Dire Straits: Near-death-experiences, hot salmon bite on Juan de Fuca

My stomach is still reeling, jaw sore from clenching my teeth with anxiety. Happy to be home in Eugene, on dry land, never to set foot in Curley’s Fiberglass Pig #15 again.

I traveled north last weekend to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to fish out of a rented boat from the town of Sekiu on the Olympic Peninsula with my pal Julian from Seattle. Neither of us had fished the Strait before.

Our first day on the water was a half-day, and we decided to spend it fly fishing for rockfish and lingcod. We set out in our little rental boat, headed west toward more favorable fishing regulations in Marine Zone 4 and Neah Bay. Once we reached Marine Zone 4, the mouth of the Sekiu River, we spotted massive rocks jutting out of the water in the distance.

Far out on the horizon, Seal and Sail Rock seemed like a perfect place to find bottomfish glory. It was a long haul, nearly 15 miles from Clallam Bay we later found out, but it seemed worth it. The rocks were surrounded by kelp forests and the water dropped off to thirty feet deep.

There were lots of gray whales nearby, and they seemed to be rubbing themselves against the rocks. They were literally right next to shore. The spray from spouting whales dotted the shoreline every few hundred yards in either direction.

Juan De Fuca

That may have explained why the rockfish bite was off – a herd of forty-foot long whales rubbing their barnacles off en-masse against your house would be unsettling.

When the gas gage started to sag toward the halfway point, we decided to turn back, but found it tough going. The wind had shifted, and we were headed into a nasty chop.

At this point it would be a good idea to describe our boat – dubbed Curley’s Fiberglass Pig #15. Imagine a 55-gallon drum, cut in half vertically, with a small unreliable outboard clamped to the back. Or a cardboard box shellacked with some polyurethane. The thing had a wide, flat bottom with hardly a keel, low sides and no real V-shape in front. It didn’t slice through waves, as much as it tried to push through them. It veered out of control randomly – a sensation like riding a bike on an iced pond.

On the way back, the little 15-horse engine strained to push the boat up the swells. Eventually it started to smoke and died. That’s when the fear got on top of me.

We were miles from the marina, facing a very likely fuel management mistake, and before we even ran out of gas, the damned thing decided to give up. I lost it. I put the oars in the locks and started paddling toward shoreline without making any headway. The oars were in worse shape than the boat and I couldn’t even keep the bow facing the waves, let alone make any ground. At that point I was ready to take my chances with the life vest and abandon ship. That’s how much the fear had gotten on top of me. I was going to jump out. But Julian snapped me out of it and nursed the engine back into relative cooperation.

Obviously we made it back or you wouldn’t be reading this, but it was tight. Lesson learned – the Curley’s Fiberglass Pig’s max distance is probably three miles, not fifteen.

That night we tried to toast to our survival at the Spring Tavern down the street, but it didn’t serve hard liquor and Two and a Half Men blared on the TV. The Spring Tavern is where good times go to die. Forewarned is forearmed – pack your own party for Sekiu folks.

Juan De Fuca

The next day was the end-of-season coho derby and we joined the armada of boats at dawn, headed out of Clallam Bay toward Canada.

I’m no expert at salmon trolling, but somehow Julian and I both hooked up with two of the biggest coho salmon I’d seen taken that week. Julian trolled this bastardized rig – kind of a hodge podge of stuff I found at Two Brothers Tackle with a pink hoochie on the back. I just trolled the pink hoochie on my ten-weight with a sinking head. The proprietor of our motel told us we had fish we could be proud of, but we’d have had to have been trolling our hooks backwards to get skunked out there on Saturday.

Juan De Fuca

After lunch we decided to put our salmon on ice and to chase rockfish close to home. We found some kelp greenling on a rocky point and picked up some nice specimens on purple and white clouser minnows. The bright red fish held close to the kelp forests and it paid to drop a fly down into pockets in the kelp. We had about an hour of hot action, then nada till dinner.

Juan De Fuca

Day two was such a bonanza, we thought we couldn’t lose on Day Three. But it’s easy to go buzzing out of the marina like King Kong and come back with your tail between your legs.

Juan De Fuca

The swell was big in the morning, but manageable. I’d guess it at 8-feet, but smooth rolling waves coming from the west. We trolled out into the maelstrom of boats with our hoochies dancing behind us. But things got hairy fast.

For one, we really couldn’t control the line we were trying to stay on for a troll. We would lose track of big boats in the troughs of the waves, and find out we were right on top of each other. On top of that, some really big tan-colored objects were flying underneath the boat, occasionally smacking Julian’s rig. These were apparently, giant Humboldt Squid.

Juan De Fuca

To top it off, the wind kicked up out of the east and we had wind-waves hitting us from the other direction, stacking up on top of the already huge swells. At a certain point, it looked like the swells were going to swamp the boat, coming over the low, wide bow. And I could tell from looking at our vessel, the only thing keeping it afloat was surface tension. Five gallons of water over the side and we’d have gone down like the Titanic.

