BROOKINGS — It had started the day before. My first time on the ocean, I rode out in a small Bayliner with a group of about nine late in the afternoon. The handful of students and three chaperones who decided to brave the afternoon waves thought it would be worth it.
A 14-year-old me agreed.
The newness of the experience alone would have made it worth it to me, but after watching half a dozen black rockfish find their way into our boat, Perry Fields, one of our chaperones, hooked into something that seemed a little bigger.
He battled the beast for a while.
Then his rod doubled over.
If it was fighting hard before, it was now a creature possessed. His rod bobbed and bounced, and I asked if it would break. Everyone had stopped fishing now. We watched in awe as what could be nothing other than a sea monster slowly rose in the water column and made its way closer to us.
In a moment frozen in time, we saw it. Maybe 10 feet below the boat in relatively clear water, was a fish that looked positively demonic. At first, I thought it had two heads, or maybe a head shaped like a hammerhead shark, but it was just a large fish clamped horizontally onto a smaller fish.
It was a lingcod. The lingcod.
The smaller fish was maybe 16-18 inches in length, but the fish that had attempted to eat it was easily twice that length, maybe more.
As our teacher, Mr. Doug Dean, went to gaff it, its jaws released the poor, hapless smaller fish, and this beast stuck momentarily in the water column maybe 4 feet below the boat.
“Grab me,” Mr. Dean commanded, and he plunged the gaff over the gunwale and bent impossibly far over the boat. His body flexed, and he arched backward, the massive, writing beast hanging from the end of the 3-foot gaff.
Leviathan itself railed about on the floor of the boat, actively trying to bite any- and everything it could like a cobra in its death throes. It connected with the edge of a boot, unable to sink its sinister teeth into the hard leather.
Acting quickly, someone cut its gills, and the beast decided not to go down without a fight. It sprayed warm, frothy blood all over as it writhed about on the deck. My new jeans caught a globule of the deathly-dark blood and stained them, and I knew I’d hear about that when I got home. Oh well. It was worth it for this experience.
When we got it back to shore, we were saddened to find ourselves without a scale large enough to weigh it, but it measured some 45 inches in length. As teenage boys do, we dared each other to place our heads inside its massive jaws. Mine fit with room to spare.
We filleted the beast out before I remember getting any pictures. The carcass was tossed into the garbage, but I asked if I could cut the cheeks out, since I’d read they were quite good. They agreed.
My grandfather’s butchery skills did not pass to me, and as I awkwardly dug out the almost-priceless meat with my old Rapala fillet knife in jagged strokes, the nerve endings in the sea monsters face all firing off, causing the head to shake in my hand like something out of a horror movie.
Each cheek weighed about a pound and a quarter, but my inexperience with a fillet knife probably left a quarter pound of meat in each cheek.
Still, it was the most epic thing I’d ever experienced, and I longed for a chance to catch one myself.
The next day was uneventful by comparison, but I did manage to catch a lingcod. I had thought I was snagging the bottom too frequently, but I soon realized at least a few were fish, so I tried fighting them.
On light trout tackle with 8-pound mono, it was very much an uphill battle, but I managed to get one to the surface, where, after several attempts, a classmate netted it.
The minimum length was 24 inches back then, and, you guessed it, it was just shy at 23¼ inches long. I was forced to release my first sea monster, but I’d added a new species and set a lifelong quest in motion: catch a sea monster the size of Mr. Fields’ someday.