Alaska Rendezvous With The Midnight Lady
January 2010 As Published In The Reel News
The Spices That Pepper Prince of Wales East
Salmon, Halibut, Tigers,
Blue-faced Cabs, Black Rocks,
Whiskered Cod, Twisted Herring, Sleeping
Whales, Platters Packed With Icy Crab,
Prawns, Popcorn and
Sportsman's Cove Lodge, POW, AK
By Terry W. Sheely
It’s been a wild morning and the chaos is just getting started.
By the time we head home, we’ll have high-fived around the fantail celebrating triples on coho, kings, chums,
pinks, halibut to 100 pounds, whiskered true cod, brilliantly red tiger rockfish, blue-lipped cabezon, orange yelloweyes and the biggest black rockfish I’ve seen in years.
Several times I’ve fished the east side of Prince of Wales Island (POW) and consistently enjoyed memorable angling and nicely packed fish boxes, but this trip is shaping up as one of those special adventures when sizzling summer salmon action is spiced up with a succulent spread of bottomfish and topped with surprise.
Throw in the Midnight Lady, mostly flat water, benevolent August weather, the legendary hospitality of Larry McQuarrie, a snoring humpback, five-star attention to every nagging detail between the wet dock and our lofty room in the eagle’s nest, a reunion with the innovative Captain Wyatt Holmes and a plate that sizzles with Chef Sean’s specialty: crab-encrusted filet mignon.
Southeast Alaska, like all of the Northwest last year was in for a supper silver salmon season, and TRN Publisher Jim Goerg and I made plans to fish with Larry McQuarrie on a coho funnel called Clarence Strait between Prince
of Wales Island and Ketchikan.
From Seattle the action is just a two hour flight to Gravina Island at Alaska’s southernmost city where we transferred to a deHavilland Beaver for the 20 minute float plane hop, 600 feet above Clarence Strait for 25 miles to Saltery Cove on the east side of POW. Larry, AKA Captain Mac, was on the dock when the float plane skittered up to the landing at Sportsman’s Cove Lodge, nestling into a slot between 37-foot fishing boats.
The lodge is built in stair steps and landings, climbing from the dock through levels of vacuum packing, hot tub, dining room, past the old growth trees, to the crew and guest quarters and finally to our room in the Eagle’s Nest.
The guest rooms in the Eagle’s Nest are 124 steps above the docks and the first place to be lit up by the orange spears of sunrise. There’s a balcony overlooking a postcard view across Saltery Cove, spotting scopes on the railings, popcorn, coffee, microwave and a door with our names on it. One of the crew grabs our bags and flies up the stairs to Room 31, squaring us away long before we get there.
Where the lodge is located on the east side of POW there is a bit of a rain shadow, fending off some of the 13½ feet of precip that falls on Ketchikan 25 miles away on the far side of Clarence Strait. Still, this is Southeast Alaska and rainless days are unplanned surprises—even in August and Jim and I are pleasantly surprised to find 73 degrees with a gentle westerly breeze. Tomorrow, they say, we’ll be fishing flat water in 75 degree sun with a 3 mph wind which will be a welcome upgrade. On our last outing on Clarence Strait we were blown off by towering whitecaps, gale winds and horizontal rain that hit like buckshot and forced to duck behind islands to catch our kings and halibut.
This will be better.
Today we eat, tomorrow we fish. McKenzie shrimp cocktails disappear into entrées of seared salmon, wild raspberry vingerette, herbed potato cake, garlic green beans and a salad of lettuce, walnut and cranberries feta cheese, balsamic vinegar followed by molten lava cake with cream strawberries.
Jim pats his beltline and teasingly asks Jessica, our wait lady if she has a chocolate sundae hidden in the kitchen, and a few minutes later she’s standing at his elbow—grinning—holding a chocolate sundae. He doesn’t dare decline.
Tonight it’s Canadian amber and popcorn on the balcony, watching flat water catch the reflection of mountains
and nightfall, and push into swags of yellow kelp around a browsing doe. In the morning we fish. Up at 5, eggs and ham at 6 on the boat at 6:30 and running hard for Ship Rock at the edge of Cleveland Peninsula with Capn’ Wyatt at the helm. Joining Jim and I is Sandy Lund of Orange County, California.
