The Only Bite

Big Brother Mitch Carroll, who is one of the top guides at Waterfall, THE premier Alaska fishing resort, owns a very nice 27′ SeaSport Pilot named Bleu Belle that he fishes out of Puget Sound and surrounding waters.  He was kind enough to invite me, along with friend Jim Hay and Jim’s nephew Jay, who recently retired from the Navy, for a day of halibut fishing out of John Wayne Marina, Sequim Bay, Washington in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  I jumped at the chance – Mitch almost ALWAYS catches fish!

Earlier in the year I’d visited the Puyallup Fairgrounds Outdoor Show and while there I’d dropped by the SportCo exhibit and picked up a new Okuma Cold Water 453D reel with line counter, loaded with 65-lb braid.  I had a nice 7′ one-piece Okuma rod with an Ambassadeur 7000 with line counter on the rod, but that reel has a pretty quick retrieve and it’s a real chore cranking up a 32-oz lead from 300 feet, let alone if you have a fish on.  I was going to mount the new reel on that rod, but when I went to remove the Ambassadeur, I discovered that somewhere since last spring I’d managed to screw up two of the line guides.  Dang!  Instead, I pulled an old Penn LeveLine that I’d had since the late ’70’s off of a 5-1/2 foot Okuma boat rod rated for 80lb line and went with that.

I hadn’t seen Bro’ for a couple of months, so after I finished work on Friday, May 6th,, I hurried home, threw my gear into the station wagon, and took off for Carroll-the-Elder’s house.  I arrived fairly late, but Mitch baked a Papa Murphy’s on his gas grill with pizza stone for our supper – the pizza turned out great!  We sat around a bit and caught up with a glass of wine, then hit the rack for a 4 AM wake-up.

Bleu Belle at John Wayne Marina
Bleu Belle at John Wayne Marina

To avoid the crowds at the marina’s trailer launch on Halibut days, Mitch had rented a slip at the Marina.  Smart man, that brother of mine!  We loaded up the gear that Jim, Jay and I had brought, along with our lunch and beverage supplies, and Bleu Belle left the dock before sunrise.  The cruise up Sequim Bay was beautiful, as always.  And if you’re there and not familiar with the waters, follow the channel buoys!  There is a very large set of shallow sand banks that look very inviting as a short-cut to the mouth of the bay around the spit when the wind is calm and there’s about 6 inches of water over the sand.  You’ll see gulls that look like they’re just floating there when they’re really standing on the bottom.  “Red Right Returning” and its corollary rules need to be observed there for danged sure!

Sequim Bay Submerged Sand Bars and Spit
Sequim Bay Submerged Sand Bars and Spit

Initially, we headed out to one of the Banks in mid-strait that Mitch frequently fishes on his way back fromt the San Juan islands.  Winds were calm, and it was an absolutely gorgeous morning.

Sequim and Sequim Bay at Dawn
Sequim and Sequim Bay at Dawn

We hit the Bank, rigged up, and dropped line.  I was fishing a small blue/white plastic squid over a double-hooked (barbless) plug cut 8-10″ herring, garnished with an Octopus leg and seasoned by Mikes’ Gel Shrimp Oil scent.  Initially, I used a “spreader” bar I’d borrowed from my brother that already had a doubled 40-lb drop line, not thinking that added up to 80-lb test, less knot weakness, but I didn’t particularly care for the way it felt.  When I snagged a rock and my 65-lb line couldn’t handle the doubled 40-lb drop line, I lost the whole thing.  I re-rigged with the 32-oz weight on a slider with a doubled 25-lb drop line so if the weight caught a rock, I wouldn’t lose the whole rig and that’s the way I fished the rest of the day.

Strait of Juan Defuca looking East toward Protection Island and Discovery Bay
Strait of Juan de Fuca looking East toward Protection Island and Discovery Bay

After several hours with many drifts across the Bank and absolutely no bites, and no action observed from any of the other boats with the same idea Capt. Mitch had, the skipper ordered “Pull ’em up!” and we headed for a different spot, closer in.  This time we were fishing another Bank a couple of miles off the end of Dungeness Spit.  About noon or so, after low tide, and just before slack current, in about 140 feet of water and still fishing the blue/white squid with plug cut herring, octopus leg garnish and shrimp seasoning, I felt what seemed like a very small fish just nibbling at the bait – I’m talking flounder size nibbles, taking into account the thick rod, 32-oz lead and 65-lb line.  I let that go for a bit, then took a couple of turns on the handle of the reel.  It tightened up the line nicely, so I set the hook.

