Float Plane Adventure For Southeast Salmon, Halibut and Super Cod
Sportsman’s Cove Lodge, Prince of Wales Island, Alaska
“Sportsman’s Cove: Alaska’s Best Lodge”
From: January Issue The Reel News
By Terry W. Sheely
In the dancing shadow of the Mystic Lady, where cold water flickers with herring scales, the salmon are stacked in imprecise layers--packs of predators--humpies chasing panicked herring at the surface, silvers feeding under the pinks, and kings stalking under the silvers. Chums, the unpredictable, are zigzagging between the layers and somewhere in the dark of the deep, down in the scramble of kelp and rocks on the bottom, halibut and carpets of true cod are chewing on octopus and herring.
We’re mooching 6 ounce sinkers, red crescents, two-hook rigs with plug cut herring on light salmon rods.
It’s a great morning to be a saltwater fisherman.
It’s a fantastic morning to be a saltwater fisherman in Southeast Alaska.
A low August sun is streaming out of the east over Misty Fiords National Monument, across Revillaggedo Island, and just clearing Cleveland Peninsula to land squarely between my shoulder blades. The sun shot is warm and as welcome as good morning coffee.
Skipper George Dennis of Longview, WA already has his sunglasses on, deckhand Dan Tupper from Chehalis, is standing at attention with his right hand on the net handle, and Lloyd Pritchett from Sandpoint, Idaho is putting the needle to his buddy Roger Antonich before crackering off a nice slab of twisting silver salmon. Roger snickers.
The ebb tide that came sluicing around Ship Island and out Clarence Strait will give us 13 pinks, 7 coho, and 3 kings for the fish box, plus a handful of released sublegal kings, assorted rockfish, little silvers, saucer-size halibut and a humpback whale that grabs the spotlight and gives us a show.
And most of the fishing day is ahead of us yet.
Mornings like this are why I’m on my third trip to Sportsman’s Cove Lodge tucked into the loon calls and quiet of Saltery Cove on Prince of Wales Island, almost due west of Ketchikan. That and the chance to fish with an old friend from our early Westport days, Larry McQuarrie—Captain Mac to the crew and guests.
Throw in Captain Mac’s thoughtfully outfitted lodge, private rooms with eagle eye views (spotting scopes, hot showers, and in-room morning coffee), gourmet meals, comfortable 37-foot custom boats and a hand-picked and trained staff, and it explains why TRN Publisher Jim Goerg and I have teamed up with Captain Mac to sponsor our first Wild Alaska Fish-In. (Details on back page).
For 40 years, give or take, I’ve chased outdoor stories across North America and this is one place that I look forward to coming back to, a place always full of interesting stories, history, scenery, sheltered water and consistent fishing, a place that Salmon & Steelhead Journal ranks as one of the top 10 fishing lodges in North America. That’s not an endorsement made lightly, but a testimonial to the rare level of service, atmosphere and attitude. A staff of 32 services 30 guests—that’s personalized.
But Jim and I are here to work, to tuck in the details of this year’s August 12-15 Wild Alaska Fish-In, get another batch of amazing fish stories and photos and in our spare time tackle four varieties of salmon, halibut, ling cod, yellow-eyes and a winter’s worth of prime true cod fillets.
Our guide in that direction is Captain George Dennis a senior Sportsman’s Cove Lodge skipper who was at the dock to greet us when our shuttle, a deHavilland Beaver float plane, arrived from picking us up at Ketchikan International. The 737 flight from Gate 3 at Sea-Tac International to Ketchikan was just 90 minutes long. The 40 minute low-level shuttle flight to the lodge was too short.
Sportsman's Cove is terraced into a cedar and hemlock hillside in Saltery Cove on the east side of Prince of Wales Island, south of Skowl Arm inside Kasaan Bay. It is one of a few full service lodges serving the protected east side of Prince of Wales facing Clarence Strait. Most POW lodges are located on the west side at the edge of the open ocean. Kasaan Bay, across from the lodge, leads to the small town of Hollis, population 140, where there’s a hatchery that’s been producing fish since 1897—the second hatchery in Alaska, according to POW tourism.
A monster hatchery operation in Neet’s Bay east of Clarence Strait annually produces millions of coho, chinook, chum, sockeye and steelhead for Southeast fisheries, and most of the runs return through Clarence Strait on “the other side” of POW.
The “other side” of POW, McQuarrie’s side, is I’ve found, big, lonesome and ready to be discovered.
The first week I spent fishing the east side of POW several years ago was punctuated by a huge chinook that slammed a pair of horse herring I was freespooling into a herring-packed halibut hole. The king inhaled and rocketed into the depths, smoking my thumb into a birdsnest of overrun braid, and breaking the swivel.
