Party boats are perfect for almost everyone, from experienced anglers to complete novices. From family outings, solo retired guys, or just you and your best friend, you will meet all kinds of folks on these trips. You might not know anyone when you leave the dock in the morning, but if you are like me, you will have fifteen new friends by the time you tie back up at the dock.
By early summer when the salmon season opens, all kinds of opportunities arise. The overall ocean season will usually run through the Labor Day weekend in early September before annual quotas begin to be reached. Kris Olsen with a hatchery coho.
When I was a young boy, there was nothing I looked forward to more than those summer days when my grandfather would take me salmon fishing on the charter boats out of Westport, WA. In the early 1970s, fisheries on the Washington coast were a far cry from what they are today, and the Westport charter fleet was going great guns. Without question, this is the time in my young life when I began to realize that from those days forward, the tug would become my drug.
In the ‘70s, there was no concern for whether the fish you caught was of wild or hatchery origin. Heck, back then I’m not sure you could have told the difference as fin-clipping hatchery stocks had not yet become a thing. Limits were three salmon per person, and I distinctly remember a time when there would be a two- or three-week May opening for Chinook only.
In the 1950s, Westport became affectionately known as the “Salmon Fishing Capital of the World.” Throughout the 1960s and ‘70’s, over 200 charter boats worked out of the Westport marina to plunder the Pacific as runs remained strong and tourism was at its peak. The 1980s and ‘90s were not so kind and as salmon runs and opportunities began to collapse, so followed the fate of the charter fleet.
Looking back, this is when my youthful love affair with party boat fishing kind of fell off my radar. In the late 1980s I purchased a 20’ Bayliner of my own, outfitted it with a couple Penn hand-crank downriggers, and spent the next decade fishing and crabbing regularly in Puget Sound. Possession Pt., Camano Head, the San Juans Islands…all saw significant time and effort. Winter Blackmouth fishing was a real thing and crabbing was open year around. Life was good.
Summers was always time for those grand fishing trips, usually to Sekiu, where large Chinook salmon were the rule rather than the exception. Always the Viking adventurer, I repeatedly launched the old girl out of Neah Bay and even Westport to challenge the big pond, however stupidly, without the hi-tech electronics so prevalent in today’s fishing world. I just knew looking at my compass that west led to Japan and east led back to shore.
Over the last couple of decades, the Westport charter fleet has created a pretty significant niche for itself.
When I was in my late twenties, saltwater fishing was definitely my thing, and I loved every second of it. That all changed one day when my buddy Tony Rezanow invited me to go steelhead fishing with him on a local stream. I knew nothing about river fishing but was certainly intrigued to learn more. He took me to the hatchery meat-hole every stream has, and I was awe-struck. Fish were being landed all around me. Tony landed one right off the bat and before long even I, a complete novice, had a shiny winter hatchery steelie flopping at my feet.
I was so enamored that we went back up the following day. It was Groundhog Day as fish were being landed here, there and everywhere. Tony did his thing and again, I defied all logic and caught not one, but two nice steelhead. That did it, I was hooked on this river-fishing thing and hence began my long, deep-dive down a rabbit hole I’ve spent the better part of the last thirty-five years navigating. While it took me about a year to land another steelhead, I was determined to succeed. Eventually, I sold my Bayliner and purchased my first of many drift boats.
My dogged determination to not only learn, but to be very successful at river fishing took me places I never in a million years dreamed. Not only had my steel-head angling skills advanced, I learned an expansive new-to-me fishery on the Grays Harbor rivers for fall Chinook and coho salmon that required not only a whole new set of skills, but a significant upgrade in equipment as well. By 1986 I began a 15-year run as a licensed fishing guide, made easy by the fact that the fisheries at that time were quite spectacular. I became addicted to the fall salmon runs as they were off the charts from any other fishing I had experienced.
Each and every October would see my clients land a couple large Chinook in the fifty-pound class, a few in the forties and many in the high thirty-pound range. What struck me most about those days was that instead of searching the entire ocean for fish like that, here they were, packed into holes easily worked with the right techniques. Make no mistake however, hooking those behemoths was always the easy part, landing them was an entirely different story.
The year 2000 was my last season guiding, and since that time, I have continued to fish some of those same rivers with my besties, although much more tactfully given the explosion in participation levels over the past few decades. I have also devoted much more time to traveling, and sharing those awesome experiences with you here in the pages of STS. I was in my mid-thirties when I made my first trip to Alaska. Had I gone when I was twenty, I swear I would never have returned.
