Last Monday Reuben and I slipped out to Stillwater Cove for an afternoon of kayak fishing. The previous week had been blown out with large swells and high winds, but this day was lovely. As we paddled through the kelp beds and out to the open sea I was struck by how clear the water was – it seemed like I could see farther down the stipes than ever before. Looking from a kayak into a kelp forest can be pretty hypnotic – you are so close to the skin of the water. The baseball-sized pnuematocysts look like shrunken heads, with their hair-blades swaying and bobbing in the swell.
I wanted to find a reef I remembered from last year, but I forgot the battery for my sonar and I wasn’t quite sure where to start. I was testing depths with a jig and staying close into the kelp – not really expecting much. Three or four drops later I felt a solid strike, and then a run. When the line came up I landed this beautiful vermillion rockfish! One of the things I love about fishing the California coast is the incredible diversity of fishes. You really never know what you will catch. Fish and Game estimates more than 60 species of rockfish (Sebastes spp.) alone! Usually we catch lingcod, blue and black rockfish, and often we find a cabezon or two. But this vermillion was a real treat for me, and I knew I needed to do something special with it. (More on that later, but a wonderful Chinese chef crafted a multi-course meal for us!)
With Big Red in the boat I worked my way offshore a bit, looking for that reef. I was mostly enjoying the day – sunny and warm – looking out at the coastline. Suddenly (really, it was sudden) I was aware of something below me. Something really big. When you are out in shark and sea lion territory, bobbing about in a hollow plastic log, this is alarming. This thing was whale-sized. A whale would be cool, but one always wonders about that rare moment when ole’ humpy decides to breach right under a boat…. I was looking down with real intent, beginning to realize what I was seeing. “Reuben,” I yelled, “come check this out!” I was seeing a large boulder-like structure on the bottom. I could see the pinks and purples of sea stars and anemones. Reuben has good electronics – “How deep?” I asked. “More than 40 feet.” We dropped jigs and could see fish checking them out. I had never experienced this this type of visibility. I knew empirically there was a reef, but on that Monday we were seeing the reef. The fishing, too, was amazing. Combined we caught perhaps 20 keeper-sized lingcod (releasing 16) and a nice range of other species, including a few China rockfish – one of my favorites. We ended the afternoon with a cooler full of sustenance for our families and a deep sense of gratitude for such clarity – literal and beyond.
Yesterday was different. Another storm dropped as much as a foot of rain over parts of Sonoma County, and the Russian River looked like 2000 cfs of chocolate milk. The mouth at Jenner was pumping this slurry out into the Pacific where it was moved up and down the coast. The swell was up around 8 feet and the launches at Timber Cove and Stillwater looked rough. Still, I wanted to get out and explore – to see how things had changed since last Monday. And maybe catch a fish or two. The beach was piled with debris – algae of all types, drift wood, even holdfasts still attached to their rocks had been tossed up. I found a beautiful shard of polished abalone and took it as a reminder that not all storm debris is messy. I paddled out the same way I had the week before, this time barely able to see my lemon-yellow blades as they dipped below the surface. I paddled and fished for a couple of hours – never quite getting comfortable with the steep roll of the swell waves. No crystalline views of the bottom, but a sense of wonder nonetheless. What are all those fish doing in this muck? How long will it take for their rocky homes to recover? How long till the next storm?
One of the great lessons offered along this coast is that of resilience. You have to be resilient if you are going to last in an environment this powerful, this dynamic. There will be days of perfect calm and clarity (and I cherish them). But many more will be filled with pounding, muddy waves and giant surging swells. These too must be survived, and even celebrated. These are the things, after all, that define us – that speak of our true metal and our capacity to survive and thrive. I wonder what next Monday will be like…