With cracked and battered hands, I paddled east with 25 knots at my bow and an incoming tide on my stern. Colliding forces of Mother Nature churned heavy swells into a roller coaster of seawater, tossing me about as I struggled to stay on track. A behemoth of a fish, a monster, 50, maybe 60 lbs, haunted me from the day before, yet kept me moving eastward, into the fray.
This is just one of the many tense experiences that characterize a spring kayak fishing trip at the continental United Sate’s most northwestern point—Neah Bay. Neah Bay has become somewhat of a kayak-fishing Mecca for me. Each year I make the almost 4 hour drive to its rugged and draw dropping coastlines. Heading up the east side of the Peninsula, the drive treats travelers to a myriad of jagged points and bluffs that meander past ancient saltwater beaten sea stacks before colliding with the belly of the North Pacific. The coastal terrain then wraps around Washingtons most Northwestern point, Cape Flattery, which is a marine anomaly in its own right, and then heads down to the sandy beaches of Makkah Bay, ending just south of Cape Alava.
Though fishing might be the main attraction for readers, it’s worth noting that this area holds an endless amount of wealth in its natural beauty and also in its cultural and historical prominence. The Makkah Museum is open to the public and is a great place for visitors to learn about Neah Bay’s native community and their long connection to the land and sea, that of which is estimated to be around 3,800 years old. Case in point, the Makah tribe, for at least the past 1,500 years, have paddled hand carved cedar canoes out to often treacherous seas, where paddlers would track and hunt humpback and grey whales with harpoons attached to sealskin floats. They are the only tribe in the U.S to have whaling rights secured by way of treaty, though this right was later repudiated by the U.S government after commercial whaling by both European and Americans had all but extirpated both grey and humpback whale populations.
From here visitors can explore the many outdoor attractions Neah Bay has to offer. Whether it’s a backpacking trip down to Shi Shi Beach to camp and fish for surf perch, or a day trip to the Point of the Arches, there’s a number of things you can do to diversify your fishing trip before getting into filling your cooler.
Any trip to Neah Bay with a kayak should be well thought-out and planned, this is especially true during the spring when inconsistent and stormy weather frequently results in the waters around Neah Bay being under small craft warning. Always plan your trip around NOAA marine weather forecasting and make use of apps that predict swell size, wind speeds and wind directions. Optimal conditions would be flat and windless, and if we waited for those conditions, we would never fish. So, sticking with days where winds are sub 15 mph, swell size is moderate, and wind waves are predicted to be no more than a couple feet, will all help keep you on the right side of the water.
Staying on the right side of the water is always the goal, but as probability has it, there will be some point in any kayak angler’s life where he or she will get dumped into the salt. This is especially true if you’re launching or landing in surf zones. If you are prepared for it, which you 100 % need to be, then an experience like this will only serve as a minor inconvenience as opposed to something life threatening.
First order of your operations will be gearing up to stay warm. I suit up into a 5.4 mm wetsuit, equipped with a hood and 5 mm booties. Essentially, I dress the same exact way I would if I was to surf anywhere on Washingtons chilly coast (with the exception of a PDF). Many anglers prefer a wetsuit as they are not bulky, they make movement easy, and they perform consistently each time. Another option is to use a dry suit. Dry suits are a breeze to put on when compared to a wetsuit, they slip on over your insulating layers, provide you the security of knowing that if you were to go in; you won’t experience a layer of cold water rushing over your skin like a wetsuit allows, and you can slip out them without a struggle as soon as you are done fishing. The downside of a dry suite is that in the event of dunk— a tear or a leak in the suite would allow water to flow inside and render it completely useless, thus making hypothermia less of a possibility and more of an inevitability.
If you do get dunked, you need to know how to get back into your boat. This is something that requires practice and should be done in calm and shallow waters, perhaps somewhere close to home. Neah Bay is not the place you want to have a “learning experience” when it comes to falling into the water. Know how to right your boat if capsized and know how to climb back in.
Finally, secure all your gear like you were planning to flip the boat. Lanyards and bungee cords are your friends. Keep hatches closed and secured and you should be set to catch some fish.
Spring kayak fishing in Neah Bay is red hot when it comes to Lingcod, rockfish, and Cabezon. They can be caught in relatively shallow waters where kayak fishing is more feasible, and in general, these amazing predator fish are typically going to bite down on whatever you’re willing to throw at them. My best luck comes from jigging 2 oz jig heads with a white single or double tailed grub.
The best bait for catching a trophy lingcod might be lingcod itself. The experience mentioned at the intro to this article foreshadowed what has become the most intense battle with a fish I’ve ever been part of, and that experience happened to occur because of the lingcods love for the predation of its own kin.
It was late morning and I had been fishing for a couple hours with various species already onboard. Snagging on kelp is a frustratingly common occurrence when fishing the straights of Juan de Fuca side of Neah Bay, and after losing my gear several times to snags, I was ready to throw in the towel. Just at that moment, my line was once again wrapped up on some vegetation deep below the surface. After a few attempts to free my hook from what would surely become its forever home, I felt a tug at the line. Oscillating between thoughts of a monster fish or a monster let down, I decided to swing towards optimism and fought this potential snag like it was more than just another disappointment. I reeled in and raised the rod tip, letting it back down as the fish either slowly took line out or the current was simply just pushing me away from the point where my hook was snagged. Again, there was another strong tug at the line. This was a fish. Perhaps a fish caught-up around some kelp, but a fish for sure. After fighting for what felt like an eternity, and as the minutes passed by, and my arms became more tired, I finally felt progress as my reel started collecting more line. Finally, through the darkness of the water, I made out the shape of not one, but two fish. A good size lingcod, maybe 30 inches long had its mouth tightly secured around my hook, and even more tightly secured around him—was something that I thought only exists in nightmares. A lingcod that looked to be about the length of my kayak was lock-jawed around this smaller fish, and they were getting closer to the boat. Fearful of what would happen if I tried to land this razor toothed behemoth in a kayak, I panicked a bit. Yet, in a split-second decision, I grabbed my net and tried for a swoop. As I reluctantly scooped toward the fish that would in no-way ever fit into my net, let alone my boat, the giant ling let go of the smaller fish, and in true nightmarish fashion, breached out of the water with its mouth wide open and razor-sharp teeth exposed. Only inches from its giant head, I watched as the open mouth of the fish passed by my face and then landed back into the water, into the depths of Neah Bay; where I was oh so happy to see it disappear.