Cue the theme music to "Jaws."
There are monsters lurking off the California coast. Monsters with clawed tentacles and razor-sharp beaks the size of your fist. Monsters with cannibalistic tendencies and frighteningly voracious appetites.
Monsters that taste good.
The Humboldt squid is an apex-level bad-ass with an ever-expanding feeding range that scares the bejeebers out of Pacific fisheries managers.
This month, though, the hunter becomes the hunted as charters running out of the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego scrape the edges of benthic canyons in search of the sour-tempered, sweet-eating cephalopods.
"These things are sometimes here for six months, sometimes for 6 weeks," said Mike Gauger at Seaforth Landing in San Diego (www.seaforthlanding.com), whose 85-foot New Seaforth and its captain, R.J. Hudson have become the Pied Piper of San Diego's winter squid fishery. "It could fall apart tomorrow; it could go on and on. It's impossible to predict, but we're catching 'em right now."
Further north, "catching 'em" would be a severe understatement for anglers running out of Bodega Bay, where the deck of Capt. Rick Powers' 65-foot New Sea Angler looks like a tentacle-ridden bomb zone whenever he and a load of clients land on top of an aggressive squid bite.
Powers, who was one of the pioneers of the West Coast Humboldt fishery in the mid 1990s, has been racking up monumental action on 20- to 50-pound Humboldts for over a month, to the tune of 15,000 to 20,000 pounds on a good day.
"I've never seen fishing like this in my life," Powers said. "I've been actively fishing for them for six years, and this is easily the best it's ever been."
The San Diego fleet targets the deep edges of 9 Mile Bank and the La Jolla Canyon, fishing at night, when Humboldts leave the 1,500- to 2,000-foot depths they typically inhabit during the day to feed on lanternfish and shrimp.
The fishery is anything but subtle: once out on the squid grounds, it's bombs away to depths up to 1,000 feet with 20-inch, 24-ounce Ahi USA SJ-1000 Giant Squid Jigs – which resemble weapons straight out of "Road Warrior" and hope to entice the critters into a feeding frenzy that brings them up closer to the blazing deck lights on the surface.
"Some drops we'll go down close to 1,000 feet before we can get them to school up," Gauger said. "That's why the more fishermen on board, the better. It's better to be elbow-to-elbow to get that activity going, because when they start to follow those first few squid up shallower, that's when it really gets good."
NorCal squidders fish similarly deep out of Monterey, San Francisco and Fort Bragg with similarly gnarly footlong jigs, but Powers and a handful of other northern California boats have also managed to pull entire schools of Humboldts out of the depths of Pioneer Canyon, The Fingers and Cordell Banks, and up to the surface, where the fishery reaches a whole 'nother level of feeding-frenzy ridiculousness.
"These things are by far the most aggressive thing in the ocean, so once they get to where they've forced something to the surface, they pound it," Powers said. "It's my favorite fishery, out of everything I've done over the years, and easily the most exciting saltwater sport fishing I've ever seen. Nothing even comes close to it when you coax them into a surface bite. It makes a wide-open albacore bite look boring."
The process starts with the big-boomer jigs on the bottom, but once they're within range of the surface, you can switch the Mad Max gear out to smaller jigs like an 8-inch Izor Jumbo Squid Jig, a Colman 8-inch Luminous Squid Jig or an Ahi SJ-175-3H 7 ½-inch Hard Bodied Jig.
"It's almost a guarantee that you'll find them on the bottom, but when you bring a couple up and the other ones are trying to figure out 'Who rang the dinner bell, and where's he going?,' you can get them to come up to the surface, as long as no-one pauses too long," confirms Capt. Tom Mattusch of HuliCat Sportfishing (www.hulicat.com). "You just have to keep bringing them and bringing them and bringing them."
Standard gear includes a good two-speed reel Mattusch fishes Shimano TLD or Tiagara 30s, Penn 30SWs, Avet JX6/3s and Accurate ATD 12s spooled with 40- to 60-pound braid, fished on a 5 ½- to 6-foot stand-up rod.
A potential fish killer?
As productive as the winter Humboldt fishery is, the proliferation of the species is cause for concern as it invades locations where delicate stocks of fish like Sacramento River salmon exist. Summer saw massive shoals of squid invade the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Washington/Canadian border, and their presence has has been proven to be detrimental to species that fall prey to their ravenous feeding habits.
"The (Humboldt) biomass is in the multi, multi, multi millions, and every year they go a little farther in their feeding range," said Powers, who has previously assisted NOAA in squid-research projects. "The Humboldt squid completely destroyed the hake fishery in northern Chile, which was that country's most viable commercial fishery. They hunt like a pack of wolves: once they've found something to eat, they continue to pound away on it until it's gone."
Powers draws a cautious parallel between the crash of the Sacramento salmon stocks with the arrival of Humboldts in the mid- to late 1990s.
"Nobody knows what kind of affect they're having on rockfish and salmon," he said. "We've virtually closed offshore reefs due to rock-cod conservation, so there's no monitoring of what's possibly happening to stocks like the Sacramento River (salmon).
"I'm a little concerned because of their size this year, too. The average squid the last five or six years was maybe 15, 20 pounds. This year they're 30 to 35 pounds with some ranging up to 80. They only live for one year, maybe two, so they're sure as hell eating a lot to get that big that fast."
Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.