A Fish Tale: The Big One That Got Away

Rich Rutkowski


Sometimes it’s all right if one gets away, even if it is the “big one.” That may seem strange coming from an inveterate angler, and I wouldn’t say it if I hadn’t been there on that August day in 2001.

The day dawned calm and still with a chilled-apple crispness in the air. Winter Harbour, located at the northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is generally a serene place, and that morning was no exception.

In Search of Halibut

We hoped the morning calm would extend into the day as we were headed offshore in search of halibut. Wind and strong tidal current are the twin enemies of the halibut angler. When you fish your lure on the bottom of the ocean at depths up to 300 feet and beyond, any major movement of the boat relative to the bottom is detrimental. The line angle needed to reach the bottom becomes so great that no reasonable weight of lead sinker can compensate.

Tidal action wouldn’t be a problem today. The tide charts showed a minimum ebb and flow, perfect for halibut fishing. As it turned out, the wind also cooperated on our adventure.

We cast off Rambunctious and headed out of the harbor. The water stayed calm even as we rounded Kains Island where the Quatsino Sound lighthouse stands. As we moved past the tall sentinel and away from the harbor’s safety, I mused that “calm” is a relative term: Two to four-foot swells, almost always present, give tangible evidence of ocean storms hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

As we proceeded westerly beyond the waypoint in search of the drop-off, the crew’s excitement increased. Ready with baited hooks and big jigs, they reminded me of those times my youngsters on automobile trips would ask, “Are we there yet?

Today’s angler has a variety of electronic aids available that take some chance out of the quest for fish. That day I was using a GPS unit and a depth sounder. Electronic instruments tip the odds in your favor a little bit, like the edge casinos have over gamblers. The casino and the halibut angler may not win all of the time, but in the long run they should come out on top.

I steered Rambunctious on a westerly course, heading toward an unseen spot 7 miles distant I’d picked the night before. Paper navigation charts showed an offshore underwater ledge running at 180 feet deep that immediately drops off to 300 feet.

GPS provided the answer to our first challenge: finding the edge of the drop-off. I input the latitude and longitude coordinates of several likely spots from the paper navigation chart into my GPS as waypoints. Now we needed to steer to the first waypoint and use the depth sounder to find the precise location of the drop-off.

The mood of the crew—my brother Paul, my cousin Tom, and long-time fishing partner Jerry—was jovial as we cruised 7 miles to the first spot off Lippy Point. They drank steaming-hot cups of coffee while joking, teasing and anticipating big fish. We were optimistic as we approached the drop-off, where many species of fish likely found shelter and food. The craggy edge provides plenty of hiding places, and the upwelling ocean current provides a moving smorgasbord of food for red snapper, lingcod and halibut. We intended to add our baits and sharp hooks to that smorgasbord.

Within a quarter-mile of the destination waypoint, I slowed the boat to get a more accurate reading of the bottom. Just as the navigation chart predicted, we were in 180 feet of water. As we proceeded westerly beyond the waypoint in search of the drop-off, the crew’s excitement increased. Ready with baited hooks and big jigs, they reminded me of those times my youngsters on automobile trips would ask, “Are we there yet?”

Time to Fish!

At the drop-off, I stopped the boat with a shift to reverse before going into neutral and shutting off the engine. The crew knew the drill: It was time to fish!

We started with 20 to 24 ounces of lead weight, hoping more wouldn’t be needed. It wasn’t. We were tapping the bottom with an almost vertical line angle, and the minimum-stretch line telegraphed every nuance of the rocks on this craggy edge.

Almost immediately good things began to happen. Jerry, his black-tailed jig fluttering in the current below like a hapless baitfish, connected with a nice 15-pound lingcod. I welcomed the sharp-toothed ling aboard Rambunctious with several solid raps on the head. Into the fish box it went.

In the meantime, Paul coaxed a substantial halibut to the surface. With the assistance of our gaff and multiple concussion-grade blows using our “fish bonker,” we welcomed a respectable 40-pound halibut into the boat with high fives and congratulations all around. “This is what we came for!” was the crew’s refrain.

We hoisted several more fish of various shapes, sizes and colors aboard, including red snapper and lingcod. The bait was working, the jigs were working, and the crew was working. Tom proclaimed this the trip of a lifetime.

Paul Hooks a Big One

The boat drifting in the current eventually took us off location—a message conveyed by the depth sounder. A flat line on the display indicated that we had drifted back onto the tabletop. Just as I was about to move Rambunctious back to the drop-off, Paul yelled, “Fish on!” followed quickly with “Holy s—! This is a big one!”

