On Friday I got another opportunity to go on an Oregon albacore tuna spearfishing trip. Spearfishing for albacore is not a common endeavor for a multitude of reasons, and I am told that I can now count myself as one of the few that have accomplished the task. The day was truly nothing short of epic, so I will try to keep this concise, but there were so many amazing points that I might end up rambling…
After watching conditions for days Friday still was hit or miss, one day it would be forecast as great and the next it would look terrible. I decided not to count on it, so I would stay in town and check the forecast at 2:00am and make the call if I was driving to Astoria or not in the morning.On Thursday night we had a class at the shop until 9:00pm and then I had a few last minute things like filling the truck with gas etc. When I got home at 10:00pm and checked the buoy data I was pumped, wind was way below our threshold, this trip was on! I was counting the tuna already. I was so jacked I couldn’t get to sleep for another couple hours (leaving only a couple hours left for sleep). Checked conditions one more time before nodding off and they looked even better! Sweet dreams.
When my alarm went off a couple hours later I was disappointed to find conditions just over our threshold for calling it, but decided to get in the truck anyway. Met the guys in Hammond a couple hours later and away we go.
The seas favored us this day. We were met with very mild seas all the way out and great conditions all day. When we got to our hunting grounds we started scanning for baitfish, jumpers, or boilers. We kept seeing disturbances caused by something right on the surface and surrounded by birds. Of course we would go check them out and troll for tuna through these patches, but kept coming up empty. After the second or third time we had to see what these guys were. I jumped over the side and was surprised to be swimming with schools of tiny (10″-18″) sunfish (Mola mola). I had never seen them this small or in such large aggregations. It was pretty awesome just to be in the water in these schools.
Our mission was for tuna so we moved on. We reached a giant mass of birds on the surface and again had to jump in to check it out. This time I found myself schooled by thousands upon thousands of mackerel. After enjoying the experience for a few minutes I decided to try out the new JBL midhandle and get some fish on the boat. First trigger pull put the first fish on the boat, now back to looking for tuna.
Wasn’t long before we got into some fish. Throughout the rest of the day we hit many small boilers and starting stacking fish in the boat, but none compared to our last stop. It was my turn to drive since I had finally put a tuna in the hold. Ian and Leigh were in the water as soon as we reached the edge of a massive slick of birds with tuna jumping throughout. With my divers in the water I went to the side to watch. As soon as I looked down ~50 albacore swam right under the boat followed by a handful of blue sharks! This is going to be good! I looked up and on the edge of the boiler a small whale was spouting! Ian put a fish on the boat in short order and told me I had to get in and see this. Geared up and over the side. Sure enough, a bait ball was rapidly being decimated by mackerel and tuna with sea birds diving throughout. Blue sharks were cruising looking for scraps and opportunities. I did a quick drop and pulled the trigger on another nice tuna, a spine shot let me pull him up from just the shooting line, never took the float.
At the end of the day all of our divers boated tuna by spear, and in hindsight at least 3 of our fish were Oregon and Washington spear records. We did not have any official paperwork or measurements, but we will be prepared on our next outing! Truly an unforgettable day, one that won’t be duplicated!! Huge thanks to Ian for making this happen!!
But back to the departure. With 560 miles ahead of us, we left PDX at 5 and made reasonably good time down I5 while the setting sun bathed Oregon’s farmlands in golden light. The time ticked away unnoticed while we got to know each other. I was surprised to hear that he and his wife Jamie had lived in Roatan for some time. Not a common experience for a kid born and raised in Oregon.
Somewhere around midnight saw us through Grants Pass and into California on US-199. We ducked off on a logging road and snoozed until morning in Klamath National Forest. Blazing blue skies, winding roads and majestic redwoods saw us through to Eureka where we did a pitstop to buy ten day licenses at the Fish and Wildlife office.
We pulled into Caspar Campground mid afternoon, frothing to get in the water. We put the double kayak in at the beach break in front with tiny waves lapping at the shore. We paddled out the cove a ways and put the anchor down in about 30ft of water. I was in the water first and saw a large rock that came up from the bottom to 15ft. The detail was incredible and you could see that it was covered in small urchins. When you’ve been diving low viz for a long time, 25ft sure does look good. The trip was right on track for living up to our dreams of amazing diving.
