Outdoors

400 miles away, he braved stinging rain and roaring waves for a hot, crispy fish

The author casts from a safe rock on the Oregon Coast, hoping to hook a tasty surfperch.
The author casts from a safe rock on the Oregon Coast, hoping to hook a tasty surfperch.

I spent a gloomy January chasing complacent steelhead and walleye on the Walla Walla and Columbia Rivers, respectively.

Meanwhile, more forward-looking snowbird friends basked in the warmth of southern Arizona.

When Nancy suggested a trip to the Oregon Coast, I quickly agreed. A week spent casting for surfperch would be just what the fish doctor ordered.

There was ample precedent for the trip. When I was a youngster, dad and mom loaded my four siblings and me into a ’55 Mercury station wagon for what, back then, was a 10-hour drive to the Oregon Coast.

My most memorable moments do not include gathering pretty shells, knocking down my younger sister’s sand castle, or eating fresh Dungeness crab, but casting for surfperch off Proposal Rock.

We cleaned our catch in the rolling surf and ate their soft, white meat after Mom fried them hot and crisp.

Nancy and I arrived at our rental house in Yachats in time to watch the second half of the most boring Super Bowl ever and with enough light over the Pacific Ocean for me to gather bait mussels.

The next morning found me standing on a rugged rock formation where the Yachats River meets the Pacific Ocean. The lunar calendar was not in my favor, however.

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Using a two hook rig sometimes leads to a “double” of junior-size redtail surfperch. Courtesy of Dennis Dauble

A large swing in the tidal cycle, combined with rough seas, limited places where I could safely cast.

My eyes teared up from a bitter north wind, while angry rollers built to heights that would attract surfers in Hawaii (where I wish I was).

I secured a position outside of wave splash to place a gear bag and sack of mussels.

The “guts” of a 4-inch mussel yield up to three baits. But first, you have to cut unyielding adductor muscles and pry iridescent blue shells apart with a stiff-blade knife.

I tied on an old spark plug for a terminal sinker and attached a pair of No. 4 hooks on short leaders a foot-and-a-half above.

A lead pyramid sinker is favored in soft sand, but at a dollar an ounce, I use them sparingly. In contrast, a spark plug weighs about two ounces and holds bait in position without snagging, unless tidal action is wild.

I winged a long cast into a wave trough. My spark plug thumped and rolled along the bottom. Flecks of foam broke loose from wave crests and floated through the air like party balloons.

A western gull sneaked close, hoping to steal soft parts from a bait mussel left open for the next round of casting. Slack line flapped in the wind.

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Redtail surfperch, so called because of the reddish color of their caudal fin, cannot resist the tender tissue of sea mussels gathered at low tide. Courtesy of Dennis Dauble

Then, I felt it: the sharp staccato bite of a hungry surfperch. For reference, a surfperch bite rates “9” on a scale of one to 10, while the subtle bite of a walleye might merit a “2.”

I reeled in slack and jerked hard to set the hook. The fish took out line when it made a run and turned broadside. Timing the next wave, I dragged my prize flopping onto the rocks.

It was pan-size — what I call a “junior.” The flesh of surfperch has a delicate flavor similar to a Dover sole.

That one went on a stringer.

Two days later found me back on the same rock.

It was raining hard that time, but I was protected in foul weather gear: Helly Hansen bibs, matching jacket and a stocking cap pulled down tight over my ears.

I was down to my last two spark plugs though, and my fingers were frozen.

I wondered if the next big wave would encourage surfperch to enter the river mouth, or would it flush them out to sea?

Thirty minutes of flinging mussel bait lead to another sharp bite and the pulse of a fish that took me back to my childhood. That surfperch was a hefty two-pounder; large enough for Nancy and I to eat our fill after she fried the tender meat hot and crisp.

Surfperch are a schooling species, but not that day.

I put the fish on a stringer and proudly climbed the hill to a parking lot where others sat in vehicles, their downward vision on a smartphone.

Apparently, not everyone has the inclination to drive 400 miles over ice and snow, inhale salt spray, and cast to memory lane.

Dauble is the author of three books about fish and fishing. For more stories about fishing near the Tri-Cities, see DennisDaubleBooks.com.
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