When you’re lucky enough to go fishing with a good friend who knows the water well, you’re sure to learn something new.
That’s especially true when the Columbia River is under your keel to carry you toward new adventure.
Steve Fick first explored the Columbia River estuary as a kid, so he knows his way around the vast waterway where the river meets the sea.
We left the snug harbor of Hammond, Oregon near Astoria and slowly motored the short distance downriver to an area just off Clatsop Beach.
Fick had prepared five large crab pots or traps with varied baits – a strategy he often uses so to “see what the crabs prefer.”
Sometimes he’ll use turkey legs, chicken wings, shad or salmon carcasses – even a can of tuna for crab bait. Anyone say, lunchtime?”
“Oh yes, a can of tuna fish is perfect bait," exclaimed Fick. “All you do is perforate the can so that the scent comes out – you can also buy canned sardines or mackerel too – both work well. As long as they have a high oil content, it seems to fish well – the scent is what draws the crab into the pot.”
Each Oregon crabber must carry an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shellfish License. Each crabber is allowed to use up to three crab pots.
We timed our trip to fish our traps during the last hour of the incoming tide and then through the high slack tide period, (that’s often the best crabbing time.)
Steve said it’s the safest time to crab in the estuary: “There is no reason to be out here on the ebb tide – that’s the out-going tide and things can go from bad to worse in a heartbeat. It can be the most dangerous part of the tide cycle and this river can change so fast. You just don’t take chances out here.”
Fick said that each trap should “soak” for 15-20 minutes – that allows enough time for the crabs to locate the bait and enter the pot.
Each crabber is allowed a dozen male crabs apiece and in Oregon they must be five and three-quarters (5¾) inches across the back.
Females are protected to preserve the breeding population of crabs. A crab gauge or other measuring device is essential gear since some crabs miss the mark by only a fraction of an inch.
Steve and I soon had our hands full of fresh crabs, but truth was the trap made the catching easy - and it turns out, the crab pot is “All Oregon!”
At the Airport Crab Company in Warrenton, they have rolled the steel into rings, welded the weights in place, wrapped the rings in rubber and woven the steel mesh into crab pots since 1948.
“Building a crab pot – one that will fish well – is a science,” said company owner Verne Lamping.
His wife, Lisa Lamping, added, “”They really got it right way back then – there are little things you can do but for the most part there isn’t a better way to catch crab.”
Lisa is right! Dungeness crabbing dates to the earliest days of commercial fishing in Oregon’s off shore waters.
It was a profitable way to make a living for many commercial fishermen during the slack times between salmon runs.
Inside Oregon’s only sport and commercial crab pot manufacturing company, you soon see that the heritage of the business is alive and well.
Gene Elliott, Paul Shaw and Mike Gill collectively own more than a century of experience building pots the old fashioned way – with their hands!
They "hand knit" each pot using stainless steel wire to make each pot’s top, bottom and sides.
“Get ready to bleed,” noted Gill with a chuckle. “It is really hard on the hands.”
The 18-guage stainless steel wire requires tough, quick hands and a sharp eye to knit the mesh just right.
“You have to hold the meshes at exactly the same size,” said Shaw. “So, you really must stay focused on the work all of the time.”
Gene Elliot’s hands worked at a blurry pace – swiftly wrapping the mesh weave, seamless and smooth.
“I’ve been at this for more than 37 years – just like these fellas, but I was also a fisherman so I made and repaired my own gill nets. I was already familiar with the knitting techniques before I started working on crab pots.”
Lisa Lamping has long admired the weavers’ efforts – she explained that it’s all "piece work" so each weaver must be accurate and speedy if they wish to make money.
“Each of these men is able to consistently weave the mesh accurately; the meshes must be about two inches wide. It’s very old school and it hasn’t changed much in a hundred years.”
Down at the dock is where the work pays off!
Oregon’s Dungeness crab harvest is the state’s most valuable seafood.
Last year, the coast-wide catch was worth nearly 50-million dollars.
“It’s an economic component that fills a big void from December to March for many fishermen,” said Fick, who owns Fishhawk Fisheries in Astoria.
“Families live here and the infrastructure of support - like the crab pot businesses or the marine supply stores – all of that business stays in our community and it is key to the viability of rural life along the Oregon coast.”