I just sat there for a few seconds with the rod bowed and I was afraid that I’d set the hook right into a rock.  Then the rod started pumping and line started streaming off the reel.  I had the drag set to a fairly robust level, probably 20-lbs anyway, and Mr. Fish just kept right on moving.  I called “There’s a fish” and the others started bringing up their lines to avoid tangles.  Capt Mitch asked “How big is it?”  I replied “I don’t rightly know – huff puff – but it’s not very small!”  After about 15 minutes I worked the fish up to the point we could start to see color and confirmed it was a halibut, and it wasn’t a small one!  About then, the fish saw the boat, didn’t like what he saw, and took off again, stripping more of that line off the reel that I’d worked so hard recover!

After a few more moments, I managed to get the fish alongside the boat again, and he was tired enough to sort of calm down a bit and stay flat.  There was no way this fish was going into a net, so Mitch harpooned him with the the buoy spear.  That has a detachable tip with a line attached to a big buoy.  The tip goes through the fish, then the head turns into a cross-bar to keep it from coming back out – kind of like one of those sheet-rock anchor screws.  Fish is attached to the buoy and he can’t get away even if he’s off the hook and swims away from the boat.  I loosened up my drag at Capt. Mitch’s direction, and the fish took off aft and around the stern.  He came around, back under the boat and danged if he didn’t wrap the buoy line around the stern drive.  Crud.  I got the fishing line freed up, tightened the drag back down, and went back to work on the fish.

The buoy line was well and truly fouled on the stern drive and there was no way to free it with the buoy still attached.  Capt. Mitch yelled orders at Deck Hand Jim to “Get the .357 from the forward cabin!”  I played Mr. Halibut back and forth a bit and worked him back up to the starboard side.  Bro’ grabbed the line to the harpoon head, told me to loosen my drag and put the rod down.  Then he cut my fishing line and handed me the buoy line – “Hang onto this, and don’t lose a finger!”.  OK – now I’m hand-lining this very unhappy “not very small” halibut.  Capt. Mitch was leaning way over the side with the .357, trying to get a shot at the fish’s head from short range.  Finally fishy held still for a moment, and that’s his last.  BLAM!!!  Everyone within a couple of nautical miles knew that the Bleu Belle had landed a halibut!  A .357 Magnum shell casing loaded with #9 shot from about 4 inches.  The entry wound was about an inch in diameter (no choke on that .357, for sure!) and no exit wound – ‘tho it took us a bit to figure that out.  Later Capt. Mitch asked me if I remember seeing a splash after he pulled the trigger.  My reply?  “Well, no, I don’t.  As a matter of fact, it was all pretty busy right about then!”  Mitch detached the buoy from the buoy line to free the end, worked the line free from the stern drive, and hauled the fish into the boat with the help of Deck Hand Jim. They then worked him into the fish box on the stern.  Ice added.  It was hard to close the top of the fish box ’cause the tail was sticking out.  I asked Mitch – “How big do you think he is?”  Mitch replied “Oh, probably 50-60 pounds.  If we were in Alaska, it’d be going back in the water unless you were a resident because it’s too big.  It’s outside the slot limit.”

I gleefully recorded the fish on my Catch Record while Capt. Mitch repositioned the boat to catch the drift again.  The current had finally caught up with the tide change, so now we were drifting back the other way.  “Lines Down!” and everyone was fishing again except for Little Dickey Carroll, who was catching his breath and leisurely re-rigging.  We’d agreed to break for the day about 2 PM, and I cheerfully informed the rest of the crew that I still had enough time to catch 3 more fish for them to fill their cards.  Much grumbling and thinly veiled threats about man overboard or some such thing.  Not sure what they’re talking about.  Anyway, I was wearing my Cabela’s 3500 auto-inflate vest so I knew I was OK.

2 PM came around, and it was time to pull in the lines one more time and head back for John Wayne.  No more bites, either.  The only bite we got all day among the four of us was the fish I’d caught.  Bummer, but I’m not crying any big alligator tears.  But I don’t gloat any more, either.  I’d sure like the chance to go out again sometime!

