Catch of the Day
Southern coast fishing
The drive to Brookings, Oregon’s southernmost port town, is truly an adventure in the great woods. The stately and scenic Redwood Highway takes visitors on a winding tour of its namesake trees, leisurely dipping into California before turning north for Brookings.
It’s one of my favorite trips—but only if I’m driving. A notoriously carsick passenger on the highway’s curvy roads, I usually trade seats with my husband, Doug, at the California border. On this trip, as we make the switch, he reminds me to pick up some motion sickness medicine when we hit Brookings. Not for the drive, but for the sportfishing trip we are scheduled to take with our teenage son, Riley.
Awaiting us is the Super Star, one of a legion of charter boats that ply the sportfishing trade up and down Oregon’s coastline. The 43-foot Super Star is one of three charter boats operated by Jan and Jim Pearce’s Tidewind Sportfishing.
During the tsunami surges last March, the Super Star took an unplanned–and totally unmanned–trip over the Chetco River Bar, a perilous journey captured on video and posted on YouTube. Fortunately, a commercial fisherman riding the tsunami out at sea motored over to the errant charter and held it until it could be safely recovered. “It was surreal,” says Jan Pearce, shaking her head. The boat suffered only slight damage; the harbor, which was hit hard, is back in business after being briefly closed.
We’re spending the morning fishing close to the shoreline for lingcod and rockfish, staples of Oregon’s year-round bottomfish fishery. We spend the night at the Chetco River Inn, a delightful, off-the-grid fishing lodge 17 miles (most of them on a single-lane forest road) out of Brookings. After boarding the boat at 6 a.m., we motor slowly out of the protected harbor and out to sea. We are entertained by the antics of several harbor porpoises until we arrive at the fishing grounds 20 minutes later. The craggy cliffs of the shoreline are within sight, as are a couple of straight-up rock islands decorated with hundreds of seabirds.
The deckhands have already baited the 20 or so fishing rods that are mounted on the rail around the Super Star’s deck. Riley and I claim two next to each other, and put tags bearing our names on the buckets beneath them. We’re ready to catch fish.
Doug catches the first one, a small sea bass, and then there’s a long drought as our captain tries to find the fish. I use the time getting pointers from the crew. Kyle explains the simple technique: Let the line run out until it stops, then reel it up off the bottom a few feet.
Riley won’t leave his station, but I duck inside the cabin for a cup of hot chocolate and a chance to get out of the surprisingly hot sun. “Seasick over the side,” instructs one sign, reminding me to check my stomach. Not a twitch.
Suddenly, the excitement begins. Doug kicks it off by being the first to catch two fish at a time, a lingcod and a black rockfish. Many of us hadn’t realized that each pole was baited with three hooks—a heavy-duty one at the bottom for lingcod and two lighter ones for the smaller rockfish.
Riley soon showed up his dad by catching three sets of two rockfish each. The guy to the right of Riley pulls in a starfish, to the delight of the little boy he gave it to. “Can you catch one for me?” says another tyke, provoking a round of laughter on that side of the boat. The laughter was incredulous when, 20 minutes later, he did. Although unusual, starfish are not as strange as some of the catches brought up to the boat. “We get lots of octopus. They’re all over around here, along with wolf eel,” Kyle says.
Meanwhile, as buckets all around me begin to fill with flopping fish, my catch is limited to an itsy-bitsy red rockfish. And then I get a strike. I think it’s a big one. Riley thinks it’s the bottom. What does Kyle think? He hefts my pole. “You got a big one,” he pronounces.
Terrified that the fish will escape, I pull it slowly to the surface, where Kyle hauls it onboard. It’s big, but more than that––it’s really weird. “Hear that grinding sound in its throat?” Kyle asks, as I gingerly take hold of the prehistoric-looking thing by the gills. “That’s how it eats.”
Riley takes the cabazon (poor man’s lobster, Kyle assures me) on a congratulatory round of the deck before it lands in my bucket. Shortly after that, buckets full, the Super Star heads for home. When we reach the dock, the scale comes out. At 11 pounds, my cabazon is the biggest catch of the day, with an eight-pound lingcod coming in second.
As the rest of the group moves off in search of lunch or a bathroom that doesn’t move, I stick around to watch Kyle demonstrate his expertise at filleting, a welcome part of Tidewind’s package. As the three of us happily tote our bags of filleted fish to the car, I fumble in my pocket for the car keys, and find my box of seasickness pills. Next time, the pills stay home. I’m bringing sunscreen instead.
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