Washington state’s bountiful ocean coast offers a mix of tasty bottomfish in spring.
By Jeff Holmes
Next week when a good friend and his lovely, player-hater wife co-celebrate their birthdays with a big dance party in their new shop, I’m frying, grilling and baking 30 pounds of halibut, lingcod and rockfish left over from an especially productive 2015 season. Without trying, I’ll probably make a lot of friends at the party while clearing freezer room for 2016’s ocean bounty. Like most of you, I love eating white-fleshed ocean fish, and I could make you a long Bubba-Gump list of dishes. For modest prices often cheaper than sled or drift boat seats, bottomfish charters offer safe and fun fishing yielding big bags of snow-white fillets. For us Northwesterners, the Pacific can be a U-pick fish market where the freshest fish and greatest thrills and memories can be had. Charter prices are often eclipsed by the value of fish taken home when considering retail prices. Pike Place Market brings up the distant rear for quality of Northwest seafood experiences, and charter fishing with fish and chips on the brain is easily on the list of quintessential, must-do Northwest outdoor experiences.
April marks the beginning of bottomfishing opportunities in Washington with the opening of deep-water lingcod fishing for the month’s last two weeks. Typically the only limiting factor to catching big lings out of Washington ports during April is weather, and not too many operators bother. But some do, and private boats also get in on the action closer to shore by fishing jetties and nearshore reefs that have repopulated with bottomfish through the winter months. A friend of mine and his buddies and family make an annual trek to Neah Bay in April to fish the protected waters all the way out to Tatoosh Island, and they do very well fishing over reefs that have seen no pressure in six months. April may not be prime-time ocean fishing season yet, but it is a clear wake-up call with some advantages and excellent payoffs in fillets.
FROM ILWACO AT the mouth of the Columbia River, north to Neah Bay and beautiful Tatoosh Island, Washington’s coastline offers four ocean ports from which to pursue bottomfish. Early-season ocean angling often goes overlooked, what with spring Chinook mania, trout season, and the reawakening of warmwater fish. A sometimes cantankerous ocean also limits popularity, but getting ahead of the game for early bottomfish means scores of clean, firm fillets. Much of my annual bounty every year comes from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, but a significant portion comes off the coasts of Washington, sometimes Oregon. One could easily collect all the fish he or she might ever want or need without visiting our friends to the north, and this is especially true of black rockfish and lingcod. Stocks of both tasty species are robust in both Northwest states, especially so in Washington. There, fishery managers allow a daily limit of 10 black rockfish and two lingcod. The poundage adds up fast after a few trips, and whacking limits of these tasty fish on light gear is a lot of fun and sometimes results in incidental catches of salmon and halibut, retention opportunities for which typically commence in May.
I make a point to fish the early season every year, even if it means the loss of a spring Chinook or morel mushroom weekend. Ilwaco, Westport, La Push and Neah Bay offer excellent fishing, and I have fished them all and I recommend them all. My usual choice is Westport because of the ease of getting there and because I really like All Rivers and Saltwater Charters’ guiding program. But when I fish in April, it’s usually for big lingcod, and always with one of the skippers who licks his chops for a chance at big deepwater lings: Mike Jamboretz of Jambo’s Sportfishing. His immaculate 37-foot boat, the Malia Kai, is good in big water, making him a great bet for early in the year when the ocean is still sometimes sporty. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife allows Jamboretz and other early-season enthusiasts the last two weekends of April and a little over a week in May to chase lings in waters deeper than 20 fathoms (120 feet). He is an extremely good lingcod skipper, with high-end specialized tackle and the most advanced bank of electronics I’ve seen in a sport boat. He’s a bottomfishing specialist with a two-year-plus wait to fish halibut during Washington’s short season. Similarly, his deepwater lingcod trips fill quickly, but it’s definitely worth calling him. After almost three years of waiting, I got out for halibut last year with him, followed by a stop at the deepwater ling reefs, which are fair game later in May on halibut days. I went home with a nice halibut and two lings over 20. Every time I’ve booked with him in April for lings, we’ve laid out a very nice class of fish on the deck by day’s end, along with limits of extra-tasty yellowtail rockfish, a species that suspends in deep water near the ling haunts. Neah Bay is worth the trip, and services are available at Big Salmon Resort.
