any fish. Our fishermen's psychosis proved to be valid when we heard a gun shot from the Exodus's location.

"Damn, they must have caught a big one," I said. Bob just looked incredulous. Our attention was now focused on the Exodus, and I noticed that Bob was trying to use his binocular like vision to determine whether we should move closer to the cattle boat, when suddenly I yelped, "Fish on!"

Bob actually looked interested as my pole bent over the low gunwale of the Rocket. After a lot of reeling a large red object came into view, in the still waters. "Nice red," said Bob as I lifted what proved to be a ten-pound red cod onboard. After popping the red piscine victim into our generous cooler I turned to see Bob's pole bent in half.

"What's up?" I said, "Got the bottom again, Bob?"

My partner, Bob, is great at catching rocks, old shoes, and discarded friends of Pharaoh Clinton, but then I noticed the telltale jerks and line peeling from Bob's old Penn Senator reel.

He lost quite a bit of line before he could slow his catch down. At last, after a fifteen minute fight, the captive came into view and I thought it was a large lingcod due to its coloring, but then the enormous width told me what I needed to know.

Bob confirmed my suspicion when he barked, "Halibut, gaff it!"

I dipped the gaff into the water, accurately positioning it under the head of the fish, and lifted it up into the boat. We suddenly had a large fish onboard our small Rocket. I've heard stories about what a good size "butt" can do to a boat not to mention the occupants. It's something like the stories you have heard about frontiersmen and their confrontations with grizzly bears. We have dealt with toothy lings; harrowing seas; sixty plus pound albies. This, however, was the first big halibut.

Bob grabbed the bait board and lifted it high ready to smack the creature on the head, but he suddenly stopped, mid-swing, and said, "I see the head, where the hell's the brain?"

Looking at the oblique fish laying on the deck it's hard to tell at first inspection, as the eyes, both of them, are facing you. Is the brain on top of the spine or betwixt the eyes? "Smack it!" I exclaimed, "Before it flips out."

Bob dropped the broad hard between its eyes, the edge of which made a sizable crease in its head. Talk about a death dance, the creature's flopping shattered the latches on my cooler; while, we stepped back as far as one can in a sixteen foot boat to avoid the alien like fangs. Undaunted, however, Bob stepped forward and again whacked the critter on the head, the struggle was over. After a picture plus the requisite weight assertion we had a thirty-five pound Pacific Halibut on ice.

"Damn, I'm bringing my gun next time," Bob said.

8:00 AM and one limit, and it wasn't long that I could envy my partners catch when I saw my rod suddenly bend. It felt like the bottom, but considering what Bob just went through I jerk back to set the hook. I did not care if it was a rock, an old tire, an associate of Clinton, or a fish, I'd be damned if I was going to loose my only chance to catch a Pacific Halibut given the seas and our ability to get out to this remote location in my small boat.

Now, I've caught tuna on a professional boat when I was a kid; not to mention the sport fishing trip I made with, who else, Bob, (look up Tuna Tales on the web), but this was the fourth part of what I call a north coast grand slam. I was excited. Okay, I've bagged a fifty plus pound albacore, salmon approaching forty pounds, numerous lings over twenty pounds and now all I needed was a big butt! Halibut onboard., smaller than Bob's fish, but it was a good size butt and I was twenty-seven pounds happy. Grand slam, however, on further reflection I don't really think anyone could possibly catch a large albie, salmon, butt, and ling all in one day. Well, perhaps someday I could try but Bob and I need a bigger boat to score four big points in one day. However, this day proved to be a grand slam for both my fishing partner and I, albeit may have required five years at sea. The Rocket has launched out of most of the ports in California and one in Oregon, it's even explored the Channel Islands out of Santa Barbara, but never have we seen a more beautiful and sublime coastline than this, Lost Coast, of California. We slowly, regretfully, fished our way back to port filling our cooler on the way, as we knew that such rare conditions, a lake like sea, we would probably never see again. Talk about good luck, Bob and I could not have been luckier pulling handles in Reno. And the party was about to being!

* * * * *

Heather approached our bounty with caution, I guess she saw those ugly alien like fangs and mashed heads, with bulging eyes, thanks to Bob's handy work with the bait-board club. We seized what was left of our captive's heads and held them up proudly for her camera. As it was only early afternoon, the curious crowd, most of whom were day-trippers to the Cove, wanted to hear our story, which of course Bob and I, being true fishermen, were more than happy to relate as we dressed our catch out in our patented assembly line process: We caught, we filleted, we released.

Epilogue

Shelter Cove's campground and hospitality proved to be so unique that it deserves a word or two concerning the party that ensued that evening.

Picture a wide-open campground with plenty of elbowroom and your closet neighbors are all experienced diehard fisherfolk. It's midsummer, and as mentioned earlier, a week prior to the salmon opener. We had crabbers behind us and the ubiquitous bottom fishermen across the road. It was still early in the afternoon so Heather and Bob moseyed off to the gin palace while I took a short nap. I was awoken by the clamor of Bob and Heather when they returned, accompanied by some locals. Party time! Bob, Heather and I got a fire happening and we put some potatoes on to roast. In the meantime the crabbers and bottom fishers showed up. Everyone had great luck catching their targeted species. What a party: barbecued halibut, lingcod, and crabs were passed between us. (Pun acknowledged.) I got out my Stratocaster and plugged my travel amp into my buddy's truck. I'll always remember that night: good food, good fishing, good friends, good music, epic country, and the next day was even better.

The sun sank into the Pacific that evening as we partied, and I noticed a pod of dolphins breaking the glass like sea in the far distance. They rose and dipped through the tranquil waters moving to a timeless rhythm. The sea is always calling us back to a time, "and other creation." I've seen bears and mountain lions on one side of me, then whales and sharks on the other. But my soul is haunted by the sea.