For my very first dive I went to check out the anchor. A 24” ling was laying right in front of it. Not sure why but pulling the trigger didn’t appeal to me. I let it swim off then explored around some shallow wash-through zones I figured wouldn’t get much pressure. Sure enough, I saw a number of copper rockfish with their quills up, standing their ground. Three different varieties of urchins lined the structure everywhere making it virtually impossible to touch the bottom. The kelp was non-existent and we later wondered what event had caused the imbalance. We saw a few starving abs but nothing larger than 8”.
We then explored some other spots at about 40ft of depth that Steve and I had gotten some large abs at three years prior. We had entered the competition with fellow OR spearos, Don and Todd and like this trip had arrived early to scout locations. We dove a number of different locations and were amazed that between the four of us, and over several days of hard diving, we were unable to find an ab that measured 9”. We had fully expected to find 10s so to come short of 9 was pretty frustrating. We did finally find one or two the day AFTER the event very close to the beach where the event was held. The spots were no longer there this time though, having apparently been covered over by sand.
I made my way back to the kayak and found Dan putting a 28” ling on his stringer. We had agreed to not shoot anything over 30” since we might want to mark the area and come back on game day but we were also in need of fish for the dinner table and this was perfect for that. To score points on game day all lings had to be more than 30,” cabs more than 15” and everything else more than 14.”
The next day we tossed the kayak on top of the truck and headed south to a spot I had dove with the boys three years earlier. I had lucked into a few fish that had scored me some good points on my tally and was eager to see if it was still fishy there. The ab problem still needed solving so we hoped to crack that nut as well.
We dropped anchor in 60’ of water at a small kelp bed that was farther out than any others in hopes to locate some vermillion for game day. Steve had scored a nice one three years prior diving in about 55’ of water. Unfortunately his bright red beauty was taken the day before the competition.
Viz was considerably lower at about 12’ but still great as far as we were concerned. In entering the water I didn’t even have to dive to see that we were smack in the middle of a massive school of blue rockfish. The little ones were up top and predictably the big ones were lowest in the water column. There were some blacks mixed in and soon we located some fat perch on the reef as well as some promising greenlings. Dan spotted an ab that he said was surely over 9” and soon after, reported seeing a vermillion down deep. The next day was looking really good and we were smacking our lips thinking that we would clean up here then have all the time in the world to find two monster lings and 9” abs.
The only point of contention was that after a couple hours out there, we were turning green around the gills. This surprised us both as we rarely, if ever, had problems with seasickness while diving. I grew up on a sailboat and generally considered myself immune to such things. No problem we decided, we’d grab some Dramamine and would be fishing worry free while the rest of the competition involuntarily chummed the water. On the way out we prepaid our parking bill for the next day and smugly imagined paddling out while our competition waited in line to pay while the contest clock ticked away.
Dan had just spent the better part of two weeks in San Diego getting certified to teach free diving. That had entailed countless and repetitive dives well deeper than we’d be diving today. I had been stacking up open water swim workouts, salvage dives and spear missions at the coast. We were prepared, had zeroed in on where the fish were and now spirits were high and confident.
We got an early night and both had a restless sleep, waking repeatedly like kids at Christmas time. Check-in was officially at 6:30 but the organizers did a good job and to our surprise we were off, jamming down the road at 6:28AM.
We got to our destination and were mildly dismayed to find some of our competitors had camped there so their kayaks were in the water, waiting for them to get back from registration. No problem we decided, we’d be limited and on the way home early anyway. The contest regs only allowed for five fish total plus one abalone so it would surely be a quick job to get the work done.
As soon as we started out we noticed that the swell had increased significantly. The water was glassy but as soon as we got out of the shelter of the cove we could see immediately that it was far worse than the previous day. We had to take a different route to our reef as open ocean swells were now exploding in areas that had been flat the previous day. No big deal we said, we’d be diving reefs that started at 30’ so we should be able to escape the surge by going deeper.
