Trip report - North Coast Abalone (long)

Outer Bamnks diving on the Great Escape Southern California Live-Aboard Dive Boat

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Posted by finfan on July 04, 2004 at 09:24:51:

Took the family up to FT BRAGG last week to catch the end of the first half of abalone season and do some salmon fishing. For those who only want the dive report I'll do that first.

We arrived last Sunday afternoon to howling seas and a fairly big blow. At the dive shop they were talking about how calm it had been the week previous. One report from the fishing landing had the blow increasing Monday and up to 16 foot seas. There was no way I was coming 600 miles north and not going ab diving, so we decided to try and get in at least one dive at Van Damme that afternoon. I took the 21 ft Parker up along with some kayaks and since we had only a short window before evening, we decided to free dive off the kayaks. Water from Bragg south was really turned up, but as always Van Damme had some diveable conditions (at least on top). It was basically like a lake at VD.

We kayaked out to the south around the big island to the left of Van Damme and entered the water. Visability sure wasn't what I remembered diving with Eric S. a couple years ago. The offshore swell had really churned it up. I think we might have had 3 to 4 feet if we were lucky. Stayed close to the rocks in fairly shallow water (less then 15 ft). It was a little erie dropping down and not seeing anything until your right on top of the reef. Kelp wasn't nearly as thick as in August when we went last time. The abs however were still thick. I'm always amazed how many you can find right at Van Damme. My wife, her girlfriend and I quickly got limits. Nothing real big. I found a couple that were over 8 inches, but most of the abs were about 7.5". We were still excited about seeing so many and bagging 3 each.

Monday the winds came so we decided to take the kids on the skunk train out of FT Bragg (more down below). We had the first of several Abalone dinners Mondy night with the traditional almond fry recipe found in most of your abalone books.

Tuesday we went out for Salmon first thing and landed a couple of Kings fairly early. No size, but we had Tuesday's dinner and enough for our party so we decided to head in early and try for some more abs. We found a GREAT spot near CASPAR beach. Even though the water was still turning a little from Monday's blow, this spot was protected by an outer reef. There wasn't much kelp, but the visability seemed like it would be much better than Sunday's dive. I dropped in and I couldn't believe how clear the water was. We had an easy 15 ft at this spot maybe greater. The abs were as thick as Van Damme, yet much bigger. I started around 15ft of water eventually working out to about 26 ft (at least that is what the boats depth finder was reading. Only my wifes girlfriend decided to dive so the two of us spent about 2 hours exploring the site. It has to be one of the best dives I've had up North (granted that's not saying much since I only had one previous trip). We saw a bunch of fish including one large cabezon. At first I thought it was a ling, but after a good look I realized it was just a HUGH caby. I've heard Eric say how big they get them up here, but even I was surprised at this guys size. I had left the gun at camp, so there would be no caby for dinner. That was ok we had the salmon already and I was actually just into the site so much I wasn't really interested in hunting. Every abalone we took here was well beyond the 8 inch, pushing 9 inches, but what I really liked was how thick they were compared to what I got at Van Damme. Even the 8 inchers I got at VD weren't close in thickness to these. I wonder if Eric or Dale can tell us why some abs grow thick as well as big??

We easily got our limits at Caspar since every rock had 4 to 5 abalone crawling on it. It was so clear in 15 feet of water you could see the abalone on top of the reefs. This spot had some great channels and large boulders loaded with abs all over them. Anyone going up that wants more info on the spot let me know.

We had salmon and more abalone Tuesday night for dinner and by now had begun the royal stuffing associated with most of these trips. It seems no matter how many different ways we cook the abalone I just never get enough.

