By Kent Danjanovich
Shaped by the staggering force of massive glaciers millions of years ago, Alaska’s Inside Passage boasts wildlife-filled fjords and lush island scenery, perfect habitat for bears, bald eagles, sea lions, porpoises and whales. Its mountains are carpeted with majestic forests, with the Tongass National forest home to Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Indians whose history is reflected in towering totem poles.
Southeast Alaska is defined by water. The thousand-mile-long stretch of the Inside Passage provides the most accessible routes through this region’s rugged mountains and forested fjords. A common saying in Alaska is, “If you don’t like the weather, give it another 15 minutes and it will change”. Early explorer Addison Powell remarked that “a prospector who visits these mountains should bring a photograph of the sun with him, as well as a diving suit.” Often called “the forest of islands,” the Tongass is in many locations only accessible by air or boat, via a route known as the Inside Passage. The Tongass is also characterized by its lush rainforest of gigantic western hemlock and Sitka spruce. A wet, maritime climate ensures that most areas of the Tongass are doused with anywhere from eight to 13 or more feet of rainfall a year.
Everything, or so it seems in the 49th state is bigger than in the Lower 48, national forests included. Tongass National Forest encompasses roughly 17 million acres and extends 500 miles northward along the Pacific coastline from the Alaska-Canada border. As a matter of scale, consider that the largest national forest outside of Alaska (Nevada’s Toiyabe) weighs in at four million acres. The Tongass’ terrain varies from coastal rain forests to volcanic uplands, from glacial fjords to tundra meadows. Wide stream valleys carved by glaciers slice through dense forests and the forest’s tall snow-capped mountain ranges count some of the highest peaks in North America.
Huge runs of salmon migrate from the open ocean, around Prince of Wales Island and into the protected waters of the Inside Passage near Ketchikan. This mass gathering of five species of salmon is the reason that this area is known as the “Salmon Capitol of the World”. This region of Alaska is particularly noted for its strong runs of trophy fish, along with the finest saltwater fishing for giant halibut, red snapper, ling cod and rock fish in the world.
2011 marked my first trip to this area of Alaska and believe me, has just continued to add to my passion for all that it has to offer. Kevin Orton and I had the pleasure of meeting Bubba and Tracey Griggers at one of the sport shows last year and plans were soon made for us to find out what their Thorne Bay based operation had to offer. Our flights were secured, our bags were packed and the Ketchikan airport would be our first stop.
After arriving in Ketchikan, we hopped on our floatplane, one of it seemed an endless stream of, taking off from the long water runway adjacent to the port and we made quick work of the 20 minute flight to the Tree Tops Lodge. Bubba and Tracy met us at their dock and we quickly found our way to our room in the newly created section of their lodge. We settled in and then made our way downstairs to meet and mingle with the other guests before dinner. Robert and Vickie Probes and two of their grandsons would also be sharing the lodge with us, along with Wes Quinlan, Terry Leininger, Russell Taylor and Bill Falco.
The next morning we joined Bubba and four of our new friends on Tree Tops’ newest addition to their fleet, a giant 42 ft. catamaran that we would all grow fond of during our stay as the space and comfort during our trip was truly first class aboard this beautiful vessel. We would be in search of first silver salmon and then halibut and rock fish as the day moved on.
Bubba quickly set up two rods on the downriggers and two more rods with banana weights that would explore more shallower depths. It didn’t take long for Russell to grab a tapping rod and he was soon fighting the first chrome bright silver (coho) salmon of the day. We all took our turns in the next couple of hours in setting the hook on fish in the eight to 16 pound range. Bubba then said it was time to head for halibut waters and we were off on a half hour trip through the island dotted, calm waters of our secluded southeast Alaska paradise.
We spent the afternoon all fighting halibut in the 25 to 80 pound range, with each of us boxing a nice eater along with a few lingcod, yellow eye and rock bass. The regulations during the 2011 season limited us to one halibut per day under 37”, but that didn’t hinder our ability to secure plenty of fish for our eventual trip back down to the Lower 48. It is always a little tough to let that big one go, but one thing we all need to realize, almost all of the halibut over 80 pounds are females and without them, we won’t be able to keep enjoying the experience for many years to come. And as we speak, more sportfishing friendly regulations are being discussed that will hopefully bring everything to a more balanced state.
Our next day found us on the boat with the Probes family and heading for the Anan Bear Observatory, about a two hour boat ride to the north of the lodge. When we arrived, we all exited the boat, received a short explanation about the attraction by the forest service and started on our way along the wooden walkway to the falls area. As we winded our way through the secluded rainforest, a mother brown bear and her two cubs crossed the trail about 30 yards in front of us, briefly pausing to give us a look and then slowly working their way to the stream for breakfast. When we arrived at the falls area, 20 or 30 visitors were already there, marveling at the dozen or so bears planning their pursuit of the hundreds of salmon making their way up the stream.
We spent the next hour watching the bears swing and miss and then swing and catch fish after fish, all the while stopping to devour the protein enriched red, pink and silver salmon in preparation for the winter months ahead. Each of us were able to take a few minutes in a protected “blind” that had been constructed just a few feet away from the falls area that gave us all a chance to see these beautiful creatures up close and personal. We then slowly made our way back down the path to our awaiting boats and we headed back out for a little more halibut fishing.
The afternoon proved to be a special one, as each of us were able to catch a keeper and also along the way enjoy the fight of some brutes as well. It was especially exciting to watch little 10-year-old Garrett battle a half dozen fish along with the help of his cousin, bringing them all to submission and along the way making it a surety that the boys would have a good night’s sleep after all of the excitement and hard work! On our way back to the lodge, we stopped and hauled up our shrimp pots, bucketed our catch and headed back to partake of another perfect meal created by Tracey and her staff. Plans were also made to hit the Thorne and Staney Rivers the next day for another great adventure in one of the most beautiful places in all of Alaska.
Thursday morning found all of us loading onto the boat for the short ride to the tiny town of Thorne Bay. The girls and the young boys were in for a little shopping and sightseeing and us big boys were headed for a little river fishing for salmon and trout. We found the Thorne River to be a little low, but still managed to each land a few pinks, dollys and small cutthroat trout. Our guide, Chris Griggers had us all load back into the Excursion and we then headed to the Staney River. We quickly unloaded and headed to the water. No sooner had Robert flipped his castmaster upstream then bang, a feisty pink salmon started zinging line out of his lightweight spin cast outfit. The next three hours found each of us fighting and landing and releasing literally hundreds of fish, with spin cast and fly rods both doing the job equally well. A great day seemly came to an end too soon and we made our way back to the lodge for another wonderful meal.
Our last day on the water again found us in search of halibut and lingcod and you guessed it, we indeed found them. I was even fortunate enough to haul in a bruiser lingcod, measuring over 51 inches and weighing, well let’s just say it took all I could to hold it up long enough for everyone to take some great pictures!
Bubba and Tracey Griggers’ Tree Tops Lodge is a very special place and one of the main reasons why is that they are two of the nicest people we have ever come across in any of our adventures since the inception of the Sportsman’s News. We are very proud to have them as one of our newest Platinum Approved Outfitters and would highly recommend that you give them a call today to book your next great Alaskan adventure. Their high repeat customer rates alone tell you that they run a great operation and you need to give them a call today to secure your dates for the coming season. Tree Tops Lodge, 907-209-8650 and visit them at www.sportsmansnews. com or at www.treetopslodge.com.