It is also a lot of fun to catch your own crabs and then head to the kitchen where Steve shared a favorite recipe called a “Stuffed Crab Sandwich.”
“You can do a lot of different things with crab meat,” said Fick. “You can make a chowder, fritters, salads – sandwiches – so many different things. You can mix it with fettuccine, other seafood, so it’s very versatile.”
Steve mixed one cup of grated swiss cheese with two cups of crab and added one teaspoon each of Worcestershire sauce and lemon pepper before he mixed in on cup of mayo and half a cup of sliced olives.
The mixture was then stuffed into each half of a hollowed-out sandwich roll.
Steve then spread a generous amount of grated Parmesan cheese across the top of each roll and slid the tray of sandwiches into a 375-degree oven for seven to ten minutes.
“This is a filling dinner,” he noted. “You need to be in the mood for something rich and robust – it works well on a cold winter’s night.”
It was a perfect way to round out our crabbing adventure and bring the day’s activity full circle: from the estuary to the dining table.
Interestingly, Steve added that 80-percent of the crab is caught in the first month of the season – it’s also the time when prices for the seafood are at their lowest.
Plus, even if you don’t sport fish for crab, the annual commercial crabbing season provides fresh Oregon Dungeness in your local grocery.
As we enjoyed a very filling seafood dinner, I asked Fick what he liked most about the adventure that’s just off his front door step:
“Oh, it’s simple to do and everyone can be involved in it. It’s easy to catch a dozen crabs per person with lots of action for kids. And – you never really know until you pull the pot up what you got and that is fun!”
B-52’s of the Waterfowl World
Thousands of visitors travel to Oregon each winter, but one particular group of guests sport a unique nickname that sets them apart: the “B-52’s of the waterfowl world.”
Grant shows us that “Tundra Swans” are huge, easy to admire and where you can enjoy their show at a favorite pond, wetland or wildlife area right now.
I love travel across Oregon in winter for one particular reason: the unexpected treats that come when waterfowl put on quite a show.
“Waterfowl are distinct, colorful and just the most in-your-face animals that are around us… and the number you can see is just so much higher than other wildlife,” according to Metro Naturalist, James Davis.
James and I met at Coon Point – popular site and overlook of Sturgeon Lake at the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. The 12,000 acre state refuge can be a fine place to admire waterfowl from a distance.
That’s especially true for tundra swans, the long distance travelers of the waterfowl world. Few wildlife come close to surpassing the tundra swan’s remarkable journey: some birds make a 10,000 mile round trip migration from the Arctic to Mexico wintering grounds and then back home again.
“Well, for one, they are huge,” said Davis. “Swans are among the biggest flying and heaviest birds in the world. That’s just spectacular to me and then they’re pure white and that is great.”
Flocks of tundra swans seem to fill the sky on six-foot-wingspans and then glide in for a well-deserved break. At a distance, they look like so many cotton balls: silent and majestic - floating atop the water at places like ‘Trojan Pond’ near Rainier, Oregon.
Davis was quick to note that their serene appearance is deceiving – for under the water it is all action – to survive.
“Swans don’t dive under the water like many ducks do to get food. They tip over and stretch their long necks down – (over two feet long) to reach any kind of plant material that may be growing in a pond or lake.”
The big birds winter across the entire state too.
Fernhill Wetlands in Washington County is a prime hideout to catch a view to tundra swans.
So is Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County where the visitor access is easy just off State Highway 22, west of Salem.
Further afield, try the Klamath Wildlife Area in southern Oregon where they swan show is reliable all winter long until the big birds head back to the arctic in March.
At the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, up to 2,000 swans winter across the 12,000 acre site.
Wildlife Area Assistant Manager, Mathew Keenan, noted that the state wildlife area is a fine host for up to 200,000 waterfowl:
“We do attract a lot of wildlife because we’re such a large target for them as they pass through. We have large tracts of protected areas without development and that’s the big advantage. We manage for waterfowl here, so in addition to natural wetlands we plant food crops specifically for the wildlife.”
Swans mate for life and their young of the year tag along on the great migration each winter. The youngsters are called “cygnets” and they are slightly smaller than their parents and sport darker feathers.
