Fish Bumming Through Southeast Alaska
By Terry W. Sheely
For several years I’d been intrigued by the dream of exploring Southeast Alaska by boat, anchoring out, fishing, crabbing and shrimping on the move, going from point to reef, island to rip line; every day a new search for something new.
Last year I got serious and broke out the maps, charts and brochures and told my fishing buddy Jim Goerg what I had in mind. He jumped at the chance.
From the start the intriguing scrabble of protected inside waters out of Alaska’s landlocked capital city Juneau seemed to offer the variety, fishing potential and attractions that I was looking for.
Chinook, coho, chum, pinks and sockeye salmon migrating toward spawning rivers are constantly on the move. So why not follow the runs, stay on top of the moving action instead of waiting on a new run to arrive.
Our plan became an odyssey through Alaska history, blue ice bergs, a curiously unique salmon hatchery, a rock and roll docking in a lonesome marine park, fresh crab, fresher silvers, ling cod, halibut, monster yellow-eye, whales and a moving feast of Alaskan scenery, lodges and shifting diversions.
First stop was Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.traveljuneau.com) where Director Lorene Palmer and Tourism Marketing Manager Elizabeth Arnett produced a staggering list of options. In front of us were chances to investigate the coves, points, islands and fjords of Southeast, sightsee like a tourist, check out a few lodges and new fishing areas, feast on Dungeness crabs and fly home with fresh fillets—both pink and white. We planned to use boat gear instead of brining our own and it worked out fine.
With the reference materials, fishing areas and travel opportunities that we uncovered we could have planned a dozen different trips and not covered the same water twice. We finally settled on a plan and five days in mid-August that would start on a tug boat, pass through a Whale’s Eye, and follow a hot fishing path through elfin country on a the 34-foot “Can Can” with Case Harris, a fish master specializing in “anything you want.”
“All of our adventures,” he says with a grin, “are customized. One to four days fishing, lodge hopping, sightseeing, hot spotting salmon runs. "You tell us”. Case will guide the long last leg of our itinerary.
Our Southeast sabbatical starts and finishes in Juneau with us looking for bears from the boardwalk at Mendenhall Glacier and finding prawns at the Twisted Fish.
In the rain in Aurora Basin boat harbor we throw duffle onto the 42-foot Nordic tug, MV/Legend, (www.alaskalegendcharters.com ) and meet owner/operator Dave Carnes and mate Kurt Dzinich. Several Nordic tug operators are based in Juneau and rent as self-guided, BYOB, food and gear bare boats. The Legend is not one of those. “Our niche” Carnes says, “is just two packages: a bareboat with skipper or fully chartered with everything. Bareboat you bring the food, fishing gear, buy fuel, and the rest. Fully chartered you bring your luggage. I do the rest.”
His charter, he says, is “to see Alaska in different stages, sightseeing, cruising, history tour, salmon and bottom fishing. We’re for people who don’t want to do the cruise ship thing.”
Unlike renovated tugs enjoying second lies as floating resorts after a career of pushing ships, “The Legend” was built specifically for chartering and it shows--12 KW generator, microwave, freezer, refrigerator, three burner electric stove, two staterooms, one with a king-size bed in the bow the other with stacked twin berths, a settee with dark blue leather, and a teak and brass interior polished to a golden amber.
As we shove off fog swirls like a misty belt around Mount Roberts hiding the famous tram. Rain splatters the docks and Jim and I are chewing on the news that just a few days before we arrived the ADFG earned the wrath of non-residents everywhere by imposing a temporary 48-inch minimum limit on chinook salmon applicable only to non-residents. Locals still have a minimum of 28 inches. The non-resident minimum is a fish of a lifetime—a 50 to 60 pounder easy. We’ll be fishing for silvers.
Dave says we’re headed for Taku Harbor 17 miles south of Juneau, at a blistering 9.5 knots. Polished blue chunks of broken glaciers drift past, some of the icebergs are the size of yachts. Humpback whales give us the eye and fluke slaps. At Taku we’ll tie up at the public at the Taku Marine Park wharf, walk across a beach carpeted with clams and shellfish, set crab pots and stare into the mist at a black bear bolting across the yellowish kelp into a green forest of head-high beach grass.
Dave noses the Legend up to Scar Face a 3,254’ cliff. Glacial striations cross the face in huge white welts and in spring, he says, mountain goats push newborn kids onto the cliff face defying gravity and wolves. At the base the saltwater is 430-feet deep.
Twenty miles into the mountains is Canada and closer is imposing Taku Glacier which is advancing, irrevocably, toward a narrow neck at the mouth of Taku River where fish mangers worry that it will eventually seal off the river and eliminate one of Southeast’s most productive commercial sockeye fisheries.
At Slocum Creek we pass two float planes unloading seven fly fishermen to play with pinks. We wet our first lines at Butler Point, and we’re the only boat there. Squalls bounce around the inlet like sodden pinballs and the wind is building. Jim is feeding out line and still holding the downrigger release when our first silver strikes. Dave is untangling the boat net when I hook its twin. Both are fat, short 12 pounders. Jim catches another and I cracker one at the boat, all on orange-headed plastic hoochies sweetened with herring strips.
