Species: Copper Rockfish (Sebastus caurinus) Location: Yaquina Bay, Newport, OR Date: March 24, 2016
If you’ve never been on the open ocean on a small boat intended for use in the lake, then you haven’t lived.
My first trip was on a 17-foot Bayliner with high gunwales out of the Port of Brookings-Habor. It was a little rough, but I wasn’t worried.
My second trip was on a 14-foot flat-bottomed aluminum duck boat, and I was more than a little worried.
Fortunately, before we made it to the end of the bar, the Coast Guard stopped us and told us the bar was closed to small vessels. I was equal parts disappointed and relieved.
My friend, Eric Elenfeldt, is a phenomenal boater, and if I were to go on the ocean in a tiny vessel with anyone, I’d want him driving, but still. It was a rough bar that day.
We made the best of it, dropped our crab pot, and started fishing. He picked up a Red Irish Lord, his first, and we started catching a few rockfish here and there. Before long, the sheet rain started, and we took cover under the Coast Guard station’s large platform. It was the best decision we made all day.
Almost instantly, we caught fish.
Small Lingcod at first and then my first Copper Rockfish obliged me. Then several more.
Eventually, the guys on the platform spotted us and performed a “random inspection” even though Eric’s inspection sticker was clearly visible on the side of the boat.
They gently asked us not to fish there because it was a matter of national security, and though I’m pretty sure they can’t do that on a navigable waterway, we moved.
It wasn’t long before we saw them fishing from the platform. Huh.
The rest of the day was slow as we struggled to find fish, but we’d learned something: the Coast Guard defends its fishing spots as well as they defend the lives of those out on the ocean.
Species: Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) Location: Brookings Coastline, OR Date: May 26, 2005
It had started the day before. My first time on the ocean, I rode out in a small Bayliner in the afternoon. The handful of students and three chaperones who decided to brave the afternoon waves thought it would be worth it.
The newness of the experience alone would have made it worth it to me, but after watching half a dozen Black Rockfish find their way into our boat, Perry Fields, one of our chaperones, hooked into something that seemed a little bigger.
He battled the beast for awhile.
Then his rod doubled over.
If it was fighting hard before, it was now a creature possessed. His rod bobbed and bounced, and I asked if it would break. Everyone had stopped fishing now. We watched in awe as what could be nothing other than a sea monster slowly rose in the water column and made its way closer to us.
In a moment frozen in time, we saw it. Maybe 10 feet below the boat in relatively clear water, was a fish that looked positively demonic. At first, I thought it had two heads, or maybe a head shaped like a Hammerhead Shark, but it was just a large fish clamped horizontally onto a smaller fish.
It was a Lingcod. The Lingcod.
The smaller fish was maybe 16-18 inches in length, but the fish that had attempted to eat it was easily twice that length, maybe more.
As our teacher, Mr. Dean, went to gaff it, its jaws released the poor, hapless smaller fish, and this beast stuck momentarily in the water column maybe four feet below the boat.
“Grab me,” Mr. Dean commanded, and Mr. Wehr, our other chaperone, steadied him as he plunged the gaff over the gunwale and bent impossibly far over the boat. His body flexed, and he arched backward, the massive, writing beast hanging from the end of the three-foot gaff.
Leviathan itself railed about on the floor of the boat, actively trying to bite any- and everything it could like a cobra in its death throes. It connected with the edge of a boot, unable to sink its sinister teeth into the hard leather.
Acting quickly, Mr. Wehr cut its gills and the beast decided not to go down without a fight. It sprayed warm, frothy blood all over. My new jeans caught a globule of the deathly-dark blood and stained them.
When we got it back to shore, we were saddened to find ourselves without a scale large enough to weigh it, but it measured 45 inches in length. As teenage boys do, we dared each other to place our heads inside its massive jaws. Mine fit with room to spare.
We filleted the beast out before I remember getting any pictures. The carcass was tossed into the garbage, but I asked if I could cut the cheeks out, since I’d read they were quite good. They agreed.
My grandfather’s butchery skills did not pass to me, and as I awkwardly dug out the almost-priceless meat with my old Rapala Fillet Knife in jagged strokes, the nerve endings in the sea monsters face all fired off, causing the head to shake in my hand like something out of a horror movie.
Each cheek weighed about a pound and a quarter, but my inexperience with a fillet knife probably left a quarter pound of meat in each cheek.
Still, it was the most epic thing I’d ever experienced, and I longed for a chance to catch one.
