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Big Blue Charters
by Bill Herzog
Rain. Southeast Alaska has it and makes Seattle
look like San Diego. Here it was, the last week of July in the small
fishing/tourist town of Sitka, looking more like February than the peak
of summer. On our way to the hotel from the airport, a local deadpanned,
"Oh, yeah, we see the sun. Four, five days each summer." This
place may be known for precipitation, but I can tell you Sitka's best
rep is its seemingly limitless angling opportunities.
A common problem facing many when deciding on an Alaskan adventure is what kind of fish to target. Do you want to mooch cut-plug herring for ocean Chinook? Catch hook-nosed ocean coho as fast as you can drop a bait overboard? How about fly fish uncountable pristine estuaries for newly minted pink salmon? Trophy sea-run cutthroat? Halibut and giant lingcod everyday? You can do all of this from mid-July to early August in the ocean and surrounding island channels of Sitka. Imagine, coming to Alaska with no itinerary, armed simply with the mantra, "let's fish." We came the last week of July to get a taste of every fishing opportunity Sitka had to offer. It's safe to say it was far from disappointing.
Every Boat Floor Has a
For ocean mooching, a I 0-foot rod rated for I 0- to 20-pound fine, 20-pound mainline, 2- to 4-ounces of lead, large ball-bearing swivel and 20-pound leader (these salmon are not the least line shy) with dual 3/0 Gamakatsu hooks is the outfit of choice. Heavy enough to land a brute chinook, yet still sporty for 10- to I& pound coho. Dave Vedder's signature Lamiglas 10- 1/2 foot, 10-20 was the funk for all my Sitka salmon wrangling.
We went straight out from the harbor, as did all
the other charter boats. Our guide, young but Sitka seasoned Pete Montgomery
said we would be fishing for the first wave of coho of the season, as
a few of them were now being caught. Alaskan coho are wonderful salmon,
and larger than we are used to in Washington and Oregon. Few are smaller
than 10 pounds and most run 12 to 14. We passed a group of charter boats
that seemingly were all hooked up. So naturally, we cut the engine and
dropped our cutplug herring into the clear ocean.
It wasn't two minutes before Mike hooked the first
coho. It was airborne immediately followed by signature twists and roffs.
This thick fish was all of 15 pounds with perfect high, straight fins,
gun-metal blue back, silver sides and bright white belly. For the next
45 minutes fishing was as fast as you could get a bait down 20 feet.
Either your line went limp or the rod was honked like a plug strike
from a wild spring I steelhead. This was 1945 at Westport! This was
1955 at Sekiul! This was the Sitka I came to experience-saltwater salmon
fishing that our fathers and grandfathers used to take for granted.
Mike Croneen with a Sitka chinook salmon.
After the smoke cleared, there was a sight you will likely never see in the lower 48.The floor of the boat was covered with 18 big, wild coho from 12 to 16 pounds. When the bite is on, like we experienced, there is no time to stow each fish, so they are unceremoniously left on the floor, sliding around and careening off the walls and your shoes. A generous six fish per person, per day limit guarantees plenty of great eating fish goes back south with you. I can't remember ever being around so many large, bright salmon in a bite that ferocious. As our captain says, however, the "good" fishing had yet to start and wouldn't be "decent" until August!
Note to self .. come back in August for white hot
Now, I've heard about the great runs of pink salmon that swarm the inlets neighboring Sitka-that I believed. I had also heard about Sitka's infamous pink flamingos. As we all should know, flamingos are tropical birds that live in swamplands. However, someone with apparently way too much time on their hands went far and above any effort I've ever seen to pull an elaborate t-practical joke that, according to our charter boat captains, has been fooling tourists for many years.
For seven hours one fresh
pink salmon after another was hooked.
The rare Arctic flamingo ... ahem ... as they are called, perch in trees on their Southern migration. Sure enough, while on our way to an estuary to fly fish for pink salmon, there they were. Approximately 20 miles out of town, down a maze of channels, on one of the hundreds of small islands, if you look 100 feet up on a tall spruce there, on the end of the branches, are perched a half dozen pink flamingos. Funniest damned thing I've ever seen. Some character went through one hell of a lot of effort. just climbing this tree would be difficult enough, but these plastic creatures are lashed to the ends of branches a hundred feet up! just another example of how America is losing the war on drugs.
I spent the following half hour looking into treetops
for lawn jockeys and ceramic gnomes. Not far from the irregularly placed
lawn ornaments was our target estuary. As we rounded a corner, immediately
you could see as many as 20 bright salmon leaping over a broad area.
