Sometimes it seems like we missed the good fishing in our region. From the native people to generations of settlers, salmon was plentiful and remains a big part of PNW culture. Unfortunately, the salmon runs are not as prolific as they once were and the seasons are highly regulated. Recreational fishers may only get 1-2 king salmon per year.
Despite being called an Orcas Island Fisherman, I had never done any real fishing since moving to the island. As much as I wanted to fish for salmon, it never happened, in part because the best salmon fishing is done from a boat with a contraption called a downrigger, which we don’t have. For us, fishing would begin with lake fishing rods on Short Story.
The prized species, like salmon, halibut, and lingcod, were all out of season, so we focused on what was legal to catch this fall. As it turns out, bottom fish season is always open and each person can take home 15 fish per day. We watched YouTube videos, visited a local outdoor sports store, and set our sights on flatfish, like flounder, sole, and sand dabs.
Last year we caught a Pacific sand dab in our shrimp trap (below) and didn’t know what it was. I took the little guy home, fried it in a pan, and found the meat to be delicious. These fish all have flaky white meat like a flounder. Since then, we’ve learned that sand dabs are considered a west coast delicacy.
We talked to a couple of friends who told us where to go and what to do. We needed a “high low rig” which has two hooks and a weight. You drop the line to the bottom and then use the current to drift the bait across the bottom. We were hopeful but skeptical. Everyone said it can be easy, fun, and very productive. They were not wrong.
From the moment my line hit the bottom, a fish hit the bait. It was a smallish sand dab. The next time, I pulled up two fish at a time. We couldn’t believe how easy it was. It was like a carpet of flatfish were just waiting for something to float by them.
In a couple of hours, we hauled in about twenty fish, mostly Pacific sole and Pacific sand dabs. You can tell the difference because flat fish are either “right-eyed” or “left-eyed”. This relates to which side of the fish faces the bottom. A pacific sole is right-eyed because it lies on its left side on the bottom. As flatfish mature, the downward-facing eye migrates to the upward-facing side of the fish. How weird.
Once we got home the cleaning process began. I watched more videos and we formed a production line. Sachi scraped scales; I gutted and cleaned. It was messy and awkward in the beginning, but soon I got the hang of it. In fact, I filleted a few of the bigger fish for the first time. It was not pretty, but I didn’t need stitches, so that’s a win.
With all the fish cleaned and refrigerated, we could plan a few experimental meals. We started with the classic pan-fried fish. We coated them with egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in cast iron. These were whole fish, with bones. It reminded me of the fish called “spot” my parents and I used to catch on the coast of North Carolina.
Once on the plate, you can remove the meat from one side with a fork and easily lift out all the bones.
We also deep-fried fillets, which were my favorites in fish tacos.
Lastly, we coated the fish with a thin mayonnaise garlic sauce and baked them in the oven. Delicious!
We ended up eating every fish we caught in one form or another. Like all fishing, it was messy to process. Cleaning and filleting the fish can be tedious and time-consuming. But that’s just fine. We fed ourselves with fish and caught a short ride from home. Unlike salmon, flatfish are plentiful, always in season, and easy to catch. I’m surprised we hadn’t done it sooner.
I don’t know that we’ll fish for flatfish all the time, or that they will compete with the protein and enjoyment we get from crab and spot prawns. But this kind of fishing helps us learn, promotes self-sufficiency, and keeps us on the water. Maybe next year we’ll give salmon a try.
Spot prawns live in the deepest parts of the ocean around Orcas Island and when shrimping season is open, it creates a minor traffic jam. From dawn until dusk each day, boats drop shrimp pots at a depth of 250-400 feet, wait an hour or so, and then pull them up. The traffic is often most concentrated during the slack tide, when currents are the calmest.
This is our second year catching spot prawns and we’ve become proficient. On our first day out this year, we caught our legal daily limit of 80 prawns per person. Over the winter we had our 15’ Boston Whaler, Short Story, serviced and all signs pointed to a summer of fun on the water. Our new Honda outboard had less than 200 hours on it. Bring it on!
Our normal process for catching prawns is to set the pots on the bottom, kill the motor, and just drift silently for about an hour. I love that hour of calm and quiet time on the water. We watch all boats we covet and wave at passers-by. All the while, knowing that prawns may be falling for our clever trap. The thing about all types of fishing, we’re learning, is that it’s akin to gambling and can produce the same rush. Thankfully, unlike Blackjack, most of the time you only stand to lose time, bait, and the occasional tackle. For most, this potential cost is acceptable for a day spent on the water.
