Fishing, or jigging, for squid has become a popular winter sport on fishing piers around Puget Sound, as anglers dream of tasty ways to prepare their catch (as calamari, adobo, and more).

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At midnight on the Des Moines Fishing Pier recently, folks are bunched up and looking antsy. They shuffle their feet, peering down to the surface of the water — waiting.

The prize that lurks below the surface, in dinner terms: calamari; adobo for the Filipinos, pork-stuffed squid for the Vietnamese.

During this time of year, thousands of these slimy, bug-eyed squid lurk in Puget Sound, drawn to the lights along the piers.

To catch some of the tasty tentacles, anglers use a jig that looks like a small fish, moving when they flick their rods.

You can tell when a school of squid comes. Any clowning around on the pier stops. A guy stomps out his Marlboro with his boot. Folks put down their thermoses of coffee and take on a look of purpose.

You can see their breaths. You can smell the funky tide come in. The brutal chill scares off very few of the anglers, bundled up in Gore-Tex and ski masks, leaning against the railing under lamp posts for three hours or even six.

Those with experience reel in two per minute, the squid squirting ink like crazy along the pier.

Started with immigrants

This is a dead-of-winter sport, squid jigging. Started around Puget Sound mostly by Asian immigrants and refugees 30 years ago, it now has gone mainstream.

In the late 1990s, the chatter along piers among squid jiggers was mostly in Tagalog, Vietnamese or Laotian. Now, you’re likely to see people of any ethnicity standing shoulder to shoulder with the Asian Americans and Asian immigrants along Elliott Bay, or farther south in Redondo Beach, or up north along the Edmonds waterfront.

The little secret that Pacific squid migrate to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound every winter to spawn was known to few anglers back in the 1950s, said Ken Chew, a former commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

That changed in 1975 after the Vietnam War. A flood of Southeast Asian refugees relocated to the Seattle area, fishing the waterfront for squid just as they did in their homeland. “It was not so much for sport but for food,” said Chew, former associate dean of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.

Other factors helped. The state Fish and Wildlife agency installed fishing piers in Seattle, Edmonds, Tacoma and other areas by the late 1970s. The Sound was flush with squid during the early 1980s after El Niño weather hit. Word got out.

In 1994, Fish and Wildlife started regulating squid jigging. The current daily limit is 10 pounds per person.

Catching them

Linc’s Tackle Shop in Seattle’s Chinatown International District was the first in the state to sell jigs, in 1981.

“It’s just booming now,” said Jerry Beppu, owner of the shop. “You see a lot of Caucasians out there now squidding, especially the Italians. Once people get in their heads that this is calamari, that they’ve had it before in restaurants, they want it. When we started selling jigs, we sold 5,000 jigs a year. Now everybody is trying to make their own jigs.”

Jigs are 2- to 3-inch pieces of plastic or lead wrapped in a glowing or reflective coating with hooks. A squid will snatch the neon-green or hot-pink jigs and get ensnared in the hooks.

The squid are drawn by light, especially the lighted piers. Anglers bring lights to plug in at the pier or into portable generators, hanging them along the railing to shine onto the surface.

The squid, 6 to 9 inches long, typically migrate to South Puget Sound from mid-November to mid-February. Many anglers believe the peak time to fish is December to early February, before high tides.

Tasty daydreams

Back at Des Moines, about 50 anglers have been on the fishing pier since three hours before high tide. Covered head to toe against the chill, they squash in along the railing and throw their lines of jigs 10 to 15 feet deep, flicking the rods up and down.

Easy pickings, no fight — it’s not like reeling in a steelhead. Squid latch onto the jigs with their arms. A squid’s only defense is shooting ink.

Randy Madrid, a Filipino American from Beacon Hill, has been at it six hours. The pier is splattered with ink spots. “That’s a good sign,” Madrid says, smiling. Anglers have been catching a lot in recent days, he says.

Madrid is thinking maybe adobo for dinner: squid simmered in soy sauce and vinegar, sauteed in garlic and onions. Served over rice.

Nearby, Michael James, of Des Moines, is thinking a flash fry. Nothing beats fresh squid right out of the water. You’ll never want them frozen from the seafood aisle again, James says.

With about a dozen squid each in their buckets, they still have a ways to go for a family dinner.

So they continue. James, his hands numbingly cold, refuses to call it a night. Just a few more, he says.

James reels in one. So does Madrid. “Here they come,” Madrid says. “Here they come.”

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or On Twitter @tanvinhseattle.