Now this sight gets the heart racing! What a scene; surrounded by lush
old growth, the small river emerges out of dense forest onto emerald
grass flats, indented by a gently sloping bay. This was the beginning
of the pink salmon run, and although Jim assured us this was nowhere
near the numbers that would fill this estuary in a week or so, there
were already a half thousand ocean fresh salmon for us to play with.
Without another human in sight, we pulled the boat into the shallows,
snatched our fly rods and boogied across the bar!
Sitka pinks average three to six pounds. To bring out the best fight from these plentiful wild fish, we brought new Jim Teeny nine-foot, four-piece 4 and 5 weights. Since these salmon were milling about in water from three to six feet deep, floating lines with long (9-foot) leaders tapered to eight-pound fluorocarbon tippets worked well. Pinks love their namesake, as we brought boxes chock full of #6 and #8 unweighted flies in various combinations of hot pink. Mini sparse marabous, bunnies, chenille, and wound hackle flies all worked equally well. Long casts were never necessary, nor wading past your knees, as long as your presentation managed to straighten out 20 feet away. A retrieve of 6-inch, medium speed puffs produced a take every other cast.
Many times you would have a salmon the instant the fly touched down. Surface fishing was unbelievable, but genius here forgot his box of surface flies at the hotel. I had one-just one-hot pink deerhair/foam waker that murdered the salmon on top until it was chewed beyond further use.
Pinks get a bad rep as poor fighters. This is true if they are caught on tackle intended for larger salmon or targeted when starting to color. However, if you target them with light fly rods when they are fresh from the open ocean they fight incredibly well. Most fish would make several leaps and show you your backing on their initial run. How can you say anything negative about a dime bright, wild, aggressive salmon that readily strikes flies and fights like hell? Mr. Cronen and I hooked humpies for seven hours, which seemed like two, non stop. It was one of the best days of fishing I've ever experienced. We even had the opportunity to take off our rain jackets for a couple hours!
Even with opportunities like this, fly fishing is
still in an embryonic stage in Sitka. Anglers are discovering the many
rivers, estuaries and even open waters that offer excellent fly fishing.
Coho, pinks, cutthroat, Dolly Varden and many species of rockfish are
always readily available in the salt, while the rivers in the area have
healthy runs of spring steelhead. There is a new fly shop in Sitka,
Fly Away Fly Shop. It is a cute, well-stacked store that offers guided
trips and all the flies, etc., for the region you may need.
We looked at each other, and without a word exchanged, headed for the ocean and a chance at a Sitka Chinook. Suddenly, with a shot of adrenaline at the possibilities that lay ahead, I felt much better. Mike had made two previous trips to Sitka in late May specifically targeting Chinook. Sitka has the reputation of being ground zero for the best saltwater Chinook fishery in North America, and from Mike's stories of hooking dozens of wild fish between 25 and 45 pounds everyday, who was I to doubt. I couldn't wait to feel the power of an ocean chino6k again.In no time 18 big, wild coho were caught.
We soaked cut-plug herring for an hour, with only a few nice coho and a 17-pound king to show. A few Chinook were taken around us. Hmm. Slack fine on the let-down. Reel until your line is bowstring tight, rod is maxed bent and you have no less than three guides in the water, set hard ... a very heavy fish shakes its head, then blazes off to the horizon. I'm not going to tell how long it's been since Spoomnan hooked an ocean Tyee, but let's just say Bill Gates was still living in an apartment.
Even after a decade of abstinence I knew this was a great fish. My 10-1/2 looter was bent to the cork and line was evaporating from my Shimano 201.There are many thrills we live for as anglers and few top the first look at three and a half feet of twisting chrome 20 feet below in clear water. Now I felt like throwing up for reasons that had nothing to do with excessive alcohol indulgence. A 37-pound Chinook is not a giant, but magnificent is too light a word for this fish lying at my feet. I can't remember experiencing elation on this level since 30 pounds of Canadian steelhead turned my legs to juice. I let every boat in the neighborhood know just how happy I was! Mike soon hooked another silver slab in the 30 pound range, filling the daily quota for the boat. Two ling cod in the 30 pound class along with the standard issue halibut topped off a soggy, but productive day on the bounding main. It's heart-warming to see quality fishing from the past alive and well in the present.
"Wanna beer?" Mike asked, waving a cold
one in my direction. "After today? Absolutely!"
Wow .. too much good stuff. We never got the chance
to try for sea-run cutts, but they are there. We caught many large coho,
several brute Chinook, scads of pinks, halibut each day, big rings,
rockfish and a few Dolly Varden. Every species of salmon was at its
physical prime and all were fabulous eating. We even killed a few hours
before our flight home by zipping down to the end of the road to the
Starrgavin River for one last shot at pinks. A few dozen were fooled
by our flies in a gorgeous estuary minutes from "downtown".