2011 Socal to Norcal: The End in my Quest For Ophiodon elongatus
Keep in mind my reports are mostly to maintain a personal record of fishing trips, so I apologize if it is far too long for the average reader to remain interested in reading. This report is also even more lengthy than normal due to the fact that it is the pinnacle of a year long quest. As always, all fish were carefully released.
Part I. Prologue
Imagine a young child on a deep sea fishing adventure with his father. Plying the deep waters of Monterey with stretchy monofilament lines and lively mackerel baits, enormous rockfish of a variety of colors were soon being swung over the deck. Without a doubt, this experience represented one of the most vivid scenes in the child’s fishing memories, but what he remembered the most was a fish that struck the deck near the end of the day. Elongated and sinewy, it had a huge sharp head with a gaping mouth that housed rows of fangs. The blue fleshed fish displayed none of the lethargy that the bloated and goggle-eyed rockfish did as they laid helplessly on the deck. Instead, it lashed out furiously at anything that came near it, snapping it’s fearsome jaws together. For a young boy, this was a most amazing creature, and he spent the remainder of the trip constantly peering into the gunnysack containing the fish, always amused to see the fish glaring up at him.
Eventually, the young boy grew into a young man, who began to value feeling fish at the end of his line for the sake of sport more so than the simple offering of flesh. He began to admire aquatic creatures for their raw and wild beauty, and to appreciate the challenge of enticing animals of an entirely different world into a battle via hook, rod, and line. It was then that I realized that I felt much more gratification from watching a fish swim freely back into it’s aqueous world than watching it perish.
While the lingcod is a fish that would never win a beauty contest, it never fails to captivate the attention of fishermen, young and old. Since that first deep sea fishing experience, I would never forget the lingcod. The pinnacle of captures from the deep waters of the Pacific, it is the only fish I constantly hoped to feel at the end of my line when going on deep sea fishing excursions. However, my attention began to shift from fishing on boats to fishing from the shore as well as fishing with lures rather than using baits and the challenges that those situations presented me. These two interests of mine seemed to clash with pursuing lingcod or rockfish so those quarry quickly fell away to other species of fish that more commonly fell prey to those tactics.
However, with the advent of internet messageboards, and shared fishing experiences, I soon learned about the tactics that other fishermen were using to catch a multitude of species. I, along with many others, perked up when hearing the success that people were having at catching species that were traditionally caught on deep drop cattle boat trips. As I recall, it was one of sincoast’s posts that opened my eyes to the viability of catching quality rockfish from the shore, closely followed by others like surfsam, dantf, iamfish, surfcaster, frozendog, etc. Each person modified their fishing styles to suit the unique environment that they were fishing, and using their collective knowledge, I began to develop my own customized way to target lingcod from the shore.
Sure, targeting lingcod with diamond bars or live sardines on dropper loops from a boat seems to be an easy enough tactic to come face to face with one of these vicious monsters, but to stalk one from the shore and engage in a battle of both wits and brawn was a challenge that not many fishermen could accomplish.
Ophiodon elongatus reside in rough terrain, deep and snaggy. Kelp forests were an ideal environment to create lairs in, and at the slightest hint of danger, they powered into crevices deep in the rocks using their muscular bodies to securely wedge themselves and avoid extraction. Hooks and sinkers could be lost within mere seconds of casting out. Yet, a loss of tackle was the least of concern when fishing the areas that rockfish preferred to reside in, because the cliffs themselves were fraught with mortal danger. One had to navigate the slippery algae laden rocks while avoiding rogue waves that exploded without warning to knock men into the jagged rocks or suck them into the ocean. From rattlesnakes and rockslides to poison oak, even gaining access to a place from which one could cast into the water proved to be risky business. I’ve said this in past posts, and I will say it again, cliff fishing is neither for the faint of heart, nor for the weak in body. But for those stalwart few who choose to take on the challenge, the reward of fishing against the savage backdrop of the pounding surf for a ferocious prize from the deep blue is worth it all.
Part II. The Conspiring Universe
When I left for Southern California, I knew that it meant a paradigm shift, because the rocks that held rockfish would be far and few between. While I have had an enormous amount of fun pursuing the species found in Southern California (and I will continue to do so), my passion for cliff fishing never waned. Unfortunately, my move south also came at the moment when I had just realized that a lingcod from the shore on a lure was not an impossible mission. After making a few exploratory trips that did not produce, my appetite for a lingcod increased, but the mission would have to wait until the times I could travel back to Northern California.
This week proved to be one of such times. Having survived my first year at school, I decided to reward myself by taking hwy 1 up through some of the most productive shore rockfishing grounds that exist. The plan was to travel through frozendog territory up into surfsam territory then eventually ending up in dantf and iamfish territory. Each place was a unique experience and proved to be a constant learning experience for me.
