Hooked

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Every fishing trip is a composite of all other trips, and it holds irresistible promise for the future. That cup cannot be drained. There are always greater fish than you have caught; always the lure of greater task and achievement; always the inspiration to seek, to endure, to find; always the beauty of the lonely stream and the open sea; always the glory and dream of nature.

Zane Gray, Angler’s Eldorado

Zane Gray wrote these words after spending a year fishing for marlin off the North Island of New Zealand over 90 years ago. Today the Sophie crew is located in the exact same spot in the world, and I am sitting here marveling at how the lure and excitement of fishing has became such a central, foundational experience for everyone we’ve had the pleasure of hosting on our boat over the last year. Not just for my long-time fishing buddies like Dan Rogers and Steven Fell (both pictured above) — they’ve known the secret their entire lives — but for everyone who has spent time with us over the last year.

I knew when we planned this trip that fishing would be an important and fun and protein-necessary part of our life offshore. But I never anticipated the shared sense of emotional power and emotional connection it would create across all of the different people who were able to join us on our adventure. And it had a cumulative effect, a variation on the cumulative effect that Gray writes about, because it was shared by different people, many who didn’t have a connection with each other except that they were our friends or our family. But as more and more people joined us and caught fish on this trip, more and more people who subsequently joined us really wanted to catch fish on this trip. There was a connection. People were getting hooked.

I guess it started with my brother Rich, whom I love but never really thought of as a guy who was into fishing, but man did he become so happy when he won the fight against a 20 pound yellowfin tuna at sunset 1,500 miles offshore on our passage to the Marquesas, doing so at the exact same time that Dan was pulling in that tuna’s 15 pound little brother. This resulted in Sophie’s first ever “double takedown”, and I now realize that Rich’s fish is the model for the tattoo that graces both my right arm and all Sophie fish photos that grace this blog. It was a physical manifestation of the shared sense of excitement that has become a part of the life we share with others.

And this shared sense of excitement spread. It spread to our friend Rebecca, who landed and dispatched a coral trout outside the reef at Moorea with a surprising and somewhat alarming sense of vigor and glee. It spread to our friend Karl, who could transform albacore on-the-line into sashimi-on-the-plate with world-class speed. And it spread to North Dakota Troy, whose grin at catching his first saltwater fish, in Fiji no less, was as big as his home state. And it spread the next week to our friend Randy, whom we normally think of as a funny, well-dressed triathlete-kind-of guy. But all he wanted to do when he joined us was fish, fish, fish. And he was so happy when he reeled in a couple of tuna as we traveled back and forth between Malolo and the Cloud 9 floating surf break lounge scene and nightclub.

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So it shouldn’t have surprised us when it happened again last week with the arrival of our friends Ian and Becky. But it did.

We first met them through the Seattle Yacht Club, and they quickly became good friends because they shared our love of sailing, wine, food, and adventure. Becky even joined us on our passage from Seattle to San Francisco.

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But we never really thought of them as a couple who were into fishing. We had never discussed the topic with them back in Seattle, and it didn’t come up in the planning emails and Facebook messages we exchanged in advance of their visit.

They had already spent a week in New Zealand by the time they had joined us in Opua and had done things like mountain luging, airplane fjord tours, vineyard visits, and fine dining in Auckland. So our plan for their visit to Sophie was to spend a couple of days doing more of the same followed by a couple of days anchoring out in the Bay of Islands to celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday. Sophie is undergoing a bit of a refit right now and has no sails, and besides, the kids are in school. So unfortunately we couldn’t spend the entire time with them cruising.

As Jenna mentioned in her blog this week, on the first day of their visit she took Ian and Becky on tours of the big trees, and on the second day we all hiked a waterfall. On both nights we ate well and stayed up way too late. So I was a little surprised on the morning of the third day when I asked Ian and Becky what they wanted to do, and they both answered at the exact same time “I WANT TO GO FISHING!”

Hmmmm. That would require motoring 5 miles down the river and out into the actual Bay of Islands in a Sophie covered with spare lines and parts boxes, and then go drift fishing for snapper, something I had never done before. In the rain. But Ian and Becky were adamant that they wanted to go fishing, so I walked the kids up to school and then stopped at Cater’s Marine to buy a 2kg bag of frozen herring along with some ice and snapper hooks, and we took off.

I have to confess it felt good to be driving a boat again, and the Bay of Islands are beautiful. Once we got out to the fishing area we had 3 lines in the water, each baited with a frozen herring using 2 hooks in a rig similar to what we sometimes use to catch salmon (and always use to catch dogfish) back in Seattle. We drift fished for the next 3 hours, in what basically turned into a futile exercise of fish feeding. We kept losing bait and sometimes bait and hooks, oftentimes without even feeling a tug on the line. But Ian and Becky were having a fabulous time, and with each lost herring their level of excitement increased, even as the rain picked up.