Deckhand Ben Overmars and Pete Perry with a halibut. In fairly short order, we reached our limit of halibut for the group.
It was during some of those dedicated saltwater fishing trips that really snapped me back to my long-lost love for that type of fishing. Places like Port Hardy, BC or Craig, Alaska, where fisheries remain as strong as ever. Not only was salmon on the target list, but sea bass, lingcod and halibut fishing always made things interesting. I long ago learned that halibut fishing is far less sport and much more work than anything else, but the rewards to the dining table are very well worth the efforts.
My wife was always delighted when I returned with an equal amount of white meat in my treasure chest. My freezers are always pretty-well stocked with salmon, but adding the likes of sea bass, yellowtail rockfish, lingcod and halibut are definitely what I call winning. Those added delights can only come from forays to the sea. I had kind of forgotten that Alaska and BC are not the only places to take advantage of such resources.
One day a couple seasons back, my good friend Pete Perry called and asked if I would like to join him on a halibut/lingcod fishing trip on a charter boat out of West-port. My head kind of spun as it had been nearly 35 years since I last climbed aboard a Westport charter boat. After assuring me of the great success he had experienced on past trips, I decided to give it a go. The trip was scheduled for mid-May, and there wasn’t too much else going on anyways.
Over the last couple of decades, the Westport charter fleet has created a pretty significant niche for itself. Although down to a much slimmer 65-70 boats, a far cry from the heyday of the past, those who have stuck with it have carved out a relatively stable living. Starting in early spring, they work the bottom fish grounds before the salmon season opens for all those delicious white-meat species that are so very tasty.
By early summer when the salmon sea-son opens, all kinds of opportunities arise. The overall ocean season will usually run through the Labor Day weekend in early September before annual quotas begin to be reached. Some of the boats will continue working through the winter commercial Dungeness crab season while others will go into hibernation.
Westport is certainly not the only west coast port to host a fleet of charter boats. Many other coastal communities from Alaska to southern California host charter fleets that target an array of species. In most cases you can book a variety of differ-ent options. Some trips are species specific, like a straight salmon or straight halibut charter. Other trips offer a combination of things, such as sea bass and salmon. Even others are more deep-water specific, such as tuna fishing trips, which are often multi-day, overnight trips in order to reach the target location.
Charter boats are often referred to as party boats. They get that name because they vary in size and hold anywhere from 6-20 anglers, the larger of which get a big mixed bag of people who don’t know each other. You will usually have some experienced anglers on board, a few who have done it once or twice, and those who are on their first charter voyage. There is a skipper who runs the boat, and usually a deckhand or two to help bait hooks, net fish, and process the catch during the return to port.
What is really enjoyable about these trips is you don’t have to be concerned about anything other than the fishing. Pete Perry with a nice hatchery salmon.
It felt strangely familiar to walk down the dock to our boat and to step aboard.
I knew from experience to quickly gab a comfortable seat for the long ride to the halibut grounds, which in our case was a good three-hours run. You begin to size up the other anglers in your group and can quickly determine their experience level with a fair degree of accuracy. The guys with the insulated Muck boots and Grunden rain gear have done this before, while the ones wearing sneakers, a Rolling Stones tee-shirt and windbreaker are likely going to spend some unenjoyable, extended time at the rail.
We finally get to the halibut grounds where we are not alone, as most of the halibut charters that day are all fishing the same grounds. Within mere minutes of dropping our lines, people are hooking up. As I surveil the surrounding boats, one halibut after another is coming aboard. It does not take long, and Pete connects to a nice 40+ specimen he wrestled aboard. My turn finally comes, then Pete connects again.
In fairly short order, we reached our limit of halibut for the group. Being a combination trip, we then made a short move to better lingcod grounds. We picked up a few before trying another spot and finally a third before calling it a day. It was a long run back to the marina, but when we finally jumped off the boat with a big bag of fillets, it was like Christmas came early.
Later that summer we made a two-day back-to-back trip that entailed one day of combo fishing for salmon and yellowtail rockfish, and one day of straight salmon fishing. You will never see fish come aboard faster than when you land right on top of a big school of yellowtail rockfish. Using a rig that consists of two imitation shrimp flies about two feet apart, many times you would drop your line about 30’ deep, feel a tug, then another, and real up two fish at a time. Before you know it, there are 50-60 fish lying on the deck when suddenly the all-stop signal will come blaring.