It’s crazy at the state dock, winds swirling at 38 knots, forcing Dave to make three passes before the big boat noses close enough to rope a line. The beach is a shatter of little necks, butter clams, cockles, and tangles of blue mussels. We set crab pots in the white caps.
The wind is still smacking us sideways when the skipper puts on the filet mignon. The next day the air has cleared enough to see snow-streaked mountains on Admiralty Island. Breakfast will be a concoction of eggs poured into pockets in a homemade hash. It resembles twin rows of golden globes treading in a puddle of meat and potatoes.
While breakfast bakes we move south, past more blue glaciers, to Port Snettisham where a power plant and hatchery are embedded in the mountain at the mouth of the Speel River.
The shoreline is vertical and scarred with glacier tracks. In April a monster avalanche swept away 5 miles of power lines and plunged Juneau into the dark and onto backup generators for more than a month. We snag a skiff off the mooring buoy and follow a piling row up channel to Snettisham Hatchery, one of the largest sockeye producers in the world—turning out 8 million smolts a year to feed commercial industries of 10 tribes, two nations, one state and one province. A purse seiner strains the water in front of the hatchery. “You can fish around the net” hatchery manager Kevin Steck says, “but keep an eye out for bears.” We look into the fog and decline.
Back at Juneau Rick Bierman is waiting for us. Rick his wife Karen and son Jessie operate Whale’s Eye Lodge (www.juneaualaskafishing.com ) off the grid on roadless Shelter Island, a 30 minute boat ride from Juneau. Karen calls their remote operation, a “micro-lodge adventure,” self-sufficient, and room for 6 guests. “Could be tough fishing,” Rick warns, and he’s right. His fishing area is stalled between silver runs. In June Gastineau offers a great chinook fishery allowing four hatchery kings a day that do not count against the nonresident daily or annual king bag limit. Those kings are past and the silvers are late.
We pot some crabs and I luck into a stray 12-pound coho off Point Retreat Lighthouse on the north tip of Admiralty Island but it’s dead slow. The water temperature is 10 degrees colder than normal, the silver run two weeks late.
It can be dynamite fishing here, we know that. On several occasions Jim and I have crossed the eyes of silvers, pinks, chums and chinook in these waters. Back at the dock the rumor is that the big run of silvers is hanging outside still in the ocean at the mouth of Icy Strait.
Normally if I land at a lodge between salmon runs it makes me a tad antsy, but not today. Tonight we’ll enjoy Rick and Karen’s hospitality, the two-room guesthouse on the edge of a whale trail in Saginaw Channel soak up the calendar view of the Chilkat Mountains.
And we’ll dive elbow-deep into decadent home cooking that Karen creates on her grandmother’s antique wood-fired cook stove-- crab enchiladas, barbeque beef, homemade cheesecake, heaps of blueberry fluff.
Tomorrow Jim and I intend to get serious about going to the fish....wherever they may be.
We leave Whale’s Eye Lodge on board the 35-foot Can Can with Case Harris of Alaskan Marine Adventures (www.AlaskanMarineAdventures.com) and head out Icy Strait on a run to find fish.
Harris’s operation is key to our Southeast odyssey. Alaska Marine Adventures put together 1 to 4 day trips, and Case’s preference is what he calls “Lodge Hopping”, stopping and sometimes overnighting at different lodges while cruising inside waters cherry picking salmon runs, halibut bites, adding ling cod, yellow eye, and rockfish—dropping shrimp and crab pots then moving on, jumping from point to point, with whale watching, wildlife and scenic stops filling in the blanks.
Anchored out, the Can Can sleeps 4 comfortably, 5 in a pinch and fishes up to 6. The run is smooth. Humpback whales, sea lions, seals, eagles and sea birds are constantly in view. The further west we go, the thicker the air gets. Fog and mist drip out of the overcast.
We cruise through humpbacks at Port Adolphus, pass the outpost town of Gustavus, and cross the halibut flat at the mouth of Glacier Bay National Park where a weak sun shines on glaciers in the Fairweather Range.
Off the bow, marbled murrelets lift from gray water as smooth as true cod skin. Mud Bay slide past on the north end of Chichagof Island, and Jim shakes his head. Two years ago he and I were stranded in that bay, isolated on a small island, without a guide, a boat or a gun, surrounded by a 20-foot rising tide that was pushing us toward a nest of small trees on a knob of high ground that we were to share with a brown bear the size of an old Buick.
Case says we’re headed for the curious little community of Elfin Cove which is built on a boardwalk bolted to a
rock wall that forms the diminutive cove where Icy Strait falls into Cross Sound and disappears into the ocean. This, he says, is the “outside” where silvers are rumored to be. It’s also, he says, dynamite halibut, ling and yelloweye fishing.
