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FIN, FUR & FEATHERS: Try the bottom for great fishing
Everybody has a different image when they think of fishing. To some it is matching wits with wild trout in a peaceful fly only lake. To others it is a slugfest with a monster salmon or largemouth bass. Too few of us anglers think of pulling up bottomfish from the deep, cold waters of Puget Sound. Mention bottom fishing and some think of monster lings or huge barn door sized halibut. Only a handful think of the many other types of bottom fish that inhabit local waters.
The advantages of bottom fishing are many. First is their availability. Most areas in Washington support good populations of the fish. In most areas you need not feel guilty keeping a few fish for a good meal. Many of the charters can put you into an area where getting a limit of table quality fish is a rule rather than the exception. With the exception of lings, and buts, most of the Marine Areas are open year-round for bottom fish. Be sure to check regulations, because some area has set seasons and some species are closed entirely. In addition, each Marine Area has specific bag limits for different types of fish.
First lets take a moment to state what is a bottomfish. The term loosely applies to many species of fish that live in area waters. They are then divided into other sub-categories.
One such sub-listing is the flatfish. Halibut are in this family, but as mentioned fall under their own regulations. Other flatfish include the flounders, sole and sanddabs. Just like their big brother, these fish lie flat on the bottom in their search of food. Both eyes are set on one side of the head, and they are usually an earthy color on the top and white on the bottom side. Where they differ is that many of these fish can be caught in very shallow water on a variety of tackle.
Look for these fish in the tidelands feeding on suspended foods from the tide change. These fish are not all that particular on what they eat. You can catch them on a spinning rig with a piling worm or piece of shrimp floated in the pools found after the tide has gone. They will also readily hit flies drifted in the same areas. Either way this can be some exciting fishing. Since you cannot see them, you must move subtly. Often times I have scared up fish while wading to likely looking areas. You need not venture too far, many fish have been caught in ankle deep water. These are not wall hangers so light tackle is the way to go. Their firm white flesh is quite good broiled, baked or deep-fried.
The next group is arguably the largest group. There are so many types of rockfish that it would take an entire column to describe them all. The most commonly caught are the black rockfish or black sea bass. These abundant fish are caught by coastal charter operations regularly. Other common types are the blue, copper, and quillback rockfish. Yelloweyes and Canary rockfish are some of the most brightly colored fish around; they are also some of the biggest. Blacks average a couple of pounds with canaries slightly larger and yelloweyes can tip the scales between ten and twenty pounds.
Even though labeled bottomfish, blacks and blues can be found in shallow waters and sometimes near the surface. Often times these fish, especially the yelloweyes, are found in deep water, sometimes in excess of 150 feet! Like their name implies, these fish live amongst the rocks on the bottom. There they lie in wait for their prey, when caught they do not provide a line peeling fight, but it can be a chore to bring them up from their deep denizens. Artificial baits are common when going after these fish, though some tip their baits with herring or anchovy. When they are on the surface they can be fun on light tackle with herring or streamers for the fly angler.
Deep areas with rocky areas are the best, with places around Lagoon Point, Bush Point and the artificial reef between Everett and Camano Island the best areas locally. The San Juans are in the midst of their recovery program. It is advised that any bottom fish caught in areas around southwest Lopez, the west side of San Juan and around Orcas Island be released to provide future generations. If a limit of fish is what you are after, look into many of the charters in Westport. They often run specials between salmon seasons that are very affordable and limits are common.
Sculpins make up another group with the cabezon the largest member and the most common. These brutes can go over 20 pounds and can be tough fighters on light tackle. They mainly feed on crustaceans, but can also be caught on small baitfish. Lead head jigs can also catch fish. Take care when cleaning these fish, their eggs are reported to be poisonous, and their head, fins and bones are not edible, but their thick white flesh is very good eating. There are other scuplins, but they receive minor interest from anglers.
Other bottomfish include Pacific Cod and Pollock. These fish can be found in the same areas and caught on similar baits as the others. With so many advantages it is a wonder that more anglers do not peruse these fish. The next time you are looking for a different fishing opportunity, look at the fun that can be had targeting bottomfish.