The first day of my trip began with a hiccough. Having pulled an all nighter to study for my last final, I was exhausted and couldn’t risk driving without any sleep, so I took a nap that consumed most of the day. While my plan was to fish my way up towards Morro Bay, it ended up being a straight drive in the night to Morro Bay where I spent a few hours sleeping at a small motel.
I had heard scattered reports that fishing Montana del Oro slightly south of Morro Bay could be productive, so I woke in the morning at daybreak to try and fish the 7am high tide. However, the gods of chance conspired against me, as the wind was brutal from the get-go and the swell was quite a bit higher than the 3-4 ft predicted. I found the ideal fishing area that I had located via satellite map, and indeed it allowed me to access some very fishy water. However, the surf conditions meant the fish were simply not interested in feeding, and I left after a few hours of non-productive casting.
Continuing upwards, I stopped by Morro Bay’s famous jetty. Again, rough surf conditions meant it was unlikely that I would entice any of my targeted quarry, but I gave it a shot, going about halfway across the jetty. As expected, nothing was interested in my plastics, no matter how much life I instilled into them with my angling techniques.
By now, the tide had dropped to near it’s bottom low. Knowing that rockfish rarely bite during this situation, I took the opportunity to continue northward. I came across frozendog territory, where I could see shallow reef extending out to a good dropoff. Without a doubt, if I had waders I would be able to access some very nice spots, but lacking such equipment, there was no way I would be able to cast far enough to reach any good fish holding water. The structure in the areas that I looked at all seemed much more complex than any of the environment that would be found more north, so I would expect to see a higher concentration of fish, but perhaps slightly smaller in size. Unfortunately, I ended up with no bites, so my analysis of the situation went unproven.
Continuing up hwy 1, I stopped by various spots that looked like it would hold fish, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and as the wind picked up the shallow water environment was churned into froth. The already moderate swells began to peak higher and higher and the water began to fill with debris. Today was not a good day to fish. Nonetheless, I continued my exploration of the various cliffs and ledges that I came across, simply happy to be enjoying the wild outdoors. Eventually, coming to Monterey, I decided that I was too tired to continue fishing productively, and took refuge there for the night. I would retrace down towards Big Sur in the morning to fish some fishing holes that I was more familiar with.
Part III. My Old Friend, Carol
The next morning, the wind was down and the swell seemed reasonable. Not the most perfect conditions for cliff fishing, but we can only play the cards we are dealt. Since I was back in the territory that I was familiar with, I decided to go to one of my favorite cliffs to fish from. The jagged black rocks felt familiar against the bottom of my shoes, as I traversed the mountainside to get closer to the water. It was just about the peak of the high tide as I casted out for the first time, feeling the lure as it bounced along the bottom of the ocean. I closed my eyes and envisioned it making it’s way around rocks and over crevices. I felt the lure rub against some kelp and I gently lifted it over the obstacle, hoping for a predator to shoot out and engulf it, but the lure simply swayed in the current and continued its way towards me. After thoroughly covering the area with casts, I moved on just a few yards over where I could see the ocean breaking slightly differently between underwater cliffs and peaks. Casting out again, the lure came back to me uneventfully. As it neared me, I felt it land on a mass of underwater vegetation, and I gently bumped it up and over.
The lure abruptly stopped. It stalled in the middle of the hop, and I felt the rod tip shudder slightly. Two things could have happened: the lure could have either snagged at the tip of a piece of kelp waving in the current, or a fish could have dashed up and sucked it in while my lure seductively hesitated in the water column. Sometimes, even the most experienced fisherman will mistake the two, but most of the time there will be a subtle difference that may trigger an instinct in a fisherman, a savage animal reaction that brings your pole back hard.
In this case, I set the hook hard, and there was an immediate response as my rod tip swept downwards towards the ocean surface. I leaned backwards against the sudden pressure and felt something in the water struggle hard against me. There was no frenzied response, bobbing my rod frantically like a rockfish would, but instead there was a steady strong run. My heart quickened as I wondered if I had finally connected with my lingcod goal. The fish went for another hard run and I heard my drag sing out. As the run came to a halt, I pumped up and regained some line and the fish responded with another drag singing run. The fish tired after a 3rd powerful run though, and I began pumping him up to the surface. I peered into the beautiful turquoise water as I watched my line rise out of the depth with bated breath.
