Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Day 16: Squid Jigging


My boys ate calamari as toddlers and still enjoy it today. If the deep-fried dish finds a way on an appetizer menu, chances are high one of them will place an order. My kids are foodies. This makes dining and cooking together a great pleasure, but also expensive. Kids’ menus were rarely a restaurant hit.

On Garret’s fourth birthday, nearly fifteen years ago, we dined out.  The boys colored the kids’ meal placemats as the waiter approached. My oldest boy and I ordered first. The waiter leaned across the table, and in an octave higher than normal, addressed Garret. “And what will it be for the birthday boy? How about a cheesy pizza or a big meatball?”

Garret never flinched. He held that deadpan expression I’d learn to love in every school picture of his elementary years. “Thank you for the recommendations. But I’ll start with the calamari, followed by mussels in a white wine sauce.” The waiter acted shocked, embarrassed, and impressed all at the same time. Emotions got the best of him, and he stumbled away without taking the Baby-Jade’s order. Desert was on the house, Tiramisu.
I’ve eaten certain foods all of my life without considering the source. Take scallops for instance. I love them, but have no idea how to catch them, or what they actually look like alive. I’m quite sure the succulent discs hold different form before landing on my plate. And while I know calamari is the word for cooked squid, and I can tell a squid from an octopus, I had no idea how or where to catch these critters.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website serves as a primary source of information. In two weeks of scanning pages, I’ve learned more about fish and shellfish than I learned in the forty-some years before starting this project. I’ve dabbled in the wild game sections, but only briefly. Hunting season for most game is closed right now. I am relying on the sea to feed me.

Squid feed primarily at night and are attracted to light. Public piers with good lighting are primo spots to catch squid. The process of catching squid on a pole is called, squid jigging. A jig line is created on fishing line by attaching up to four reflective, brightly colored, or glowing jigs. The glow-in-the-dark jigs I purchased were supposed to resemble shrimp, but I think they look more like evil clowns. My 2-inch jigs have wire loops at each end for attaching line. Two glittering and oversized eyes affix to an oval head topped by a colorful party hat. Tucked beneath the jig’s head is a collar of barbless hooks.

An angler drops a line off a lighted pier and jigs by bobbing the line up and down in a tasty manner. If a squid finds a jig appealing, it grabs ahold. The hooks snare the squid’s ten legs. Actually, squid don’t really have legs. They have ten appendages – eight arms and two tentacles. The angler feels the slight tug and reels in. The squid squirts jets of black ink all the way to the bucket. Sounds easy, right?

I walked the long pier at the Illahee fishing dock and took my space in the shadows bordering a flood of overhead light. By 7 pm, a dozen or more anglers were already at work. An old man in olive-colored rain gear gave me a nod. I watched him drop a line, jig, retrieve, and drop again. I copied his routine.

Language clicked and pinged back and forth. It took a few moments to realize two distinct languages. I felt certain one was Filipino, but I’m unsure if it was Tagalog or Ilocano. I hear these same pings and bongs when I visit my hairdresser, or when I play slots at a local casino. I guessed the other language was Korean. It wasn’t the patterns of sound that led me to the conclusion. It was the appearance of the old man standing next to me. He didn’t speak to me, but motioned where to drop my line. I obeyed and smiled at him. He returned a gapped grin and scooted in tighter with fellow anglers, making room for me under the light. From my new position, I scanned faces and confirmed what I thought to be true. Not only was I the tallest person on the pier, I was the only one not of Asian origin.

An hour passed with only a few pulls of squirting squid from the anglers. I had not caught anything and spent most of the time detangling my jigs from each other. The hook tines from my lower jig snared the tines from my top jig. I wasn’t sure what I was doing to cause this.

An elderly Filipina further down our shoulder-to-shoulder line grew frustrated. She spoke in English. “You know, this is a community pier, not a public pier. I pay big taxes, six-thousand dollar. I own this pier. Read the sign. You go home now.” I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or not, but I held my position and faced the water. Sideways rain pelted my camouflaged Gortex parka and soaked my Levis. The Korean men spoke amongst themselves before reeling in lines and packing up gear. The old man tugged my coat and signaled me to take his spot. Only six of us remained. I hid beneath my parka hood and kept quiet. She continued on. “Too many Koreans. This is a Filipino dock. Koreans no share. Just hog all space and squid.” A Filipino man next to me gave me a nudge and a smile.

A school of squid passed into the lighted water below like a group of ghosts crossing a moonlit sky. Silver eyes flashed. Anglers jutted rods up and down performing their best squid-tease. I dodged jets of black ink as the guy next to me, and the guy next to him, pulled squid from the water. The old woman pulled her share too. I caught nothing.

Success brightened moods and stimulated small-talk. Armando and Manny, two men to my right, offered pointers and engaged me in conversation. Both men retired from the Navy, and once they learned that I retired from the military too, my jigging lesson officially began. I tied my jigs too close on the line. My jigs were not of a yummy color. Apparently green, blue, and red trumped my yellow, orange, and pink. The hooked collars on my jigs were not wide enough to keep squid entangled. The jigs were all of the same weight. A heavier jig at the end keeps the line vertical in the water. I know opinions and techniques vary in the jigging world, but it’s hard to argue with success.

By 9 pm, Manny and Armando neared limits of five-quarts or ten pounds. I stewed in the juices of a solid skunking. Squids tugged my line a couple of times, but I failed to secure the hooks and pull them up. I was about to quit when Armando’s pole and my pole bent at the same time. We reeled in, and the Filipina woman cackled. She saw what we didn’t, a mega starfish trying to gobble both jig lines. This wasn’t an ordinary starfish. This monster had at least twenty legs and was larger than a turkey-platter. There was no way to bring that thing up to the pier without snapping my 6-lb line. Armando used dark green trolling line, so I let him do the work. I followed him around creosote pilings and down a steep ramp to a floating dock. He pulled the starfish toward the dock, and once the creature felt the floating wood, it released its hold.

I tried to untangle my jigs from Armando’s, but ended up cutting my line to free his. The cold numbed toes and stung fingers. Rain soaked through my jeans and squished in my long underwear. Adrenaline and pride gave way to shivers. It was time to pack it up for the night. I stowed my gear, thanked my new mentors, promised to try again, and turned to pick up an empty bucket. Silver eyes glittered from the bottom of my pail. It seems that Manny and Armando took turns slipping squid into my bucket. Four huge specimens awaited their fate, tomorrow night’s supper.  


  1. Another great story!! Keep um coming!!!

  2. Hi Christine,
    I would like to ask for permission to share your blog on my mailing list...
    You can go to my website: www.twowolves.org to see what its all about, and if you want, you can contact me privately through it.

  3. Hi Two Wolves,

    I'm flattered that you wish to share my blog. Please share away. I checked out your website and I'm stunned by the wealth of knowledge contained. I have so much to learn. I appreciate the practice of using the whole animal. I'm plan to dig thru your site some more. Maybe I can take a class from you one day.

    Thanks, Christine

  4. i think its great that those two sneaky philipinos snuck those squid in your bucket. ive noticed alot of stories of catching things are skunk stories

  5. It was a greaat surprise to find squid in what I thought was an empty bucket filled with nothing but shame. And yes, a lot of my stories are of the skunk variety. I kind of suck at this whole wild thing. So far, my true success is with oysters and clams. But I'm learning fast (cause I'm hungry).