As we paddle along the cliff walls of Deer Harbor, we encounter a series of strange two-foot waves with very short frequency in an otherwise glassy, windless harbor. My fellow guide Chris and I listened obsessively to the weather forecast on our VHF radios over the last twenty-four hours. A final check before we exit the harbor informs us a small craft advisory is in effect. Wind gusts from twenty-five to thirty-three knots, and wind waves from three to five feet are to be expected. Observing the conditions as we round the South-West corner of Orcas Island reveals a churning toilet bowl of wind-waves and confused seas. Our intended destination; Jones Island, requires an exposed crossing of just over a mile. Although the trip appears challenging, we both decide we are well within our comfort zone and paddle out into the channel.
We arrived in Anacortes, Washington, the day before. We were set to guide two clients on a four-day kayak-fishing-tour of the San Juan Islands. The weather could not have been worse. Torrential rains and high winds are predicted for the entire trip. Both of our clients are using thirteen-foot sit-on-top kayaks and have limited kayaking experience. Normally this is not an issue, but if the wind predictions hold and conditions are even close to the way they are now, it could be extremely difficult for these guys to paddle the 3.7 miles to Jones Island with four days of water, food, camping, and fishing gear packed into, and on top of their kayaks.
My solution is to pack as much of the heavy gear (50L water, double burner stove, cast iron skillet, canned goods, fruit, camp gear, etc.) into our two seventeen and eighteen foot sea kayaks and haul a load over to Jones the day before the clients arrive. Without having to push fully loaded boats, they would have a much easier time with the crossing should conditions be less than ideal the next day.
The wind screams through President Channel and bites at my paddle, trying to catch me off guard and send it sailing. Each stroke feels as if I'm pulling the blade through wet cement, and I'm beginning to regret our decision to make the crossing with three-hundred-pound kayaks in high winds as Chris high-centers on some jagged rocks on the West Side of Orcas Island. What was a few moments ago fun wave and cliff interaction is now potentially a serious problem. The weight of his kayak combined with breaking waves means a broken boat is now a real possibility. I hold my position next to Chris, going through disaster scenarios in my head. He shifts his weight around, lurching the boat back and forth while five foot waves break on the rocky cliff face a few feet away. Within a few moments he manages to wiggle the heavy kayak off the rocks and into deeper water. We inspect his boat to the best of our abilities and determine there is very little damage to the hull, so we turn our bows into the wind and begin the push across the channel to Jones.
We arrive at the island and start unloading gear immediately. After securing our boats and setting up camp, I check the VHF for an updated forecast for the next day. The NOAA weather robot voice announces, "...Current observations for Victoria... North wind seventy knots... Northern Inland Waters... North wind thirty knots, gusts to forty..." "Wait, did it just say seventy knots in Victoria!? That's only fifteen miles from here. What in the world are we going to do while hunkered down on this tiny little island for four days?", I ask Chris as we finally manage to get a fire going. All of the fallen wood we collected is soaked from days of heavy rains. A dousing of white gas from the camp-stove fuel-canister is all it takes to get it burning.
At night, as I try to fall asleep, the wind howls through the trees and waves crash on the beach, adding to my distraction. I toss and turn trying to determine the best possible course of action for our clients. I know we can get them to the island, but are they here to camp on an island while a storm rages, or are they here to catch fish? If we spend tomorrow packing boats, paddling to Jones, and setting up camp, that leaves us maybe one full day of fishing out of four. If we camp at West Beach, it gives us an extra day of fishing. The decision seems obvious. We will wake early, re-pack all the gear into our kayaks, and paddle back to Deer Harbor to meet our clients. We will propose the idea of camping at West Beach on Orcas to maximize time spent fishing rather than in transit to a remote campsite. Located a few miles South of Point Doughty, West Beach also provides protection from the North wind, and an opportunity to fish safely even in the worst conditions.
It's 5 AM and the alarm on my digital-watch is nagging me to start the day. I wake Chris and we quickly tare down camp, re-pack our kayaks, and paddle back to Deer Harbor to meet the clients. The sea has calmed substantially compared to the day before, and it looks to be ideal for kayak fishing 101. We arrive at Deer Harbor around 8 AM, and our clients, Holt and Terry, arrive at the launch shortly after. I propose our options for base camp and we all agree; Time spent fishing is the priority. With the plan set, our group, now four, paddles back out of the harbor towards Reef Island, part of the Wasp Island group. A quick check of my chart as we approach Reef tells me we are directly over the fifty-foot cliff where the island begins it's rise from the bottom of the sea. This is where lingcod live; those rocky, craggy zones with significant structural and depth changes. I look for steep, rocky points on the islands and depths of forty to one-hundred feet. If the habitat is right, the fish will be there.
After Terry and Chris catch and release several greenling, rockfish, and undersized lingcod, we pull out on a secluded beach on Reef Island to stretch our legs and take in a bit of food. After a pleasant lunch, we hit the water and paddle towards Steep Point, at the South-West side of Orcas Island. The guys boat several more undersized lingcod before we return to Deer Harbor. Everyone except Holt that is.
