I had the opportunity to spend four days guiding five wonderful people in the San Juan Islands over Memorial Day weekend.
We arrived in Anacortes, Washington Friday evening and drove our trailer of sea kayaks on to the ferry. Landing at Orcas Island an hour later, we made our way to the East side of the island and set up camp at Moran State Park.
Early the next morning, we met our group at the harbor; John, Suzanne, Paul, & Roger. My friend Steven and fellow guide Jerry rounded out our group of seven. Boats and gear were unloaded onto the beach and then quickly packed full. We launched Saturday morning at 11:30AM to clear skies, light winds, flat water, mild temps...generally perfect conditions to take a group of newish sea kayakers out for their first multi-day kayak fishing trip.
After a basic skills refresher and safety chat at the back of the harbor, we paddled away from Orcas Island and began our crossing to a small island a few miles away. Boat traffic was higher than normal due to the holiday, but the conditions were mild and the crossing went smooth. We arrived at the island at 3PM and set up our base camp for the next four days. Some hiked around the island, and some napped before dinner set around the camp fire as the sun set over Canada in the distance.
I listened to the NOAA marine forecast on my VHF radio before going to sleep. The report called for winds out of the SW at 10 to 20 kts and wind waves two to three feet. It wasn't ideal for my groups first day of handline fishing for lingcod, but we would make do. I could hear the wind howling through channels and islands in the distance as I drifted off to sleep.
I woke at 3AM to whipping winds and crashing waves. I convinced myself it wasn't really more than 20kts because my tent was not slapping the top of my head yet as it had in high winds on another recent trip, but a quick check of the VHF revealed a small craft warning and winds of 30kts out of the SW until 9AM. The plan to get fishing early was scuttled. Sleeping in, drinking lots of coffee, reading, hiking, etc. were now the pre-noon plan while we waited for the wind to settle. The sun was shining, and the islands are beautiful, so there could be worse things than enjoying them from shore.
At 2PM we regrouped for lunch at the campsite. The wind had settled since the morning, but was still blowing 20kts out of the SW, making fishing challenging if your an expert, much less trying it your first time. I paddled out to a West facing headland and dropped my jig on the leeward side. I drifted quick, but with a little coaching I was sure I could get my group to hold position long enough to entice a fish. I paddled back to camp and gave the group the go-ahead to get suited up. By the time everyone hit the water, the wind had died down to 10 to 15kts; Still challenging, but definitely do-able. We spent the next couple of hours learning how to hold position in the wind and waves and keep our handline presentation vertical. Soon after, Paul hooked and landed a cabezon. We fished a few more of the points of the island before paddling back to camp for dinner & cocktails by the fire.
A quick check of the VHF before bed revealed a clear opportunity for fishing in the morning before another small craft warning with 25kt winds arrived in the afternoon with a chance of showers. We decided to break camp in the morning and make our way to another group of small islands to the South. We would fish each island hard until we found a keeper. We'd be protected from S wind in the lee of the islands, and if it got to be nasty they would offer us protection for a quick bale out to the harbor.
I woke at 6AM to cloudy skies, near glassy water, no wind, and light rain. We had a quick breakfast of fruit, bagels, and oatmeal before packing camp and launching at 8:30AM. We paddled South toward the small island group with no boat traffic and flat water. Upon arrival at the first island, I positioned our group over a reef within fifty feet of shore and we began jigging. Within fifteen minutes, John had hooked a keeper sized lingcod. His first reaction was to pull it strait out of the water, but I shouted over to keep it in the water until it calmed and then clip in with the locking lip grippers. He landed the fish perfectly as I made my way over to measure it. As I got closer I noticed it was a blue lingcod, something I hadn't seen much of before. I measured the fish at 28 inches, which is a keeper.
John positioned the fish's head towards me and I gave a quick few raps between the eyes to close the deal. John and Steven paddled over towards the beach where they filleted and bagged it for the nights meal.
As we were transferring the fillets to the soft cooler, I noticed a seal poking it's head out about 20 yards away. Seals are normally bad for fishing as they either scare away, or steal all the fish around. We fished the West island for another twenty minutes but the seal wouldn't leave, so we did.
We paddled East to the next little island and fished a reef around it for an hour with no success; The seal had followed us on our crossing and was popping up every five minutes, scaring all the fish. I decided to try and scare him off, and paddled hard towards it while shouting, and he disappeared. I thought I had won, but he popped up a few minutes later and I charged again, this time slapping my paddle on the water. Again he disappeared, and again I thought I had won, until a few minutes later I looked down by my hip and he was six inches below, giving me the stink eye. I rafted up with Jerry, half expecting the seal, who no doubt found me an amusing buffoon and a good play mate, to climb up on my deck.
At this point the wind and holiday boat traffic had picked up substantially, and we paddled back into the harbor where we unloaded our gear and headed back to Moran State Park. We arrived at 4PM and put the lingcod fillets in a marinade of soy, olive oil, ginger, garlic, and salt & pepper as we set up camp. The fish cooked perfectly, white and flaky, and we enjoyed it with tortellini & pesto, brie & salami, and capped it off with coconut ice cream and peaches for desert. There might have been a little bourbon and a few beers involved as well. It was a fitting meal for our last dinner on the islands.
The next day we broke camp and caught the ferry back to the main land. Another successful San Juan Islands multi-day kayak fishing trip down!