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Bodega's Big Squid Getting Lots of Ink

November 06, 1998|PETE THOMAS

Calamari capital of the world?

That may not be Bodega Bay's claim to fame, but the picturesque little coastal community north of San Francisco, like it or not, is swimming in squid.

"People are having it as sashimi, they're steaming it, frying it, barbecuing it . . . they're even putting it on skewers," says Rick Powers, on whose boat they've been catching most of it.

All this has put the 44-year-old captain and Bodega Bay Sportfishing Center in the spotlight, in part because these squid don't belong in that part of the world but mostly because they are truly a sight to behold, as unsightly as they might seem to some.

California frequently gets the six-inch variety of squid, which are targeted by commercial seiners and used by recreational anglers as bait to catch such prized game fish as seabass and yellowtail.

The squid Powers is catching, however, would have those fish for breakfast, and probably do from time to time. They measure up to eight feet and weigh up to 50 pounds, though most of those plopping onto the deck of the New Sea Angler are slightly smaller.

Still, they're impressive enough to attract news crews from around the Bay Area. The outdoor media have been calling Powers weekly for updates. The squid have even piqued the interest of scientists, who hope to learn more about the complex nature of these intricate and mysterious creatures.

A live specimen was brought to Bodega Marine Laboratory in September, but it died three days later and was donated to the Smithsonian Institute. Biologists at Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco also are trying to obtain a live specimen to study.

As for Powers, he's merely taking advantage of the presence of Dosidicus gigas, or jumbo squid, a species of cephalopod that belongs off the coast of South America, not Northern California. They occasionally stray as far north as Mexico and even cross into U.S. waters from time to time.

But this is way beyond their range.

Scientists theorize they were delivered courtesy of El Nino and deposited in the nutrient-rich depths of Bodega Canyon, a marine trench near a popular rockfishing haunt called Cordell Bank.

They first were caught there last December--when water temperatures were eight to 10 degrees above normal--by commercial hook-and-line fishermen.

Powers got word and ran out.

"In 20 minutes, we caught nine of these giant squid," he recalls. "I had never seen any creature that looked like these things before."

Then came the intense El Nino storms, which kept the fleet at bay for most of the rest of the winter and either displaced the squid or kept them down in the depths of the canyon, out of reach at 500-600 feet.

In any event, they're still around, having resurfaced in late summer. And Powers, who has been fishing Bay Area waters since he was a child, is the only one really fishing for them.

They emerge from the canyon periodically, he believes, to embark on feeding forays at or near the rockfishing grounds. They travel in such large schools that he is able to locate them fairly easily on his fish finder.

"This year, as opposed to last year, we're metering them at mid-water," he says. "Which is odd, because I've always heard that they're nocturnal feeders and stay in deep water during the day. But all we do is stop the boat, drop our lures down and that's it."

So voracious are the squid that everyone usually hooks up at once, creating total chaos.

"Every one of these things has to be gaffed," Powers says. "These things are flashing different colors and squirting water and ink all over the place.

"The boat gets totally inked out and it takes two to three hours just to clean the vessel. But I'm not complaining. Everyone is really, really stoked about the whole thing."

So stoked that Powers has set aside Wednesdays as squid-only days. The results have been mind-boggling.

"When we ran our first special trip, we had absolutely phenomenal success," Powers boasts. "In 2 1/2 hours we had 600 squid for 42 anglers, and given the weight of these things--they averaged about 17 pounds apiece--we estimated that we caught 10,000 pounds of squid that day. It took almost three hours to unload all that squid."

And another three to clean up the mess.

SQUID II: THE REVENGE

A squid on the hook, rising unwillingly in a state of agitation, changing colors spontaneously and instantaneously, whips the entire school into a frenzy.

It's quite a spectacle, Powers says, and it doesn't take a marine biologist to figure out what would happen to anyone falling overboard.

But a marine biologist did, literally, eight years ago while working as part of a documentary team in the Sea of Cortez near La Paz. Alex Kerstitch, wearing full scuba gear, took a nighttime plunge into a sea teeming with the same species of cephalopod in hopes of getting some good still footage.

He barely made it out alive.

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