Jetty and Entry into John Wayne Marina from Sequim Bay
Jetty and Entry into John Wayne Marina from Sequim Bay

The weather was still great, the wind hadn’t come up very much, and it was a pleasant cruise back to the marina.  Mitch was going to top off the gas tank, but by that time boats were lined up for the launch/recovery ramp all the way to the outer docks, so that idea was a no-go.  We cruised back in, got tied up and the engine shut down.  As Mitch is getting us set up to turn the boat around, he’s watching a boat come in behind us with a guy on the gunwale with a boat hook ready to jump to the dock with a line.  That skipper over-did the reverse throttle and the boat jerked toward the stern.  Man in the water, while the boat hook is slowly sinking out of sight.  Crud!  Mitch lead the charge down the dock to give the poor guy a hand up because there’s no ladder and he can’t pull himself up on the dock.  Our day is ending much better than theirs, for sure.  And no fish for them, either.

Bleu Belle at the Dock, John Wayne Marina
Bleu Belle at the Dock, John Wayne Marina

We carefully moved the fish off the boat and laid it on the dock.  Mitch handed me a digital scale so I could weigh Mr. Halibut.  I’m getting old and weak!  I couldn’t lift the fish high enough with the scale to get the tail clear of the deck.  Mitch stepped over to give me a hand while Jay was shooting pics with my Android and Jim was watching the scale.  We got the tail up off the deck, steadied the scale, and Jim called out “54 lbs 13 oz.”  The fish had totally bled out through the shot wound, so that fish was 55 lbs + when we boated him.

Laid Back Halibut with (Left to Right) Jim Hay, Mitch Carroll, and Jim's nephew Jay.
Laid Back Halibut with (Left to Right) Jim Hay, Mitch Carroll, and Jim’s nephew Jay.

Mitch fileted the fish on the dock, and threw the skin and carcass to the seals, gulls and crabs.  Mitch still had plenty of fish from last season, and he was getting ready to head back to Alaska for another season, so he divided the fish three ways between me, Jim, and Jay per our standing agreement.  I brought home about 12 pounds of halibut filet, which at $21 per pound is @ $250 worth of succulent supper!  I also brought home the head per Darling-Darling’s request, but we ended up trashing that.  She went to work cutting it up for soup before I could catch her, and there were tiny lead shot all over the place where she’d cleavered right through the entry wound.  Everyone told us that it’d be OK – people eat game birds with shot in them all the time – just spit out the shot.  And we probably would have been OK, but the thought of boiling all that fish for soup, with the lead leaching out, didn’t sound like a very good idea so we ended up with the head in the garbage.  Sorry, Darling!

Capt Mitch helping LDC weigh the now-cooperative Mr. Fish.
Capt Mitch helping LDC weigh the now-cooperative Mr. Fish.

Mitch, Jim, Jay, and another guy over from Idaho went out 3 more times after that and never got a bite.  4 trips by Capt. Mitch, and only one bite?  Unheard of!  And the reports of tribal long-lines laid across the banks is surely a mere coincidence, with absolutely no cause-effect relationship.

I’m very pleased to report that the Okuma Cold Water 453D performed flawlessly.  The drag can be set as tight as is prudent to do so, and still be smooth as silk, with absolutely no jerkiness.  The handle has two positions, a center position for greater speed and an outer position that mounts it with a greater turning radius for increased mechanical advantage.  With the handle in the power position, the gear ratio managed the big fish very nicely and was not overly taxing when just bringing the weight up from the depths.  I didn’t have the opportunity to judge the retrieve speed with a fish running right at me, like you’ll often experience with salmon and tuna, but I’m just as glad for all that.  The line counter under-reports the depth from a full spool, but that’s OK – it’s easy to judge after a couple of drifts while watching the fish finder.  Brother Mitch was impressed enough I think he’s going to pick some up for the boat.

It's my story, and I'll tell it any danged way I want to!
It’s my story, and I’ll tell it any danged way I want to!

Anyway, a good day for all, and a very good day for Little Dickey Carroll.  Can’t wait ’til next time – thanks, Mitch, Jim, and Jay!

As always, may you never stop learning and may your journeys always lead to new and exciting destinations!
LDC

4 thoughts on “The Only Bite

  1. Thanks, Ondine! I’ll look at an external repository for photos that won’t take up a ton of space for my hosting provider. We’ll see if we can’t get some larger images out there for you.

    And double thanks for teaching me about beurre blanc. I hadn’t heard of that, so looked it up and allrecipes.com had this one. http://allrecipes.com/recipe/145730/basic-beurre-blanc/ – and some other really good suggestions from others as well. A whole new world! Definitely going to have to give that one a shot.

  2. Beautiful fish, one of my favorites since childhood. There’s nothing better than halibut fillet with beurre blanc and potatoes. Give us bigger pictures!

  3. I loved your story, Little Dickey!! You don’t know me, but I went to high school with Jim Hay! I personally think you ought to become a writer………that was a very interesting & intriguing story!

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