“Early one mornin', I took me a notion
To go out a-fishin' in the middle of the ocean ...”
— Woody Guthrie, “Talkin’ Fishin’ Blues”
There are a lot of great adventures to be had in Washington state. One of the best requires you to keep driving west until you can’t any longer — then hop in a boat and keep going.
A few days ago I had the good fortune to enjoy just such a journey, deep-sea fishing on a family voyage aboard the good ship Tequila Too, based in Westport on the south side of Grays Harbor.
My parents sponsored the trip with me, my brother and our two oldest sons.
We boarded the charter boat a little after 6 a.m., joining three or four other families on the ship as we greeted our captain and two deckhands. As we left the docks, my son and his cousin pointed out a seal who followed us out of the harbor, and soon we saw even grander aquatic wildlife.
On the horizon to starboard we soon saw a spout of water, which a deckhand said was a gray whale. At the same time, pairs of dolphins started following our boat, leaping from the water along and behind us.
The day was perfect. The sun kept us warm enough for shirtsleeves most of the trip and the waves were gentle.
“The ocean is the color you always imagine the ocean to be but it never is,” my 16-year-old son commented.
On the way out I enjoyed getting to know one of the deckhands, Russ, who was originally from Georgia and who remembers fishing for snapper in the Gulf of Mexico with his grandpa.
He got his job on the Tequila Too last year by walking up and down the docks looking for work.
“Eventually they got tired of me asking, so they brought me on,” he said.
Soon we were fishing for flounder, which we kept in a tank to use as live bait later in the day. My teenager also caught something unexpected. We thought his wide, flat fish was a sting ray, but some web searching suggests to me that it was a variety of skate. Our skipper set that one loose.
“Those aren’t very good to eat,” he told my son. “Good catch, though.”
We then continued our cruise west until the fish-finding equipment identified a school of rockfish.
We dropped our lines down and waited for the slight nibble, then cranked our fishing lines back up. Soon we were hauling in canary rockfish, a gorgeous yellow-orange colored fish with bulging eyes and spiny fins.
Our skipper, Rich, said that when he started on the charter boats at age 15, that variety of fish was in decline and couldn’t be kept. Recovery efforts have been successful, he said, leading to ever-increasing keep limits of first one, then two, and now seven.
After we caught our limit, we turned on the engines again for a spot about 20 miles offshore where we could fish for the big boys — lingcod.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit for the flounder we used as live bait. I don’t know how much introspection their little fish brains are capable of, but on some basic level they probably assumed that being caught earlier that morning was the worst thing that would happen to them that day. They were wrong.
The crew double-hooked the flounder, then we dropped them down 300 feet to the bottom and cranked our lines back up a little as we waited for the lingcod to open their big mouths.
The skipper told us that when we felt the lingcod bite, we should feed them just a bit of line then give them 45 to 60 seconds to really set the hook.
Then it was another long haul to get them to the surface. We’d shout “color” when we saw their bodies through the clear ocean water, and our crew would hurry over to help net and land them.
My brother, Todd, caught the biggest fish of the day, a lingcod weighing in at 16.5 pounds. We briefly entertained hopes that he might win the $400 prize for the biggest lingcod caught that week, but when we got back to shore we saw the leaderboard showing a guy from Prosser having caught a nearly 37-pounder.
On our return voyage, the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier were spread before us on the horizon, beckoning us home.
We enjoyed stories from one of the other passengers on the boat, a big 70-something-year-old Southerner who has pushed barges from New Orleans to St. Paul for 50 years along the Mississippi River. He told us about savings lives, battling floods and ice, and recovering dead bodies from the Big Muddy.
As we thought of ships half a continent away, we couldn’t help but marvel at our good fortune to be cruising through the beautiful Pacific Ocean with some delicious native fish for our table at home.
And last night, after my daughter fried up some lingcod in butter, garlic and oregano for our family table, I had ample proof that life in the Pacific Northwest is a delicious adventure, indeed.
Brian Mittge’s column appears in The Chronicle every Saturday. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.