Story last updated at 4/24/2013 - 2:44 pm
Many of my friends have stories of encounters with an octopus, that tentacle-legged mollusk of the seas. The Giant North Pacific Octopi (Webster says I can use octopuses but it sounds strange) are the largest of any octopus species in the world and some grow as big as 70 to 100 pounds, with an occasional one that goes over 100. At my Lunch Gang about a month ago we learned an invertebrate that large can produce some weird, scary, and funny stories.
This all started when Dennis Bartlett came in from a brown king crab opening. I asked him if he caught any octopi. It is a by-catch for many of the pot fisheries. "Yes, four, the biggest was about 35 pounds. The biggest I have ever caught in a pot was 47 pounds." Fishermen like Dennis, who also fish for halibut, say the best bait is octopus. The tentacles are tough and stay on the hooks, so he saves his for bait.
That reminded Frank Teague about a time when he was saving octopi for halibut fishing. He had his two young sons with him. He would send Pat down to the freezer with the octopus that had been forced into a sack. "Put it in the freezer." Pat made several trips down to the freezer. All was quiet on the deck until the most awful scream filled the air. Frank rushed into the boat's interior. The octopus had gotten out of the sack and when Pat opened the door, the creature slithered out and immediately wrapped a tentacle around the young boy's leg. He had his leg in the air trying to shake the suckers on the arm off, still screaming. "We weren't much help," Frank said. "We were doubled over with laughter."
Dennis' comment: "You have to kill them first or that happens." I asked how do you kill an octopus. "Most people grab the mantle and pull it up over the beak and eyes." Really? The first time I dealt with an octopus, my son brought home only a 4-foot tentacle after diving near Ketchikan. He threw it in my sink. My theory is, "If you don't know what to do with things, procrastinate." When I returned to the kitchen, this lone tentacle was heading out of the sink and onto the counter.
The conversation progressed from there to the late Diana Tillion, of Halibut Cove, who used a wash of octopus ink in her art. She used a squirt bottle of Clorox and knew what rocks, at low tide, an octopus would be living. She gave a squirt, grabbed the octopus, and I forgot to ask how she milked the black ink, and then she'd rinse it off and put it back by its hole. My painting has a soft, almost misty off-brown tone, not the black of the ink that an octopus squirts to confuse its followers.
Dennis had another story that took place at Vichnefski Rock in the middle of Sumner Strait at the convergence of Clarence Strait. It is a favorite halibut site for Wrangellites. Two guys were out in a Lund skiff, maybe 16- or 18- foot, and one of them got the mother of all halibut on his line. He tugged and tugged and talked about his big fish and what he'd do with it. Near the surface, the "mother of all octopi" sent up its tentacles on both sides of the skiff encircling it. Dennis didn't mention whether the tentacles were searching around for anything, like the men, in the boat. As good fisherman do, they had their fillet knives sharpened, and they began to saw on the tentacles that were, and Dennis demonstrated, "This big!" About three or four inches in diameter. Apparently they made the octopus unhappy enough to relax the section cups on the bottom of each tentacle, and it drifted back to the bottom.
Not to be outdone, Frank Teague told us of when he was in the service in Bellingham. Puget Sound has also has the giant species of octopi mainly in the Strait of Juan de Fuca separating the U.S. from Vancouver Island, Canada. One had worked its way down the inland waters to the military base. A big ship was being taken out of the water, and hard-helmeted divers were under the boat to be certain the blocks were in the correct place to stabilize the ship. The men onshore suddenly lost contact with one of the divers, so immediately more divers were sent down to see what was wrong. One of those huge octopi had encircled the man and all his gear with its tentacles. An Octopus Hug. The helmet was about to come off. Fortunately the divers were able to save the man, but if they hadn't found the man, the octopus would have won.
Of course, I had to come back with another story. At Nichols Bay on the south end of Prince of Wales Island near Cape Chacan, a steam launch anchored for the night in 1937. In the morning an octopus was found entwined in the propeller and stalled the engine when it was started. The men were able to get it off. It measured more than "25 feet from tip to tip" of extended arms.
"That doesn't win any points. We'd consider it if it had tried to get aboard," said my Lunch Gang. After lunch I checked a scientific website and it told of one "23-foot-tip-to-tip" octopus weighing 156 pounds.
"Okay, how about my aunt's story," I try again. She worked at the Seattle aquarium as a volunteer and enjoyed watching the large octopus. One of the workers told her that the staff was really worried about the fish and other sea critters in the neighboring viewing area. Some were getting so thin as if they weren't getting enough food. And a few of the slower species were disappearing. A staff member finally sat up all night watching. The octopus had found a tiny crack in the thick windows and oozed all that mass through, had a big midnight snack, and slithered back, then looked innocent in its own display next morning. My aunt told me that octopi can go anywhere their beaks (mouths) can fit through.
"Enough is enough," and we paid our bills.
Now it's time to tell tame stories: We often bring small octopi up in our shrimp pots from about 300 to 400 feet. We put a "6-foot-tip-to-tip" specimen on the back deck for our grandkids to examine. It was interesting to see the color change from soft pink, almost death pale, and then suddenly bright red. We checked out how the suction cups work, and tried to estimate the strength of the tentacles as they were lifted up to search the environment. I couldn't answer "Do they squirt black ink when out of water?" We've not seen one do so.
The last shrimp pot we pulled had another octopus in it. If it had a mouth, it would have grinned at us. There were 24 carapaces from large stripes in the pot. Everything was gone from "our" dinner! We tossed the creature and its full stomach overboard to search for someone else's pots.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.