The salmon was gone almost before I knew I was in a fish fight, but I know serious salmon weight and that fish had biggg shoulders. Apparently a school of migrating slabs had zeroed in on the flashing ball of herring that had first attracted us to a solid wad of decent halibut and a carpet of toothy worthless turbot. My corroborating evidence is the 30 and 35 pound kings that also ate halibut baits on our boat within a few minutes of my strike-and-release. And there were halibut there too, evidenced by Jim’s 76 pounder.
You wouldn’t know it by the lack of headlines but some very big fish are tucked into the lightly fished 140 miles on the inside of Prince of Wales Island in numbers solid enough to hold their own with the wildly popular ocean side. I’ve found that the puzzle of points, lesser islands, reefs and troughs between POW and Ketchikan offer hundreds of square miles of angling promise to explore, and Larry has explored most it.
Prince of Wales is the third largest island in the U.S. (behind Kodiak and Hawaii) with a shoreline described by local boosters as, “990 miles of rock cliffs, promontories, palisades and beaches of broken stone or sand.” The clear-cut hills are world recognized for feeding giant black bears (no grizzly on POW), wolves and black-tailed deer. Much of the island is included in the Tongass National Forest and has been logged explaining why 2,000 miles of the 2,250 miles of road are un-maintained logging tracks. Only 105 miles of island roads are paved.
Access from Outside is restricted to a long boat ride or small plane shuttle through Ketchikan.
Float planes seem to be everywhere.
Larry’s Lodge (www.alaskasbestlodge.com), operates guided fishing with six custom built skippered boats, 34 to 37 foot, fishing 4 to 6 to a boat. The reflected scenery of Saltery Cove is roadless, just a deer trail and seaplane dock.
Don’t hear much about the protected side of POW, I said to Captain Mac one day. Are there good numbers of fish? Larry cocks an eye, dives into the lodge ledger and comes up with figures: On an average year the staff processes 60,000 pounds of fillets, and drapes another 6,000 pounds of prime fillets in the smoker. The scrapbook photos include a 277 pound halibut and 56-pound chinook.
Big fish? Yes.
Lots of fish? Yes.
Protected places to fish no matter the weather? Yes.
Rolling migrations of salmon stream through Clarence Strait from June through September, and monster summer tides surge over gravelly flats where halibut, true cod, and rockfish arrive in large numbers to compete with salmon for the baitfish.
The salmon fishery along the East side of POW includes wild and hatchery origin silvers and kings, plus sockeye and chums. All of the regional hatchery fish are produced by a non-profit association of commercial fishermen operating as Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, (SSRAA). The association maintains salmon release sites at Burnett Inlet, Neck Lake, Crystal Lake, Neets Bay, Anita Bay, and Nakat Inlet. “All contribute to the sports fisheries, some more than others,” according to SSARR Research and Evaluation Manager Susan Doherty.
Imprinted smolts are also released on the east side of Clarence Strait and north up Behm Canal and from the Neets Bay hatchery northwest of Ketchikan which annually puts adult returns from 2.8 million coho smolts and 600,000 chinook smolts into the local commercial and sport fishery. According to SSARR’s Doherty, about 10 percent of the coho smolt releases survive to return as adults. King smolt survival to adult is about 3 percent. You do the math. It’s a lot of fish
At the northeast corner of POW summer anglers enjoy a rare overlap of mature coho mixed into the heart of the king, chum and sockeye migrations.
“The fish that return to the Whale Pass are a summer run coho (from Burnett Hatchery on Etolin Island) that make the spawning run earlier than the traditional fall run of coho,” according to Doherty.
The impressive numbers of hatchery salmon swarming the “other side of POW” are just a slice of what’s available during the summer season. The SSARR salmon are supplement to dozens if not hundreds of wild native salmon that migrate through Clarence Strait to spawning streams in Southeast and the remote river systems of nearby northern British Columbia.
Unlike the angler congestion that can plague some of Alaska’s seasonal honey holes, the east side of POW is the big open empty. Miles of promising salmon, halibut and bottomfish water separate lodges, towns and fishermen.
A few boats occasionally make the 28-mile run across the strait from Ketchikan, but they are rare. There is no local fishing pressure to speak of. Less than a thousand residents call the 140 miles on the east side of the island home, and 500 of those are concentrated in Thorne Bay. Only a handful of charter operators and fishing lodges are based on Clarence Strait and fish between Cape Chacon on the south and Salmon Bay on the north. Five of those are in Coffman Cove, a couple of prestigious lodges in Thorne Bay, Larry’s in Saltery Cove, another a little further south in Clover Bay.
By definition this is lonesome fishing water, especially if compared to the 22 fishing operators that the POW Chamber of Commerce (www.princeofwalescoc.org) lists on the ocean side. Most of that west side fishery is stacked into Craig and nearby Klawock— largest of the 11 island communities.