The water is flat, barely rippled by the wake of a swimming blacktail deer. A gray and black ribbon of shoreline separates blue water from green conifers and streamers of silver fog wrap through the mountains.
“The silvers are going crazy at Ship Rock,” Wyatt says.
All four of Sportsman’s Cove’s Westport-style boats are headed there and for good reason. In 90 minutes of herring dunking Sandy, Jim and I have 18 big coho in the boat, plus two kings two starry flounders, two rockfish, and one true cod. Four minutes later and the three of are scrambling around the deck like crazed square dancers playing a triple header--two coho and one king.
Crazy was an understatement, this rock is a frenzy of wild-eyed bait balls and gorging salmon. It’s thick with coho, some kings, tons of pinks and bunches of prime chums.
The coho crowded around the rock are a mix of several big runs that funnel down the strait, but most of the fish, according to Wyatt were released from the Neet’s Bay hatchery. The island, a barren, ship shaped chunk of rock, tapers into the strait and attracts millions of herring which attracts uncountable swarms of salmon, halibut and bottomfish.
The bait balls swirl on the surface and rise like orange clouds from the bottom of the depth sounder screen. The Sportsman’s Cove boats, along with boats from other eastern POW lodges and a few up from Ketchikan, will fish the rock into September, Wyatt says. When it rains, the current run of silvers will push further into the migration but immediately replaced by new arrivals.
With no major spawning rivers the east side of POW is primarily a pass-by salmon fishery, intercepting kings and silvers headed for rivers in British Columbia, along with several major hatchery enhancement programs near Ketchikan. The largest hatchery—a joint operation by ADFG and SSRAA a non-profit commercial fishing association—is Neets Bay north of Ketchikan fronting on Clarence Strait. The Neets Bay hatchery pumps a whopping 2.8 million silvers and 600,000 chinook into this fishery. All told, SSRAA says it releases 5.7 million coho and 2.2 million chinook into the Ketchikan region from facilities at Burnett Inlet, Neck Lake, Crystal Lake, Neets Bay, Anita Bay, Herring Cove, and Nakat Inlet.
Neets' Bay super-sized runs of kings and silvers plus wild fish come straight down the chute of Clarence Strait
along the east flank of POW and into the Saltery Cove boats.
According to ADFG biologists, these waters offer more than 15 species of edible bottomfish, along with kings from 15 to over 60 pounds (averaging 20 to 40), silvers to 20 pounds (averaging 8 to 12), and halibut that may push 300 pounds (averaging 25-50). The lodge record for kings is 56 pounds, halibut 277 pounds and the biggest ling ever hung on the dock is a pot-bellied 67 pounder.
Early in the summer McQuarrie primarily targets mature king salmon that migrate through Clarence Strait
from June through mid-July, and feeder kings between the big runs. From mid-July through September silvers are the big attraction plus seasonal runs of chums and pinks. Halibut, yelloweyes and lings are on the bite year-round (the lodge is open June-September), and huge true cod appear in clouds during June-July. With their delicate flakes of white meat true cod, AKA Pacific or gray cod, are dinner table favorites.
Wyatt has a peculiar hookup for the herring baits we use for salmon. He bends a whole herring into a half-moon, runs the bottom hook through the tail and back in again. The top hook is inserted through one cheek, out the other and back into the head through the gill flap. The hookup pins the bait into a tight curved shape that spins like crazy throwing off brilliant flashes that seems to attract the slashing silvers from quite a distance.
These first-week of August silvers range from 5 to 12 pounds and are scattered from the surface to the bottom and feeding heavily on the tremendous wad of herring. Staring into the clear water we see the green backs pile into panicked herring and sometimes watch them flirt with our hooked baits; attacking, eating, dropping, tail slapping. Sight fishing for saltwater coho. Gotta love that.
Some of the silvers inhale our herring on the run, and when we give in to temptation and set the hook too early, another coho is likely to pound it. Opportunistic schoolies invariably shadow hooked fish and if our timing is right and somebody flips another herring near the struggle a second hookup is automatic, doubles coming almost too easily.
