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March 13, 2006

Invasion of the Red Demons

California's Surprise Fishery for Massive Humboldt Squid Can Offer Action Unlike Anything You've Ever Imagined.

In all my years in the sport-fishing business, I've never seen the phone ring like this fishery [last winter] made it ring! It was mass hysteria - we were literally taking 200 to 300 calls on some days," says Capt. Rick Powers, who runs the 60-foot New Sea Angler out of Bodega Bay.

What wintertime California fishery caused such enthusiasm? Oddly enough, a creature that few anglers had ever caught: giant squid.

"No one's seen really wide-open fishing until they've fished Humboldt squid! When those things are all around the boat and in attack mode, they go after everything that goes into the water!" Powers says. "You just can't imagine 35 to 40 people with every single rod hooked up [with 20- to 50-pound] squid. Everyone gets soaked with water and ink. The boat gets trashed from stem to stern - the whole boat [and some anglers] gets black. It takes deckhands hours to clean it."

Sea Monsters Move North
Powers adds that he commonly made one stop after locating the squid,

 whereupon the deckhands "would do nothing but gaff squid for an hour or two. Then we'd go home," with anglers tired and their fish bags overflowing with calamari.

George Pepper  was fishing for salmon along a wild stretch of northern Washington's Olympic Peninsula, near La Push, in early October of last year. Little did the angler know that he'd hook up with what would prove a harbinger of California's winter squid surprise.

Pepper figured he'd finally latched onto that salmon of a lifetime as he watched line melt off his spool. But when he finally got his prize to the boat, he could hardly believe his eyes. The angler found himself staring down at a huge squid, like nothing he'd ever caught - or seen - before.

Until last year, no one had seen Dosidicus gigas, the Humboldt squid, off the Washington coast. (Nor is it likely that any catches of these "sea monsters" 6 feet long would have gone unreported.) But all that changed during the great squid invasion of 2004 when word of the mammoth mollusks began filtering back to biologists, outdoor columnists and online chat sites from Oregon north, even into Alaskan waters.

After all, the Humboldt squid is a resident of warm Pacific waters, abundant from Ecuador to Mexico. Well, at least it used to be.

Humboldt squid didn't simply extend their range last year: They exploded it, shattering assumptions that scientists had made about how far north this species would venture. Before 2004, that was thought to be central California (where squid have showed up in abundance at very infrequent intervals; other than that, larger squid were historically rare above southernmost California).

The Pacific was definitely on the warm side when commercial albacore fishermen began coming across these animals offshore in August 2004. By late that month and into early October, the creatures had moved in close to shore to shock anglers like Pepper. Imagine the surprise of the fisherman off Sitka, Alaska, who pulled one aboard there. Or Goody Gudmendseth, a British Columbia angler who boated a 45-pounder in October while working the coast of Vancouver Island for salmon.

Besides reported encounters of the molluscan kind, evidence of the squid invasion came when hundreds of big squid washed up on beaches around the Columbia River mouth, also in October.

Something was going on, but scientists weren't - and aren't - sure what. "Almost nothing is really known about this species," says William Gilly, a professor of biological sciences with Stanford University.

Humboldts may be truly extending their range farther north, whether because of ocean temperatures, a squid-population explosion or other factors, maintains Eric Hochberg, squid expert and curator of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum (www.sbnature.org). "It does appear now that these squid probably have remained off our coast and moved north since 2002," he says.

Even more speculative is whether this range extension will be permanent or prove a temporary phenomenon. Whatever the reason for jumbo-squid packs pushing so far north, a lot of fishermen welcomed the giant mollusks last season and hope to do so again this winter.

A Fishery Is Born
Thanks to Humboldt squid, Californians last winter enjoyed a chance to experience something rare indeed these days: a new recreational fishery.

In fact, Powers takes credit for discovering big Humboldt squid in northern California last winter when serendipity put the longtime charter skipper in the right place at the right time. With no viable options to fish the ocean during the winter, Powers was running research trips to Cordell Bank aboard his 60-foot Sea Angler (http://usafishing.com/bodegasportfishing.html) last December for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Certain species of rockfish that should have been abundant over structure in 60 to 80 fathoms were AWOL.
What did prove to be abundant took Powers by surprise.

"I had a couple volunteer fishermen up on the bow, dropping jig bars with a single shrimp fly above. Suddenly they were hammered to the rail! The rest of that day, we encountered squid averaging 30 pounds and up to 60 pounds on every stop."

More research trips produced squid consistently. So in February - after making sure that squid jigs would catch only squid and none of the deepwater rockfish closed to angling - Powers began running squid trips. Soon the word had spread, and he was booked solid. A combination of regulations that diminish fishing opportunities for California saltwater anglers in the winter and the radically different nature of this quarry help explain the surprising clamor to catch giant squid, Powers says.

But beyond "different," squid fishing is just plain exciting, the skipper explains.

To reach the squid in the black depths, Powers had anglers start with heavy jigs. He describes the 2-pound bars with hundreds of razor-sharp tines on five skirts as "a war club." But most of the time, Powers - like squid skippers up and down the state's coast - found that once anglers started pulling the creatures up to the boat, other squid followed. "Having enough people on board with gear in the water really helps bring squid up, so you can actually watch 'em come out [from under the boat] to attack unweighted jigs!" he says.