Something didn’t look quite right to me. Either Paul had one heck of a fish or his line was hung up on the bottom. My bet was the bottom, given the amount he was struggling. A hang-up on the bottom with 80-pound-test fishing line is like anchoring the boat in the current with the fisherman holding on to the bitter end of the anchor line.

Paul had both hands on the stout fishing rod that bore a remarkable resemblance to a pool cue, and that pool cue of a rod had a significant arc in it! He was holding on for all he was worth and issuing expletives and exclamations. Meanwhile, the fish (or the bottom) was taking out line. Or possibly, we were just drifting in the current.

I offered Paul some respite from his struggle, not so much out of consideration for his tired muscles but more to judge for myself if this was really a fish. I took the rod and immediately knew something was on the other end of the line. It felt heavy, like nothing I’d ever experienced. Whatever was on the line was big, heavy and moving in the current deep below the boat.

“You hooked into a barn-door halibut, Paul!” I said.

It had to be; in my experience, nothing else had such force. However, the lack of a hard run on the fish’s part puzzled me. Perhaps this monster just wasn’t worried. After all, big halibut are the predators, not the prey.

After several minutes of slow, rhythmic pumping, I began to feel the effect of jamming the rod butt into my hipbone for leverage. A bruise was in the making, though it was only a small annoyance for now. I continued with the rhythm: pump the rod high, lower the tip and simultaneously take up line on the reel. Suddenly, in mid-stroke, the heavy weight at the other end of the line gave way.

“Damn, I’ve lost your fish, Paul. Maybe it just wasn’t hooked well,” I said, attempting to lessen my responsibility.

I handed the rod back to Paul so he could reel up the 24-ounce lead weight from the depths. That would be a chore in itself. Besides, I was already thinking about repositioning the boat.

“The fish is still on the line!” Paul yelled.

My disbelief was palpable. “You have to be kidding. No way!”

I had felt the line slacken only minutes before, and yet the bend in Paul’s rod signaled that more than just a lead weight was attached to the other end of the line. Perhaps the bait had still been intact, and another fish saw it as an easy meal.

Can We Keep It?

Paul slowly worked his catch toward the surface. After my previous experience, I did not offer assistance. If this fish was lost, it would be Paul’s doing. We watched his steady progress until his shout of “What the hell is that?” drew us to his side of the boat.

Giant Pacific Octopus accidentally hooked while fishing for halibut
Paul hooks a Giant Pacific Octopus.

As we craned our necks for a look, the starboard side dipped under the weight of four fishermen, and salt water began to seep through the scupper onto the deck. We paid no attention to our wet feet.

“It looks like a giant squid or octopus,” said Tom, as the pumpkin-colored mass came into view below the surface of the water.

The tentacles slowly became distinct, revealing row upon row of whitish-colored suction cups that decreased in size from quite large at the body to considerably smaller at the tip of the tentacles.

“This fellow will make a lot of great calamari,” exclaimed Jerry as he reached into the water and grabbed one of the tentacles. The tentacle slithered through his closed fist as if it were nothing more than a gelatinous slime.

“Quick, get the net!” Jerry said, determined not to lose this contest.

Paul kept steady pressure on the line, allowing no slack for an unwanted hook release. Tom produced my huge-rimmed net in an instant, and Jerry slipped the creature inside the hoop.

“Those tentacles are more than 5 feet, making the span over 10 feet!” Paul said.

“Now what?” we asked.

“Let’s hoist him into the boat!” Jerry said.

“Not so fast,” I replied. “We don’t even know if it’s legal to keep one of these.”

I headed to the cabin for the book of Canadian fishery regulations. After some quick page thumbing, I found the answer on page 70: The creature in our net was a Giant Pacific Octopus, and the limit was one per person per day.

“That settles it,” Jerry said. “Give me a hand bringing him aboard. We’re in for some mighty good calamari eating.”

“More like eating shoe leather if you ask me,” muttered Tom.

While this debate went on, the octopus worked its tentacles through the net’s numerous mesh openings. The tentacles reached out and writhed around, while the body and head sat in the deep bag of the net, which hung out over the water, cantilevered on a long handle.

“My concern is that the octopus will get loose and crawl into the engine compartment,” I said. “Then what?”

The prospect of a long-tentacled octopus crawling over and around batteries, wiring, steering mechanism and a hot engine made me shudder.

Octopus Attachment Syndrome

Photo of Giant Pacific Octopus inside fishing net.
A Giant Pacific Octopus settles inside the net.

As we pondered the possibilities, the octopus’s writhing, searching tentacles found the side of the boat near the stern and pulled the net (with its head and body inside) to the boat.

