Delicious Redemption: Lessons in Kayak Fishing, Determination & The Importance of Sleep
After three weekends in a row of late night drives to the coast followed by 3:30AM alarms to launch at first light, I made up my mind to take a weekend off from offshore kayak fishing. Friday morning I figured I should still check the Northwest Kayak Anglers forum just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The reports of an incredibly hot coho bite were too tempting to ignore, and I found myself rushing to load up for a last minute trip to back to the beach. Arriving at my “secret” emergency car camping spot just after 11:00PM, I found an abnormally high number of fellow car campers had also chosen to make a last minute trip to the coast and post up for the evening. Late night cruisers driving by constantly interrupted the soothing sound of crashing waves that typically put me right to sleep in my campsite. The road noise paired with the anticipation for the following morning’s coho rodeo kept me up past midnight, and then 1:00AM, and then 2:00AM. As soon as my eyes closed my 3:30 alarm interrupted what little sleep I had to work with, and the ritual way-too-early morning jostling through kayaking gear, tackle boxes, and search for something to make breakfast out of began. With no luck finding a spoon (or any other kind of utensil for that matter) I decided to forego breakfast and head straight to the beach, but after unloading the kayak, rigging up, and donning my drysuit I realized that foregoing breakfast was probably not the best course of action to fuel my day. I ruffled through more gear and discovered a still wrapped disposable spoon tucked in one of the seat pockets. I was already holding up my mission partner, Brandon, from launching and the first rays of light were beginning to show in the mountains to the east. I opened up the cooler, pulled out the yogurt and started scarfing it down as quickly as I could. I’m not sure of exactly why I chose to buy goat yogurt when I was grocery shopping earlier that week, I think it had something to do with being the only yogurt on the shelf that wasn’t fat free, and I wanted the sweet energy that a good fatty yogurt would give me on the water. What I do know is that the specific plain goat yogurt that I did purchase was the worst tasting yogurt (and in fact one of the worst tasting foods) I’ve ever tasted in my life. After the second bite I felt like I might puke, after the third bite I actually gagged a bit, and as I raised the spoon for a fourth bite I could hardly hold back the oncoming vomit storm. I threw the spoon and yogurt in the dumpster and started the hike down to the surf.
The launch was crowded with more dorys than usual; a good sign that the bite was definitely on, and also probably a byproduct of the holiday weekend. After punching through the surf in our Outbacks, we dropped our lines and started trolling our way out towards where all the dorys were grouped up. A couple of whales breached only a few feet away from us once we get out past the cape, where the real offshore action begins. Within minutes of my line hitting the water, my rod started bouncing vigorously. The hardest part of trolling for salmon from a kayak is the wait between when the fish hits, and when it’s really “on.” One bounce after another, then a solid bend in the rod and screaming drag, and then just a bit more waiting. Okay! I pulled the rod from the rod holder and start to retrieve, I can feel the fish trying to run the other way. I keep pedaling forward, pulling him along, keeping the rod bent and the line tight. Reeling, reeling, more reeling, but suddenly it doesn’t feel as heavy, the shaking stops. Did the fish get off? Did I do something wrong, pick up the rod too early, pedal too fast, pedal too slow? I reel my line the rest of the way in to see if my bait is still there only to see that my trailing hook was gone, and in it’s place a bunch of curly line. In my early morning exhaustion, I tied a bad knot that cost me my first fish of the day. Oh well, nothing to do but tie a better knot and get this line back in the water. I slap on a new hook and tie a solid knot, pulling as hard as I can on the hook to make sure nothing can pull it off. I drop the line back in the water, and after only a few more minutes I get another takedown. I wait for some solid screaming drag, but it never happens. More pedaling, more waiting, more bumps, but no fish that really take the hook. Finally I get a solid take, and I go for it. The stress of making sure I keep the fish on almost overwhelms the multiple actions I need to keep up in my head. Keep pedaling, keep the rod bent, keep the line tight. Don’t reel too fast, but don’t let it pull away too much. The next thing I know the fish is in the net. I check it hopefully for a clipped adipose fin, only to find it’s fin still intact. I remove the hook from the salmon’s mouth, pull it out of the net, and give it a light sub-surface torpedo boost back into the abyss. It darts off as if we’d never met. Catching a wild salmon is always a conflicted feeling for me; it’s wonderful to see salmon making a comeback in the wild, but it’s disappointing to have to send it swimming when you’re chasing hatchery fish for dinner.
