Point St. George Lighthouse Reef, densely populated with various species
Mark Freeman / Mail Tribune. Michael McGahan holds a ling cod and halibut caught on the reef at Point St. George Lighthouse.
[Photo by Andy Martin] Point St. George Lighthouse is located between Bookings and Crescent City, California.
BROOKINGS — Brent Foster feels the simple tap of a small black rockfish on his line 100 feet below the charter boat Kraken, and Foster would rather turn that rockfish into a monster worthy of the boat’s name.
“I leave it down there for a bit to look for a hitchhiker,” says Foster.
Within minutes, a giant Lingcod attacks the Black Dragonhead. Much to the chagrin of his lingcod, he bites into the small scorpionfish and latches onto the hook.
After a little street fight, Kraken Captain Michael McGahan gapes the big Ling to complete the big bait-and-switch.
“Look at that hook,” laughs Foster. “It goes through both fish.
“What luck,” he says. “How nice.”
Happiness and beauty regularly combine for those aboard the Kraken on special trips straight across the Oregon border to what bottom fishermen know as perhaps the Pacific’s most prolific offshore fishing reef of the lower 48 states.
Located midway between Brookings and Crescent City, California, Point St. George Lighthouse Reef features a series of deep sea cliffs and raging currents that are home to a dense and diverse collection of bottom fish.
Named after the famous lighthouse erected 150 years ago after the wreck of a fabled and deadly ocean liner, the reef is known for its bounty of lingcod, which come either conventionally by the bite of a plastic squid jig or more ceremonially by hitchhiking to the gaff .
But it’s also home to an abundance of bottom fish species that highlight the size and rainbow color spectrum of the salty deep.
Vermilion. canaries. quill back Black. Blues. And of course the occasional deep-sea resident, the Pacific halibut. They all congregate over the fertile rocks and bait-producing currents that converge just around the fabled lighthouse.
“We have the potential to catch so many species here,” says McGahan, who drives the octopus out of Brookings for Brookings Fishing Charters. “Even I’m surprised by some of the species we’re catching out here.
“Sometimes I have to pull out the species card to see what we’ve caught,” he says.
This is because these deep-sea caves, interspersed with pockets of sand schools, are awash with krill, sardines and other baitfish, making them an attractive spot for everything from gray whales and sharks to massive schools of black scorpionfish, The 75 feet or more can cover the water column in some areas.
The aim is to cast an 8oz jig through those crag clouds – sometimes anglers can feel the jig bumping into black crags on the descent – after the larger and more desirable lingcod to the bottom.
Anglers can keep two ling over 24 inches a day, and most will tell you that their bonus fish status is such that legal-sized ling are rarely put out. But it’s not uncommon for Kraken customers to release two, three, or more smaller Lings only to stay in the game for a much larger hitchhiker.
“This place is so fertile,” says McGahan. “You wouldn’t believe how much life there is out here.”
But oddly enough, not much of this life is of the two-legged variety. Because of its geographic location, the Kraken rarely has to share the reef with many other boats.
The location of the lighthouse – right between Brookings and Crescent City – should attract a lot of interest from both ports. But those sailing out of Crescent City rarely venture far south of the lighthouse past the reef rocks.
Those driving from Brookings have a 40-minute drive and must pay $18.40 – California’s one-day fishing license fee – for the privilege. But skippers like McGahan typically fish from the lighthouse to the north and away from their southern brethren.
“We often have this place to ourselves,” says McGahan.
Also, Brookings’ run can be off-putting to anglers with less experienced sea legs. The currents and winds are strong enough that they can create difficult conditions for jigging, requiring a lead jig and plastic apron to be dangling directly beneath the idle boat.
“It can be difficult to get here — and difficult to fish,” says McGahan.
In the 19th century, the reef was difficult to survive. But when the sea factors match, the spot produces big fish and lots of them.
With a final group of rocks to jig, McGahan ends his lighthouse day on the Kraken with the piece of reef resistance: a Pacific halibut taking the Toledoes to nearly 40 pounds.
“I guess it’s time to go,” says McGahan. “We definitely don’t top that.”
Mark Freeman covers the outside world for the Mail Tribune. You can reach him at 541-776-4470 or email [email protected]
Shipwrecks gave rise to lighthouses
Point St. George Lighthouse is located on North West Seal Rock on the line of what are known as Dragon Rocks, named by explorer Sir Francis Drake after numerous shipwrecks here.
But none was more famous – or history-changing – than the wreck of the overloaded Brother Jonathan on July 30, 1865.
History buffs may remember the Brother Jonathan as the paddle steamer that first brought smallpox to the Canadian island of Vancouver in 1862, sparking the pandemic that wiped out much of the Northwest’s indigenous people.
Three years later, perhaps in a moment of karma, the ship was overloaded en route from San Francisco to Portland with 244 passengers and crew and a large shipment of gold, worth about $50 million today.
It struck an unidentified rock and sank, killing all but 19 people. The wreck was not found until 1993, and some of the gold was recovered three years later.
The wreck triggered calls for navigational aids. But this is a difficult place to build a lighthouse.
The lighthouse and caretaker’s house are on the rock, plus 50 feet of foundation to float 144 feet above the water. Spread over just 4 acres, it is one of the most exposed lighthouses on the Pacific Coast.
That is why it was built to look like a medieval fortress. It finally came online in 1892 and cost $752,000 to build. This is the tallest ever for a US lighthouse.
Because of its location, it is hit by water from all sides. The storms here are crazy. One in 1952 shattered the lantern room windows 150 feet above sea level.
She was decommissioned in 1975 and replaced by a floating lighthouse buoy.
— Markus Freeman