Neah Bay -
Washington's Bottomfish Capitol
By: Mike Carey
April 21, 2002
Have the days of catching 2-4 pound sea bass one after
another, non-stop for hours ended? The chance to catch
a 25-35 pound ling cod in water under 100 feet - no
more? A chance at exotic species like cabezon - gone?
Not if you live in Washington and have a boat!
If it's April it must be time for all good salt water
anglers to make the yearly trek to Neah Bay. Here you
will find the bottom fish ready and willing to take
anything you have to offer them. The fishing is, in a
word, red hot. And now is the perfect time to dust off
those 2 ounce jigs and curly tail plastics and get
your fair share of some great tasting Neah Bay bottom
fish. The ling season opened April 17th and the
fishing has been great. Limits by those in the know,
with plenty of just sub-legals to catch and release.
And the sea bass? Can you say catch and release until
you're too tired to catch and release any more? There
are some huge schools of nice 2-4 pound sea bass, and
catching these fish on light tackle will provide great
My friend Carl and I headed west on Friday evening
from Seattle, arriving at 8pm at the Snow Creek
Resort. The weather was changing - for the better -
and Saturday was looking to be nice indeed. Light
winds, clear skies, and temps in the 50s greeted us.
We had a site on the beach edge. Once you've driven 4
1/2 hours to get here, the scenery will remind you
just why you took the trip. Jagged rocky cliffs,
crashing sound of surf on the beach, screech of the
sea gulls, sea lions snorting offshore - all these
images and sounds, and more, quiet the mind and calm
We launched at 7:30 am the next day. The water was
reasonably calm with swells of just a few feet and
very little wave action. I had a plan in mind. We
turned west at Wadda Island and headed toward Tatoosh
Island, about five miles away. Before we got to
Tatoosh, we pulled up to some kelp beds along the
rocky shoreline. I pulled out my light tackle and cast
a one ounce jig with white/red tipped curly tail
plastic toward the kelp. Almost instantly my jig was
hammered by a solid fish. After a good fight, the 4
pound black sea bass came to the boat. Nice way to
start the day! We fished this area for another 30
minutes or so. When you find one sea bass, you'll
usually find more as they are a schooling fish.
Strangely, this was the only one we hit here. As we
fished a gray whale surface about 300 yards from us,
it's blow hole spouting water into the air. What a
sight! We moved the last mile and a half to Tatoosh
island. There was one other boat out there with us.
Once again we began casting our jigs, usually
retrieving them as soon as they hit the water,
although sometimes I would do a ten count and then
retrieve it. We immediately found the sea bass and
they were hungry. Carl and I began catching fish after
fish. It seemed that we had found a huge school of the
aggressive black sea bass. We tried different plastic
shapes and colors. Everything we threw at them seemed
to work - light, dark, they all caught fish. We caught
and released dozens of sea bass, keeping a few of the
bigger fish. It went on this way from 9 to 11 am. At
11 am I decided it was time to put in some work for
something a little bigger - the ling cod.
Ling Cod are big, bad, and ugly. And they taste great.
Which are good reasons to fish for them, but an even
better reason is they put up a fight to rival the best
fighting fish in Washington. This year the size limit
is a minimum of 24 inches. That will give you two good
sized fillets for your frig. There are several ways to
catch these fish, but the most important thing is you
need the bait on the bottom. So look for days that
don't have big tide swings, or fish the tide changes.
Adjust the weight of your lure to account for the
tides and wind drift. The nice thing about fishing for
lings in the spring is that the big ones tend to come
in to the shallows. We fished 45-95 feet during the
trip, as did the most successful anglers at the
cleaning stations. Time of day? I didn't notice much
variation in fishing success from mid-morning to early
afternoon. The action was better at the tide change.
This makes sense as the lings move out of their rocky
homes in search of easy prey. For gear, I used a stout
jigging rod with a level wind reel, 5:1 retrieve, and
50 pound "Tuff line". My terminal gear included a
barrel swivel, 36 inches of leader, and either a 2-4
ounce lead jig with large curly tail plastic, or, a
6-8 ounce jigging lure. I also added a strip of squid
meat to the jig for some flavor enhancement. Old pros
like to send down live kelp greenlings as bait. The
larger lings will clamp on to these bait fish and you
just pull them to the surface. That's where having a
good man at the net is important because these fish
are not hooked, they are just hanging on for the ride.
So the netter needs to scoop before the ling lets go.
It's very important to not let the lings head come out
of the water or it will let go.
I began banging the bottom along the same drift that
we had been catching the sea bass. I would feel the
jig hit the rocky bottom and then bring it up 2-3
feet. Don't use a big sweeping jerk. A smooth, slow
jig motion works just fine. I brought up several
sub-legal fish from 45-65 feet deep. At high noon my
rod tip jerked violently down. I set the hook and
began bringing up what felt to be a good sized fish.
Lings fight like bulldogs. They don't run like salmon,
rather, they head shake, pull short runs of great
strength, and generally try to jerk the pole out of
your hands. Hang on tight! As the fish came to the
surface Carl reached the net down to bring in the
fish. It was a nice keeper, I'm guessing ten pounds or
so of mad ling cod. The net went in - no! The hook was
on the lip of the fish and as the net went in the hook
came out. I watched in dismay as my keeper descended
back to the bottom for some other lucky angler to
catch. It's hard to stay bummed for too long when you
are in a place as beautiful as Neah Bay. Besides,
there are plenty more where that one came from.
We had enough of Tatoosh island and worked our way
back to Neah Bay. Around 2 pm we began fishing the
northwest side of Wadda island, which is the island
that anchors the breakwater and is the entrance to
Neah Bay. There were several boats fishing in this
spot. We started a drift in the 55-85 foot range,
working from shallow to deep water. Jigs on the bottom
for both of us. It didn't take long before I called
out "fish on!". And this time it was a big one. My rod
tip was buried into the water several times as I
fought this fish. When it came to the net I was
rewarded for my efforts with a monster of a cabezon. A
cabezon is a bottom fish that feeds primarily on
shrimp. This one had been doing a lot of feeding over
the years. That was it for the day and we headed in.
Sunday was more of the same. This time we concentrated
our efforts around Wadda island and Seal Rock. Seal
Rock is a prominent rock formation located about three
miles east of the Neah Bay marina. This area has good
populations of sea bass, rockfish, and lings. It is
also hit harder due to it being better sheltered from
the west winds. This is the spot anglers with 12-16
foot boats will head to when the waves are too strong
around the west side of Wadda island. You'll be once
again fishing 45-95 feet for lings. For the sea bass
and other bottom fish, head in toward the kelp beds.
Lings can be found here as well. Most of them will be
sub-legal, but once in awhile you'll hook a keeper. We
ended our trip catching quite a few twenty inch lings
in this area, as well as the numerous sea bass. The
high point of Sunday for me was the one that got away.
Another large ling that hit my jig hard. I brought it
up about 5-10 feet and it promptly turned and drove
back to the safety of the rocky bottom, into a hole
which I was unable to budge it out of.
If this kind of fishing sounds like what you're
looking for then now is the time to go. Spring bottom
fishing at Neah Bay isn't as crowded as the salmon
seasons that occurs later in the summer, and the
weather can cooperate for some very pleasant days. The
bottom fishing should hold up well for several more
weeks, just in time for halibut opener in May. But
that's another fishing trip and another story.
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