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This is the bar over which 25 commercial fishermen tried to run in a storm a couple of decades ago. Four lived to tell what happened. Half a dozen ships have died here, scattering their cargoes over 100 miles of beach. In less than 15 years, 38 deaths by drowning, most of them in the bar area, have been recorded at Westport.
But a surprising number of the kickers make it. They go too fast, losing control. They come out with insufficient gasoline, no oars, their controls tied together with string. They operate with only a vague idea of where the channel is, with life preservers which wouldn't preserve a damp caterpillar.
They get back through pea-soup fogs which can drop down in minutes, or in winds that come up even faster. If they don't, the patrol goes after them, most of the time beats the ocean to its victims. Last year the Coast Guard rescued 34 persons from drowning, hauled in 600 people who would have had a long swim; gave major assistance to 19 craft and minor aid to 254 others.
Do statistics like these act as a deterrent? Not to these fishermen. So scores of 16-foot outboards come skittering out of the bay every weekend, not content to wait for tide or weather. Pump? Distress flare? Compass? What do you think we are, sissies?
Hell, man, the fish are biting out there. We've no time to fuss with details.
Perhaps it is because everybody understands a little of the excitement when a 40-pound king salmon decides that your herring is just what he wants for lunch. (This is mooching water, best fished with a 15-pound test line, a 10-pound leader, and a couple of ounces of lead, dangled from a drifting boat so that the water motion gives the bait natural action, or stripped slowly if the water is too calm.)
A king puts up a nice fight, anywhere, but those of Westport run bigger and more hostile than most. With a nice sea heaving, a medium king can use up a couple of hundred yards of line before he takes his second wind. After that, it's a finish fight for half an hour, or three times that long if you're using lighter tackle. Kings weighing 63 pounds have been taken here, but not without an argument.
The Westport attraction is obvious from the chamber of commerce figures—46,000 kings and 22,000 silvers taken by sports fishermen in the 1955 checking season alone. Good fishing begins early in June and lasts through September, with few dull periods.
Of course, the fish have always been there, but the real oddity of this fishing is that virtually nobody did it before 1950. A sports troller from inside Grays Harbor now and then would drag a plug or some hardware out as far as the bar—but no farther. The water out there was much too dangerous. Then some unremembered adventurer heaved a herring overboard, just at the tips of the jetties, and let it wiggle. The results were too spectacular to keep to himself; and by 1951, the word had spread—everywhere except to the sleepy village of Westport. When would-be sports fishermen arrived, they found no boats, no restaurants, virtually no town. A dozen commercial trollers, safe but unhandsome, bowed to the pressure of bills being waved in the air, took out sports fishermen—and could hardly believe their cash take by the end of the season. A couple of carpenters quickly knocked together some rental skiffs that winter, and the rush was on.
Today, Westport has 1,000 inhabitants, all happily engaged in serving the sports fisherman, one way or another, and at a price. A dozen motels, several restaurants and two bars offer beds, food and solace for bad fishing days. Eighty charter boats, capable of carrying some 500 fishermen at about $10 each for six hours of fishing, operate on a bring-your-own-bait-and-chow basis.