Westport, which is the most popular port on Washington coast, has the most operators and the widest range of services. Westport’s boat basin is home to several excellent operations such as Deep Sea Charters, which has been running trips here for nearly six and a half decades, Westport Charters, which operates a fleet of eight boats from 40 to 55 feet in length, Ocean Sportfishing Charters, home of the Ranger and Capt. Don Davenport, and Capt. Dave McGowan of the Ms. Magoo. Offshore Northwest and Capt. Kerry Allen, and Tailwalker Charters and Capt. Patrick Walker are here as well for part of the season, and there are many other options, so see charterwestport.com for more. And while you’re there, check out the annual fishing derbies, which began with lingcod in mid-March and pay out thousands of dollars in prizes for big salmon, halibut and tuna.
MY FAVORITE WAY to fish on the ocean is in fast boats with sporty gear. Lots of awesome Westport skippers will take you to the action and show you an amazing day of fishing and service in some badass boats. My personal choice for speed, versatility, kindness and dry sense of humor is All Rivers and Saltwater Charters’ Mark Coleman and his four express tuna boats.
“Our bottomfishing trip is especially cool because of our custom-built Defiance boats and the fact that we handle just six anglers,” says Coleman. “Once aboard we travel very quickly to the best fishing zones and get right to fishing.”
Coleman and his skippers are able to rocket around, seeking out the best bite possible on the best class of fish, which often results in an extra-large class of black rockfish and very nice lings.
“We keep an eye on the inshore halibut season too,” says Coleman. “It’s open seven days a week until the quota is met, and we do catch a few each spring while targeting lings and rockfish.”
Although contrary to tradition, Coleman takes an ultralight approach with his gear. Because of the versatility of only fishing six anglers and being able to move fast from spot to spot, his clients can take the extra time to land the occasional nearshore halibut or very large lingcod or salmon on sporty gear.
“We recommend using the lightest tackle you can get away with to feel every bite and have the most fun at the rail,” says Coleman. “For us that usually means 7-foot Okuma spinning rods with Okuma RTX reels loaded with 50-pound TUF-Line braid. From the mainline we attach a 5-foot double-dropper-loop leader, loop on a couple shrimp flies, and a little lead. We have clients let out slowly to convince the rockfish to suspend higher and higher off the bottom and eventually under the boat for wide-open action. Clients tend to love this, and so do I.”
I’m a big fan of top-rated Raymarine electronics and learned about them by fishing with Coleman. Sitting in his pilothouse and reading the displays is almost like watching video of the bottom, even running at 30 knots.
“We rely exclusively on FLIR’s Raymarine electronics to guide us below the water line each day. Our team found that the new CHIRP sonar with DownVision by Raymarine not only improved our vision below the water, but now shows us bottom composition as well. That’s been a real game changer, because when locating good bottomfishing zones offshore from Westport, your spot is as much about what the bottom is made of as it is finding a significant rocky feature.”
All of the operators in Westport have excellent electronics and will get you on bottomfish, and there are lots of cool boats of varying designs. No matter what reputable operator you fish with, I highly recommend a trip to Westport – and Neah Bay, La Push and Ilwaco. All ports offer their own charm and advantages. Look to local chambers of commerce (westportgrayland-chamber.org; ilwacowashington.com; forkswa.com; neahbaywa.com) for lodging, dining and tourist activities. If you’re an Oregonian reading this and don’t already know, your coastline is also an excellent place to catch bottomfish and take home a fat sack of fillets. Look to Astoria/Warrenton, Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, Newport, and more, and see the pages of this issue for charter choices to include Yaquina Bay Charters, Captain’s Reel Deep Sea Fishing, and Dockside Charters. NS