A shotgun booms across the stillwater and there’s a cheer from one of other boats—first good halibut of the day.
The big king surge came through two weeks ago, ending the third week of July, but we manage to find limits of tail-end charleys’ and some very strong immature blackmouth.
With a three-man limit of 18 coho in the box, Wyatt wants to try for halibut at a place called Lyman Point, but first we’ve got to investigate the floating whale. The humpback is dead in the water, and appears to be dead to the world. With squads of pink salmon darting under our hull, Wyatt turns the Midnight Lady toward the hulk and slowly approaches. The whale seems dead. We drift within a few yards when the humpback suddenly uses, shakes, heaves and with a magnificent fluke slap dives. “Believe that,” Wyatt says, “it was asleep!” I’ve seen a lot of whales but I’ve never seen that before.
The skipper turns the Midnight Lady toward a distant point and throttles up. For awhile, a pod of dolphins keeps pace and pink salmon are blowing out of the water in every direction like silvery Jacks in the box. Commercial seiners are stretching purse nets against the steep walls. I go down for coffee, food and to rest my rod arm.
In most places, I’m a do-it-yourself fisherman, a small boat diehard who would rather be in charge of my fishing failures and occasional successes and who has yet to repress the grin of a madman when gunning 17-feet of rock-n-roll kicker boat across big salt, eyes stinging, hands reddening, while Jim and a sharp knife bounce in the bow trying to cut bait. Kicker boats, though, aren’t part of the Sportsman’s Cove’s full-service program. Larry’s guide roots were germinated in the Westport (WA) Charter Boat Basin, and left the imprint that comfort and service are paramount. He brought that touch north in the 1980s. Lodge guests are assigned to one of the seven boats in his fleet of 37-foot custom charter-style boats with walk around railings and plenty of room for scrambling anglers, waving rods and bouncing fish. Having one boat, skipper, deckhand and fishing partners for the duration adds a comfortable sense of familiarity and camaraderie that crumples awkward
I confess to enjoying the indulgence of plunking my butt on a wide padded bench seat while Cap’n Wyatt plots the course, interprets the electronics, watches for deadheads and pushes the throttles into 500 horses of twin diesel power. I found it impossible to argue with being able to give my back muscles a cushion break, soak up heat, breakfast rolls and boat coffee in a warm cabin with a clean head and watch deckhand Jason DeHaan rigs herring bait on leaders for quick changes, hoses the deck, and checks the hooks on the rods.
We’re fishing salmon with boat rods, mooching sticks with conventional saltwater Penn 320 GT reels, six and eight ounce crescent sinkers, mooching leaders and double hooks. Halibut outfits are stout Ugly Stiks with nine to 12 ounce sinkers and 9/0 circle hooks on 80 pound braided line. Anyone who has fished out of Westport, Ilwaco or Newport will recognize the gear.
What they won’t recognize is the lack of competition. As we cruise toward a distant halibut and leave the cluster of boats working the collective hot spot at Ship Rock I watch for other sport-fishing boats, and I may have seen one. But I’m not sure. Could have been a seiner tender.
This is big water, 990 miles of POW coastline that can swallow up a lot of fishing pressure and not show it. In addition to Sportsman’s Cove, there are more than 20 charter and lodge operations listed on POW, but almost all are located on the western ocean side around Craig and Klawock. Sportsman’s Cove is one of the few to fish the 140 miles of rips, reefs, inlets and coves on the east side of POW which is the third largest island in the U.S. behind Hawaii and Kodiak.
Wyatt watches a bottom of sand and thin gravel spread across his Furuno 582 at 260 feet, and kills the diesels. Jason clips a chum bag onto the anchor before it drops.
A pod of five orcas surface, blow and dive not 15 feet from the boat. Pink salmon explode out of the water in front of the sleek black and white predators.
We free spool salmon bellies into the green, and Sandy comes back hard on what proves to be a smallish yelloweye. He adds a ling cod that’s a half inch short of the legal minimum and Jim boats a super-sized 22 inches of black rockfish. Today, we catch everything but a decent halibut but back the dock a man from Virginia is grinning over a 99.55 pounder.