We got to our spot and it was chaos. The kayak jumped around in the swells and waves would lump up, making us wonder if our reef was deep enough. It was though and soon we were both in the water focused on the hunt. We were buddy diving so we quickly fell into a rhythm of breathing up while the other was on the bottom. It allowed us to share information although after finning out of sight it was truly impossible to see where the other had gone. Regardless, we stuck to it and soon had some blues, blacks and some perch on our stringers. I was pleased to see Dan bring a midsize cab to his stringer, the first fish of any real size.
The cabezon aside, it was decidedly less fishy and several of our fish were right at qualification. Points were awarded for one fish per species and for weight so we had hoped to not be anywhere near the cut-off sizes. Even with the meds we were still struggling to focus though and the surge, even at 45’ made the hunting very challenging. Aspettos were out of the question so instead we slalomed through kelp stalks looking for prey. We both had 9lbs on our weight belts and that seemed to be comfortable at depth. The ab Dan had spotted the previous day was unfindable and the few that were there were scarcely over 8.” Our outlook was getting dreary as we fought seasickness and struggled to find fish that had been so available the previous day. I took a 25” ling for the dinner table which was a fair consolation prize by this point. On leaving we found that the anchor was stuck at 60ft so I went down to unhook it but got distracted by a greenling that vanished into the deep. I came up and lamely asked Dan to get the hook which he gladly did.
We packed up and paddled for shore, leaving ourselves 20 minutes to find a couple of 9” abs in some water that looked good on the way out. We knew it was a long shot but we were happy to leave the rough seas and get in where it was flat.
Our ab spot was in 35’ of water and we quickly anchored and got to work. There were plenty of them on the bottom and I had a hunch that moving deeper, away from the kelp might provide some grounds that had had less pressure from other divers. My gauge clicked on a shell and I was ecstatic to have my first 9” of the trip. I called Dan over and he quickly had one as well. I then headed further still and couldn’t believe my luck when I grabbed two in the same dive, one measuring in at 9.338,” giving me much needed points on my tally. We took all of our abs without ab bars, snatching them before they could clamp down.
We loaded back up and hustled to the contest site with 15 minutes to spare before cut-off. Or so we thought. When we got there we didn’t see any lines of fishermen waiting to have their fish and abs measured. We had mis-read the contest rules and had mixed up the beginning of weigh-in for the end of it. We felt sheepish not exploiting the full 7 hours but at the same time wondered how much more time we could endure the conditions. We decided that we could have sought flatter water for potential greenlings or lings but beating ourselves up over it didn’t make much sense.
Both of our perch were disqualified measuring just shy of the required 14” so only blacks and blues made the tally on my stringer. Dan’s cab boosted him into the top ten percent of the 150 competitors which was a proud moment for Oregon spearfishing. I ranked approximately ten spots after him so we both had a good selection at the generous prize tent that Freedive Shop offers every event.
We overheard several divers talking about the “ten foot plus” conditions. That was without a doubt an exaggeration (fishermen, right?) but regardless, the surge at the bottom and the boiling cauldron at the surface made for the most difficult conditions we had ever fished. It was the opportunities that were scarce though and we found ourselves shaking our heads that we weren’t able to summon a fraction of the fish we had seen the day before.
We slept like corpses and got out of town at 8 the next morning, Google telling us we’d be home by 6:14PM. We bombed back up the coast then took a sharp right into the trees on the endlessly winding Highway 1 that then fed into more curves on Hwy 101. The time flew by as we talked about our strategy, mistakes and successes and all in all we were feeling pretty good about our results and how we would improve on them next year.
Then the car died.
We had just gone around a narrow corner and it just turned off. Miraculously Dan was able to coast us into a pull out that appeared exactly where we needed it. With the trailer in tow, it would have been disastrous absolutely anywhere else. It was Sunday and we were after all on Hwy 101 that motorists use to get from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada.
Neither of us had cell reception and we couldn’t believe our luck to see a call box right at the pull out. Closer inspection revealed that it had been roughly dismantled however and we speculated that it may have been repurposed in a kitchen or lab of sorts.