Wildlife books can be life savers for the beginning waterfowl watcher and Davis has written a dandy called, “The Northwest Nature Guide-Where To Go and What To See” – plus, the book’s many color photos make wildlife identification easy.
“It’s all about nature,” noted Davis. “Plants, all kinds of animals---plus I included destinations – important things to see. It’s also organized month to month, so you can see things any time of year.”
And “seeing things” clearly is important too! Davis added that you should include binoculars or a spotting scope with your wildlife watching gear.
“Swans are not hard to spot,” said Davis. “But many smaller duck species can be difficult to identify from a long distance, so I never leave home without my scope and my binoculars. Both make a big difference.”
Also – remember that waterfowl hunting is a part of the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area management scene through January. You can check the ODFW website to determine hunt day and plan your wildlife watching trips on non-hunting days.
And be sure you purchase an Oregon State Wildlife Area Parking Permit. It is required if you leave your vehicle for any time.
There’s something about treasure hunting that’s irresistible and compelling; especially when it touches Oregon history and offers unique outdoor adventures too. Grant explores what’s been lost and how even the oldest Oregon shipwrecks offer secrets that can be re-discovered.
Rich Mulcahy likes to say, “When the tide goes out, the treasure table is set.”
“I think it’s that I am going after something that’s been lost and I am digging in the sand to find it. I love to dig stuff.”
Rich walks long lonely stretches of the Oregon coast each day accompanied only by the excited sounds of his hand held detector; the device is his constant companion.
He sweeps the sand with the detector and marks each spot where something’s hidden just below the surface.
He stops and takes a quick scoop with his shovel to reveal an old car key – most likely an ignition key. Mulcahy quickly smiled and chuckled, “Probably turned into a long day at the beach for someone.”
Most days, Rich said he discovers common everyday objects on his adventures but he is intrigued by re-discovering history in the beach’s sandy layers.
His detector can find items in the top three or four inches that date back thirty to fifty years – but it goes back even further back in time to a century when he digs down a foot or more.
Many of his so called ‘targets’ are easy to recognize once he has them in hand – they range from silver coins to gold wedding rings and other metallic jewelry.
But every now and then he finds real “head scratchers;” exotic Chinese copper coins, even a Roman coin that dates back nearly two thousand years.
“Well, I shouldn’t be surprised given the number of shipwrecks that we’ve had off the Oregon coast,” said Mulcahy. ”I’m sure that there’s material from those old wrecks that have come in with the tide.”
Parts of the Oregon coast are called the “Graveyard of the Pacific” for good reason, according to Dave Pearson with the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria.
As long as mariners have traveled the ocean, ships have wandered too close to shore and been caught by powerful storms. They’ve also been guided by a captain’s poor judgment so the ship and crew often ended in disaster on the beach.
“It’s a dangerous environment,” said Pearson. “Oregon has what mariners call a ‘lee shore’ with all the forces of nature – wind and waves - working against the ship. Plus, it’s a remote region and there are few places to find refuge.”
Pearson said that some shipwrecks, like the always-visible “Peter Iredale” that wrecked in 1906, symbolize the worst that Mother Nature will do when things don’t go as planned.
The “New Carissa” may be Oregon’s most infamous modern-era shipwreck! It was more than two football fields long, filled with high technology and yet it wrecked off the mouth of Coos Bay, Oregon in 1999.
It has often been called “the ship that would never leave Oregon” because it remained a fixture stuck in the south coast sand for several years before it was finally dismantled.
Pearson said that bad weather and a poor knowledge of Oregon’s coastal dangers were big reasons for the wreck: “Not understanding what the weather can be like on the Oregon coast is a huge mistake. The New Carissa got into trouble and couldn’t turn fast enough to correct her problem.”
Jeff Smith is the Maritime Museum’s Curator and said that there have been over 2,000 shipwrecks at the mouth of the Columbia River alone and 200 of those have been major ships.
The museum is a fine place to see varied wreck relics like a life ring from the 1800’s or blocks of bees wax from the 1700’s.
Still – for all we know about Oregon shipwrecks – Pearson said that there is even more we don’t know: “We haven’t discovered all of the shipwrecks yet – they’re out there, just waiting to be revealed.”