From the deep blue, a shadowy figure emerged, gigantic pectoral fins spread taut, squat body tensed, and enormous mouth agape. No, it was not a lingcod that emerged from the depths, but instead it was a beautiful cabezon, body mottled with purple, pink, orange, and greens. I quickly scampered down the rocks and picked him up through the surf and brought him back to safety where I could briefly admire him. At around 20” the fish was calculated to weigh at just over 5 lbs according to the cabezon weight formula of weight (in g) = (5.498E-6) (length in mm)^ 3.185.
Although many people consider cabezon to be one of the uglier species of fish, the wide head, big eyes, and enormous mouth always reminds me of a childhood figure of mine, Carol from “Where the Wild Things Are,” and I always try to treat them with utmost respect. After a few pictures to remember it by, I carefully climbed back down to the water and released the fish to hopefully spawn and provide us with future generations of cabezon to catch and admire. As I watched it disappear into the depths with a strong thrust of it’s tail, I silently wished it the best in surviving against the rest of the dangers that the ocean hold, from commercial fishermen to a never ending flow of pollution.
Moments after releasing him, I was in the process of working the lure over more underwater obstacles when I was startled by a friendly, “Hi!” I turned to see another fishermen approaching me. While he was extremely friendly and polite when asking to share my fishing spot, I decided at this point to move to another spot. Although I am by no means a fishing snob, my enjoyment of cliff fishing partly lies in the seclusion and total immersion in nature.
Moving onto another set of rocks perched over the water, I dropped my lure into a chasm between two large islands jutting out into the surf, and managed to work it for only a few seconds before I had a frenzied hit. Upon striking, the immediate hyperactive response signaled a rockfish hookup, and indeed I reeled it up to find a small 13” kelp rockfish. The elegant looking fish had a very interesting red tint to it that I had not seen in kelp rockfish before. After a quick photo, it was released back into the water and darted off.
At this point, the wind started to pick up again, and the tide had turned to ebb. I stopped by a few more of my favorite fishing spots, but the fish had turned off. On top of this, many of the normally secluded spots seemed to harbor a set of fishermen, often fishing 2 or 3 rods each. Interesting, as in the past year of cliff fishing I had very rarely seen any other fishermen at any of these spots. I suppose the warmer summer weather was enticing more people out to enjoy the beautiful views near Big Sur and Monterey. When I find other fishermen near my intended fishing spots, I prefer to let them fish alone rather than risk stepping on any toes so I spent a good portion of the day looking for a fishing spot that would give me seclusion.
With a large chunk of the day gone, I made a call to finish fishing for the day and instead work on some other tasks. Although the tides for the next day were not ideal, I needed to rest a little from all the rest hopping and I also wanted to try fishing further north, where there had been scattered reports of lingcod sightings.
Part IV. Visions of Monkeys and Smurfs
The next day, I decided a change of strategy was needed. One of my New Years fishing resolutions was to catch a monkeyface prickleback eel, and I knew that poke poling was the most likely method to accomplish this. So the plan was to spend the afternoon low poking around the rocks in west of San Francisco, and as the tide flowed, I would transition back to my lingcod hunt.
Upon arriving near surfcaster’s territory, I found a line of fishermen. However, it looked like crabs were their intended quarry leaving me as the lone fisherman hunting among the exposed rock shoreline for a more piscine capture. For my first experience poke poling, I chose to use the same 9 ft rod that I would use later to lure fish for lingcod, but the hardware would simply be a short 10 inch length of 50 lb mono attached to a #2 hook baited with a sliver of squid and weighted with a ½ oz egg sinker. Not knowing what to really expect, I hopped and skipped among the rocks near the surf transition, jabbing the baited hook into whatever nook and cranny I could find. However, there was nary a nibble to be felt. 20 minutes in, I realized that there were a plethora of small crevices that were found deeper underneath the larger rocks. I dropped my line into one of the larger ones, and almost immediately my line was snagged. I pulled hard, and the rig came free abruptly, but with no squid left.
Being a tough bait, I found that it was somewhat odd to have lost the squid so easily, so I decided to rebait and try to fish the same hole again. This time as I dropped down the rig, I carefully watched it. SPLASH! When the bait hit the water, I saw a dark shadow dart out and snatch it from the water column. Startled, I set the hook, but the cramped quarters made it difficult to get a good strike. The fish struggled against my hook for a few seconds, before it popped off and wriggled back into the darkness. Excitedly, I rebait my hook and lowered it back down anticipating another eager bite. However, the fish had been spooked now and was gone. Yet, as my bait lay on the bottom of the crevice, I watched as it seemingly disappeared. I lifted my rod up thinking the current may have caused me to snag into a crack, but instead was met with a strange soft resistance. As I pulled steadily, I felt something slowly slide and give away, until suddenly, I was face to face with my first monkeyface prickleback! Only about 15 inches long, it was a young fish, but nonetheless an extremely interesting catch! The eel like body squirmed as the fish tried to get off the hook, and I watched the crimson tinged fins as they flared angrily. I took a quick picture of the fish (amazingly, it stayed still for just long enough to get a clear picture), and it was dropped back into it’s cozy home.
