Gunkholing with Your Fishing Boat 101 By Randy Castello
“Gunkholing”, what the heck is gunkholing? Around the world, the term gunkholing is used to generally describe cruising or working in shallow protected waters. In the Pacific Northwest, gunkholers are looking for isolated bays and inlets away from busy marinas and anchorages to enjoy a little Zen time. The San Juans and south Puget Sound are favorite gunkholing destinations, but with a little research and imagination, there are many places to explore around the PNW.
Here in the northwest, there are a number of well-respected gunkholing books and guides. Although great reads, they typically leave out the little guy. This article is for the adventurer that doesn’t have a sink, washer and drier, oven/range top or microwave, enclosed head/shower and satellite TV onboard. By the end of the article, you, the reader, will either think that I am crazy, or start planning your next three-day weekend.
Whether you are on the fence regarding my sanity or not, what is your goal? Is it a relaxing afternoon in a secluded cove with a simple meal, or an overnight experience where the sound of the water lapping against the boat lulls you to sleep? You need to assess just how capable your boat is and what your limitations are. With proper planning, a 16-24’ fishing boat can support your overnight fantasy. Most of our PNW fishing boats can be used for short weekends on the water, so it’s time to start planning. You will need to consider sleeping accommodations, meals, personal needs, and safe anchoring.
About 102 years ago when I was in my mid to late teens, I used to take an old 16’ wood boat with a 10 horse, pull-start Johnson outboard from Mukilteo to Point No Point for the weekend. I had cut a sheet of plywood to fit the bow contour and it sat across the mid-seats. It had U-bolts strategically placed to secure my trusty Boy Scout tent. My parents would drop me off at Mukilteo, and I would motor across to PNP, fish for the day, and then anchor in Skunk Bay for the night. Once my trusty Danforth had set, I’d set up the tent and enjoy a night or two on the water. I didn’t know it at the time but this was my introduction to gunkholing. In hindsight it was probably not a smart plan, and there is no way I would have let my kids do that. With proper planning gunkholing, can be a very safe yet rewarding activity.
To kick off your planning, go stand alongside your boat and decide how to sleep on it. Many boats these days have bench seats that will convert to a single bunk with room for someone on the floor. Need more room? Consider a folding platform to accommodate 2 sleeping bags and self-inflating pads. This year I’m exploring the possibility of fabricating an extension platform for our existing bench-bunk. My vision is that the platform that will allow us and maybe even the grandkids to sleep fore and aft across the width of the boat, then stow for fishing. It may be a removable piece that will sit on the top of the seat posts, effectively extending the bench-bunk forward an additional 2 feet or so. Every boat will be different, and you may find out that your old backpacking tent has a new lease on life.
It is likely that after a good night’s sleep you’ll wake up famished. No worries, you’ve got this. You’ll want to plan your meals and meal preparation ahead of time though. Everyone has different tastes and culinary expertise. A small ice chest or insulated fish box can accommodate an entire weekend’s worth of cold, make as required meals, or pre-prepped fixings for a few gourmet gunkhol’n meals. For whatever reason, on our boat we tend to go overboard with our culinary endeavors.
Your meals don’t need to be complicated but they do need to be planned out. Are you going to do hot or cold meals? Cold meals are eazy-peazy; BMM, or bread, mayo, and meat. A loaf of bread can last the weekend. Add some fruit, chips, and a box of wine- you have the makings for a few nice meals.
If you want to try hot food, I strongly recommend purchasing a Magma Marine Kettle 3, Combination Stove/Gas Grill. They are purpose built for marine use, very efficient, and will last a lifetime. They can be used as a stove or as a grill and have many mounting options, including ones that will interface with your existing rod holders. A new one is pretty spendy, so check out craigslist or eBay and find a gently used one at a steep discount. I actually prefer the older models because you can use the lid as a windbreak by propping it up on the windward side of the grill. The other 2 essentials are something you can boil water in, and a folding wire toaster. Not a necessity- but a small wok shaped pan is very useful and can really expand your culinary endeavors.
Because our Magma can be used as a burner or as a grill, when we gunkhole, most of our meals are prepped in bags that are either frozen, or fresh on ice. One example would be a scrambled omelet: place precooked asparagus, some shredded gruyere, and a pinch of the Dungeness crab you caught the trip before in a bag. Season to taste, add a cracked egg or two, seal the bag and gently shake it a few times to mix/scramble. Add the bag to a pot of boiling water and cook until the egg sets, then remove the bag from the water and set aside. Fill a couple mugs with the remaining hot water and add a tea or coffee bag. While your tea or coffee seeps, dig out your folding toaster and spark up the grill again to make a couple slices of toast. When the toast is done, add your omelet and shazam! A gourmet breakfast sandwich and hot beverage awaits. It takes just a few minutes, has no clean up, and is quite tasty. It is amazing how many fun meals you can make using just a grill (or wok pan) and boiling water.
