By the day’s end, there were 16 salmon on ice in the fish box, new acquaintances had been made, friendships renewed and new memories created.
While the salmon are the ultimate reason for taking a charter boat fishing trip from this small harbor town, the other elements make it a trip to remember.
Every summer thousands of anglers, from near and far, board a charter boat in hopes of landing a large chinook, or coming home with a cooler stuffed with a two-fish limit of chinook and coho.
Fresh-caught fish was my goal when I walked aboard the Freedom shortly before 5:30 Tuesday morning. The salmon fishing has been very good to excellent this summer and I wanted to check it out firsthand.
I was greeted by Chuck Custer, owner and captain of the 53-foot yellow-hulled boat built by Little Hoquiam Boat Shop. He and his deckhands for the day — Cristian Ibarra and Peter Samuelson — had been onboard since 4 a.m. getting the boat, rods, reels and bait ready.
Other fishermen were already on board, hoping that first cup of hot coffee would rouse them out of the predawn slumber most of us were combating.
Among them was the husband and wife team of Jacques and Jacqui Ziebell of Lake Tapps, joined by Jacques’ sister, Debbie Winans of Orting. Also on board was Alan Liere — who happens to write about hunting and fishing for the Spokesman-Review — and two other generations of his family. Mike Mikesell of Everett was joined by two friends. Alex Etherington of Westport would spend the day fishing near the pilothouse, so he could chat with Custer, his long-time friend.
In all, there were 22 people on board. We would spend the next 11 hours getting to know each other, dancing around one another when someone had a fish on the end of their line, swapping stories, cheering on each other’s success and bemoaning the ones that got away.
OUR VOYAGE BEGINS
A crescent moon was high above the stern as we motored out of the harbor, the squawk of gulls and the rumble of engines breaking the still of the cool morning.
In front of us and behind us was a mix of private and charter boats.
Today 30-35 charter boats operate out of this port, down from the more than 200 boats that filled the marina during the heydays of the 1970s.
On this day, boats with names like Rampage, Sea Angel, Playboy Too and Discovery headed across the fairly calm bar at the mouth of Grays Harbor. Many boats, including ours, turned north to make the 45-minute run toward Ocean Shores.
It didn’t seem long before Custer slowed the motor, then stopped the Freedom in water 60-100 feet deep. Soon Ibarra and Samuelson were coming around, telling us to put our bait over the side, making 30 1-foot pulls on the line.
Our rigs were simple, two hooks and a 5- to 6-inch herring. After we got our bait to the prescribed depth, we were supposed to slowly reel up our rig and start the process again.
It was an effective method, because I had a fish on immediately. What a great start, I thought, only to look down a see a tangle of line making it impossible to reel in the fish.
Unfazed, Ibarra stepped in and started untangling the bird’s nest of line.
In the meantime, my fish swam under the boat and fouled someone else’s line. Custer – with the experience gained in a 32-year fishing career — untangled the lines and brought my coho on board, on the opposite side of the boat.
One fish for the cooler, and I never saw it until it was put in the fish box.
It’s those kind of skills, and Custer’s demeanor that brought Mikesell back for two days of fishing.
“I fished this boat two years ago,” he said. “(Custer) has a positive attitude, he’s happy and easy going. And we’ve had pretty good luck fishing with him.”
Those skills and customer approach have already be embedded in Ibarra and Samuelson. They were at your side, net in hand, before you could finish saying “Fish on!” They could unwind tangled lines faster than a Felix Hernandez fastball crosses home plate.
ON THE MOVE
With another fish landed, we were off to a good start. But this was to be the pattern of the day. We would move from spot to spot, always hooking a fish, or two or three, then the action would die off.
Later in the morning, I had another bite, and no birds nest. Over the rail came another hatchery coho.
After picking up a handful of fish here and there, it was just before 8 a.m. when Custer pointed the bow toward deeper water. He had heard reports people were catching chinook in water about 300 feet deep.
On the way, and throughout the day, the 50-year-old Custer shared stories with returning customers, and chatted up those onboard for the first time. It’s an approach honed through a fishing career that began at the age of 12.
“I made enough money that first summer to buy a small travel trailer,” he said. His mother brought him and his trailer to Westport the next summer and he set up camp.
“There were enough fishermen’s wives to watch over me and make sure I had a decent meal every once in a while. It was pretty good, 13 years old, and living on soda, Doritos and what not.”
Making the run 10 miles out gave people time to break into their sandwiches, snacks and drinks. Others opted to catch a few winks, trying to make up for the early start.
Etherington, was confident in his long-time friend’s ability to find fish.
“He’s going to find the fish, the quality fish,” Etherington said. “He’s got the good juju.”
When we reached deeper water, it seemed like we were the only boat in the area. Off Ocean Shores, there were at least two dozen boats within sight.
Again, our pattern of catching some fish and then quiet would prevail. We did land some chinook, including one that topped 20 pounds reeled in by Mikesell.
Winans also boated a chinook, much to the chagrin of her older brother, Jacques and to the amusement of his wife, Jacqui.
The three laughed and joked much of the day, often at each other’s expense. There was even some sibling rivalry over their careers as airline pilots.
Jacques would eventually get some pay back when he hooked what we believe was a shark. As the unseen creature raced toward the bow, Jacques stumbled into Debbie in his quest to keep up. Whatever it was bit through the line and escaped.
Eventually, as afternoon wore on, Custer guided us back to our first spot.
Once there, he looked for flocks of seabirds on the ocean’s surface, a sign there is baitfish nearby. If baitfish are there, the salmon are sure to be close.
Sure enough, off in the distance, his experienced eyes saw shearwaters diving into the water hoping to get a herring.
Again, Custer got us in place and the fishing and catching ensued. In fact, we had our most consistent action of the day. With it close to time to head back to port, Custer joked, “I should have given the five-minute warning an hour ago.”
The port side of the boat was having the better luck at this last stop, adding to our day’s total of six chinook and 10 coho.
I admit to letting more line out when Custer fired up the engines, hoping having the bait in the water just a few seconds more would result in one last bite. But alas, we headed in with no more contributions on my part.
It was a short run back to the harbor, our now weary group gathered in the stern as Cristian called out tag numbers and reunited anglers and fish. With my two coho in a plastic bag, my thought was “Did I bring any Aleve?”
It was a long day, only because the catching wasn’t red hot. Still, it was a trip well worth it. I had some fish bound for the freezer and some new friends.
It was a good day fishing.