I bait back up and drop my line back in the water, take down after take down, missing one fish after another. Pulling the rod too early, slowing down after a big hit, all the mistakes I know not to make. I start to close my eyes as I cruise along. A hard week, lack of sleep, the morning’s yogurt situation, and repeatedly missing fish that I shouldn’t be missing created the perfect storm of just wanting to go to sleep. Brandon had already landed a hatchery fish and a few wild fish, and our friend Don had already limited on salmon and moved on to bottom fishing. I missed a few more hits and decided to call it on trolling. My mind just wasn’t in the right place to catch something that required any more than just bouncing a lure up and down. I pulled up my trolling gear and cruised over to the reef for some jigging, hoping to pick up some lingcod, a cabezon, a rockfish, anything really. I just wanted to land a fish. Along the way I ran into my friend and fellow Oregon Rockfish Classic organizer Brian, who was also out trolling for salmon. We meandered along and came up alongside a huge Mola Mola (also know as sunfish) that was passing through munching on the plethora of delicious jellyfish that had made their way close to shore. We moved along with it for a while, amused by what an interesting fish it was, and enjoying a rare opportunity to spend some time with one of these peaceful giants. When I arrived at the reef, my exhaustion was more visible to me as I lazily bounced the jig up and down; and clearly it was noticeable to the fish as well. Two hours passed by, and not even so much as a nibble. Maybe the bite wasn’t on, maybe I was in the wrong spot, or maybe it was just me using the wrong jig, being too slow, who knows. I packed the jigs back into my crate, secured all my gear and headed in. I don’t even remember landing back on the beach, but I remember pulling the seat out of my kayak and sitting there watching the dorys come in, half asleep. Brandon and Don came in about an hour or two later. At this point I had my mind set; I would go back to the parking lot, sleep in the car until I was rested enough to drive back to Portland, and then make the trek home to have a nice relaxing Sunday. When Brandon offered to let me couch surf in the house he’d rented for the weekend, I considered how good my odds were of landing my first hatchery coho in the ocean would be the following day if I had a good nights sleep. After all, the dorys and other kayakers were pulling salmon up left and right. The fish counter on the beach had told me over a hundred coho had come in before I came back to land, and ten chinook on top of that. Basically the only reason I could figure that I wasn’t catching fish is because I was just too tired. I headed to the local watering hole, but instead of grabbing a beer I drank a whole pitcher of water. Someone told me one that hydration is key, so I figured maybe it would help my odds of catching more salmon. Couldn’t hurt, right? After chowing down on some onion rings and soup, I headed to the rental house. Brandon and his wife, Alice, headed out to grab a bite shortly after I arrived. As soon as the door closed, it was lights out.
I slept from 4:00PM until 3:30AM when my alarm sounded again. This time I opened my eyes and thought “IT’S TIME FOR PANCAKES AND SALMON!” Not at the same time of course, though in hindsight that does sound delicious. I cranked out some flapjacks for Brandon, then for myself. We grabbed our fish finder batteries and radios off the chargers and headed back to the beach. I’m not sure when the last time you slept for twelve hours was, but I will tell you that everything is much nicer with twelve hours of rest instead of two. The sunrise was much more beautiful, the birds were singing, you know, all that good stuff. A launch into bigger surf than the previous day, but without issue nonetheless. We head out to the rock, pulling in behind it for protection from the wind and waves and take a moment to rig up some herring. We pull out from behind the rock and drop our lines. Seconds after I watch Brandon put his line in the water, I look up and see he has his rod back in his hands with a solid bend, and he’s reaching for the net. He comes in over the radio, “Hatchery fish!” He bags the fish, and in what seems like an impossibly short time he’s on another one! It’s a wild coho, and goes back to swim another day. Brandon decides to stay in close, but I continue to pedal further out towards the dorys. A few minutes after we part ways, I get my first bump of the morning. I wait patiently as the bumps become more aggressive. Finally a real takedown starts, I let a good amount of line peel of the reel before going for the rod. The fish is there, I can feel him trying to run. Darting frantically back and forth between pulling a way and running straight for the kayak; keep pedaling, keep the rod bent, keep the line tight. Check, check, check. I pull the fish up to the boat, and as it’s back