It's 1:30am, and though I've been out dancing and socializing all night there is dark work yet to do. The squid are running, and Gabe and I have added a few layers of warm clothing and are making the walk past grain silos and industrial complexes out to Pier 86 in an attempt to get a few. Ahead we can see the lights of the pier, and already we can make out 6-8 people rhythmically lifting and dropping the tips of their long fishing rods. It's cold, it's late, and yet here we all are.
Squidding in Elliott Bay is a strange juxtaposition -- of urban and industrial surroundings with recreational fishing, of the lights of the city and pier and boats with the inky blackness of the water, and of people from many different cultures. Typically on Pier 86 Pacific Rim cultures dominate, and on any given night you can hear a great diversity of languages, all emitted from figures heavily bundled against the cold. Local forager Langdon Cook has written eloquently about the squid crowd in his book "Fat Of The Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager". The regulars are all packing electric light setups: a marine battery on some kind of cart, powering a spotlight or three with its beam shining down into the water. The lights attract both squid and other squid fishers, who will crowd shoulder to shoulder to fish close to the lights. The squid don't mind a crowd of jigs. When the bite is on every rod will bring up a squirting, ink-jetting squid from the briny deep.
Well, almost every rod. Squid fishing can be maddening, for beginners especially, because you can be 3 feet from the squidder next to you, and that guy is pulling them in hand over fist while you jig pointlessly and wonder if some kind of squid rapture has taken all the squid off the planet. Squid don't attack a jig in the same way a fish attacks a lure. It can be a very subtle sensation, a cessation of movement more than an active strike. The squid gets its tentacles wrapped around the jig, and at that very moment the rod tip must be raised, the jig reeled up at constant speed, because it's that upward movement that keeps the squid pinned to the jig. Once out of the water, a quick flick of the jig over a waiting bucket and the shimmering, squirming mollusk releases its hold. It all looks effortless when done well, but feels elusive until you've had a few successful retrievals under your belt.
For all that, I love it. Squid fishing is accessible, doesn't require a lot of gear or travel, and yields a tasty product. A shellfish license, one of the least expensive licenses in the long list of options available from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is all that's required. This is a form of foraging that even the most office-bound can enjoy, since fishing into the wee hours is acceptable. The most challenging aspect, other than developing a feel for a squid strike, is probably the weather. Standing over the Puget Sound in the dark of December will sap the warmth from the very center of your bones, and if the rain is heavy there are few that endure more than an hour at the rail.
Then again, leaning on the rail, listening to grain loading into a massive cargo vessel, watching tugboats and ferries glide across the dark void of the Sound, and taking the occasional warming pull from a hip flask...truly not a bad way to contemplate our beautiful city.
All but one of the folks there when we arrived left almost immediately. Gabe and I called it quits at 3am, leaving one last squidder on the pier. Our results were passable -- just over a dozen squid each. A downside to late night squid success, I suppose, is the inevitable requirement for late night squid cleaning. They clean easily, however, and without too much effort I transformed the pile of slime, tentacles, and ink into pot-ready cuts. I've been rather hooked on Thai red curries, lately, and once I've picked up some lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves I think these squid will find their culinary fate.