ILWACO — The movie “Grease” was just beginning to grace screens across the country. Pete Rose had just reached his 3,000th hit. A gallon of gas was going for about 65 cents. It was the summer of 1978, a time when more than 100 recreational fishing charters called the Port of Ilwaco home. Today, fewer than 20 — a skeleton of the original fleet — still remain.
“In 1978, there were 120 large charter boats in Ilwaco,” said Pacific Salmon Charters skipper David Gudgell, 57, as he geared up for a May bottom-fishing trip. “Today, there are 15 or 16 left.” Gudgell is among the few charter boat captains who remain in Ilwaco, a testament to their businesses’ adaptability over time. The survivability of fishing charters since the 1970s has largely hinged on their flexibility in an ever-changing regulatory environment.
Salvaging salmon season
Opener slated for June 24-Sept. 4
Pacific Salmon Charters started in 1972 and has been run by the Gudgell family since 1985. Finding new roles for the fishing fleet has been a trend amid an ever-shorter salmon season for owner Milt Gudgell. Milt believes the inconsistencies year to year have led to decreased awareness about the Columbia River’s most-prominent fishery.
“I can go up and down this Peninsula right now and 90 percent of them can’t tell you when the season opens,” he said. Milt’s mission is to spread the word before the season starts, and hopefully salvage what they consider a stunted season. For 2017, the salmon opener is slated for June 24 to Sept. 4 with a two-fish limit. So far this spring, the effort has been focused on bottom fishing, which will continue through May.
“Then we’ll add salmon and tuna in July, but that’s just the fishing part,” Milt said.
Finding new roles to stay on the water
The Gudgell family is passionate about fishing, but when it came to keeping the boats afloat, they knew they had to diversify their business to continue doing what they loved.
“We do everything that’s on the water and legal,” Milt said regarding their embrace of a broadening list of services. Whether it’s buoy deployment for various universities from California to Washington or a commercial diving charter for a pipeline installation for the Corps of Engineers, no task is too big or too small.
“The burials at sea have been an important part of our operation,” Milt said. “We do a lot of ash disposal and we do whole bodies also in cooperation with the local mortuary.”
The extra jobs are essential to keeping the business afloat.
“It takes a lot of pieces to make a whole pie,” Milt said.
Seasons of change
David Gudgell can be nostalgic when talking about fishing in Ilwaco the late ‘70s, the high point of for recreational salmon charter fishing fleet before the boats began to slowly disappear from the port.
“I graduated high school on June 10, 1979,” David said.
“I went to work on the 11th of June and went out every day 120 days in a row. Today we’re lucky if we have 30 days in a row.”
Salmon numbers have been under scrutiny for decades, but it wasn’t until the late-’70s when charter boats began to broaden their list of targeted species in response to the closures by WDFW. The vacancy left by shorter salmon seasons led to an increased effort focused on bottom fishing. Halibut, lingcod and rockfish were soon being reeled in place of salmon. Sturgeon also emerged as a popular fishery while salmon fishing floundered under stiffer regulation and unpredictable seasons. Since 2014 however, sturgeon trips have halted as a current ban on retaining the fish continues — perhaps to be relaxed this summer. The impact from sturgeon restrictions further burdened the fleet already reeling from stricter limitations on salmon.
“We lost a third of our business when they told us we couldn’t go sturgeon fishing,” David said regarding the 2014 announcement by WDFW to allow only catch-and-release fishing for the species. He is cautiously optimistic that a sturgeon season could happen this year depending on a WDFW decision in June.
“We may be able this year, but right now, they’re (WDFW) dragging their feat on setting a season,” he said. The delays in fishing seasons often stunt what were once lucrative seasons before they start.
“It makes it hard to take reservations and get boats booked when you can’t tell people when we’re going,” David said. “All of the season settings have just gotten later and later and later. People ask, “When are we going salmon fishing?” And all I can say is, maybe in July or August. It makes it harder and harder every year. As a result we’re doing bottom, halibut and tuna fishing.”