On the lonesome Clarence Strait side of the island there are miles of halibut and salmon water that separate the lodges. The prime fishing zones are in the lee of the island and while Clarence Strait can be one of the soggiest places in Southeast with 16 feet of annual precip, it is also protected from ocean storms, Pacific winds and rollers. “We’ve always got some place to fish, no matter how bad the weather gets,” Larry promises. Jim and I learned that first-hand on our first trip when a three-day squall blows up the Strait, stacks up 7 foot waves in the shipping channel and limits us to the protected water on the backside of several barrier islands near Kasaan Peninsula where we continue to nail kings, halibut to 80 pounds and enough flakey white true cod fillets to make me smile—which is a lot of cod fillets.
Clarence Strait is a wide inside corridor that falls through the southernmost archipelagoes in Southeast, slides past Ketchikan and POW and disappears into Canada and Dixon Entrance to the Pacific Ocean a little South of Cape Chacon. The cape is at the extreme south end of POW and is where multiple runs of salmon collide after contouring the west and east flanks of the island.
According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Region 1 office at Ketchikan, except for the SSRAA hatchery returns, the Clarence Strait salmon fishery is targeted on pass-bys kings and silvers migrating to major river systems on the mainland and in British Columbia, especially the Stikine, Unuk and Chickamin rivers. ADFG pegs the king run at May-August and pinpoints June as the peak. A few kings are caught in the 60 pound range, but anglers should be able to expect 20 to 30 pounders which are nice fish.
They should also expect halibut.
Captain Mac drops anchor on a patch of gravel 200 feet down behind a little non-descript chunk of rock south of Kasaan Bay, backs down and says “fish.” Jim gets first halibut a 78 pounder that later proves to be the big fish of the day and earns my buddy a gray baseball hat dubiously inscribed "Sweet Cheeks Big Butt.”
Chinook and coho salmon migrate past Kasaan Peninsula and Skowl Arm from both directions, Larry tells me. Most of the hatchery fish arrive from the north homing in on the Neets Bay release site. The wild fish migrate up the Strait from the south out of Dixon Entrance many headed for the huge Stikine River North of Wrangell.
The crosshairs of the north-south migrations come together on the east side of POW just about where I’m being electrified by the subtle rap of something nosing into my plug cut herring.
Strip line. Wait.
“Herring ball showing” the skipper shouts out the window, his eyes locked onto the Raytheon V850.
I lower my herring, spinning it on a controlled free-spool dive for 50 feet.
Stop. Pause. Reel once, twice. Work it slowly. There’s a pickup, light, tentative, almost non-existent. Feed line, one strip, two, three. Raise the rod, take out slack.
There’s a thump, a second thump and my rod dives nose down into saltwater. I come up solid into 23 pounds of running king.
Before my fish is in the boat another angler crosses the eyes of a 22 pounder, and his wife is staring fixated at the sight of line smoking off her reel, Jim hollers “fish on” and Larry hits the GPS marker.
Our boat is alone, on the “other side of POW”, five salmon fishermen, grinning in the mist, leaning into railings, tight lines streaming into the crosshairs of Clarence Strait.
My third time to Sportsmen’s Cove…..always been good fishing. Sometimes halibut dominate, sometimes kings,
sometimes silvers, but there’s always a good mix of white and red meat and if I get a vote, a load of true cod, gray cod, which I consider the finest textured and flavored fish in the Northwest. June is peak of the king action, August is tops for silvers and in between those high points are overlaps where you’re never quite sure what’s on the end of the line.
It’s a beautiful, uncharacteristically gorgeous blue morning. Only a handful of clouds and they’re white and drifting up from the south, maybe from Puget Sound to disappear into the light blue August sky.
The day, like every day, revolves around the sixes. 6 a.m. is breakfast; 6 p.m. is dinner—in between is lunch on the boat and fish.
This August morning we’re catching mostly pinks but there are silvers and kings too. Lloyd gets the first chinook but it’s just short of the 28-inch minimum. He gets another that makes the grade and the fish box.
Lloyd is laughing and grinning. He catches a big male humpbacked pink and is awed by the size, shape and the fight.
The ADFG limit for non-residents is 1 king a day kings 3 per year.
Other daily limits are: 6 coho, 6 pinks, and 6 chums. That can add up 19 salmon a day and a lot of prime salmon fillets. (Our fish are filleted, vacuum packed, frozen and packed into insulated boxes for shipment)
We’re allowed one halibut a day, no size limit, 1yelloweye (2 annually), 1 Pelagic rockfish, per day.(blue, black, dusky, widow), 3 non-pelagic (quillback, copper, china, silvergray, tiger) and 1 lingcod between 30 and 35 inches or over 55 inches 2 annual.