Back on the beach, Rich Mulcahy said that singular thought keeps him warm while he hunts for secrets from the tides on cold, rainy days.
He said that it’s not what he finds but what he might find that keeps him coming back:
“It’s the anticipation. If that thing I find could only talk what would it tell me? What are the circumstances that placed it there? For me, that is something to ponder.”
Rich points out several things you should keep in mind if you decide to head for the coast and try your hand at detecting – first, never turn your back to the ocean because it’s simply not safe. Be sure to check the weather forecast because the weather can change in a heartbeat this time of year.
Finally and critically, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department manages the public beaches of the state and there are some beaches where detecting isn’t allowed. In fact, you’re not to do any searching around or digging at historic shipwreck or artifact areas or within designated state park properties. Still, most Oregon’s beaches are open to detecting and for a complete list be sure to check the OPRD Metal Detecting website.
All Things Shiny
Oregon’s winter months offer a roller coast ride of sorts in the great Oregon outdoors; when wind and rain are often followed by stunning sunny days.
Grant takes us to the rugged edge of Oregon for a treasure hunt in this week’s getaway and discovers that grey clouds disappear when you go hunting for all things shiny: rocky nuggets from the tides called “Agates.”
As the wintertime surf floods and then ebbs, beachcombers wander...seeking secrets from the tides.
K. Myers insists that the best beach adventures begin down the long staircase at the Moolack Shores Motel where it doesn’t take long and you don’t go far to reach buried treasures.
“Most newcomers usually go down by the waterline because it’s freshly agitated and they can find stuff that’s fresh but they don’t realize that there’s stuff up here too.”
The “stuff” that Myers relishes finding includes opaque white agates and raspberry red jaspers plus clam fossils that date back millions of years.
While the fossils are fun, it’s the rocks that get the twice over with Myers’ handy gem tool that has a scoop on the end to make the searching easy.
“Ah, there’s an agate right under that rock,” noted Myers as she pried loose a lovely stone.
Agates are little rocky nuggets of silica that formed inside ancient rocks or shells millions of years ago and as the outer layer wears away the agate remains.
I was surprised to learn that shoreline agates and jasper don’t come from the sea, but originate high in the watershed.
“They actually wash down the rivers into the ocean where they are tumbled about and then are deposited up on the beach,” noted Myers.
Agates come in varied colors ranging from orange to red or pink to lavender – even black.
In less than an hour, we each located a handful of the gorgeous stones – they were of varied colors and sizes and I wondered aloud, while the agates and jaspers are certainly easy on the eyes, “Was the best yet to come?”
“Oh yes,” noted Myers. “They’ll polish up well to become really nice collectible pieces.”
Myers has been the manager and co-owner of Facets Gem & Mineral Gallery in Newport, Oregon since 1987. The small gem shop is located just off the U.S. Coastal Highway 101 and you can see the stunning possibilities after polishing your agate treasures.
“The polishing techniques enhance the stones, make them smooth and finish them out. Usually, nature has done a good job of rounding off the hard edges of the agates but polishing brings a high luster to them – plus, you can make jewelry or whatever you want with each one.”
Myers knows much about where and when to go rock hounding along the coast. She’s even written a couple of popular booklets (Agates of the Oregon Coast) on Oregon’s fascinating geology that will set you on the right track to your own adventures.
“It’s relaxing, it’s fun and I enjoy doing it. Ever since first grade ‘show and tell’ I’ve been interested and have never lost that zest for it. It’s always exciting to find a new treasure and we’re trying to help everyone enjoy all that Oregon has to offer.”
Beach Safety is a must!
Robert Smith, Oregon State Park’s Beach Safety Manager, said that when you head to the beach in winter it’s critical to stay alert because huge logs are often washed ashore. He said that just 5 inches of water can move a five-ton log.
“It’s such a big powerful ocean and we enjoy looking at that power, but people have to recognize that power can also prove dangerous and turn a log into a weapon.”
Smith added that rocky jetties might seem inviting because they offer a front row seat to the ocean’s action, but people should stay in their cars to enjoy the show and not walk out on the jetty rocks.