The next day was uneventful by comparison, but I did manage to catch a Lingcod. I’d thought I was snagging the bottom too frequently, but I soon realized at least a few were fish, so I tried fighting them. On light trout tackle with eight-pound mono, it was an uphill battle (literally), but I managed to get it to the surface, where, after several attempts, my friend Christopher netted it.
The minimum length was 24 inches back then, and, you guessed it, it was 23 1/4″ long. I was forced to release my first sea monster, but I’d added a new species and set a lifelong quest in motion: catch a sea monster the size of Mr. Fields’ someday.
The mind is a funny thing. How we can remember the subtle differences between the radio-edited song and the original, but draw a blank on the name of a childhood friend, I will never understand.
While I don’t understand, I do remember.
I remember loading into a red van, sitting with my freshman classmates — only a few of whom had discovered the miraculous properties of deodorant — and waiting, sweat forcefully introducing my shorts to my unmentionables, as we drove through blistering heat without functional air conditioning.
I remember setting up camp and getting filthy in the process. As the sweat and dirt formed a grainy paste on my body, I remember learning that the ocean was calm enough to take a trip out that afternoon.
I remember the salty air slapping my face and opening my mouth at just the wrong moment. I remember seeing Black Brants and Long-Tailed Ducks (still listed as Oldsquaw in my dated National Audubon Society Pocket Guide) flying in formation low over the water. I remember the rubbery little fish we used (Wildeye Swim Shad) that really worked.
But mostly, I remember the blood.
Only a handful of us wanted to try fishing that afternoon (Ben Blanchard, Christopher Puckett, Cody Toschik, and I), and we boarded the Bayliner very pensively. It was a bit intimidating, even if Brookings did have “the safest bar on the Oregon Coast.” But in a miracle of Mosaic proportions, somehow, the sea calmed, and we made it across. While we didn’t die, the lap, lap, lapping of the water against the side of the boat, the shifting horizon, and the smell of the fish we’d already caught sent several of us into a despondent state of seasickness — something I’d never before experienced.
As I stared into the gray waves, suddenly, the soprano song of a reel saved me from losing my lunch. Behind me, I watched intently as Perry Fields, one of our chaperons, hooked up.
He was making progress, inching the fish towards the surface, pump-reel, pump-reel, when the theme from Jaws began to play in my head. The fish he was fighting seemed to get a second wind, becoming exponentially stronger than it had been just moments before.
The intense minutes watching the fight culminated with a fleeting glimpse at this beast of the depths, a hulking behemoth of a fish that looked a little like the catfish I’d caught still-fishing at Crystal Springs Bridge on the Lost River, but maybe 20 times larger and clearly birthed by a demon.
Then I noticed. There were two of them. The first fish, which had hit the swimbait, was maybe 16 inches long. Not big enough to keep, but just big enough to make a tempting dinner for the fish attached to it, which was approaching three times as long.
Just as the fish got within distance of the gaff, the larger predator realized the peril it was in and released its meal, remaining stationary for just a moment too long.
It was at this moment that our biology teacher, Mr. Dean, performed what is, to this day, the greatest landing of any fish. Ever.
Just as the fish shook its head and started to dive, he leaned over the boat, drove his gaff into the water, hooked the fish, and lifted all forty-plus pounds of it over the gunwale, dropping it onto the floor of the little boat.
There wasn’t room for both of us, and this fish knew it. Many fish flop towards freedom, but this fish, this hellion, WAS TRYING TO BITE US.
As it flopped, our final chaperon, Mr. Wehr, kicked it hard in the head, before grabbing a knife and cutting its gills to put it out of its misery and sending its tormented soul back to the depths of Hell.
In its death throes, it turned into a bloody sprinkler, spraying the whole boat with its dark, syrupy blood.
As I looked at my brand-new Levi’s, I saw a spot of blood that I knew would become a stain. (It did, but those became my “fishing pants” for most of high school).
I can’t remember the exact dimensions of the fish, but I do remember that I could fit my head inside its mouth. I do remember posing for a picture (which I couldn’t track down) of four of us, standing side-by-side, all behind the fish.
It was, of course, a Lingcod.
Along with about a dozen Black Rockfish and Blue Rockfish, I caught my own Lingcod the next day, but at 23 1/4 inches, it was just shy of 24-inch minimum length (which has since been lowered to 22 inches), and I had to let it go.
To this day, I’ve never seen an Oregon ling that size. Not in pictures, not online, nowhere. They often reach that size in Alaska and British Columbia, but not down here.
That Lingcod was the first “Fish of a Lifetime” I ever saw, and I’ve been on a quest to catch my own ever since.