Marinated chicken, beef, fish, hot dogs, sausages, and vegetables all work great on the grill. We shy away from burgers because of all the grease and associated clean up. With a little pre-trip prep work; fried rice, scrambled eggs, simple stir-fries, and chowders are all excellent, minimal clean up meals. Also consider buddy boating; you can raft up together during the day with each boat being responsible for part of the different meals, while enjoying the fellowship and inevitable high jinks. If you do decide to enjoy the gunkholing experience with another boat or two, make sure that you anchor separately for the night.
A couple notes; I considered suggesting that you bring a cutting board but we are fisher people- somewhere on your boat there is a cutting board. If you’re concerned about the fish scales and gunk on it, boil a pot of water, slowly pour the hot water over the cutting board, and then rinse it off. It may still look funny but it should be sanitary. If you are going to cook onboard, use a grill/stove that is purpose built for marine applications and place it away from fuel tanks, your fuel tank vent, or, if applicable, the fuel tank vent on any buddy boats. Always have a working, portable Coast Guard approved fire extinguisher close at hand.
With all that good food, it is likely at some point nature will come calling. On a small fishing boat there are some options for overnight personal needs. For a few dollars, you can get a 5-gallon pail and a potty lid. Spring for a pack of potty pail liners such as the Reliance Double Doodie waste bags with bio-gel. if you have a place to stow it, a small portable toilet is also a great option.
Your first step will be deciding where you want to go, so do your homework. Here in the PNW we have a gift in that there are endless options for gunkholing. After you’ve decided what your boat’s limitations are, break out a chart and look for a spot that is within those limitations. Consider range, draft, the wind forecast, and the tides. Don’t limit your adventure to just salt water locations. One of our favorite gunkholing locations is Baker Lake. The scenery is spectacular and there are a number of coves that will get you out of the persistent afternoon breezes.
In deciding where to anchor, consider the tidal effect on the area. Make sure low tide isn’t going to leave you high and dry, and that you will be able to motor in and out of the cove on all tides. Make sure there will be enough room to swing on the anchor. Study a weather app to determine how the overnight breeze will affect your anchorage. It is no fun to reset your anchor in the middle of the night while wearing just your undies and a watch cap.
A key element of gunkholing will be your ability to safely anchor for the night. While I could dedicate an article to safe anchoring, here are the basics. Choose your ground tackle (anchor, chain and rope) wisely. You’ll need an appropriately sized and type of anchor for your boat. As applicable to gunkholing, on my boat we carry 2 complete anchor setups. One is a smaller “lunch hook”, chain and line that is always onboard, and the other is a second overnight package. The overnight anchor setup is heavier, with longer chain and rope.
When amassing your anchor setup, assure that you have enough rope to allow for a minimum scope ratio of 7-1. Basically, if you’re planning to anchor in 20’ of water, you will need a minimum of 140’ of rope. Your anchor set up should include a minimum of 5 or 6’ of chain between the anchor and the anchor line. This will help protect the anchor line from abrasion and encourage the anchor to reset when the wind or current change direction. Our overnight anchor has 20’ of chain, and for the most part we feel pretty confident that we will wake up in the same cove that we went to sleep in.
The anchoring process is pretty basic. Slowly motor into your chosen slice of paradise and put the boat into neutral. After you come to a stop, take a moment and figure out what direction your boat is drifting. Once you are confident that you’re clear from any hazards and other boats, slowly motor up wind or current, then put the motor in neutral. Deploy your ground tackle in a controlled manner with the necessary scope, and finally gently power back in reverse to set the anchor. It is a good idea to test your anchor’s holding power with about ½ the rode deployed. Then, if all is good, feed out enough line to assure the minimum scope, then tie it off. All in all, safe anchoring is pretty simple.
Although it sounds simple, there are a few safety considerations. Always wear a PFD while deploying or retrieving your anchor. Before you deploy the anchor, make sure the bitter end is securely tied to a bow cleat. That said, always anchor from a bow cleat and never a spring line or a stern cleat. Regarding the bow cleat, make sure that it is secure with appropriate reinforcing (don’t ask how I know that, but the incident was on a 60’ commercial rockfish boat). Finally, make sure your boat has a 360-degree anchor light and that you can leave it on all night. If your electrical system is not up to the task, you can get a battery powered anchor light and fix it where it can be seen from all directions.
Initially a lot to think about, but after a gunkholing adventure or two you will be a master at it. Do your planning and plan safety into your adventure. Whether or not your gunkholing adventure is tied to a fishing trip, there is nothing more relaxing tha, a night or two on the water. In fact, with our limited fishing opportunities these days, gunkholing is a great way to extend your time on the water.