Wednesday, our last day of season. Even with all we ate, we only needed 3 abalone so we decided to take the group kayaking and I would go out for the abs that afternoon. I talked to the dive shop and asked them about the abalone off Big River. The guys in the shop were really helpful and gave me several tips of where and how deep. With that information off we went to Big River (I think its called mendocino headwaters). We dropped in the kayaks while our firends rented a canoe from across the river to join us. The group headed up river. What a neat activity. We had an upcoming tide so even my 10 year old made the paddle up river look pretty easy. Saw a bunch of wildlife. There was an otter about 3 miles up river that gave us a wild chase just to get close enough to see him. Of course we had the normal array of birds working the shore for bait/food. I was surprised not to see any deer near the river, but maybe it was because it was close to mid day.

At the end of the kayaying we had lunch at the river mouth beach as I surveyed the dive site. Getting out was going to be a challenge with the river dumping and fairly large waves coming in and me being new to using the dive kayaks. Always up for a challenge, I wasn't going to let the last day of season pass by without at least an attempt. I suited up, strapped everything down and went for it. 3 times being dumped, but I was finally out past the surf and I didn't lose any gear. Slightly out of breath, but with had a good paddle to get to the outside reef I figured I had plenty of time to recoup. I picked a spot fairly outside, figuring it would help avoid the river wash. Not so lucky, visability was like Van Damme, if not worst. Boy I was wishing I would have just went back to Caspar. But I was into learning some new spots, so I figured I'd just make the best of it and see what I could find. The site was different than both Caspar and Van Damme. Most of the shallow stuff (less than 15 ft) was covered with some long algae or grass, so finding anything was real difficult. I never even saw a single AB in shallow. They probably were there, but with the bad vis and thick vegetation, there was no way to see them. I worked over to the edge of the reef where it dropped off into deeper water and more of the bull kelp.

I've got to admit, the rest of the time diving I never even thought about whitey, but there was something about this spot (right at the mouth of the river, seals around the point and really bad vis) that had me a little spooked. I wanted to get my abs and exit the water fairly quickly. My first drop off of the edge of the reef led me to a narrow channel, but no large abs, so I kept working deeper. I'm not sure about depth, but I must have been close to 20 feet when I started to see some decent size abalone. The weren't as thick as VD or Caspar which surprised me somewhat. Just a few scattered here and there. The first one I took was close to 8.5 inches and real thick. My next one was just over 8 inches, but made up for size in how thick it was. I was just about to drop down for my final ab when my wife (who had kayaked out to join me) dropped one of the abs while cleaning some kelp off the foot. I made a drop to retrieve the ab (which I found on my second attempt)and found a bunch of abs that were much bigger than what I had. Now I was disappointed that I already had two abs and could only take one more. My last drop I ended up with the biggest one of the trip, Slightly better than 9.25". It wasn't a 10 Incher, but it was the biggest and thickest of the trip.

The rest of the trip we spent site seeing, shopping, wine tasting and trying to get in some more salmon fishing. The skunk train was ok and we heard alot about the history of Bragg, but it was a little long. I'm not sure I would od that again, unless it was coupled along with one of their BBC's packages. We went horseback riding along the beach, which my daughter just loves. They take the horses right by the harbor seal breeding beach off Meckerken ( I probably butchered the spelling) so that's always a neat trip. Also did the Botanical Gardens. Would highly recommend that since the hike through the gardens is absolutely wonderful. On the last day, we had a really low tide, so we took my daughter down to the tidepools. It was a day that if it had been ab season, I'm sure there could have been some rock hounding for abs happening. We saw a few smaller ones and a ton of crabs and anemomes. There sure seems to be a lot more life in the tidepools up north than down south here. We never really got a chance to do that much more salmon fishing and missed our chance at a big salmon, but what we did end up with made for a couple of great meals.

All in all, we crammed in a bunch of things around one great day of ab diving and some fishing. Got our limits in abs in the freezer, so I'll be eating great over the course of the next few months. I'm wondering if we finish off the abs before August, if my wife will let me break free to come back up when the season re-opens. You never know I might be back in August. For now good luck to Eric and crew and thanks again for all the tips and introducing two years ago to North coast ab diving.

Loves to HUNT & FISH, now loving the eating too!

P.S. Once I sort through all of the pictures I see if I can't figure out how to get them posted.

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