Poke Pole Pleasures

by Louis Bignami

Even Captain Slocum couldn't cruise forever. So if you live near the rocky coast of Washington, Oregon or British Columbia and haven't tried poke poling, you miss maximum action at a minimum investment.

Granted, poke poling is not really new; Italians poke poled for years in rocky areas along the California coast. It's not hard to learn, just difficult enough to be interesting, as each trip to the shore finds new spots to try and techniques to refine. So there is always a challenge and always something to bring home for the pot! Combine poke poling with clamming or, as incoming tides drive you off the rocks, conventional fishing and you have a pleasant recipe for a relaxing shore day when it kicks up outside as well as the makings for a great shore dinner.

Poke poles are, as their name suggests, poles you poke into cracks in rocky reefs, undercuts in sandy bottom tide pools or kelp beds. A 10 to 18 foot long bamboo or fiberglass pole lets you put bait in front of lurking eels, cod, perch and other rock fish.

Try inexpensive one-piece bamboo poles from your nursery to start; pros use collapsible Fiberglass. Tip these with a short two to three foot long wire (cyclone fence wire works well; wire coat hangers work in a pinch) lashed to the end of the pole to hold up to the abrasion of this probing technique. Make a loop in the end of the wire and add on a snelled size 2 hook. Bait with mussels, whelks and other shucked shellfish where bait collecting is permitted or use "store-bought" pile worms or strips of squid and you might take fish just about anywhere.

Organize trips to nearby rocky coastal areas during minus tides and plan your arrival three hours or so before low water. The lower the tide, the better the action. We find fishing the outgoing and the first 30 minutes of the incoming tide most productive. Then we switch to conventional tackle and fish the first two hours of the incoming tide with small jigs, flies or bait as water deepens where clam or mussel gleaners' efforts act as chum. Poke poling isn't difficult once you understand the technique. Fish and eels that live in rocky reefs or shelter in kelp generally lurk and ambush dinner in much the same way a black bass waits under a snag for passing bluegills. A bait under your quarry's nose keys action. Deep probing in cracks or under heavy kelp does this best.

Beginners find poke poling easy to start, but those who watch old pros who know the rocks best in action rapidly develop a case of "instant humble!" As is the case with stream trout, certain holes produce trip after trip at the same water level. So each time you visit you learn new productive spots. As a result, you take more fish if you fish the reef nearest home. You should take more fish than you would find at "more productive" spots you cover once or twice a year.

On your first trip to a new area it's wise to climb up to look down from a high point -- rocky reefs, by their nature, are found off high bluffs -- and get a general idea of the layout of the connecting channels and tide pools they produce. Deeper water's darker, and Polaroid glasses let you spot kelp, rocks and other landmarks. NOTE: some find a sketch map useful when exploring larger reefs.

When you get out on the rocks never, never pass up a deep hole. Even cracks only a foot wide at the top can widen out to two or even three feet at the bottom and could hold a substantial fish or shellfish. Crabs are not unknown on the West Coast; the system also takes lobsters in some East Coast locations. Do check local regulations and limits. In California, for example, you need a fishing license. As a rule, the best spots seem to connect to deeper water channels. Don't miss rocky tide pools or any size hole with kelp or sand bottom spots where you can see small fish hiding. In the last case it's not unusual to take nice flounder or flatfish which blends with or buries itself under the sand.

Do take the time to move bait slowly along cracks and cover, but don't invest more than a minute or so per spot. Rocky reef cod, rockfish, eels, perch, capazone and flatfish don't seem picky and most bite immediately. So move systematically over the reef and you should take an assortment of fine fish that offer the makings of a nifty French or Italian fish soup. Add a few clams or mussels if "red tides" haven't caused a quarantine, as can be the case in hot weather, and you can enjoy a gourmet delight at a minimum price.

As with shellfish, the lower the tide the better the results as new habitat gets exposed by receding waters. But any + .5 or lower tide offers fair chances. Do realize that storms and onshore winds can delay or cancel tidal ebbs.

As always, weekend trips find more crowded conditions on the reefs than mid-week visits if there's shore access, but if you boat in, you have the whole reef to yourself. We do find two day visits most worthwhile so we can clam and poke pole one day and enjoy bottom, bay or ocean fishing the second. Then it's time for cioppino, continues to cook on the table. The only sin is overcooking!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Louis Bignami's written full-time since 1969 and, often with his wife Annette, has written eight cook books, two fishing and more than a dozen other books as well as several thousand magazine articles.