rises out of the water, I can already see the adipose fin. I quickly pull the hook from it’s mouth. It makes a huge splash as it swims off, furious that I’ve interrupted it’s breakfast for nothing. Another herring on the hook, line back in the water, and here we go. Some bumps happen here and there, but nothing wants to commit. I peel off from the group of dorys and start to head north where I see a couple of other kayakers trolling. On my way over to them I hook into another fish. A solid takedown, all the usual business, fish in the net, and there’s the fin again. Back it goes. I keep heading north, watching dorys and kayakers pull salmon out of the water left and right. Most of the fish are going in the boats and staying there, so that means there are hatchery fish to be caught. The day before when I ran into the legend himself, Mark Veary, he told me that the ratio of wild to hatchery fish was three-to-one. I know odds aren’t always perfect, but theoretically that means I’m due, right? Further north I go, I glimpse over at my fish finder periodically watching the water temperature drop. It’s just hit fifty six degrees flat, the coldest water I’ve seen all day. No other kayaks are in sight, and only a couple of dorys remain up ahead. Two strong bumps and a quick take down, and line starts ripping from my reel again. I repeat my usual mantra in my head, but the prevailing thought is, “Please, don’t be another wild fish.” After another solid fish (salmon are seriously strong you guys, it’s awesome) I pull the fish up to the boat and land it in the net. There’s no fin. THERE’S NO FIN! “WOOOOOOOOOOOO!” It’s a sounds that echoes across the ocean non-stop when the salmon fishing is good. It seems like a silly exaggeration until you land a legal fish for yourself, and then it’s an uncontrollable impulse. I bonk the fish and put him in the bag.
Brandon has already limited on salmon and has headed over to bottom fish. I decide to start trolling my way back over to him at the structure he’s fishing a couple miles south of me. In the long troll back I see other boats landing fish, but I don’t get any hits. I’m satisfied with my one hatchery fish, so instead of trolling around in the mix of dorys and kayaks for my two fish limit, I continue straight for the reef. When I find Brandon, he reports that the bottom fishing has been slow for a while. With my salmon rig still in the water, I turn around to dig my jigs out of my crate. I feel a bounce, and look back to see my rod bouncing. “Probably just a dink eating my herring,” I mutter to myself. I pull out my jigs and zip my crate back up, then turn back around to see my fishing rod now bouncing much more aggressively than before. I pull it from the rod holder and feel an immediate response. Expecting the culprit to be a rockfish, I begin to reel up quickly, but instead of the usual hard hit followed by a not-so exciting fight that rockfish typically provide, the mystery fish starts taking line from me. Maybe a big rockfish? That would be nice. But then it starts to take line again, and then a third time. Brandon suspects a ling, but I don’t feel like it’s quite strong enough to be a big ling. If it’s a ling, it’s a small one and it’s going back in the water anyway. The fight continues for a minute or so, and the mystery fish comes into sight. It’s a nice cabezon! I get it in the net and keep it in the water for a few minutes, waiting for the infamous cabezon puke that no kayaker wants in their boat. After a while with no “zon-vom” I pull it into the kayak and bag it. I tie a Lancer jig that Don gave me the weekend before onto my jigging rod and drop it onto a nice looking underwater peak, and immediately hook into a fish. A respectably sized rockfish comes to the surface, and into the bag it goes. We move along from spot to spot, marking huge schools along the way. I mark an extremely shallow spot that Brandon had found earlier in the day, and as soon as my jig hits the water it bounces off a rock and hooks a fish. The action continues and Brandon and I both bag limits of rockfish, hooking into plenty of other fish along the way (it wouldn’t be a real fishing day if I didn’t lose some right at the boat, would it?). We hold out hope for some ling cod action, but after a few more rockfish we both decide to head in, load up, grab a bite at the watering hole (I just call it the watering hole because I don’t want it to get blown up. Sorry y’all).
They say that a bad day fishing is better than a good day at work, but I still prefer a good day of fishing to any of that. Thanks to Brandon for the encouragement and a place to get some good rest, I started my week feeling excited and victorious instead of tired and defeated. This coming weekend I’ll continue my streak of kayak fishing in the ocean as I head out to Depoe Bay to support the Oregon Rockfish Classic, and then get out for more offshore action on Sunday and Monday. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you on the water!