North to Neah Bay

Neah Bay Halibut

Photo: Bob Rees with a Neah Bay halibut, caught on May 21st, 2017

I have often written about how fortunate I am to have the job that I do. I get to go into communities all across the region and talk to people about fish conservation issues. In the last few years, I’ve gone to places that I have only dreamt about since about learning about the opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. Neah Bay was high on the bucket list.

My friend Captain Mike has only been fishing out of Neah Bay for a couple of seasons, but he seems to have the place pretty well dialed in. Now I know not every halibut can be 50 or 60 pounds, and limits don’t fall easily every day, but Capt. Mike seems to back up the stories with photographs, making it hard to dispute.

Neah Bay is intriguing for several reasons. Most of all, it’s the furthest north you can go before you reach Canada, the Fishermen’s Mecca, next to Alaska. It’s remoteness, and therefore it’s likely productivity, should make fishing unparalleled to many places I recreate. Finally, this is home to the Makah tribe, the last known American Indian tribe to hunt whales, with the last known hunt to have taken place on May 17, 1999. While I can’t say I support whale hunting, you do have to admire a people still motivated to hunt one of the world’s most awesome mammals as a protein source.

I grew up hearing the fabled stories of awesome fishing in the Straights of Juan de Fuca. There was unparalleled salmon fishing where the salt meets the sound (as in Puget), and a massive body of water where salmon, crab, bottom fish and the incredible spot prawn could be harvested year around not that many years ago. Fast forward to today, where most steelhead fisheries are closed in tributary waters, the famed blackmouth fishery is a fraction of its magnificence, the spot prawn fishery lasts only a few hours, and Puget Sound has several Superfund sites within its boundaries waters. Where did we go wrong? And what exactly is the draw now?

The drive alone, however, was worth the 11-hour round-trip investment. The fishing wasn’t all that bad either. Because we were on an unplanned halibut extension day, the crowds were a fraction of what they normally are for halibut openers. Typically, halibut is only open for about four days during the spring season out of this port. Spring seas were rough, and halibut were a bit scattered, so additional days were scheduled. I wouldn’t have known it, but that tiny town turns upside down when the halibut are “running.”

We ran to a few spots, rumors of recent success that didn’t pan out. It didn’t take long before Captain Mike had adopted the “Go with what you know” rule. He had an American flag icon on his high capacity GPS system. Sure as heck, as soon as he figured out the drift and spooled down the 600 feet to the bottom with a squid and sardine combination, it was game on. Doubles and even a triple were at “X marks the spot.” Before you know it, the seven of us had our one fish daily limit and were headed back to the dock for processing. There’s no greater feeling of accomplishment than a 10:30 a.m. run back to the dock with the fish hold full. Neah Bay certainly lived up to my expectations.

Did I leave out the part referring to electric reels? Yeah, you can call me a sissy, but I dare you to drag up three pounds of lead from 600 feet deep just to see if you still have bait left after that last bite.

Re-entering Puget Sound after the 16-mile run to the west puts things back into perspective. You’re almost instantly greeted by a fleet of sport boats with anglers not willing to pound their way out to the more productive fishing grounds; I guess that may mean more halibut extensions. The bigger reality is, however, even after the two-hour round-trip, we’re still headed to port with seven halibut while those more inland folks are scratching for their first bite. It’s a clear sign of what happens when humans over-exploit.

I don’t really know enough about Washington management to judge whether or not their fisheries have been managed properly. I’ll leave it to the residents of that great state, but I don’t think you’ll find glowing reviews. Having steelhead fished many of the rivers that I crossed over on the Olympic Peninsula, I got the sense of a barren wasteland, again reinforcing the value of strong fisheries laws.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act is working, working quite well for those plying the waters of the Pacific anyway. There’s no longer enough fish, crab or prawns for anyone to get greedy, but there’s still enough for everyone to have some. In the words of my 8-year old daughter, “You git what you git, and you won’t gripe a bit.” Halibut have been “managed” since 1924; yes, halibut stocks were fished down nearly a century ago, but they have since rebuilt under a structured management plan. Halibut are certainly a high-profile species, and one of many that have thrived under strong conservation management laws.

About Bob Rees

Bob Rees is a professional fishing guide and executive director of the Association of NW Steelheaders.

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