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Clutching their fishing rods like spears, a group of 60 weekend warriors push and nudge their way onto the fishing vessel Freelance in Newport Harbor. At sunset, the boat shoves off.
Miles down the coastline, their quarry swarms and bullies its way through the water: thousands of the tentacled beasts known as Humboldt squid.
The Humboldt squid has been known to appear temporarily along the coastal waters of Southern California, but this group of anglers—men, women and rambunctious children—are seeking an anomaly. For 23 days running as of June 9, the red-purplish squid have been here in force.
Shifting anxiously on their feet, the fishers recount past glories over cans of Bud Light as the 80-footer bobs into the dimming horizon. The more experienced wear rubbers over their shoes, knowing that before this night is over, their feet will be drenched in puke, piss, ink and guts.
Some are clearly landlubbers: A boy standing at the guard rail pukes pink goo into the wind, sending it glopping back onboard and onto the shoes, sleeve and cheek of a shipmate.
"I'm sorry," he says with a sheepish smile. "I feel a lot better now."
Behind the chattering guests, the black void of night swallows everything outside the floodlit deck. Save for beacons from a few circling fishing boats, the darkness is complete.
Inside the captain's cabin sits Freelance's Captain Damon Davis of the Newport Beach-based sportfishing outfit Davey's Locker. He says the abundance and longevity of this current run of squid is unprecedented.
"It's never happened before, ever, that they've been this consistent and for this long," Davis says. "These are just monsters."
The squid can weigh up to 100 pounds and measure 6 feet long. Not much is known about the unpredictable cephalopod, except they are vicious. They are nicknamed "El Diablo Rojo" by Mexican fishermen in the Gulf of California for their predilection for violence and even cannibalism. The squid lives at depths of 660 to 2,300 feet, which is generally unsafe for diving. They only venture to lesser depths at night for frenzied feeding, according to the Smithsonian Institute's National Zoological Park website.
These monsters get their name from the Humboldt current off the west coast of South America and are generally considered warm-water creatures. Some scientists have speculated global warming has allowed the nomadic predators to travel north. Davis, however, doesn't believe there's a correlation. The water on this night is 62 degrees, and he says he's caught them in temperatures as low as 59 degrees.
They seem to be thriving in enormous numbers, even in cold waters, he says. They are numerous, and with the right lure—one that resembles an illuminated dildo covered in metal spikes—they are easy to catch.
"It's kind of like a wide-open slaughter," he says. "It just goes off."
Aided by the sonar, Davis finds what he thinks is a group of the squid; his announcement over the loudspeaker sends the anglers scrambling for their rods.
Silence envelops the boat as the fishers drop their lures into the black water and focus their reflexes as if waiting for a Nolan Ryan fastball. Seconds drip like molasses as they wait, breathlessly, for a bite.
"Gaff!" yells a voice from the starboard side of the boat. A deck hand runs over with a long hooked pole, plunges it into the water and plops out a maroon, pulsating squid. The fishers momentarily forget their own endeavors and watch the 3-footer gasp for water, helplessly wriggle its tentacles and soil itself with its own ink. The squid stares back from a black, unmoving eyeball.
"Gaff!" Another voice. Then another. Then another. "Gaff!" "Gaff!" "Gaff!"
Soon the scene devolves into an orgy of squid. Nearly every pole arches toward the water under the weight of 30-pounders. The squid defiantly spray geysers of water and drench the fishers as they are unceremoniously yanked from the water and slapped on deck. Some fishermen don't bother to place the squid in sacks and are soon ankle-deep, stepping on the writhing, rubbery masses while ducking under one another's fishing poles.
Davis gets on the loudspeaker again and warns people not to catch more than they can use—a warning many ignore. Brown sacks lined up on deck are stuffed and saturated with a greenish substance, the final ink excretions of the dying.
The squid harvest continues for about an hour, until the fishers have pulled in hundreds of them. Rivers of ink flow at their feet; the entire ship reeks of dead and dying marine life.
Davis orders all the lures up, but most have already ceased fishing. Complete strangers swap tales of bouts with the mighty squid with a sense of satisfaction and camaraderie; there had been enough for everybody.
Deck hands gut and clean squid for the better part of two hours. The prepared squid cost $3 apiece.
As the euphoria wears off, the fishers are tired.
Pat Casserly, a 40-year fishing veteran, lights a cigarette and drawls that he caught eight. He plans to give them to co-workers, he says.
"It's not really much fishing—it's more catching," he says. "There's not really much art to it."
For more squid-adventure images, see our slideshow.