After establishing base camp at West Beach and a fine supper with the group, Terry and Holt drift off to sleep while Chris and I check the VHF for tomorrow's forecast. "Forecast for Northern inland waters...Tonight, rain after midnight...North wind twenty knots with gusts to twenty-five...continuing until mid-day tomorrow." This is not an ideal forecast, so we decide tomorrow we will take it easy in the morning and discuss navigation techniques while in camp, then fish the kelp bed located five-hundred meters to the West in the afternoon. Point Doughty to the North should protect us from the brunt of the wind, and we can float South with the current through slack, and ride it back North after the change in the evening.
After getting skunked on day one, Holt manages to land his first fish from a kayak with a hand line on an eight-inch root-beer split-tail and four-ounce jig while fishing the kelp bed that afternoon. At the same time, Terry hooks up with another lingcod, giving us our first double of the trip.
In the afternoon the rain stops, the sun shines, and we drift South with the current along the West shore of Orcas Island. I manage to drop a line and score a fat undersized ling while the rest of the group loses track of how many fish they have caught.
Holt switches back to a fly rod and manages a nice bendo before the wind changes direction begins gusting at twenty-five knots out of the South, pushing us right back to camp as planned.
The next day is our last full day, and the NOAA weather robot guy is telling us to expect winds out of the North to fifteen knots, wind waves one foot or less, fifty percent chance of showers, and temperatures in the upper fifties. In my experience in the San Juan Islands, that particular forecast usually means it is going to be an absolute blue bird day. This is our opportunity to cover some miles in the hunt for keeper lingcod. I have spent over a month in the last year fishing Jones Island; getting to know every rock, every point, what the depth and bottom structure are where, what colors the fish like at what time, where the bigger fish lurk, and I am extremely excited to get the group out there.
In the morning we wake at 5 AM and scarf down bagels and coffee. We arrive at Deer Harbor shortly there after and hit the water by 7:30 AM, beginning the familiar journey to Jones. The crossing with the group and their thirteen-foot sit-on-tops goes exactly as planned. With little wind and flat seas, we ride the mild current 3.7 miles directly to the South cove on Jones within about forty-five minutes of having launched. What a huge difference the wind, or lack of wind can make!
After a brief rest and short hike to scout some of the prime areas we intend to hit, we launch our kayaks and begin fishing the South-West point of Jones. As we work up the West side of the island while riding the current North, Chris catches and releases a nice sixteen-inch cabezon. Everyone in the group manages to boat several rockfish and undersized lingcod, but the really big fish have yet to show.
It's approaching noon, and soon the current will shift out of the North, so we reel in our gear and paddle North along the shoreline of Jones, headed for our intended lunch spot before the flow makes the attempt much more difficult. The skies are beaming bright blue, and after filling our bellies, a nap in the sun seems par for the course. Holt, Chris, and I find comfortable spots in the grass and commence snoozing. A few minutes later I hear Terry on the beach fiddling with gear and decide to go and see what he is up to. He tells me he wants to fish off the rocks just off the beach while the group rests. I realize that if I am going to squeeze in a few minutes of fishing for myself, now is the time. I put my spray skirt and PFD back on, hop in my boat, and Terry and I start jigging one-hundred meters from our lunch spot. As I drift over the transitional zone between the eel-grass and gravel bottom cove, to the steep, rocky cliffs to the South, I feel the familiar shake of a lingcod on the end of my seventy-five foot hand line.
I started using a hand line for bottom fishing about a year before. After destroying a few rods & reels on previous multi-day sea-kayak trips, a cheap spool of three-millimeter climbing rope with a forty-pound mono-leader seemed like something I should try. After the first few fish I was totally hooked, and the hand line has been my gear of choice ever since.
As I start pulling the rope in hand over hand, I instantly realize this is bigger than the average fish. This is the lingzilla we have been hunting for. The fight is brief; The fish comes flying up to the surface from fifty-feet down in about fifteen-seconds. One of the advantages of using a hand line is that, without the drag of a reel or the bend of a rod, the fish have no way to turn and run. As long as I am gaining line, the fish have no choice but to swim right to my kayak. Granted, the bigger the fish is, the stronger pull on the other end of the line will be!
As soon as I bring this monster to the surface, I realize Chris is five-hundred meters away with the camera. He quickly wakes from his post-lunch slumber, hops in his kayak, paddles out, and manages to get a few shots of this fine beast before I measure it at around three feet, and release it back to the sea.
All the commotion manages to end everyone's nap pretty quickly. After seeing the monster lingcod, the group's drive to catch the big one is rejuvenated. We fish the West side of Jones as we drift back South with the current towards the end of the island. Terry and Holt catch more lings and rockfish, but our catch-rate is slowing. We decide to change locations and fish the deep water between Jones and Orcas Island. Immediately after dropping our jigs, the group hooks up with a triple. Chris, Terry, and Holt all manage another dozen fish each before we return to Deer Harbor in the evening. This was a solid, ten-hour day of fishing and it paid off. The group caught so many fish that we lost track of how many were boated. Despite my best attempts to put the guys on big fish, my lingcod was the only monster of the day.
After our return to camp that evening, the weather forecast predicts heavy rains and strong winds beginning after midnight, and continuing throughout the next day. The group decides that after our perfect tour so far, they feel satisfied and aren't overly excited to try and fish in the nasty weather before catching the ferry back to the mainland. We spend our last night together around the campfire, reminiscing about the trip. All of us happy, content, a little sore, a little sun-burnt, and thankful for the opportunity to share such a wonderful experience in such a beautiful place.