Dan fillets fish while we run for halibut at Kassan Bay.
There’s a few true cod in the catch and I’m working to schedule a true cod run before we leave. My wife would
trade 2 king salmon for one 2-pound cod.
The white slabs of meat are that buttery.
Back at the dock it’s a beehive of activity. Fish being weighed and posed for the family scrapbook, measured for the biggest halibut, chinook and silver of the day honors, crab and wine served on the dock with a bowl of melted butter, and another bowl with cocktail sauce.
Fishermen are weighing fish, laughing, eating crab, drinking good wine, the sun is shining, ladies in orange Grundens are filleting our fish, the boat is being readied for tomorrow--at this moment life is very very good.
Tomorrow dawns red and bright and full of fish.
Herring baits are soaked and toughened in salt cure that rapidly produces 10 coho, 10 pinks, 4 kings, 4 chums, three halibut and two yelloweye. Good mix and a lot more silvers in the takes.
Lloyd hooks a couple of acrobatic silvers in the 10 pound range. More silvers today than yesterday.
Clarence Strait is as calm as the water in a dog’s watering dish.
We have to move the baits, retrieve, quick, slow mix it up but it adds some flash to the herring. Not enough tide pull and no wind drift to work the baits.
Deckhand Dan is fast on the fish. He nets, unclips our leaders, reclips a fresh rig with fresh bait and has us back in the water fishing before he bonks, bleeds and boxes the fish.
Captain George turns on the Sirrus radio: Bob Dylan bounces out of the cabin rolling down Hwy 61, followed by a little CCR, running us through the jungle, Pete Seeger blasting the Who. We’re catching fish, Dan’s net is flying, baits are sailing and we’re all grinning in Alaskagrooving to a radio station in Cleveland.
We’re telling elk hunting stories when Jim’s rod goes off and a nice silver is on a mission that ties up the two other rods on the port side of the boat. Jumps and cartwheels into a backlight that glistens off its sides. Red leads are bouncing in the cluster duck. Dan swings the net and beautiful bright silver is in the mesh---along with the three stray weights.
There’s smoke on the water and on the mountains from a forest fire that we haven’t heard about. Purple layering in the hills. At 4 p.m. we’re running for home where the dock master has counted up 689 pounds of fish total for the fleet.
The next day, somewhere towards afternoon after several good bursts of salmon, we do a fish count: 30 salmon in the box, a mix of kings, silvers and pinks, and we slip inside the island to fish for halibut in 182 feet of water about 100 yards off the forested bank. When we quit we have 4 halibut for 4 fishermen, 4 kings for 4 fishermen, 20 pinks, and 7 coho for 81/2 hours of fishing.
Our halibut limits of one fish each comes in less than 30 minutes.in about 200 feet of water with 12 oz. leads, two foot leader and oversize horse herring for baits..
The last day starts with pancakes, scrambled eggs, ham, fruit, mix melons, grapes and more dead flat calm water with a sun rising into an empty blue sky.
And we’re going to try for cod today. A few white scarves of wispy horizontal clouds coming out of creek mouths and wrapping around hills.
Captain George outlines his Game Plan.
Tide swing is 4.8 to 11; a seven foot vertical tide, compared to the 18.5 tide swing when we arrived, and we’ll be trying some areas that haven’t been fished. Get the white meat for Sheely then go look for halibut at the lodge’s ‘pet “big ‘but holes,” then prospect at a cove where seiners will be dropping fish carcasses to the bottom attracting hallies.
We start on the 20 Fathom Bank, rich in feed, cod smolt in here by the ton, tons of krill, small herring in massive balls all over the bank,”:its just a natural feeding place. “It’s just an incredible feeding area,” the skipper says, so rich in food that everything comes to feed in here-kings, halibut, cod.
We spend 20 minutes scouting bank, looking for food, but it’s a desert. No bait, no fish, just flat nothing. Skipper Keith Chapparell in another boat finds a little bait on the far south side of the bank, We spot a little green and orange blip on the fish finder that marks bait on the bottom. Not much, but we may try it for lack of anything better, and catch two true cod and two small halibut.
The Midnight Lady radios us that they’ve hit a school of true cod, two miles north of us. We run, circle the Midnight Lady, back off half a mile and anchor up over a bunch of bait.
When it’s over we have 55 fat cod, and four halibut.
The true cod came up two and three at a time some giants at 10 pounds but most between 3 and 6 pounds. Halibut are small, under 20.
We head in at 2:25 to be back at the dock by 3 for a 4 p.m. float plane rendezvous.
While we run Skipper George bakes a small slab of halibut on the grill. It’s as moist and sweet as you’re likely to ever eat.
Sportsman’s Cove Lodge, 1-800-962-7889.