By Andrew Scott
My wife and I like a good adventure. To qualify as a good adventure, it needs to have breathtaking scenery, lots of excitement, some unexpected events, good company, good food and be somewhat gentle on the budget. We are always on the lookout for a good hunting or fishing trip that we can also include some other type of adventure. After exploring the internet and devouring articles from the Sportsman’s News for most of 2009, I boldly announced to my wife we were heading back to Alaska to stock up on halibut and salmon and whatever else the ocean might feel charitable to give up. Our first trip together there in 2007 filled our freezer with wonderful Homer halibut fillets, but the supply was running low.
Now as a man who is blessed with a wife who loves to hunt and fish, I know how lucky I am. There are countless men out there (and likely a few ladies too) who would melt if their spouse said, “Now listen, I want you to hunt and fish as much as you can this year.” My wife likes to take it a notch higher with comments like, “I am putting in for a moose tag this year” or “All I want to do is fish all day!” I knew she was one in a million when we met and I am thankful for her every day. Part of what makes us a great team is exercising that all important word : COMPROMISE.
Compromise in this case meant I (the spender) did not get a week long guided Alaskan fishing trip at a cushy lodge, with everything included down to the hot tub, overlooking the salmon laden river. It also meant Heather (the frugal budgeter) would have to release the purse strings and accept the fact she could not get to Alaska and fish for a week for $500. Once I got the nod to proceed, I busied myself doing something I seem to be pretty good at – finding unique hunting or fishing adventures on a blue collar budget. First thing, I knew I needed another couple to come along to help defray the costs, make good memories and above all, be reliable. It was a no brainer to select our good friends, Tom and Jodie from Michigan. Tom and I have been chasing things together with bows and arrows, rod and reels and shotguns and beagles for 45 years. In addition, Jodie and Heather have a passion for outdoor photography and both produce stunning photos every year, so Alaska was an easy sell as a photo expedition. After a quick flurry of emails back and forth and some arm twisting, they were on board with some caveats about a budget before we finalized anything. Next, I set about reviewing info on many websites and deciding where to go to get the biggest bang for the bucks. I finally decided on Ketchikan because of the short 1 1/2 hour flight from Seattle via Alaska Airlines, it’s well known salmon fishing and it’s close proximity to killer scenery.
Late one evening I stumbled onto Rick and Bonnie Collins’ website (www.explorealaskacharters.com) while searching for a D.I.Y. boat rental in southeast Alaska. Their business, Explore Alaska Charters, offered an off-the beaten path approach to exploring and fishing southeast Alaska. Always one to maximize my dollar by using my own common sense, I was intrigued by their operation. Here was a couple that offered various sized seaworthy vessels at reasonable rental rates that the average Joe or Joelle (with some boating experience and a sense of adventure) could pilot. These boats come well equipped with all of the fishing gear, GPS, short-wave radios and hard tops to keep the weather out. You can even toss a crab pot on top for that primo evening meal of fresh crab. You supply your terminal tackle and bait, which is readily available in Ketchikan. In addition, they had well-built new cabins with all the comforts of home located on Pennock Island (directly across the strait from Ketchikan). The cabins are well equipped with hot and cold running water, electricity, heat and comfortable eating, sleeping and lounging areas. Plus the view is incredible for watching ships, sea planes and wildlife. They even provide a nice gas BBQ and crab boiling gear for meals.
Ketchikan lies within the Inside Passage, where most of the surrounding waters are well protected from the big swell of the open ocean. A person could spend a lifetime and not fish all of the bays and islands that are within a 25 mile radius of Ketchikan (which is the range limit the Collins allow their boats to travel). Rick also runs a fishing guide service and freely provides his guests with detailed maps showing choice halibut, salmon and Dungeness crab locations. We chose this place with great expectations for the last week in June.
We arrived late on a Sunday and took a water taxi from the airport to the Collins’ cabins. Bonnie met us and made sure all was in order in our cabin. We had opted to spend our first full day with Rick, where we could start out catching fish, learning potential halibut and salmon spots and becoming familiar with the gear we would be using all week on our own. The weather was perfect, perfectly crummy that is, which is typical for southeast Alaska. Bring good rain gear or stay home is all you need to know about summer fishing here. We were ready for all weather and remained undeterred by the rain.
