Oregon Magazine

Getting to the Bottom of “Bottom Fishing”
By Paul Pintarich

I love to kill nothing but fish,” Izaac Walton

Everyone just called him “Sig,” after the sign on his bait shop. He might have been Norwegian or Swedish, though it was anybody’s guess. But with that name certainly Scandinavian; a weathered and wiry man whose days opened and closed with a view to the mouth of Tillamook Bay.

Sig’s was at Barview, halfway between Garibaldi and Rockaway Beach, where piled-rock jetties provide fishing boats and other vessels safe passage to and from the sea. The jetties are also habitat for myriad denizens whose often startling appearance, when they first break surface, is allayed after they are filleted, coated with batter and dropped into a hot pan.   Pursuit of these creatures, more abundant then than now, was Sig’s raison d’etre. From his tiny shop below his house he supplied basic bamboo poles that would be familiar to Huckleberry Finn. Having no reels, these connected to nothing fancy, certainly: A line attached to hook and sinker, bait most often rubbery chunks of toothsome clam necks, but also less resilient ghost shrimp as well.

I must also mention kelp worms, ugly green and nasty (they also bite), pried from the rocks, as well as more appealing mussels, plentiful since no one ate them in those days.  (I can’t remember if Sig sold beer, though I remember long days spent sitting and climbing about jetty monoliths, searching for hidden recesses in the rocks to relieve oneself.)  Thus equipped, we lurched across the rocks for some distance until we were actually tossing (flipping, really) our lines out into the water, letting them sink until they touched bottom-- Hence, “bottom fishing.”

Then it was simply waiting, drinking beer and telling lies, until one’s pole bent and bounced from the creature impaled there; alas, more often a crab or a grotesque, inedible sculpin identified by its huge head and mouth, fins all over the place, and a skinny camouflaged body.

Our intended prey was abundant and variable, not to mention tasty. Lots of kelp greenling, a.k.a. kelp cod and sea trout; flounder (starry and sand sole); six species of sea perch, though most commonly red tail, pile and striped, which we also caught in the surf; ling cod, creepy looking but delicious and weighing up to 75 pounds, and a profusion of black rockfish, also called black sea bass, snapper and rock cod.

When skinned, greenling could be green or blue in the flesh, but turned white when fried. Other remained white inside, and all were delicious, particularly the perch and ling cod. Oldtimers will tell you they often prefer cod to salmon.

While out on the jetty one could learn to relax and enjoy the scenery. There were no cell phones and on a clear day we could see the Coast Range off in the distance; directly opposite was the site of Bayocean, the resort that sank into the sea; while around us was the splash and splat of seagulls, sea lions and other critters we were often not sure of. Water and spindrift, blue skies and clouds, drowsy hours spent waiting and watching, a lost art.

“Isn’t that a  ... ?”  No, not a shark, but whales are seen farther out at certain times of the year.
“Have you seen the white whale?” was a shouted query once to a returning fishing boat.
It must be remembered fishing is best during an incoming or slack tide, and all God’s creatures feed during the same time; i.e., a cow outstanding in its field, chewing cud and ruminating, is chowing down the same time as a flounder or sea trout. And if the moon is full, big or bright, stay in bed.

Since over time jettys evolve into established reefs rife with life, down among the fishes one finds the ubiquitous starfish, anemones, urchins, crabs in Greek choruses, and plenty of food to chain them all.

After a long day of fishing, one could return sunburned to Sig’s for the conclusion: filleting, skinning and anticipating a feed washed down by more beer.  Remembering, I think we caught more fish on those simply rigged bamboo poles than we ever did afterwards, with our upscale rods, reels and expensive lures.

A great part of our nostalgia was, of course, fed by fond memories of Sig. He seemed to be there forever; a venerable Scandinavian who, like others of his disappearing ilk, seemed to have forgotten more about fishing  . . .

Well, you know the rest.

(Photo credits: The Ling Cod is a NOAA shot.  The rest are from Walt's Barview photos.)

Text © 2008 Paul Pintarich and Oregon Magazine