Last Thursday, there were two slack tides. We chose to go in the afternoon and we were not alone. We always try to go a little early and stake our claim. It’s decidedly poor form to place pots too close to others. We use an app called Navionics that allows us to place virtual pins on a map that helps us navigate to locations of past success. The afternoon was windier than expected and we placed our pots upwind from the majority of shrimpers. As soon as our buoys hit the water, they seemed to take off like the barrels attached to the shark in Jaws. We hoped the heavy rebar we tied to the pots would keep them in place.
I looked around and didn’t see nearby boats, so I killed the motor to start the drifting phase of the trip. I underestimated the wind and soon found that we were drifting toward other boats. I suggested that we motor to a location where we could drift downwind without worry.
I put the boat in neutral, turned the key and knew immediately that something was amiss. There was no beep, no click, no turnover. It was like someone cut the power from the battery. I kept turning the ignition as if it might catch with the perfect turn. Nothing.
At first, we assumed it was something obvious. Maybe the boat wasn’t in neutral? Maybe the safety switch was off? We both tried everything we could think of. I must have turned that ignition switch thirty times. The battery was connected and looked brand new. No corrosion. No missing hardware. I tapped and wiggled the terminals just in case.
We were flummoxed and slowly drifting into a dense area of boats. Without a motor, we had no way to navigate. We have two paddles and could alter our course a bit, but not much. This situation was a bit more serious than any we had experienced, but wasn’t dire. We were not in danger and we could always call a tow service to get us home. That was the last resort.
We brainstormed who to call for advice and quickly decided our contractor, Drew, might be the best person. He helped us with our first oil change and is an amazing problem solver. At the time. he was driving his 50-foot boat, Refuge, back from the mainland and had a few ideas to try. Nothing helped. Strangely, other parts of the boat, like the bilge pump, had power, just not the motor. He asked about fuses and we shrugged. We’d never changed a fuse on this boat and didn’t know where to find them.
He mentioned that our plumber, Greg, was also shrimping and maybe he could help. I called Greg and found that he was at least an hour from getting on the water. He asked a key question from the start: “Are you in danger?” No, I said. Maybe in danger of embarrassment. He laughed.
Meanwhile, we’re still adrift in the wind. As we approached a boat twice our size, it seemed to slowly move out of the way. Part of me thinks they could tell we were having an issue. Maybe they could see it on our faces. My head being deep in the center console was a sure sign.
We switched to thinking about other friends with boat knowledge who could help. I called Will and Smiley, who live close by, and have a boat in our marina. Will is a talented mechanic and together, we hatched a plan for them to come and help us figure it out, or at least tow us the 15 minutes home. I mentioned the potential of fuses causing the problem, and he said he’d bring a bag of them.
As we drifted past the remaining boats in the shrimping area, Sachi studied the owner’s manual for the motor and found a section about fuses. The manual had a nice graphic of the inside of the fuse box and what fuses were connected to what circuits.
We removed the motor’s cover and found a box that looked like the diagram. Will suggested using the boat key to pry out the fuses and see if one is bad. I could feel the momentum building. The table in the manual said the second 10amp fuse controlled the ignition and power to the motor. I removed that fuse, held it up to the sunlight and Voila! The culprit was identified on the first try.
Referring back to the manual, I saw that the fuse box contained spare fuses. Wow, I thought. Honda is thinking ahead. I plugged in the spare 10amp fuse, turned on the power and the boat started right up. At that moment, Will was in his garage gathering supplies and called to ask a question. Before he could get it out, I interrupted and said, “We fixed it! It was a fuse and we have a spare!” I texted Drew and Greg for good measure.
More than any other experience so far, this was a lesson. We now know what happens when a fuse blows, where to find the fuses, and how to replace them. The next day, we bought a bunch of spare fuses and created a backup bag that will always be on the boat.
As amazing as it felt to fix the problem on the water, it was a stark reminder of how little we know. Fuses are boating 101 and a simple problem to fix. As we continue boating, we’ll surely have more problems to solve. It’s part of the challenge and a skill we both want to develop.
Here’s to learning through experience and helpful friends under non-dangerous circumstances.
Sometimes a crab comes along that seems to have evaded traps for a long time. It won’t go to waste. That’s enough meat (claws and body) for dinner for two.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.