Rick soon had us into a few salmon and then some gorgeous yellow-eyed rock fish. A lone small halibut was fooled into our trolled herring and found his way into the cooler. We caught our limit of one rock fish each and then moved onto halibut once the tide was good. We hunted around a few choice spots before locating a good looking underwater pinnacle. Tom and Heather had baits in first and within 10 minutes, both were into good halibut simultaneously. The battle was on with the halibut vs. human struggle going back and forth for 20 minutes. Finally both monsters surfaced almost together and were gaffed into the boat. Tom’s was 68 lbs and Heather’s was 73 lbs. Jodie and I could hardly wait to get our baits back in the water. We fished this mound for another hour but alas, no more halibut came to the boat. Salmon trolling rounded out the afternoon, as Rick showed us various potential salmon, halibut and crab spots to explore for the week.
We spent the next four days broadening our learning curve about saltwater fishing for salmon, halibut and rockfish. We learned we had a lot to learn. We tried various tricks and different methods to fill the fish cooler. The first two days on our own provided little in the way of fish fillets, but a million awesome photos of wildlife and scenery. I also learned a valuable lesson about grabbing a flopping salmon with a sharp hook in it jaws. Good thing for first aid kits and first aid trained friends. We also refined our trolling techniques during this period. In the evening we would pick Rick’s brain. He was always giving us new tips. We finally started landing Chinook and silver salmon with regularity on day three. Ace hi-flies, crocodile spoons and cut herring were all hot baits. Green is the preferred color and any lure with a UV finish works even better. Daily limits of wild Chinook salmon allow only one per person, but silver limits are generous, with six fish per person per day. Since the silvers were more cooperative, we gladly filled our ice chests with their gorgeous orange fillets.
Day four found us deviating from our normal saltwater fishing routine and heading off to explore the Neha Trail along the Jordan River in search of rainbow trout and photo opportunities. A great hour long boat ride through the various saltwater passages brought us to a great public dock at the Neha Trailhead. After securing the boat, we walked for several hours through the rainforests along a great boardwalk trail. We had carried our lightweight spinning roads with Panther Martin and Vibrax spinners to battle the wild rainbows. On my second cast, Alaska lived up to its fishing legend as a multi-colored rocket smashed my spinner. After several quick air born stunts, I brought it to hand and released it. Over the next hour, Tom and I would land well over 30 fish in the 8-20 inch size range. This river area provides fishing and site seeing extraordinaire. We saw maybe two other hikers in the four hours we were there and no other fishermen. Heather and Jodie took an untold number of awesome photos of moss-covered trees, ponds, waterfalls and wildlife. We all agreed it was well worth the effort to get there.
Weather really hampered us on the last day, with very choppy water and wind. Alaska weather and rough seas can always throw a wrench into even the best laid plans. This was the case for us on day five. We could not get to our favorite salmon haunts and were forced to find new ones in more protected waters, closer to the cabin. We ended up going north of Ketchikan and found a dandy protected area teaming with bait fish. Every pass over the school produced a salmon. We were now reaping the rewards of the week-long learning experience and would be able to bring fish home. We fished until late in the evening, since it does not get dark until around 11 pm.
All too quickly the trip was over and we were packing our gear and fish. We learned a lot about saltwater fishing and saved substantial dollars by going unguided. Several hot tips for all of you thinking of a trip like this: I highly recommend part of your luggage should include a cooler. They are great for packing your gear up and invaluable for packing your fish home. We put duffle bags in the coolers on the way up, which we then brought our clothes home in. Also, you will save a lot of money bringing your own vacuum sealing machine and bags. There are fish processors in Ketchikan that do a nice job, but you might be aghast at how much they charge per pound to process your fish. If you rent one of the Collin’s cabins, they provide a cleaning table and a big freezer to store your harvest. There are plenty of eagles and ravens ready to relieve you of any scraps left over. Water proof raingear and waterproof footwear is a must. Don’t even try to skimp on this stuff or you will pay. Wool sweaters, hats and gloves will insure you can stay out all day and enjoy what Alaska throws at you.
This type of trip is not for everyone, but if you are adventurous, want to extend your travel dollars and are interested in seeing a great part of the world, this trip can’t be beat. June, when we were there, is the best month for Chinook. We also got into lots of dime bright silver salmon too. Halibut success was spotty on our trip, but we know we need to learn more about this type of fishing. We also understand the fishing picks up in July and August for these brutes, which is also prime silver salmon season. Oh yeah, the bear viewing isn’t bad either!
Alaska on Your Own
By Andrew Scott