This poke poling turned out to be quite exciting! Understanding a better pattern now, I moved from rock to rock, finding the most secluded darkest crevices. Within 20 minutes, I had hooked or lost another 4 eels (albeit all even smaller than the first), along with one tiny brown rockfish. Unfortunately, half of the eels I had hooked seemed to have the hook penetrate near the eye socket, perhaps because the flesh is softest there, so I decided it was time to stop fishing for them. There was really no point on causing them excessive harm when I wasn’t planning on eating them.
Although the tide was still quite low, I decided at this point to switch end tackle and refocus on lure fishing for my ultimate goal. A heavy fog bank had moved in now, and most of the crabbers had left. There was a sense of stillness and calmness in my white seclusion. Moving along, I tossed my lure in a variety of directions, but as I worked it back to me, I felt very little structure on the ocean floor. Knowing that lingcod and other rockfish strongly relate to structure, I felt my confidence waning. Right as the tide was peaking however, I casted out into a seam of water that was forming in the water current and felt the lure sink slowly into the deeper water. I hopped it along the bottom again, pausing every few cranks to regain contact with the substrate.
BAM! My rod tip arced downwards as something big inhaled my lure and immediately took off! My heart was racing as a powerful fish immediately began a screaming run away from me. I held on tightly, wondering whether I had finally caught my target fish. As the long run came to an end, I felt it. BANG, BANG, BANG! A series of hard knocks as my rod tip translated a set of savage head shakes. Classic lingcod reaction. I lifted my rod tip high and hoped that the fish would not find structure to dive into. BANG! BANG! Again, another set of harsh headshakes and I prayed that my hook had found a secure hold. Slowly I was able to gain line on the fish despite brutal headshakes and dogged runs. However, it stubbornly refused to surface and my heart was at my throat as I peered into the murky depths wondering what sort of monster would emerge.
I first glimpsed something neon blue, almost inflamed in color, slowly emerging from the deep water. Eventually, the shadowy figure gave away to a set of enormous pectoral fins, followed by a powerful serpentine body topped by a double set of flexed dorsal fins. An enormous mouth that almost hissed with anger crowned the sinuous muscular body. Mr. Lingcod, we meet at last.
I quickly pulled the irate fish onto shore, where I took a quick set of pictures and measured it out at just around 23”. Utilizing a fish weight calculation for lincod, (7.125E-7) (length in mm)^ 3.405, my first shore bound lure caught lingcod comes out to be just about 4 lbs. Not a hefty monster of the deep that some rock ninjas have encountered in the past, but still a legal sized fish and strikingly eye catching with it’s greenish blue hue. After admiring it’s enormously enlarged set of fangs, those big deep eyes, and a set of beautifully patterned flanks, I walked the fish back to the surf and gently dropped him back in. He took a fraction of a second to regain his senses, and I watched him dart straight back down into the tangled mess of rocks.
I sat back onto a rock and celebrated my success, a culmination of over a year of research, trial, errors, and yearning. The feeling of success was intoxicating, and every time I see a picture of that smurf, it all washes over me again.
As the sun began sliding down over the horizon, I got up, dusted off my pants, and decided to cast out one last time before heading back in. As my lure landed in the same seam of water that my lingcod came from, I felt it plummet into the depths. Suddenly, a savage strike bent my rod hard. Again?!
The fish at the end of the line fought savagely, replete with head shakes, and hard runs. However, I could tell immediately that it was going to be a smaller fish. After a short fight, a fish surfaced and what do you know? Another lingcod. Although much smaller than the first and in the more traditional brown outfit, the fish still retained the savage aggressiveness that the first had wowed me with. Again, a quick picture and the fish was lowered carefully back into the water to grow bigger.
When it rains, it pours, I suppose. With my lure torn to shreds, I was finally done for the day, and started to hop back towards my car over the rocks. Reminiscing over the entire experience, I can’t help but think what an amazing hobby this is. The highs, the lows, the challenges, the rewards. From wrinkle browed monkeyfaced fish living in inches of water, to sharp tooth blue fleshed monsters lurking in underwater rockpiles, there is nothing more captivating to me than the experiences of exploring and admiring the aquatic creatures that we are so fortunate to share this earth with. As I get older and my responsibilities increase, my freedom to do so may decrease but my enthusiasm for every encounter will never fade, and I eagerly await the next adventure around the corner.