Case drops the hook on a pinnacle just outside of Elfin and we drop jigs carrying huge chunks of fresh salmon toward halibut 80 to 100 feet down. Through the mist we see small boats trolling for silvers. A sea lion surfaces with a big silver in its mouth.
Several whales circle our boat in some sort of fluke slapping ritual. I catch a large black rockfish. Deckhand Jan Henry, a dive guide from Key West up to Juneau to work the summer, serves marinated chicken and pear pie which is exactly like apple pie without apples.
We swing over a ledge into 110 feet of water and two rods go off. Jim’s is a brilliant red 27-inch yelloweye rockfish, mine is a 34½ inch ling cod. Ling season opened just the day before and my fish skates into the slot limit between 30 and 35 inches.
Our halibut rods are 5’6” Barefoot stand up rods, with roller guides and Penn 338 reels, carrying 24 ounces of round lead, 6/0 Owner circle hooks, 100-pound test Tuff Line with wire leaders. Serious gear.
Rain stops, visibility improves, the tide is churning and we head for the dock and The Cove Lodge (www.covelodge.com) where Jim and I will spend the night soaking up Gordy Wrobel’s hospitality, listening to his guests’ report that the silvers are just moving in, how hard and fast the morning bite came on and taking seconds on a dinner of pork loins and bacon-wrapped shrimp. The Cove Lodge is one of several in Elfin Cove and handles 10 guests with guided fishing.
Originally from Minnesota, Wrobel fished here, fell in love with the place bought it and became the mayor of Elfin Cove--one of its 14 year-round residents and he unabashedly ranks, “the halibut fishing as the best I’ve seen anywhere, sometimes they’re as shallow as 60 feet, sometimes 250 but a lot of halibut in the 100 foot range.”
Outside Wrobel’s front door are ledges and reefs with lings, yelloweye, summer-long migration runs of chinook, coho, and pink salmon, cowboy encounters with salmon sharks and freshwater fishing for Dolly Varden, native bows, cutts, and steelhead. I understand why he never went back to Minnesota.
The community of Elfin Cove is strapped to the rocks at the mouth of the Inside Pass with a daily option of fishing the open ocean or protected inside waters. It’s a choice determined by weather, tides, fish movements and your general inclination.
There are still kings around, Gordy says, but the 48-inch rule is still in place for nonresident fishermen. In the lodge hangs a mount of a 46 inch king—it weighed 64 pounds.
Talk at breakfast is of a wall of migrating coho stacked in Cross Sound at the mouth of Icy Strait. Boat limits by 10 a.m.
We tell Case about the wall of silvers, he cancels the morning halibut hunt and we head for Cross Sound, rigging downrigger rods with coho flies tied with Peacock Krystal Flash on 35-poundGamakatsu mooching rigs, solid tied 5/0 6/0 hook, sweetened with strips of herring on the lead hook. The flies are fished behind green Mylar flashers. Backup rods are readied rigged with blue and white hoochies with winged bobbers spinning on the nose, a slash of herring on the lead hook and blue Mylar flashers.
The incoming tide is littered with kelp, buckskin logs, gull feathers and coho.
Fishing at 50 and 80 feet, Jim and I immediately nail two fish on the peacock flies then another two on the blue and whites. We’re allowed six coho each, the bite is on. The sixth fish turns into a story. I’m on the rod with a coho jumping behind the boat, twice, three times into the air and then a fourth....and that’s when I notice that there’s no flasher. Impossible! The flasher is tied inline ahead of the hooks and if there are hooks in the fish there has to be a flasher! When I finally skate the coho into Case’s net, we see the flasher and squid trailing a good 10 feet back in the water. Apparently my coho simply ran into the line, bucked into the infamous coho twist, and wrapped itself into a full-body tangle with several wraps around the gills and snout. I give a pull on the leader and the fish unrolls like string off a stick.
We keep eight silvers 7 to 12 pounds and go halibut fishing. Case anchors the Can Can in 140 feet of water in Icy Strait near the Porpoise Islands and Jim and I each catch chicken halibut, legal lings and a couple of big yelloweye rockfish. Jan brings out the brunch omelets and we point the bow of the Can Can at Juneau some 85 miles east. Streamers of clouds flow around the mountains cutting off visibility at 400 feet, hanging like strips of ribbon draped across elfin hills and the hobbit hole where anglers are catching halibut and blowing past the Cross Sound entrance. The water is a gray-green and silken. Whales seem to be everywhere.
We’ve got a nice load of white and pink meat in the fish box, 85 miles of protected saltwater fishing to sample
between the ocean and Juneau and a little room left on our halibut and coho limits. Case has picked out a slew of halibut honey holes and salmon slots to fish along the way.
I could get used to being footloose and searching Southeast Alaska for coho silver and halibut ugly with side trips to wildlife, history, scenery and the unexpected.
Off the mouth of Glacier Bay National Park Jim sets the hook in a halibut and grins. In the distance we see terns and gulls diving on a herring ball—a ball undoubtedly pushed up by silvers.