Go heavy or go home
When it comes to bottom fishing, full limits of rockfish and lingcod are a common occurrence for Pacific Salmon Charters and local waters hold some of the biggest black seabass in the state. In May 2016, Rochester resident Steven Orr reeled in 10.72-pound rockfish — also known as black seabass — near Ilwaco, shattering Washington’s 36-year record.
Over the years Pacific Salmon Charters have honed their approach in locating and boating loads of bottom fish, which many consider the best table fare. Each step of the process, from baiting to netting and unhooking the fish, is handled by the crew or captain himself. A top and bottom rig is used with a shrimp fly on the top and fresh bait — typically herring, saury or anchovy — on the bottom hook, complete with a 24-ounce weight and 80-pound braided line. The weight, which may seem like overkill to some, is essential for keeping the bait in the strike zone of crevice-dwelling lingcod.
“We’ve maintained a technique with heavier tackle,” Gudgell said.
“Some guys use light tackle, but they tend to catch small fish. It won’t get to the bottom where the lingcod are with three ounces of lead in two knots of current.”
Stormy winter made bar crossing more treacherous
The ideal grounds for bottom fishing aren’t the smooth, sandy ocean floors found around the mouth of the Columbia, instead it’s the rocky bottoms that offer deep drop-offs and ledges for fish to hide, particularly lingcod.
“The Columbia River puts out a lot of sand, and you have to get out beyond the reach of the river and its plume to find any decent bottom fishing,” David said. Crossing the bar is always a concern, even in what’s considered calm conditions.
“The swells in the ocean are what make the difference,” David said adding that routine runs to fishing grounds have become “more interesting” with the additional rain this spring.
“There’s a huge volume of water coming down the Columbia this year because of all the snowpack and rain we’ve had,” David said. The snowmelt causes the river to run higher and making bigger swells where it Columbia meets the Pacific. Old shipwrecks that dot the bar often become hot spots for fish. An old fishing trawler was one of David’s go-to spots until sand and time took their toll and covered the wreck.
“It was only a 70-foot boat but for a few years we caught a lot of fish on it,” he said. The captains are continually on the hunt for the best fishing spots and have formed alliances with commercial fishermen who are often targeting some of the same species.
Foggy future for fishing families
David followed in his father’s footsteps as a charter boat captain, but it’s unlikely his five children will take over after he retires.
“None of them are in the business,” he said. “One son was interested but he’s as big as a house and as clumsy as four boxes of rocks,” David joked.
The increased entry costs and limited licenses have also been hurdle for anyone considering a career in fishing, both recreationally or commercially.
“The state of Washington hasn’t issued any new salmon charter licenses since 1978,” David said. “They felt there was enough of them (salmon charters) and wanted to slow it down. Well, they slowed it down alright. Westport is down to 30 (salmon charter) boats from almost 200. We had 120 and there are about 15 here now.” Because of the high entry price and unpredictable seasons, the era of running a recreational fishing charter boat as an occupation is essentially over for those who don’t already have roots in the industry. Many of the existing licenses are bought and sold, but at a premium beyond the means of most newcomers without a big bankroll.
Attracting new customers amid the increased regulation and limited licensing has only made it harder. Many customers have been returning annually for fishing trips for generations, but introducing new, younger fishermen has been increasingly hard in the age of computers, David said.
In spite of the uncertainties, he has no intentions of retiring anytime soon.
“My brother and I are trying to keep it alive,” he said. “We are going to see what it takes to turn the corner with it.”
Pumping up salmon production
David believes salmon could ultimately be a savior, but the decision ultimately hinges on state’s regulation of seasons and hatcheries.
“They need to stop cutting hatchery production and start increasing hatchery production,” he said. “They need to reopen hatcheries they’ve closed. They have to realize there are no wild salmon left.”
The approach by the state regarding salmon has left some charter captains wondering what WDFW’s intentions.
“In some ways, it’s like they don’t want us to stay in business,” David said.
Despite the rough seas of the regulatory climate, he’s is determined to ride out the storm and continue doing what he loves.
“They will have to pry my cold, dead fingers away from the helm,” he said.