“The jetties are designed to protect the channels for safe shipping traffic and not designed for pedestrian use. The rocks – as large as they are – shift and can have caverns and sinkholes that you never see. Plus, you’ve got poor footing because it’s slippery. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Smith added that even the popular coastal hiking trails require caution:
“The amount of water and rain that we get here – coupled with the amount of sea spray adds up to increased erosion on our trails.”
But there’s no shortage of Oregon State Park Beach Waysides to enjoy winter storms, and Smith noted that some of his state park favorites include overlooks like Cape Meares or Heceta Head State Parks because both are fine vantage points that have lighthouses too.
Grant takes us on a hunting trip with “man’s best friend” who has the keenest sense of smell for finding treasures just under the forest duff – it’s an Oregon Truffle hunt.
The best adventures are the ones that entice and intrigue you down the trail – the ones that promise yet unseen rewards, perhaps a treasure for your efforts.
It’s a different sort of field hunting that relies on a keen canine sense of smell – come along as we join man’s best friend and go digging in the duff for valuable “Oregon Truffles”
Kris Jacobsen is a professional dog trainer who operates a business called “Umami.” Her partner is a five year old Belgian Malinois breed of dog named “Ilsa.”
We joined the team near Eugene in a Lane County forest. They prefer hunting together in dark stands of 30-year old doug fir and their hunting success depends on Ilsa’s famous nose.
The prize they seek are gorgeous walnut-sized fungi that are more famous than you’d think – you see, Oregon truffles are blessed with aromatic – almost pungent scents that are culinary treasures. In fact, the truffle’s strong aroma makes the finding easy for a trained dog like Ilsa.
“I give her a search command and she ventures out ahead of me,” noted Jacobsen. “I pretty much stay put and keep an eye on her as she wanders about me trying to pick up the scent of the truffle.”
It doesn’t take Ilsa long to find a truffle treasure. She dips her head, sniffs the ground, scratches the surface twice and shakes her head to signal a find.
“Ilsa tends to stop right on top of them,” said Jacobsen. “She might nick it a little bit with her paw but by and large she’ll stop at the top of it.”
Kris’ said that her job is keep watch and follow Ilsa’s signs.
“There’s one right close to the surface – right there – and it’s a big one.”
Ten years ago, Jacobsen knew virtually nothing about truffles – what she calls a “mushroom that grows underground.”
That changed when she tasted her first wild Oregon white truffle.
“A nice ripe truffle should have a distinct vein running through it – almost like marbling thru a high quality steak. It’s got this amazing aroma coming out of it; a strong garlic-cheese like aroma – it’s very savory and it makes you hungry.”
Between two and ten tons of Oregon truffles are harvested from doug fir forests each year. The harvest varies each year depending upon climate and weather patterns during a season that stretches between November and February.
Oregon chef, Karl Zenk, of the Marche’ Restaurant in Eugene said truffles have a remarkable ability to transform meals from delicious to out of this world.
“You’ve got the earthiness of the meat and the vegetables and the truffle kind of accentuates that and gives it a nice roundness of flavor and aroma that’s just special. Truffles are something we can really celebrate that we have in Oregon. We are proud of them – such a great thing.”
Back in the forest, Oregon truffle expert and mycologist, Dr Charles Lefevre, said Oregon truffles are world class delicacies but not known widely.
The so called ‘underground mushroom’ ranges in size from a pea to a grapefruit and it is unrivaled in the kitchen. They grow throughout western Oregon.
“Habitat is typically farmland that has been converted to douglas fir,” said Lefevre. “It’s often a crop found right in people‘s backyards; orchards or forest stands.”
Jacobsen added that truffle hunting is a lot of fun because she can spend a day in the field with her best friend and come home with a delicious reward.
“Just being outdoors with Ilsa and watching her work is fun - both of us enjoy each other’s company and accomplishing a task together.”
You can learn more about truffles at the annual “Oregon Truffle Festival” and a visit to the Sunday Marketplace that is held on January 26. You can pick up tips, techniques and sample recipes at a fabulous affair that’s held in Eugene.
If you want to learn more about Oregon truffles, visit natruffling.org (North American Truffling Society, based in Corvallis.)