The rocky shore of California is a punishing place. Sharp coral, big waves, endless boulders and rocks to bruise your legs, not to mention the deadly currents that can sweep you out to sea before you’ve realized what’s happened. Sometimes I feel like willingly subjecting myself to these elements to catch a fish on the fly rod is a very masochistic endeavor. Take a recent trip, for example, where I waded out to a little rock that was only above water between waves, to get access to a little channel of current running through some kelp, cutting my legs open on sharp rocks on the way. When I got out there I’d get pounded by wave after wave, and ultimately lost around six flies in 12 casts, and made the trip to the rock as many times as necessary to re-rig and get back out there. By the 5th or 6th wade to the rock I was starting to question my sanity, but it was all worth it, as on my last cast I hooked and landed my biggest grass rockfish to date. By the time I got him to shore the water around me was red from my own blood. I was grinning like an idiot the whole time.
There are a lot of parallels between the lingcod and rockfish fly fishing on the coast of California and musky fishing in the midwest, but instead of calm rivers and lakes, the setting is some of the most inhospitable areas you could think, where one wrong step either means you’re going to hit your head on a rock and drown, or get swept out to sea and drown. To find the fish you need a low tide, preferably a minus tide, and you want the swells to be small enough so that you won’t get deadly waves at regular intervals coming at you from all directions. After those conditions line up, you’ve got to get searching for a piece of open water, but preferably water that is channeled between rocks and has some good patches of kelp on either side.
By the time you get to the water’s edge, you’ve probably already accumulated several bruises on your shins and ankles, and now the race against the tide begins. You pick up your ten weight and have to lob ten-inch flies on a 400-grain heavy sink line to a spot that is maybe three feet wide and ten feet deep, get the fly into the bottom zone before the tide starts to pull it out, and then jerk it back to you. This you repeat over and over, in spot after spot, losing handfuls of flies at a time, each one having taken you around an hour to tie. Then just before the sun sets, you’re drenched and tired, beaten up by the waves and rocks, and a big lingcod follows your fly all the way to the shallowest rocks, only to turn away at the last second. You’ll never see this fish again, but you cast and cast and cast to this spot again, with no results.
After the sun pops down over the horizon and the tide is starting to quickly fill back in, your old wading places that once were an ankle deep are now reaching above your knees, and each wave that hits you knocks your feet against the sharp rocks and corals, and now that the sun’s warmth is gone your wet body starts to feel awfully cold. You get back to the car after having climbed out of a 100-foot drop to the rocks through a ravine, your legs black and blue from the tide pools and your hands blistered and bloody from the rocks and gear. You sit down in the car and dream of the alligator shaped beast that you almost had.
Then at the next low tide you do it all again.