Pacific Northwest Part I: Tails of the Surf

You could perhaps call me Ahab, and although I lack any murderous intent, I did seek a white whale with an inhuman vigor and passion. The destination was the Pacific Northwest, one of the final refuges to anadromous monsters that gorged themselves on nutrient rich foods in the Pacific Ocean before returning into rivers and freshwater to propagate their species. While this description may immediately bring up an image of a silvery Chinook salmon struggling to return to it’s home stream, there is another fish whose lifespan and stature dwarfs even the largest King salmon.

Finding myself in Seattle to present my research at an annual convention, I decided to take this opportunity to pursue my “white whale.” After having spent more than 60 hours pursing this particular species of fish among the estuaries and bays in Northern California, I finally decided to bring the battle to the fish. Driving for only 3 hours, one can reach Portland, where the Columbia River and it’s tributaries house aggregations of these monstrous fish who follow and feed on migrating prey items and sometimes becoming so thick that they blanket the bottom of these rivers.

Luckily for me, I could also use this opportunity to take a brief externship at the nearby OHSU in preparation for residency interviews. In fact, as plans began to fall into place, I began to realize I could in fact extend this trip to visit the coast, and perhaps even take a bonus trip in search of more wild waters…

I had been following weather reports for weeks, calculating tides, checking fishing reports, looking at river flows. Yet in the end, despite what may come and what may be, we go fishing through the rain, through the wind, and through the cold. And in the end, upon arriving in Seattle in the evening, I found the gray city to be bombarded by thick sheets of rain that once in a while changed into wet snowflakes. Luckily, I might have brought some California charm because the city transformed overnight to blue skies with a cloud or two that lazily ambled it’s way across the skyline.

In a blink of the eye, the conference was over, and it was time to head to Oregon. Praying that the sunshine would hold, I made the 170 mile trek to Portland and found myself at the hostel that I would be staying at. A rather large hostel that hosted an audience of a few dozen people, it would end up being a source of many new friends and great story swapping over the next few days. Anyone who wants some adventure and some new friends should honestly think about staying at this hostel, as it was clean, convenient, and truly hospitable.

Visiting OHSU, I found their ortho program to be an absolute pleasure and the clinic to be great. The campus was equipped with a nifty gondola that brought you down towards the waterfront and gym, and yielded some gorgeous views of the amazing little city of Portland.

But I digress, this was about fishing, after all, and fishing I would go. Simply due to the way my schedule worked out, I decided my first angling foray would be to Tillamook Bay in search of a certain surfperch that had eluded my capture despite living in prime territory for most of my life in Northern California. The redtail surfperch is a chief surfperch species of the Pacific Northwest, and it’s feisty presence is welcomed by surf fishermen who have a lack of species to pursue compared to the relatively well endowed surf in Southern California.

Leaving for Tillamook at dawn, I arrived after a short drive and a brief glimpse of a towering elk as it ran across the highway! This was definitely not California! The sun had started to peek over the horizon as I slipped on my waders, and I decided to work my way down the surf away from the north jetty. I had brought with me a pound of market shrimp and squid and was fishing double dropper loops with 1.5 oz weight to deal with the stronger Northwest surf. Although I had brought an assortment of weights up to 3 oz in case swells were large, I was blessed with a relatively tame surf and the swells were down at 3-4 ft unlike the 7-8 ft they had been during the last few days.

The surf was long and flat, with some big breaks occurring rather far offshore. The first dropoff was just within casting reach, and that would be where I was aiming to put my rig. Within two casts, I found something small wriggling at the end of my line. But surfperch it was not, instead it was a Sand Sole! An unexpected new species for me!

Unfortunately, my early success was soon proved to be a fluke rather than the norm. Cast after cast went un-nibbled, and as I covered ground, I eventually found myself quite a way north from the jetty. Wanting to fish the jetty itself in search for any new rocky dwelling species during the afternoon high tide, I worked the surf back towards the jetty. Again, no interest in my bait.

However, just as I reached the jetty, near the end of a sweeping retrieve my rod tip dipped hard and shuddered as a fish took my bait. Feeling the fish shudder and shake through the surf, I prayed that the hook set would hold. After a brief fight, I slide a shimmering fish through the surf foam and catch a glimpse of a silvery body with a pinkish tail. Success! My first documented redtail surfperch!

The combination of the peaking tide and jetty structure must have brought a school of redtail surfperch close, because on the next few consecutive casts, I found eager fish nipping at my hooks. Unfortunately, I lost every fish while retrieving it through the surf, except for one more small juvenile redtail surfperch. Then just as quickly as it started, the fish moved away or stopped feeding, and cast after cast was again met with no interest.

Climbing back onto the jetty, I found anglers lining the edge of the jetty channel, casting various bass plastics. Speaking to a few of them, “black bass” or black rockfish had been schooling along the channel edge and could be caught using lure fishing techniques similar to those used in HMB and Humbolt jetties. Although the prospect of lure fishing for rockfish was enticing, I decided instead to see what other interesting species of rock dwelling species might be lurking in the crevices of the jetty. Changing into jetty hopping gear from my waders, I also changed my setup to a single dropper loop in hopes of decreasing the number of snags and breakoffs I might get.

Casting along the jetty, I found the current to be quite strong as the tide peaked and had begun to change to outgoing. I bounced my outfit along the jetty, and traversed along with the outfit. About halfway down the jetty, I snagged my sinker, and as I ripped the line free, something struck my bait. After a brief frenzied struggle, I bounced a lovely Kelp Greenling onto the jetty. Although I have caught this species in the past, this lovely specimen was my largest and had the most punctuated coloration.

Fishing my way to the end of the jetty and back however, the bites dried up, and I returned back to my car without any new fish. Speaking with the gang of anglers casting for black bass at the base of the jetty however, it appeared that no one else was having luck either.

With the tide now dropped to almost peak low, I decided on trying one last spot before returning to Portland. I had noticed a small pier that jutted into the northern part of the bay on google maps, and decided to try my luck there. By this time, the wind had picked up significantly, and I was glad I had my winter gear on. A few kids were trying their luck with crabbing, and as the tide continued to drop and expose more mudflats, I watched as fathers brought their children to dig for clams.

On my first cast, I aimed to place my bait between the pilings that supported the structure at the end of the pier, and within seconds I felt a rattling on my line. Thinking that it might be the sinker being dragged along some rocks, I reeled up and was surprised to find a tiny wriggling fish at the end of my line. This was a very young juvenile buffalo sculpin, another new species for my trip! The exaggerated elongated spines that extended back from the operculum, and the enlarged bulbous eyes almost gave the fish a cartoonish dragon look.

Fishing for another few hours yielded no more bites, and the water depth had dropped to just a few feet, even at the end of the pier. With fond memories in place, I bid the beautiful seaside town of Tillamook a farewell, and headed back towards Portland to prepare my strength for what I hoped would be a meeting with my long pursued white whale…

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