Tomorrow we’ll put our three hallies in the boat plus, two kings, 18 coho, one chum and another bucket of pinks for the smoker. I also catch a tiger rockfish with a fat orange body and black stripes. At times the bottom seems paved with big starry flounders, true cod, dusky rockfish, greenling and a couple of bottom strangers that I still can’t identify.
And the next day—more of the same and maybe even better.
We’re working for our halibut and yelloweye but we’re getting them. We have, however, got the coho wired and daily six-fish limits are automatic and always taper into hours of catch-and-release. The kings are a little harder to come by, but we manage and the chums and pinks are thick and edible and the fish box is always bulging with white meat and bottomfish. We fish all day and it’s rarely boring.
Toward the end of the third day Sandy puts his rod in the holder, looks at the fish box, looks at Jim and I, smiles big and wide and says, “Best three days of fishing I’ve ever had, and I’ve fished a lot. This,” he adds, “is better than taking the grandson to the pay-to-fish trout pond. Much better. And we’ve still got tomorrow!”
But we don’t wait for tomorrow to make it better. Another Sportsman’s Cove boat radios that they’ve just caught eight nice chickens off Cleveland Peninsula.
We make the run, set the drift and catch two hallies on horse herring. We bonk one—the last one needed to fill
the limit. I catch a nice king but Jim catches the fish of the day—a 10-pound cabezon that looks like a cross between a ling cod and a giant sculpin with blue lips and blue meat that will draw a crowd at the cleaning table.
Day 4, last morning, and there’s a weather change in the air. We’ve got the red sun in the morning for the sailor’s warning, conflicting with last night’s red sky which was either a sailor’s delight or smoke in the sun from forest fires on the island.
The morning comes in gray with a low ceiling. A stray shaft of sunlight lights up a purse seiner nosing along a green bank under a silver gray fog. The outside is kicking up a bit, and we tuck in behind a scattering of small islands, green mounds with gray rock skirts. Wyatt spots something on the graph, kills the boat and hollers for rods.
Immediately we catch three coho, one a gorgeous 14 pounder. We check out the wall where the purse seiner is netting and a lesson in salmon behavior spills across the graph.
Salmon moving along the wall are diving and passing beneath the commercial purse, showing up on the depth sounder at red blobs at 200 feet. The net has thrown the fish off the bite, pushed them deep, and we move away. Two miles away I hook a 10-pound silver that hits the spinning herring at 150 feet, rockets to the surface and jumps six times.
We keep a limit of chickens and add a big bundle of true cod that will be turned into flakey white fillets.
A float plane roars over us just off the deck and waggles its wings. Jason waves.
“Yep,” Sandy says again, “best fishing trip ever. Ever!”
POW is accessible from the air in float or fixed wheel planes from Ketchikan.
The airport is an unmanned 5000 foot strip near Klawock just north of Craig.
Most fishermen, however, travel by float plane directly to the scattering of lodges.
Float plane shuttle from Ketchikan’s jet port is part of the Sportsman’s Cove package. It is possible to arrive on POW by car. Vehicles can be shuttled on the 200-footMV Prince of Wales from Ketchikan to Hollis a small community Northeast of Sportsman’s Cove. From Hollis there is access to the island’s 2000 miles of road. Only 150 miles are paved, and most of the island’s extensive road system is logging roads. The lodge is inaccessible by road and reached only by float plane or boat.
When To Fish:
Peak fishing periods for Kings: June through mid-July
Silvers: mid-July through September
Chums, mid-July through August
Pinks, July through mid-August
Ling cod, rockfish and true cod, year-long.
Clarence Strait Limits:
Last year the daily fish limits for nonresidents were:
Kings one a day, four total
Silvers six daily
Pinks, chum and sockeye, six daily each
Halibut guided anglers one a day every day
non-resident Lingcod, one daily between 30 and 35 inches or
greater than 55 inches from May 16-Nov. 30
but there is an annual limit of two if one is between 30-35 and one more than 55 inches.
Sportsman’s Cove Lodge
Larry McQuarrie and Patty Seaman
Ketchikan, AK 99901
1-800-962-7889 or 907-247-7252
Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce PO Box 490 Klawock, AK 99925-0490