Hook #2: Fish of a Lifetime

Brookings-Harbor, OR
Trip Date: May 25-26, 2005

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.

The sunset just south of Brookings at the mouth of the Winchuck River.
The sunset just south of Brookings at the mouth of the Winchuck River.

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.

Lingcod come in a wide variation of color patterns, but always have a large head full of sharp, vicious-looking teeth.
Lingcod come in a wide variation of color patterns, but always have a large head full of sharp, vicious-looking teeth.

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.

#CaughtOvgard

Read Hook #3: Ethics.