The electronics had gone out completely and it was now impossible to roll up the windows, lock the doors or do anything at all that involved electricity. A young, deeply tanned, bike touring, French Canadian car mechanic, towing his dog in a baby cart quickly appeared and offered to have a look. The dog who also looked like he was living on war rations, eyed us suspiciously as his owner poked around. He recommended getting a new battery in there, saying that the alternator may be malfunctioning and not charging it. He wished us good luck and the two of them continued on their way to Mexico.
Dan then set off to the next call box that our cyclist friend had described as just around the next bend in the road. Dan was back in 45 minutes with news of a local he had met who offered to take him up the road to Garberville, 30 minutes away for $50. That sounded like a fine deal at this point and as Dan was about to set off, a very large Hawaiian man by the name of David pulled up in big white truck. He was friends with the guy from up the road and gave nods to more than one car and Harley that rumbled by as he spoke with us. He was a transplant from Hawaii via LA and said that if the 300 people in that town weren’t directly related to each other, they sure knew each other then. He also explained that it was local custom to help folks get back on the road whenever they could. He was keen to help but got a worried look when it unfolded that Dan needed to go to the next town over to purchase a new battery. He pointed to his Raiders ball cap and explained that his game was on at 1PM. Regardless, they climbed into his truck and headed off, sure to be gone for at least an hour.
We had broken down on the bank of the gorgeous South Fork of the Eel River. It was a slow, meandering river that beckoned me with clear water and a trout lazily finning around for bugs. I locked all valuables from the truck (like Dan said, “no one is going to drive off with it”) in the camper and wasted no time suiting up and climbing down the bank with my camera and water housing.
The water was in the low 70’s and it felt sublime to lay on the bottom in the still, clear water. I took some photos that I was happy with of a school of Northern Pike Minnows who swirled around my head and camera lens. I was so completely content to be there, I felt a tad guilty, knowing that Dan was anxious to get home and working hard to make it happen. I stayed within earshot and was soon called out of the water. I crawled back up the bank, got out of my wetsuit and got back on the road with Dan and our new battery. David had refused any help with gas money and had even turned down fish and abalone that Dan had offered him.
The mission was now to get to Garberville, buy a new alternator, install it then get back on the road asap. We pulled in to the auto parts store and standing on the side of the building there was a clean cut kid in a nice plaid shirt. He looked at me, held up a drawing of some cartoonish looking scissors and said, “I need a job.” I had picked up a young couple hitchhiking once who had recently come from this area in the Fall. I had given them a lift for an hour up I5 and they had told me in great detail about this kind of work. Weed. I told the kid that we weren’t from there but to keep trying, he would surely find a job. I asked him where he was from and he replied, “Russia.” Harvest time in the Humboldt mountains turned the sleepy little towns into bustling, international destinations. At the Subway/gas station there were two stylish young couples who spoke Spanish not like South Americans but with the distinctive lisp of Spain. They engaged my eye as well but I looked away before they could ask me for work. Several others that were considerably more scruffy lined up to hitch-hike out of town.
Dan came out with a guy from the shop and tested the alternator which was totally dead. The new battery had powered the engine with zero recharging from the alternator all the way to Garberville. Dan then proceeded to remove the diseased unit and replace it with a shiny new one. I sat there and marveled that you could just do that. Well, maybe you but not me.
But run again it did and we were soon on our way. 50 miles or so later we were passing through a small town when a man pulled up to our truck and informed us that there was a hose dragging from our trailer. The cap had come off the bumper and the large flexible sewage hose inside had partially sneaked out and was bumping along on the road. I told Dan that it was never a good idea to drag your hose.
We passed through the next couple of small towns without incident but did see numerous road side naked ladies. I failed to get a phone-camera capture from the car window and Dan said that in his experience it was no good to take pictures of naked ladies.
Rolling through Eureka, a woman with an incomplete mouth of teeth leaned out her window at a stop light and said, “ya ain’t got no lights on yer trailer.” We pulled into a parking lot and Dan opened the hood once again. This time he went into a black box filled with apparently important things. With some pliers he extracted what I’m pretty sure was a flat blue tooth that had some sort of cavity in it. He replaced it with another tooth that didn’t have any cavities and bingo the trailer light magically came back on.
After Eureka, things went without incident for the most part with the exception of the frequent odor of Tillamook Valley that plagued the car from under my seat. Luckily for us the automatic windows were back in operation.