There are sites that are so fantastic that you would like to dive them every week. However, many of the “best” sites are often exposed to the prevailing wind and swell and can only be enjoyed on that rare, exceptionally calm day. For the past three years I have scouted the coast between Fort Bragg and Mendocino looking for seldom dived sites with superior prospects for game hunting. One area I frequently examined was the shoreline along the northern portion of Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. My heart was regularly broken when the coastline looked so promising, but the surf was too big to attempt the dive. Then one day in August the stars aligned and the ocean provided me with one of those special days, where you could dive anywhere.
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a very picturesque State Park in the heart of Mendocino County. The name “Jug Handle” is sometimes spelled as a single word, and the creek and reserve take their name from the shape of the bend in the old road that crosses the creek.
There are many entries at Jug Handle. Many take the path to the north from the main parking lot and enter through the large, sandy cove. This is the preferred spot to launch kayaks. Others hike to the rocky point to the south, or park off of Highway 1 north of the main parking lot and hike to one of the many rarely dived and exposed entries.
The inshore area is a highly textured rocky reef. There are large boulders and rocky fingers that provide ample hiding spots for a large, healthy population of abalone and other sea critters. A thick growth of palm and bull kelp covers most of the rocky areas in summer and fall, but there is normally little to no kelp in the spring and in areas with a lot of urchins.
Swim a bit farther offshore to find a rock and sand patch reef. The rocks here are massive, and jut up five to 15 feet off the 10- to 40-foot bottom. This is perfect habitat for both invertebrates and fish life. Beneath the layer of kelp is a surprisingly colorful reef. I found more nudibranchs here than many other North Coast dive sites, and there were a lot of colorful encrusting sponges and fish-eating anemones.
While this is a pretty spot for photographers to explore, most divers come here for dinner. This reserve has one of the highest concentrations of game fish on the North Coast. There were large cabezons, kelpfish, greenlings, and several species of rockfish in depths that were easily accessible to freedivers. A fair number of large lingcod sat out in plain view. While I did not hunt for fish that day, the divers I met in the parking lot had stringers of fish that they had every right to be proud of.
The entire area sports a very healthy population of red abalone. The abalones in the main cove tend to be smaller, but divers should look under the layer of palm kelp or back in cracks to find larger animals.
Any trophy abalone hunter will advise you to seek out spots that are normally too rough to dive, and dive them when conditions are calm. They will also tell you to seek out places with very few, but large abalone, as you are unlikely to find very big abalone among small abalone.
On this special day in August I chose an entry north of the main parking area that I scouted on previous trips. There were a fair number of divers in the area, and all of these were locals. I went straight to a particularly shallow patch where there were no other divers, and began hunting. There were very few abalones there, but two were over 9.5 inches, and one was over 10.
While the diving, particularly game diving, at Jug Handle is great, it is also a great place for nondivers and hikers. There is a nice beach for picnicking, and a 2.5-mile trail that takes you through a series of marine terraces, ending in a pygmy forest. These terraces were formed by successive changes in sea level over the last several million years.
Skill Level: Beginner from the cove, advanced from points north and south of the cove.
Location: About a mile north of Caspar and equidistant between Mendocino and Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.
Access: Park in the paved lot at mile marker 56.00, and follow the 100-yard trail to the north and take the stairs to the beach, or follow the 300-yard trail to the cove south of the main cove. Alternatively, park off the road at mile marker 57.00 and take the 300-yard trail to several entry points. Otherwise, turn west on Jefferson Way and park at the end of the road. A level, 150-yard trail takes you to a rocky point, dive there or walk south to a couple of small coves.
Facilities: Toilets are located in the main parking lot, nothing at the alternate entries. There are plenty of campgrounds, motels, restaurants, and high-end B&Bs in the area.
Entry and Exit: Relatively easy entry from the main beach and the smaller cove to the south.
Depth Range: 10 to 50 feet
Conditions: Highly variable
Visibility: 10 to 60 feet
Photography: Good macro and wide-angle photo opps.
Hunting: Abalone hunting, spearfishing for rockfish, lingcod and surfperch.
Cautions: Watch for big surf and thick kelp.