Once a year, or maybe every four years — no one knows for sure — jumbo squid make their creepily delightful presence felt in the coastal waters off Southern California. When that happens, Captain Jack Van Dyke of Dana Wharf Sportfishing in Dana Point ferries people out to catch them.
One evening approximately 16 days into this season's squid news cycle, Van Dyke is on his boat, contemplating the blobby red animals that have lately been occupying his time. Misconceptions abound. Jumbo squid, aka Dosidicus gigas, or Humboldt squid, or diablo rojo, have a reputation as creatures of the night. But Van Dyke has caught them in the middle of the day. He's also seen them in the early morning, sitting on the surface of the water, hundreds of little heads popping up like carrots in a field.
Some people believe the cold brings them out. Which is sort of true. “We tend to catch 'em in the middle of wintertime,” Van Dyke allows. “But I've caught them in the summer. So you're talking a 30-degree water temperature change.” You can't count on them at any particular time of the year: “They could be out there in the canyon at 2,000 feet, year-round.”
This current run is occurring during a bitter-cold spell. Winds were at gale force the other night. Waves were crashing over the deck. “You had to be crazy or wanted to catch squid really bad to come out,” he says. The torture paid off; squid were everywhere.
People like to think the squid arrive every four years. Van Dyke shakes his head. “We can go 10 years and not ever see one. Then it can be every year.”
Checking his records, there's no rhyme or reason. Day, night, temperature, season, currents, tidal conditions — it's different every season.
Seasons can be short. Or abundant, like this one, where they've been catching them hand over fist. The Dana Wharf Sportfishing boats pulled in 15 squid the first night, 700 the next, then 1,000. Some were bigger than dachshunds. But the next day, the entire fleet caught only one squid. “They just weren't hungry,” Van Dyke says. “We couldn't trigger them to feed.”
Squid keep their own weird counsel. Van Dyke tells of boats catching nothing, until out of nowhere the squid go “full speed” into a feeding frenzy. They'll even attack the boat. Getting on the radio during such times, Van Dyke has found that squid have started biting simultaneously at boats up and down the coast, miles apart.
How do they manage it? Maybe it's visual. These squid have big eyes relative to their body size, though Van Dyke doubts they can see underwater for miles. He shrugs. He's a naturalist, not a scientist. By no means is he a squid specialist. He's actually more of a bass guy: “I couldn't tell you what goes on with these squid, what their abilities are.”
Humboldt squid are known as aggressive animals. But how aggressive is a matter of debate. They use their tentacles — which are lined with suckers that are ringed in teeth — to grab prey and drag it toward a sharp, parrotlike beak. They approach fast, tentacles extended in a cone, like arms shooting out for the world's worst hug.
Some people say Humboldts are mean bastards. Some say they're only aggressive while feeding and are otherwise passive. Some believe they're more curious than anything.
Van Dyke, who is 42, has been fishing out of Dana Point since he was 12. He was driving a boat before he learned to drive a car. In two decades of professional experience, 17 of them running boats out of this landing, he has arrived at exactly zero theories.
Aggressive squid make for crazy fishing, with slimy, dark ink squirting everywhere, coating the deck. Van Dyke has to close off the galley so people don't track the stuff in there: “It's a melee.” But, “when they're that aggressive, it's very easy to catch them,” he adds.
“Easy,” however, is a relative term. Fish will wiggle and fight back. But squid are dead weight. One local angler likens it to “hauling a five-pound can of paint up a 20-story building.” And that's if you manage to hook them. Sometimes the multipronged hooks of a typical squid jig tear right through their soft bodies.
Squid are not picky eaters. The sides of the boat, the jigs, krill, blinky lights, glow-in-the-dark, water-activated LED strobes, your finger, each other — it's all on the menu. “They're cannibals,” Van Dyke says. “They seem to devour themselves and everything in their path. It's bizarre.”
In fact, fishermen often bait squid with smaller squid. Market squid, the kind that calamari comes from, are particularly excellent. Van Dyke calls them gumballs. “We call it the candy of bait. Every species love to eat it.”
What triggers the feeding, however, is a mystery as deep and old as the sea itself. Better, perhaps, to ask what stops a squid from feeding. Do squid know fear? One sunset, Van Dyke was catching them when he noticed four blue whales circling the boat. He's pretty sure the whales were eating the squid: “So while the squid are eating, they're getting eaten.
“The average depth of the ocean is a mile and two-thirds,” he adds. “It's so expansive, who knows what's going on out there. It's like our own little outer space. There's a tremendous amount we don't know.”
Just the other day, for instance, he saw a pod of dolphin types that supposedly won't swim together: a common dolphin, a bottlenose and a Risso. “They tend not to like each other, is what I was told. From what I saw in 20 years of being out in the ocean, that information was true.”
Yet there they were, swimming together harmoniously. “Stuff like that blows the scientists' theories of what happens out here.”
Where the squid will be at any given moment is the question of the hour. Soon, passenger loading commences — 30 souls board the Dana Pride. As the boat takes off, Captain Van Dyke dispenses with a few economic details: On a per-squid basis, cleaning costs $3, or $1 if you “just want to yank the guts out.”
One fisherman, Paul, explains that he's been waiting days to book his passage, ever since reports of the squid's reappearance started. He figured he'd let the little ones clear out, then pounce when the big ones come to town. The thought of fresh calamari brings a gleam to Paul's eye. He likes to split the squid open, filet it, slice it like bacon and fry it in butter or olive oil. “A little salt. Little pepper. It's the best,” he concludes. “That's why we all do this.”
For hours, Captain Van Dyke drives the boat around and around, chasing phantoms on the sonar. Each time he finds them, the fishermen cast their lines. And each time, the squid refuse to bite.
“Sorry, folks,” Van Dyke finally says. “Looks like squid season is over.”
Paul reels in his line with a sigh that seems to bubble up from the very depths of his soul. There may be plenty of fish in the sea, but apparently there are slightly fewer jumbo squid.