I know a charter fisherman named Captain Johnny that protects his secret fishing spots with a tenacity that borders on psychosis. He lingers at the harbor in the morning, often feigning some problem with his engine while the rest of the fleet races to the fishing grounds.

“Look at them go,” he says. And as the last boat disappears around the breakwater, the captain waves at no one and sings “bye bye!”

With a maniacal eye, Johnny scans the remaining boats in the harbor, doing his best to make sure nobody is watching his next move. When he finally motors out toward open water, he turns hard to port and heads in the opposite direction as the rest of the fleet.

On one trip, the captain suddenly turned toward diving birds in the distance and said, “I’ve been watching this spot for a few days. I think it might be ready.”

As we entered the first drift, baitfish thrashed at the surface in such quantity that it transformed the calm surface into a boiling froth. From all around, screeching gulls dropped from the sky like winged hailstones. Each would vanish momentarily beneath the churning sea before emerging with a small fish; their salt-laden wings struggling to beat against wave and current before rising toward the flapping horde.

I hooked into a bright coho right next to the boat. It jumped entirely out of the water and fell headlong against the transom, leaving it momentarily stunned as the net swooped in to collect it. After one more drift and one more fish, Johnny said to reel up the lines. It was time to go.

“If someone sees me here, they will come over and catch all of these fish,” he explained. “This is a rainy-day spot. When the fish stop biting everywhere else, I know I can catch some here.”

On another outing with Johnny, we were struggling to find fish. The rest of the fleet was faring no better, which we knew because the good captain eavesdropped on every vessel-to-vessel radio conversation he could.

He looked in my direction with his chin up and a diabolical expression in his eyes.

“I know a secret spot.”

Johnny got on his knees and dove headlong into the hold. Beneath piles of newspapers and stacks of tackle boxes, he uncovered a tiny, tattered notepad with nothing more than a 29-cent price tag sticker on the cover.

He climbed back into the captain’s chair and thumbed through the pages. Many were blank. Some featured rough sketches of crabs, birds, and other various doodles that were open to interpretation. Johnny eventually found the page he was looking for. On it was a series of random numbers scribbled diagonally across the horizontal lines. He set it down next to his electronic chart plotter – a piece of equipment costing thousands of dollars that can pinpoint and store endless quantities of fishing spots.

I asked him why he didn’t keep this particular secret spot hidden in his chart plotter. He turned to me with one eyebrow raised. In a dire and humorless tone he said, “One of the other captains will break onto my boat at night and steal it.”

Johnny punched the coordinates into the plotter. Then he closed the notebook, placed it back into the hold, and covered it up with all of the various items that had been there before.

It took 40 minutes to get to the spot. Ten minutes later, the boat was in a state of chaos. Three out of four fisherman were hooked up on big kings. I was one of them. Fish were flying into the boat at manic speed. In less than an hour everyone had their limit of ocean-run Chinooks and were targeting coho closer to the surface. Somewhere amidst the ceaseless action, I noticed a fishing vessel close to the horizon.

Johnny said, “Reel ‘em up! I don’t want anyone to see me over here.”

Is Captain Johnny certifiable? Paranoid to the point of delusional? Is it really necessary to go to such lengths to protect a secret fishing spot?

After our day of fishing, I asked Johnny his thoughts on the matter.

He led me into the kitchen and stood by the sink. He leaned in close and spoke in a near-whisper. Then he dropped some wisdom.

Say I fill this sink with water and buy two fish to keep inside. I feed these fish every day, and in a month I notice there are eight fish. In another month there are 16 fish, and eventually there are 30 fish. This is the most fish I can have in this sink, so I think to myself, ‘I’ll take eight or 10 fish out of here and sell them, then in a few weeks I will once again have 30 fish.

I know that once a month I can take eight or 10 fish out of the sink and sell them, so I manage them this way so that I keep making money and always have fish. 

Now what happens if someone comes into my house and takes all of the fish that  I worked so hard to produce, and then sells them? Now there are no fish for me, no fish for anyone else, and all of the fish are gone forever… 

Fishing spots are like this sink. They can only hold so many fish at a given time. Some spots are good for catching one or two fish. Others are good for catching more, but you have to let them be for a week or a month or a year so the fish can replenish themselves. 

I worked to find these spots and I understand the limitations of each one… This is why I always know when another captain steals one of the spots I worked to find; because I go back there and all of the fish are gone. 

Why? Since this other captain didn’t have to work for it, he goes in and catches all of the fish he can, and then there is nothing left for anyone.

Most captains aren’t very good fishermen, which means the only way they can survive in the charter business is to be good thieves.

Catching fish is fun, but the art is in the finding. So, if you find that your fisherman-friend is less than eager to share the location of their favorite spot, you may just have to earn their trust. I recommend starting with a six pack of beer and an offer to pay for gas money.