Personally, as their host and guide I was starting to feel some pressure to actually deliver. I decided that the current rig simply wasn’t working, so I switched to a marlin hook (much bigger and sharper) attached to a steel leader (so fish can’t bight it off) and a heavier weight (so the bait can fall deeper into the current).

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Within 2 minutes I got a hit, and although the fish didn’t fight like a tuna or mahi mahi, it was beautiful and soon in the boat. That’s what counts. Cue the obligatory fish shot:

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I was happy, but Ian and Becky were ecstatic. I handed my pole to Becky, re-rigged Ian’s, and their lines soon went back into the water. Even as it rained Ian and Becky continued to work their poles from the shelter of the aft cockpit. When time ran out and we had to head back to the dock in order to collect the kids from school, Ian insisted on trolling on the way back just in case. They had that “glory and dream of nature” going, and they had it bad. But we landed no more fish that afternoon.

The next day was Thursday, and we headed out for an anchorage in the Bay with the kids on board this time. We didn’t fish for snapper on the way, but I did fry up the previous day’s catch in gluten-free bread crumbs and served it with a trio of dipping sauces. It was excellent. Once we had the anchor down in a nice cove we went out for a hike, played on the beach, paddle-boarded, and collected oysters. Ian and Leo had every pole on Sophie working along with a couple of hand lines in the water. We tried herring, artificial lures, different sized hooks, even casting with bobbers but had no luck other than a couple of very small fish that Leo caught. We were anchored in only 15 feet of water, and the fish in the bay were clearly too clever for us.

The next day was Friday in New Zealand, meaning Thanksgiving Day back in the US. Our plan was to motor 3 miles back out into the Bay, drift fish for snapper, then head over to another anchorage to cook some roast lamb for our Kiwi version of a Turkey Day celebration.

It was sunnier but much windier than our previous day on the Bay. I had marlin hooks rigged on all three poles this time, but we still had a problem with bait falling off. At one point I was reeling in my line to check the bait and saw a big fish following my hook. I stopped and jigged 5 feet below Sophie’s transom steps, and then wham Wham WHAM he finally took the bait. It turned out to be a four foot-long shark! I fought him back and forth on our trolling pole with the 80 pound braided test line, and he kept running and fighting for 10 minutes. It was a blast. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, but we took a couple of photos and then he eventually solved the problem by biting through the line and swimming away, quite angry with me.

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At this point Ian and Becky were in a complete fish frenzy. We moved the boat a couple of times, tried different combinations of bait while watching the clock with the shared understanding that at some point we would have to stop fishing, drop an anchor, and start cooking.

We continued to lose bait and were down to our last 3 herring. Finally, I decided to use a short length of 10 pound test line to tie a herring up and down the shaft of Becky’s marlin hook. She dropped it 20 feet directly below the transom step and then stopped.

Tug. Tug Tug. Tug Tug Tug.

“I’ve got a fish … I’ve Got a Fish … I’VE GOT A FISH!!!!” Becky slowly reeled up her snapper while I worked the leader, and the result was this 10 pound beauty.

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For the next 10 minutes Becky was kicking her feet on the deck like a 3 year-old girl eating her first lollipop. “I caught a fish! I caught a fish! I caught a fish! I want to go fishing again! I want to go fishing in Seattle! I want to go fishing with Dan! I caught a fish!”

It was pretty funny.

We loaded the fish in Sophie’s new fish box (under the grate in Sophie’s aft cockpit … thanks for the suggestion Jeff in Kirkland!) and doubled down on our efforts to help Ian land his fish.

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No one likes getting skunked, especially when it’s the wife having all the fun. But we were out of herring, the wind and waves were building, and Jenna still needed to start work on our Thanksgiving stuffing, kumara pie and apple crisp. (I was going to do the lamb). So we reluctantly turned the corner and headed for the next cove.

Once the anchor was down, we had four lines back in the water. Ian really wanted his fish. Becky and I cleaned the snapper, which attracted a 10 foot shark who swim past Sophie a few times. There was also a big dolphin sleeping nearby. But no fish. We ate the snapper for lunch, went to shore, cooked, played games, ate our feast, talked, drank wine, and hung out. The whole time we left the four lines in the water, but still no fish.

The next day was our last with Ian and Becky. The plan was to go to shore for a hike, collect some oysters, then motor the 5 miles to Paihia and put them on their bus to Auckland. And hopefully help Ian catch his fish.

