I pulled up to the spot where the fish was splashing — he was a big wily one! As I gunned the engine in reverse to slow the forward motion of the skiff, I scared in another fish and it joined the first in frantic splashing. Bruce grabbed hold of the corkline with the gaff hook, and I bumped the boat in reverse to keep the propeller clear of the web. I ran up to the rail to see the first king of the Lady Ruth’s gillnet career.
“Shit! Dogfish!” I was dismayed to say the least.
“Dogfish,” also known as “sand sharks,” or “mud sharks,” can get up to three feet long, with a single long spike on its back and razor sharp teeth that will rip the net, your gloves, or your finger to shreds if any of those come too close to its choppers. The worst part about catching dogfish is their tendency to twist themselves up in the net; no matter how long the net has been in the water they come aboard as lively as when they were first tangled.
The Lady Ruth’s first fish was so twisted he rolled up the whole net so the leadline was tangled with the corkline, along with all 30-meshes of the net, with the dogfish in the center. As we worked to pick the bastard out he fought unceasingly to roll himself up more. It’s like arm wrestling in a spider’s web with a sharp-toothed, spiny-backed boa constrictor that pisses through his sand-papery skin.
The trick to picking out dogfish is to simply grab his snout and pull him through all the meshes surrounding him. Dogfish are caught by their outstretched fins, which prevent them from passing through the net — then they twist themselves into oblivion. They hiss and burp when they are pulled from the net, and their sandpaper skin is so different from a salmon’s slippery slime it made it all the more apparent we are catching the wrong sort of fish. Even though I knew the net was catching dogfish, I let it sit through the change of light because that is the time the most salmon are caught.
We started picking just after 9 p.m. It was amazingly easy to haul the net aboard — the lightweight skiff slipped forward effortlessly as we pulled the net in through the front horns. The dogfish were a royal pain in the ass. We had about 30 dogfish and only two kings in my 200-fathom net, which is 100-fathoms shorter than the legal limit. The cool thing about my net is that the leadline is so light the dogfish roll the whole thing up like a curtain, so it pretty much stops fishing. I bet I would have had 80 dogfish if wasn’t so rolled up — but then I might have had a couple more kings, too!
As we picked, we threw the dogfish on deck because they would very likely swim back into the net if we tossed them over right away. After the whole net was aboard, I ran over to a spot where I knew I wasn’t going to set and threw the pile of slithering, sandy-skinned mud sharks overboard. What a horrible prank to pull on somebody if I were toss all these spiny bastards over right next to their net! I watched them slink away into the darkness, and hoped that was the last I had seen of them for the night.
For my second set I moved a bit more up into the bay, found the same channel, and slapped out my highly effective fish catching apparatus into the dark, shallow waters of Samish Bay. By this time it was close to 11 p.m., and the chatter from the fishermen (heard from hearsay cell phone reports) was of no kings but lots of dogfish. Wayde and all the other deep net guys were pulling only dogfish and not a single king.
I talked to a guy on another skiff who had six kings and close to a hundred dogfish. I gauged my progress from this information; the dogfish/king salmon ratio was the same — I just had less fish. Since I caught a third of his catch with less net and zero knowledge of the fishery, I figured I was doing all right.
I was just happy to be there, catching only fish and not a bunch of crab and eelgrass — who cares about a few dogfish?
TO BE CONTINUED…