From the picture windows along Port Townsend’s North Shore, the Saturday morning seascape must have resembled the Normandy Invasion… or, perhaps, the beaches of Dunkirk.
It started at first light, with a dozen or so small boats scattered across the horizon about a mile offshore between Protection Island and Admiralty Inlet. By 9 am, the fleet had grown to well over 75 and counting – flecks of white fiberglass set against a deep blue Strait of Juan de Fuca, with a hazy silhouette of Mount Baker as a backdrop.
It was a motley fleet. There were big white cabin cruisers and sleek speedboats and 18-foot aluminum skiffs and a couple of inflatable dingies. Each carried at least a couple of Jefferson County souls – from grampas in overalls to 20-something Bubbas in Eddie Bauer parkas. And then there was Cape George fisherman extraordinaire Jack Scherting, assisted by your waterfront correspondent.
We were all out there early on a Saturday morning for the same reason – the continuing quest for the ever-elusive, Giant Cross-eyed Flatfish.
In case you missed it, halibut season is back again. That’s the annual rite during which hundreds of us landlubbers set aside whatever else they’re doing and put to sea with an armful of fishing gear and a thermos of black coffee in hopes of snagging that prized 150-pound slab of whitefish.
This occurs in many places, but one of the favorites is off Port Townsend’s north shore, where halibut are reputed to feed on a long, wide “halibut hump”, about 150 feet below the surface roughly parallel to the shoreline.
There is something a bit odd about the halibut mystique. One can understand the appeal of Northwest salmon. They’re sleek and silvery and quite pleasant on the eyes as well as the tastebuds.
But the halibut is ridiculously asymmetrical and, to put it bluntly, butt ugly It is mottled brown on one side, white on the other, with a sideways mouth frozen into a permanent frown, and two beady eyes crammed onto one side that sort of stare at each other in disbelief. Its lifestyle is even less romantic; it lives on the ocean bottom, blending with the detritus, waiting for something edible to swim past.
For years, halibut were caught almost exclusively by Norwegian fishermen in prosaic wooden boats, and sold for pennies per pound, mostly to other Norwegians.
No more. Today those ugly bottom-feeders have risen to the top of the Northwest seafood ladder. Something called Individual Fishing Quotas have made a few commercial halibut fishermen very wealthy. And your local fishmonger sells halibut filets for upwards of $15 a pound – more than salmon or ahi tuna or, for that matter, the gourmet steak at the other end of the supermarket case.
Last year, some 65 million pounds of halibut were caught on the Northwest Coast , mostly by commercial boats using miles of longline gear. Most of that was in Alaskan waters, but local fishermen reported about 2,500 halibut, averaging about 25 pounds each.
How halibut get ugly is an interesting tale. Hatched in the depths of the Pacific, they begin life like any other fish. But at some point, as they approach maturity, a very strange thing happens. The halibut turns on its side and spends the rest of its life hugging the sea bottom. Since the lower eye is now useless, it undertakes an anatomical journey, migrating across the snout to the other side of the head, where it takes up residence alongside the upper eye. The result ain’t pretty.
Fishermen have grown to like them because, while the typical halibut comes in at about 25 to 30 pounds, there are stories of halibut weighing 150 pounds or more. My friend Jack caught one of those just off North Beach a couple of years ago. I once watched a couple of fishermen land a 250-pounder in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
And, of course, when it comes to fishing, size matters a great deal.
The fish is solid muscle and a fierce fighter. There are legends of commercial fishermen being battered to death by oversized halibut that kept fighting long after being pulled on deck.
But something else was at work on the Strait the other day. It’s been a long winter, marked by ugly, wind-whipped seas and no fishing. Eavesdropping on the marine radio channels, one sensed a throbbing pent-up demand, an urgent need to satisfy the needs of the fishing gene. This is the gene that drives otherwise-rational people to spend great sums of money and time on boats and gear in order to drag themselves out of bed at 4 a.m. and spend more time and more money on the water trying to hook a fish that could be purchased for a fraction of that investment at the local QFC.
My friend, Jack, carries this gene. When the state and the seas are favorable, he is out fishing for salmon or halibut or crab. When he’s not fishing, he’s dragging his bride out to the ocean beaches to go clamming. When he takes a vacation, it is to the Baja, where he fishes for tuna and swordfish and brings it home to the freezer – except when he heads north to Alaska or British Columbia to fish for king salmon, or halibut.
I do not carry this gene. Each year, I faithfully buy my fishing license, which I consider a charitable contribution to the governor. Now and then, I venture out with Jack. But the fish know me, and laugh at me. Mostly I take notes, trying to figure out the nature of a subculture I still don’t fully understand.
But most of the people floating on the straits for the season opener were carriers. You could tell by listening to the radio. “God, it’s great to be out here….. Not a bite yet, just a couple of dogfish, but it’s worth it just to be out here…. Nothing biting here either, but that’s okay….” And so forth.
So went the day. The fishing gene consumed hundreds of gallons of fuel, approximately 100 jugs of black coffee, 200 frozen herring, and countless sea stories of dubious credibility. All this for half a dozen Middlin’-Sized, Cross-eyed Flatfish, none of which landed on our boat.
I don’t get it. I called Jack to ask what it was all about. But he was gone fishing.