My phone buzzed the fisherman’s five o-clock alarm on the bedside table and I reached for it with pinched eyes. Birdsong came in a congress of calls beyond the glow of my curtained window. The birds were more excited to be awake then I was, but that wouldn’t take long to remedy. In a half an hour I was going fishing.
Jay Nicholas had graciously invited me to fish with Capt. John Harrell (Pacific City Fly Fishing) – our party included me, Jay, and Rob & Erin Perkin. We would be hunting crab and Pacific black rockfish, a dark and slick speckled species of sea bass off the coast. We figured the fish would start to bite at 5:30am, so we were up and dressed by ten before to head down to Pacific City Fly Fishing.
The morning was pale and cool, the same bluish gray as the slats on the shop as it rolled up beside the truck. Parking and piling out of the car, I met our fishing comrades for the day. Erin and Rob fished these waters several times each month and Rob gave my hand a hardy, excited shake. He grinned for the morning ahead, stoked like a fire to be burning the early morning oil for dory fishing. Next there was Jack Harrell, John’s Dad, our host and driver to the launch, and finally his son John, our dory Capt. and guide.
“Are you ready?” John asked me, with a kind toothy grin.
We’d packed the dory and loaded into respective vehicles for the short trip to shore. I sat in the passenger seat of John’s truck, with Rob in the back behind me.
“So ready,” I said.
“Atta girl,” he replied.
It took only a few minutes to get to the beach. We crossed a man dug canal, passed a smattering of prettily shingled, wind weathered houses, rolled through a sandy parking lot and down a long ramp to the dune flanked shoreline.
Waves rolled up to meet a handful of vehicles and dories in line to put into the swells. I chatted with Erin, our hands shoved into our river salt jackets against the morning chill. We grinned at the impressive spectacle of men backing trucks and boats into the surf, racing away from the launched boat in four wheel drive like dare devils approaching launch ramps. Each left men behind to push their boat into the waves up to their watered hips.
Erin and I were the only women on shore.
When it was our dory’s turn, things happened quickly. John backed her into the surf until the boat floated about a foot above bottom, then he pulled the truck and trailer away. His black lab Gracie splashed in the sea after him as the vehicle rushed up the beach. John ushered Erin and I onto the Dory first, followed by Jay and Rob, and then he walked us out into the waves until he, too, heaved himself over the hull and into the boat. And before we could be pushed back into shore by the sea, he clicked the key to bring the engine to life and we cruised out into open water.
It wasn’t long before the shore was a distant sight, the beach and pine tree topped cliffs the only stable thing beyond the rolling waves. I stood next to John as we cruised up and down with them.
“We’re getting close,” he said, pointing to a white lined screen with what looked like color graded mountains on it.
“This is a sensor that tells us the depth of the water we’re in,” he explained. “We’re looking for rock formations that will gather fish. They’ll look like spikes on the screen,” he said.
As if John had called them up with his words the mountains suddenly spiked into towers. Little fish figures appeared on the screen with numbers next to each. 21, 19, 20, 24 feet below—there were fish all over the screen below us.
“There we go! I think we found, em’” John said with a wink and slowed the engine.
That’s when I saw my first rise on open water.
It was splashy and sporadic. The bass crashed into the surface to take their food and then abruptly turned, whipping the air with their tail. They were everywhere, dotting the waves like rain drops on a huge puddle.
Everyone in the boat rodded up. I pulled the popper off of the keeper above my handle, stripped to the end of my shooting head and with the heart palpitating rush that is the first cast of any day on the water, I cast line toward the last splashing rise I’d seen. Erin had joined me at the hull, and we cast out together, pulling our poppers through the surf.
Stripping one, two, three, four—BANG!—it wasn’t five strips before I had my first fish on. And it wasn’t two more strips before Erin made it a double. We erupted in yelps and cheers as the poppers disappeared in splashing rises and the fish began to run. My fish escaped straight toward the bottom of the ocean. Rock fish, I learned pack some muscle, and this one put up a heck of a fight. Soon, though, the line turned to leader as it left the water and the bass emerged out of the depths at the end.
I had never grinned so wide.
John pulled my fish from the water and held it up for me to see. It’s bulging eye and gaping sharp toothed mouth were glistening, the white foam head and bucktail of my popper snug in its lip. This was just the beginning of a morning of extraordinary fishing—a morning we would soon laugh about as one not of fishing, but of catching.
It could have been Erin with bass on poppers, Jay hooking bass on a Tenkara rod, or maybe it was Rob’s elation as he mastered catching big bass in the manner we all envisioned fishing as kids—dropping a hand-line straight down below the boat to catch more than a handful of fish simply by jigging the fly up and down. Or maybe it was John’s constant excitement with each strike, congratulating my every take with a hearty “Atta girl!” that made the morning so much fun.
It isn’t easy being a woman in fly fishing. It’s intimidating, stepping out onto water in a sport men have held a majority in designing and building for years. And it’s even more intimidating to be a woman fly fishing at sea. Erin and I had stood in stark contrast on a beach full of male anglers, but John never made us feel like we were any different than the men we joined on the water. The cheers were sincere, the excitement tangible in each rock of the boat as we gathered round to see the spoils of the most recent take. We were all just giddy anglers in the acquisition of rising, flipping fish.
The catch was plentiful, equally so in pot caught crab as we were in fish, and as we jetted for land four hours later we were the best kind of exhausted. With bins full of our quota of rockfish and still-snapping crab, we cruised toward the beach at what felt like full speed.
“Hold on,” John said, “We’re coming in hot!”
He had to be joking. But he wasn’t. We cruised up to the beach at speed, the bottom of the boat banging in a rising rattle on waves as they crested closer together near the shore. Then with one final thump and skid we landed on the wet sand and slid up the beach to a stop.
I laughed out loud and smiled, eyes wide.
“That was phenomenal!” I said to John as we piled out onto the sand and loaded the boat onto Jack’s waiting truck.
The morning rewarded the 4 anglers with (28) rock fish and (20) crab, not to mention the welcome donuts and coffee back at Jack’s shop. I can’t say thank you enough to Jay, Jack, and John — for one of the most enthralling experiences of my angling life so far. The magic of a morning on the Dory is truly one of a kind, with bass on the rise and the mirth of great casts. Like pulling the perch out of a pond with a bread baited hook as a kid, that morning reminded me of the pure joy of catching fish and the power of fishing among friends.
Maddy Bell, June 13th 2016