Paddling The Past: A Fishy Tale

All fishers have tales about The Big One That Got Away; here’s mine about The Big One I Was Glad To Let Go.

One summer in the early oughts of this millennium, four of us took the MV Uchuck from Gold River into Nootka Sound, with our sea kayaks as deck cargo. My wife and I were in my double kayak; my buddy Mike had borrowed my single for the trip, and his partner was paddling another single.

Several days into the trip, we were camped on an idyllic beach with a view of the open Pacific. I borrowed back my single boat and set off in search of supper. Since I was after bottom fish, I was using a hand reel and lure, but had no gaff or net — a nearly tragic oversight, as we shall see.

a sea kayak breaks out through surf

From my diving days, I had a good sense of where Kelp Greenling and Ling Cod like to hang out in wait for their dinner. So I positioned myself near some wave-swept reefs, and lowered away. After a short period of jigging, I felt a solid hit on the lure and a strong pull that indicated I had a large one on the line. As I spun the reel back through my hands, a big Kelp Greenling emerged from the emerald darkness below. Lacking a gaff or hand net, I popped open my sprayskirt and prepared to lower him into a folding washtub I had in the cockpit/fish hold.

At the last second, he gave a powerful wiggle and whipped himself off the hook, bouncing off the deck and into the water. I swear he flipped me a mocking fin-ger before he disappeared back into the depths.

I was frustrated, but confident that there would only be one Apex predator like him in that ‘hood. So the next morning, I pressed my wife into service as a trolling motor in the front cockpit of our double, and we returned to the reef. Sure enough, it wasn’t long until I felt another hit and a fierce yank on the line. I hauled in as fast as I could, intending to swing my catch quickly into my cockpit to prevent another last minute escape.

Some sixth sense made me glance over the side just as I was about to sway my catch on board. Good thing: what I had on the hook was a Spiny Dogfish, AKA a mud shark. Dogfish are small as sharks go — only two to three feet long. But that’s still a bit big to be sharing a kayak cockpit with, especially as in addition to their nasty teeth and sandpaper skin, Dogfish have a pair of venomous spines they deploy from their top fins when threatened. Hardly the sort of animal you want between your thighs, let alone near family jewels shielded only by thin nylon shorts.

a Spiny Dogfish, also called a mud shark

I was loathe to cut the lure off the line and condemn lil’ Doggie to a lingering death, but equally loathe to lose fingers trying to extract the treble hook from its mouth at sea. So we set off for shore, where we hoped to perform a hookectomy with safety for all involved. Jaws Junior, understandably unconvinced that we had his best interests at heart, fought so fiercely that our combined paddling efforts made only tiny progress. In the end, I let out dozens of feet of line so we could work the kayak to the beach. Once standing firmly on shore, we hauled in our finny friend. Wearing my heavy leather fire gloves, I used pliers to extract the lure, then my feet to roll him back into the water. The speed with which he swam off boded well for his survival prospects.

We returned once again to the reefs, where we soon hooked our intended catch and — this time after careful inspection — brought him on board. He fed not only us but several other kayakers camped nearby. So it was a happy ending for all, except perhaps the fish. But since I’m a sea kayaker, their turn may well come; after all, everyone’s place at the top of a food chain is only temporary.

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