With the New Sea Angler averaging 14 big squid per angler early on, other charter boats to the south began cashing in on the bonanza. Capt. Tom Mattusch made a number of successful squid trips on his Huli Cat (www.hulicat.com) out of Princeton Harbor near Half Moon Bay - something that had never happened before in this port.

Meanwhile, the rapacious mollusks began showing up in January off the southern part of the state as well. South coast anglers pull up the odd squid now and again. But Doug Kern, manager of Fisherman's Landing Tackle (www.saltwatertackle.com), says, "This is the first year we've ever had people here [out of San Diego] booking evening trips for squid, and it was really popular." Some partyboats ran full loads of 70 or more eager squidders.

Calamari Chaos
The size of these combative cephalopods really helped account for the unprecedented interest in catching them. Swarms of little guys of a few pounds - pretty typical off the south coast - is one thing, but creatures 4 to 6 feet long jetting around boats not far offshore, flashing iridescent hues on and off, are beasts of a different color.

Winter fishing reports up and down the California coast showed that when the squid bite turned on, the action was "calamari chaos," as one newspaper writer termed it.

With Humboldt squid so shrouded in mystery, it's hardly surprising that even leading scientists can't tell anglers for certain whether to prep their squid tackle for a second annual run. Fact is, the big brutes might not show up off the U.S. Pacific Coast in such numbers again for years - or they might be here consistently for the long term.

Hochberg does feel that the squid have shifted or spread northward and may well remain off at least the California coast for some time. That suggests any larger squid now around may have been in our waters all their lives, although with a life span of just a year or two that's not very long.

Fishermen who want to get in on the wild action may want to give their phone number or e-mail to a local landing for its contact list if/when the squid show.

Get into the Squid Zone
When gearing up to take on these multiarmed marauders, keep in mind a few facts. One is that Humboldt squid, rather remarkably, may feed at depths of thousands of feet or right on the surface (or somewhere between). Often, skippers initially "meter them," in West Coast parlance, in 300 to 600 feet of water. So pack some heavy squid jigs of 1¼2 to 2 pounds to ensure that when the call comes to "Let 'em go!" your offering will be one that drops quickly and surely into the squid zone. Then, odds are good you'll find yourself hooked up in short order; squid seldom hesitate to latch onto anything not already latched onto them.

Real enthusiasts have likely already bought squid jigs, knowing that Humboldts could pop up anytime and that - when they do - a run on squid jigs will again empty many shelves. Forget about finger-length, pencil-wide jigs used for the more common small species of squid. Look for jigs of 8 to at least 16 inches, with several sets of tines circumscribing the cylinder. And handle with care: One skipper compares them with lethal weapons. They're big, heavy and loaded with ultrasharp points. (You can find a great selection online at www.squidjig.com.)

Then there's the angst over which color to use. "These things are so aggressive that it didn't matter [last season]," says Kern, though the "glo" (luminescent) white seemed to be the choice. In fact, some anglers did pretty well dropping conventional Tady Jr. jigs and the like.

Squidding necessitates fairly stout gear. Besides the weight of the jig, there's the squid: A big one doesn't come up easily, its jet propulsion translating into repeated short but powerful runs. Most landings suggest or provide 30- to 50-pound-class outfits; any sort of good reel works (but two-speeds offered optimal performance). Although the use of mono remained widespread, those dropping with braid enjoyed advantages of more line on the spool, quicker and easier drops and considerably more feel for what might be going on in the depths.

Add to your arsenal a second, lighter outfit rigged with a much lighter squid jig so that when the pack begins to rise toward the boat, often converging around the hull, you'll be armed for an optimal response. Despite some fly-fishing success (see "Worth a Try on the Fly"), light-tackle effort seemed minimal during the run of big Humboldts. Having to drop deep or fish elbow to elbow discourages such ideas, but anglers on private boats (or lightly loaded partyboats) might find some grand sport by scaling down when the squid are on top. "Catch a 40-pound squid on 12-pound line and you've done something you can brag about!" laughs Kern.

Dress Down
It's only fair to mention that you'll definitely want to dress down for a day or evening squid trip. Whether they're squirting seawater or black ink (which seems to wash out of clothing, fortunately), squid coming over the rails right and left often enact some 11th-hour revenge on their captors. 

Apparently, for recreationally caught Humboldt squid off California, a daily bag limit of 35 per person applies (though some authorities with the state told me there is no bag limit). But if you figure 35 squid at a mere 20-pound average, we're talking 700 pounds. That's a lot of calamari. Fortunately most skippers and many anglers are a bit more conservative during a hot bite (or perhaps "hot grab" in the case of squid), since even a couple of big squid yield a freezer's worth of thick, white steaks. While California has not found reason for concern, Washington has been dramatically proactive, declaring this year (the first time Humboldts have ever shown up here) the limit of squid over 10 pounds to be just one per day.

Fishing for jumbo Humboldt squid may not be every angler's game, but plenty of squidders who caught the action last winter now wait anxiously for a chance to get out again and tangle with these strange, wondrous and tasty creatures. And if they do make a repeat showing, many more anglers will no doubt take the opportunity to take on the Pacific's red demons.