You’re not necessarily alone on the high seas when you go charter fishing out of Westport, but you’re also not stuck in a cutthroat, (pun intended) elbow-to-elbow fishing competition on the banks of a crowded Puget Sound-area river, either. Rather, you’re in a happy medium. A place where you can soak in the peaceful panorama of a beautiful ocean and partake of some relaxation knowing that you’ll be back on land in a few hours, likely with some fish to toss in the freezer and possibly with some new friends.
Although I grew up on Grays Harbor (the body of water), spent countless hours of my youth fishing the tributaries that flow into that bay, and have published a couple of books on recreating in the area, I hadn’t taken a charter fishing trip until I and my buddy, Mac — our stomachs full of Dramamine — hopped aboard Captain Chuck Custer’s yellow 53-foot fiberglass Freedom at 6 a.m. one day last spring.
I had some current sport fishing licenses, but I didn’t have the one necessary for me to legally fish with Custer. No problem; the captain had them for sale as all the fishers boarded, and it turns out I wasn’t the only one lacking credentials.
Licenses secured, we set off from the bay to cross the bar, oftentimes the most treacherous part of any fishing voyage. Some experts recommend not attempting to cross that section of water — where the mouth of the raging Chehalis River spills out into the Pacific Ocean — in anything less than a 17-foot vessel. Custer’s Freedom clearly surpassed that length, but crossing the bar still requires knowledge of tides, weather, and location.
Our weather was mild, and Custer cruised through without a hitch. The captain has extensive knowledge of both fishing and Westport, having begun his career as a deckhand when he was 12 years old, and running his own charter since he was 21. I knew going in we were in good hands.
A short while later, we reached our fishing spot, one that Custer had fished countless times over the years and knew to be productive. That’s when the real fishing began. Twenty strangers armed with provided gear scattered about the bow, stern, port, and starboard parts of the boat tossing their lines in the water as two deckhands, and oftentimes our captain, sprinted about helping untangle snags, bait lines, and reel in the “big ones” for those who may not have been exactly aware of how to do so.
In a sense, this type of fishing felt like cheating because these guys were so good at what they did that even the most novice among us were quickly reeling in keepers. When that fishing spot ran its course, Custer would jump back into the captain’s chair and guide us to our next pre-scouted location. In the case of human error — which doesn’t happen much with a skipper as knowledgeable as ours — the Freedom’s electronics (fish-finder and GPS) were there to assist.
It was at this point that my stomach started to move and my head also began feeling unwell. Hours earlier, almost immediately after we had left Westport, there had been a younger man onboard who had gotten seasick and had spent the past few hours trying — in vain — to recover.
“In a sense, this type of fishing felt like cheating because these guys were so good at what they did that even the most novice among us were quickly reeling in keepers.”
“That’s not going to happen to me,” was all I could think when I saw him, head over the side of the boat, trying to regain his composure. “I’ve got a stomach full of Dramamine, and I’ve been on the water in various capacities pretty much my entire life.”
But it did happen to me. Not as bad as the young man I just described, thankfully, but I did spend some time in the heated cabin with my head down trying to fight off the sickness. I did, after a while, and the blow to my man card (that I can’t believe I’m admitting here) I received was softened when I went up in the cabin and talked to Custer.
“Even I get seasick,” he told me. “It always happens on my first trip of the year.”
Hey, it was my first trip of the year, too! I felt better, both physically and emotionally, and went back out to grab my pole.
The fish? We caught a bunch. Each of the 20 fishermen on board left with dozens of pounds of rockfish and lingcod, some of which still calls my freezer home, and whatever other species we may have caught along the way.
Most interesting to me was the expediency at which the two awesome (I can’t stress that enough) deckhands were at cleaning the fish. Between the time we stopped fishing and the time we landed back in the marina, they had cleaned and bagged all our catch. It’s customary to tip deckhands between $10-$20 each, and I tipped them at the high end of that range. Frankly, they deserved more.
Off the boat, Mac and I headed straight to Merino’s, a seafood market in town I stop at every time I visit. They took our fresh catch, flash froze it, and we picked it up the next day for the voyage home. Food for months, and the adventure of a lifetime.
When You Go
Boarding time is 6 a.m., and the boat leaves at 6:30 a.m. You’ll need a saltwater license, which you can purchase on the boat for $10. Dressing in layers, and bringing some sort of rain gear, is smart, and you’ll also need to pack a lunch (there’s a microwave and coffee provided). The boat usually returns to the dock between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., depending on how the fishing went. Cost is $135 per person, which includes use of the gear and bait.