“Keep that thing away from the boat,” I said.

“We can’t,” Paul replied. “Those tentacles and suction cups are just too powerful!”

The net was plastered to the side of the boat with the handle sticking straight up in the air. The octopus obviously intended to go deeper into the water using its powerful suction grip on the boat’s smooth fiberglass surface, walking its way toward the boat’s bottom while still in the net. I had visions of my fish net plastered to the bottom of the boat and then lying on the bottom of the ocean after the octopus made its escape.

“Quick, use the gaff,” I said. “Hold onto the net. We’ve got to stop this creature’s progress and get it pried off the boat.”

The gaff proved ineffective against the immense holding power of hundreds of suction cups on a smooth surface. The best we could do was to temporarily stop the octopus’s progress by lashing the net’s aluminum rim, still protruding above the water level, to the side of the boat using the handrail and downrigger as anchor points. I had further ugly visions of my net being destroyed, not to mention potential serious damage to all of the underwater equipment at the stern, including multiple transducers and the engine’s outdrive. The octopus had completely turned the tables. At first we had it; now it had us!

“Now what?” Tom asked.

“This thing will be easier to deal with back in Winter Harbour with the boat tied up to the dock,” Jerry said. “If we take it easy, the net won’t be damaged, either.”

We agreed. The situation seemed stable, so I put Rambunctious into gear and pointed the bow toward Kains Island, 7 miles distant.

Our error soon became apparent. The current started to flow opposite to our intended southeasterly course, the ocean swells started to build, and the early afternoon winds began to strengthen. Whitecaps became visible in the distance. Our slow 6 to 8 mph progress meant it would take us more than an hour to reach the tip of Kains Island. The dock was 5 miles farther away. We had to modify our current solution. The prospect of increasing swells and wind waves on the open ocean wasn’t appealing.

“We’ll just have to pick up the speed and hope for the best,” I said.

A quick inspection showed that our situation had not changed: The octopus still had the boat and the net firmly in its grasp. I asked the crew to monitor the situation closely as I moved the throttle forward. Rambunctious was making headway at 12 to 14 mph when a yell from the stern caused me to pull the shift lever into neutral. The boat’s forward progress quickly subsided, replaced by the residual forces of the boat settling in the water coupled with the increased ocean swell. Standing upright on deck became difficult.

Jerry began cutting the lashings holding the net to the side of the boat as he updated us on the situation. “The octopus let go of the boat!”

The Captain is Always Right

Photo of Jerry and Paul, who is holding a large halibut
Jerry and Paul, who holds a large halibut

Relieved, we feverishly tried to get the net with the octopus still inside it as far from the boat as possible. This was good luck: We were free of the octopus’s powerful grasp.

“Now what?” hung in the air again.

Jerry still wanted calamari, and the other crewmembers were still uncertain. With no doubt in my mind, I invoked the “right of the captain” and directed the net to be emptied. The large amorphous mass of octopus slithered over the rim of the net into the blue-green ocean. Before long, its mottled orange shape had slipped out of sight below the surface.

With Rambunctious in gear and headed back toward land, I, for one, was relieved. We would beat the rising afternoon winds and building seas back to the harbor. The crew was jubilant as we made our way around Kains Island. We passed under the watchful eye of the tall lighthouse and entered the calmer waters of Quatsino Sound.

Why not be happy? Our fish box was nearly full, and we’d had a great adventure. Besides, we had gotten away from the giant octopus!

Now it was time to clean fish and trade stories with other fishermen at the dock. Our octopus story would rank up there with the best of them.

What Really Happened?

I have often wondered what was on Paul’s line when he first yelled, “Fish on!” We both experienced that heavy weight. At least two possibilities seem plausible.

Maybe the octopus had Paul’s bait, and a large halibut had the octopus. Halibut love to eat octopus. Perhaps the halibut let go of the octopus when, being on Paul’s line, it gave more of a fight than the halibut expected.

Or maybe the octopus, upon being hooked, grabbed a big rock off the ocean bottom as an anchor. Divers have reported that octopuses do exactly that when attacked. If the rock wasn’t too big and the octopus hung on for a while, the combination of octopus and rock could give the impression of something swimming in the current below. The octopus’s release of the rock would then account for my “losing”
Paul’s fish.

It could be that something entirely different may have happened. Only the octopus knows for sure.

Rich Rutkowski retired as president of Green River College in Auburn, Washington. He has been a member of Poverty Bay Sail & Power Squadron/16 for over 30 years. He and his wife Shirley enjoy camping, photography, cruising and fishing in the Pacific Northwest.

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