We all hiked and took photos on the shore, then Ian dropped me off to snorkel by the oyster beds while he rejoined the rest of the crew. As I swam back to Sophie with a couple of dozen oysters and a conch shell, I spotted a stingray laying on the ocean floor 15 feet down. I yell out if anyone wanted to come and see it, assuming Jenna and Becky would simply get in the dinghy carrying a couple of masks and come over. But apparently Becky still had the adrenalin surge from the previous day and asks Jenna if it was too far to swim there. “Of course not,” says my adventuress wife.

So Becky grabs the wetsuit, grabs fins, grabs a mask and jumps in. I’m 100 meters away. She starts swimming a very splashy stroke, and Jenna starts waving her arms yelling “NO! STOP!” From my perspective in the water, I assume Jenna is simply telling Becky to not attract the shark that was giving us indications of interest in that exact same spot 24 hours earlier. Eventually Jenna stops yelling, and Becky arrives. I assume everything is all right.

The splashing had apparently convinced the stingray that it was a good idea to fly away, which is always a very cool sight, but Becky didn’t get a chance to see it. We proceeded to swim around for a bit and soon spotted another one. In Becky’s haste to leave Sophie she forgot to bring a snorkel, so we swap masks and she gets to enjoy the experience of floating directly over a stingray, an experience that scientists now believe produces the exact same endorphins as those produced while landing a fish. Needless to say, Becky is in a good place. Or so we think.

We swim around for a bit more and then swim back to the boat. Becky gets out first. When I pull my head out of the water, I hear Jenna saying “Are you alright?” while I realize I am at eye level with Becky’s ankle pierced by a brand new 1 cm barbed bait hook attached to 5 cm of 20 pound test line. It turns out that in her rush to get into the water and over to the stingray, Becky snagged one of the hand lines and proceeded to stretch it tight and then snap it without ever feeling a thing. A horrified Jenna got to watch the whole experience and had been yelling to Becky “No! Stop! You’ve snagged a fish hook!” Becky never heard Jenna and never felt a thing the entire time she was chasing stingrays.

So I am still halfway in the water while Jenna and Becky discuss what we should do next. They decide we need to push the barb all the way through Becky’s skin, cut the hook in half (the eye of the hook was to large to push through the hole created by the pointy end) and then pull the remaining hook out.

But Becky, who is back in her endorphin-induced three-year-old-with-her-first-lollipop mode, screams “Get the camera! Jamie, roll up your sleeve! We need a shot of my foot with the fish tattoo!” Jenna gets the camera along with some wire cutters, and takes some photos.

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I am a surgeon’s son and veteran pig stitcher, and I am also closest to Becky’s foot, so I do the procedure. I must confess that pushing the hook through her skin looked exactly like pushing a curved surgical needle through the skin of a pig when preparing it for a pig roast. Becky never stops smiling, but she does urge me to do it quickly.

I get the hook out without any tearing, and we all look at the wound wondering if we should irrigate it or apply medicine or some herbal therapy. It looked kind of like a snake bite, but none of us felt like sucking out the poison. We wiped it up instead.

The smiles never left, and the adrenalin along with Sophie’s magic healing power helped keep the situation pain-free. A big irony here is that when we first met Becky on her birthday at the SYC’s Port Madison outstation two years earlier, she was hobbling down the dock with a sprained ankle, looking for some Advil to help alleviate the pain. She is now the first person in the world who can tell a Sophie story about each one of her ankles.

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Meanwhile, Ian was down below in his cabin taking a shower, oblivious to all of the activity taking place. Hazel was feeling mischievous and decided to pay him a visit, saying “So Ian, why are you down here taking a shower WHILE YOUR POOR WIFE IS UP ON DECK WITH A FISH HOOK STUCK IN HER FOOT!!!” I am certain Hazel had her hand on her hip while she asked the question.

(I have no idea what we are going to do with that girl in ten years, and welcome any and all advice from my mother or anyone else on how we can best prepare.)

We proceeded to shower off, drive Sophie through a 25 knot chop for 6 miles over too Paihia, drop a hook and then ate a nice, typical Sophie lunch (fresh oysters, marinated green lipped mussels, and organic pumpkin and leek (gluten free) risotto, all washed down with a chilled rioja.) Then I took Ian and Becky into town, put them on their bus to Auckland, from where they flew on to Seattle. It was a great visit, we have new stories to tell, and we miss them a lot.

For me, sharing the “irresistible promise for the future” is what drives us to do this journey, and doing it with friends makes it more meaningful for us. Fishing is now core to this shared experience, and we look forward to having more of our friends and family joining us and “getting hooked.” But if you are planning to do so, please don’t take this suggestion quite so literally. We promise to do our part and will try to no longer leave unattended fishing lines in the water while at anchor. Because we’re all for experiencing the glory and dream of nature, but we want to continue doing so without anyone getting hurt in the process.

Have we told you lately how lucky we are to be on this trip?

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