The fear got up on top of me again. This time worse than before. I wasn’t sure if it was smarter to haul ass in before things got any worse, or take it easy and get in safe. Eventually fear won out and we tore-ass in with hundreds of feet of fly line and diver rigs braided together, hanging off our rods out the back of the boat. Apparently lots of other boaters had the same idea and the wakes from the dozens of fleeing boats nearly swamped us in the marina.

We’d only spent a few hours out there, but I was done with Curley’s Fiberglass Pig. We hung it up by midmorning and took Curley back his key.

After that, we decided to drive to Neah Bay, to see the town, a Makah Village on the tip of the Peninsula. The Wikipedia write up on Neah Bay mentions that it had 792 residents in the 2000 census and it is a bustling bottom fishing destination in the summer. It doesn’t mention the soul-crushing look of the place, the gutted and abandoned buildings, rusting junk piles.

We pulled in and the town looked dead. The bottom fishing season had wrapped up the week before apparently and not a soul stirred in the marina or road through town. About three-quarters of the way down the main drag, we came across the huge and bloody body of a Humboldt Squid, splayed out in the road with its giant eye looking up at us. The scene was very David Lynch – and the squid’s eye the size of a baseball felt like a warning. So we turned tail and left Neah Bay behind.


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4 Responses to Dire Straits: Near-death-experiences, hot salmon bite on Juan de Fuca

  1. Scott says:

    You’re lucky. I grew up fishing in the straits. We never went out without 2 motors. Usually a big outboard or I/O and a kicker for trolling. I remember a 6 hour trip back with a screaming kicker motor and 8 foot swells. – Scott

  2. Rob R says:

    Gut wrenching and beautiful. Julian must have been in heaven with all that weird shit going on…

  3. PCrook says:

    Wow. Julian looks happy. I miss that country…

  4. Richard Maloney says:

    I have fished Sekiu now for about 25 years. It is like stepping back into the 1960’s. Sekiu is a dying town, as the ritual of saltwater salmon fishing is no longer being passed from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, for those of us who continue to make the long trip up there, the rewards are great.

    Never have I thought it safe to test the four stroke motors of the resorts, even though the remaining operators work hard to keep their old kicker boats clean and safe. Going out 15 miles is asking for it, unless one has a Chamber of Commerce weather day and a cell phone. GPS ought to be mandatory.

    All of the above being said, your story captures the essential essence of the Sekiu experience. We have been waaaay too far from port in the rentals from Olson’s and Van Riper’s. On occasion, I have been towed in; left to drift for hours; and scared spitless that “this time I took it too far.”

    I now fish the challenging waters of the Strait in a 13.5 foot Gregor with a lightly used 1993 Johnson 15 horse (2 stroke). It is almost always the tiniest boat in the fleet. All this requires is an extra dose of caution. We watch the weather, the tides, and the chop. The swells are nothing which take us off the water. Never did I consider the possibility of driving a boat up a hill. THAT is a very unusual experience.

    My days on the water there begin shortly before any light comes upon the horizon. I use portable running lights, hopeful that some larger craft will see them and not run me down. My favorite area to fish is, typically, about three to five miles off Slip Point. For some reason, the currents mostly seem to want to take me westward towards China. This makes the decision to run east to fish seem a safer one.

    After running a half hour or less from port, I try mightily to get my herring-hoochie rig down into the water before any daylight at all exists. Once a rig is down, the next thing is to get the radio going, typically listening to a Canadian station where the locals show us Americans what “civil” political discourse sounds like.

    Maybe there is a quick hookup, maybe not. Yet what occurs in that first hour of fishing, I have determined, is the very essence of what I have come to accept as my “freedom” or “liberty.” As the sun nears the horizon, on many summer mornings the sky and the water light up with an exquisite array of purple, orange, pink, and blue colors. Not merely a sliver of color one sees in a nice sunset. The entire world around me turns into a magical mystery tour of intense color, and there I am, all alone in the world, savoring every single second of the experience. There is nobody to tell me what to do. Nobody to criticize my fishing technique. I am free to ponder all the things which make a life an interesting thing. THIS is what I work for. If there is any place we strive to arrive at, it is this particular moment in time each day I get to fish the waters off Sekiu.

    When I began fishing Sekiu, I was just out of school, and my idea of a good fishing trip was measured in numbers (and size) of creatures conquered. As the years passed, the catch, while still important, is now a secondary consideration. Now it is the opportunity to have time on the water; to see the beauty of the Strait; and to think of all the folks sitting in traffic on their way to their important jobs back in civilization.

    And about those Humbolt squid. I took one in 2009. At first I was unsure what to do with it, yet the folks back on shore had warned me that I might find one in the morning or evening when they approached the surface. We cleaned it, cut it into strips, and it yielded about twenty pounds of perhaps the best seafood I have ever encountered. The evening I caught my squid will remain one of my best fishing memories ever.

    So, although your experience at Sekiu had its challenges, my hunch is that as you gain more experience, the memories of that trip will remain clear. They will provide the grist of great stories to tell. It will be a part of a life well lived.

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