The first day was a quick limit on rockfish, then we caught a nice late morning salmon bite that rounded out our limit of hatchery coho. On the second day, the straight salmon one, we were on our way out when a nice young couple sitting next to us explained they had never been salmon fishing before and had no idea what to expect. We turned them into our personal project and gave them a step-by-step tutorial, including the inside baseball stuff only veterans know, like never pull your weight out of the water and always watch for following salmon.
In the 1950s, Westport became affectionately known as the “Salmon Fishing Capital of the World.” Throughout the 1960s and ‘70’s, over 200 charter boats worked out of the Westport marina to plunder the Pacific as runs remained strong and tourism was at its peak. The author in 1974 at age 14.
When the boat finally stopped and lines hit the water, it was like dropping the flag on a NASCAR race. It was boogety, boogety, boogety as one salmon after another chomped our offerings. While Pete and I wasted no time working through the wild coho to find our hatchery keepers, our young students were putting on an absolute clinic. They said our instruction was what kept them into fish, and they were thrilled and grateful as could be. Just as quickly as it had started, the skipper threw up the stop sign and just like that, we were headed back to port.
Charter boat outings are once again a regular part of my annual fishing repertoire as I have learned the intrinsic value of keeping a nice variety of species for our dining options. What is really enjoyable about these trips is you don’t have to be concerned about anything other than the fishing. You just show up with some munchies and leave the rest to the crew. No boat to deal with, no fuel, no nothing other than get handed a rod and let the good times roll.
Even with as much seafaring Viking blood as I have in me, I always prepare for these outings by taking a couple Dramamine pills the night before and again the morning of my ocean venture. Even on a nice day, the sea has a steady roly-poly motion to it. On a rough day it can be difficult to even walk the deck. Never be too proud to take precautions as being sick all day can ruin a trip in a hurry. I also usually don’t eat anything in the morning until after the battle is won.
One very important point I wish to make is that all deckhands are usually working for tips alone. They work extremely hard to make sure you are well taken care of from the time you board the vessel until the time you depart with a fully cleaned and processed bag of goodies. You will often see them scrambling trying to net multiple fish, so if you are waiting for a bait, be patient, they will get to you. Pro tip, when you start fishing, have them show you how they are rigging the bait so you can do it yourself if the need arises in the middle of a hot bite.
Please be generous and slip those guys or gals a tidy little bonus before depart-ing as the opportunity arises. Most people wait until they get handed their bag of fillets, but I like to catch them sometime on the way in after they have finished up their processing work and personally thank them for their efforts. They will very much appreciate it and will work even harder for you the next time you are aboard.
Whether you personally catch your limit or not, the spoils will get divided evenly. Yellow tail rock fish at the fillet table.
Party boat trips are different than regular fishing trips in the sense that they are able to utilize what’s called a boat limit. What that means is that everyone can keep fishing until the boat reaches its limit for the target species with regard to the number of people on board. This works great in the sense that there are usually hot hands that seem to always be hooked up, while others might be having poor luck or worse, battling seasickness and not fishing at all. I prefer to be one of the hot hands and catch not only my own limit, but to help where help is needed. That’s just how I roll.
Whether you personally catch your limit or not, the spoils will get divided evenly. Usually you will get assigned a number when you board. The deckhand will ask you your number when you land a fish, and a corresponding pin will get attached to your fish. If you land three salmon and your limit is two, your two largest will go home with you and the other one will go with someone less fortunate. It really is a win-win for everyone, regardless of who catches what. At the end of the day the idea is to get a nice harvest of fresh fish for your dining pleasure.
Party boats are perfect for almost everyone, from experienced anglers to complete novices. From family outings, solo retired guys, or just you and your best friend, you will meet all kinds of folks on these trips. You might not know anyone when you leave the dock in the morning, but if you are like me, you will have fifteen new friends by the time you tie back up at the dock. Whether it be your first salmon or just the latest one to hit the deck, you will have a great time booking a party boat outing.
Keep in mind that just like popular guides, most charter boats get booked up well in advance, especially for halibut openings. No matter the port or location of your chosen charter fleet, you can usually check availability and book your trips on-line, so plan ahead and come join the party, you will be surprised at how much fun you have and will be delighted with the culinary rewards that come with it.
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