Text and photos by Lee Allen
Vol. 18, Vol. 8
You truly have to walk a mile in somebody else’s mukluk’s to appreciate the world from their perspective. That opportunity arose for some outdoor writers who were invited to visit The Last Frontier and the salmon in Southeast Alaska didn’t stand a chance as we came at them from the four corners of the globe — New Hampshire, Virginia, South Dakota, and Arizona.
I was the desert-dwelling scribe, vaguely familiar with the concept of green because in my part of the country it’s generally found in the form of desert scrub brush and cactus, not miles and miles of old growth Alaskan timber that provide a backdrop to some of the finest fishing in the world.
We narrowed the 650,000 square miles of the largest state in the U.S. down to the Southeastern portion, The Inside Passage, our commercial flight stopping at Ketchikan just long enough to round up a float plane trip to Prince of Wales Island, an archipelago landmass ranking as one of the largest islands in the United States — and home to our base camp at Boardwalk Lodge, accurately billed as “a 5-Star Adventure.”
Our trip, coordinated by Sportsmen’s Alliance for Alaska, was like the Three Musketeers Plus One with a quartet of journalistic first-time visitors anxiously awaiting the opportunity to chase silver salmon as part of their migratory run from open ocean to leeward waters around POW, an island 140 miles by 45 miles as the bald eagle flies.
Much of the pre-trip hype turned out to be true. “Ketchikan, the First City on the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, is a place where the sport angler can stay busy year-round fishing for all five species of Pacific salmon, wild trout, halibut, and a variety of other species,” touts the visitketchikan.com web page while proclaiming the area, Salmon Capital of the World.”
“Thorne Bay is made up of hundreds of protected passages, bays, and inlets, waters that teem with aquatic life,” according to lodge owner Brad Steuart whose facility can only be reached by floatplane or ferryboat.
By the time safe light arrived, we were buckled into our 6-seater DeHavilland Beaver float plane, looking forward to an aerial view of the Tongass National Forest before making our pontoon landing at the lodge boat dock.
One does not just ‘fly over the forest’ however as the 17-million-acre Tongass is one of the last coastal temperate rainforests left. It rises majestically from a misty shroud to welcome visitors to a land of bears grown fat on salmon, eagles filling the azure skies, and 500-year-old trees that stand silent sentry over a rich and verdant world.
Like kids at Christmastime with “visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads,” we were met dockside by a departing group of anglers. All possessed smug smiles of success and cartons of frozen fillets — some 700 pounds of fish flesh — a testament to the good times that we hoped lay ahead for our group as well.
“Boardwalk Lodge, an Orvis-endorsed fly fishing lodge, has certified guides for both saltwater and freshwater angler to try their luck on some of the most prolific waters in the Northwest,” says its owner.
Steuart’s guides have helped Boardwalk clients return to the lodge weigh-in station with halibut weighing 325 pounds and Chinook (King) salmon that tipped the scales at 65 pounds — respectable catches when you consider statistics from the Alaska Fishing & Hunting Guides Directory showing the state record for King, set back in 1985, is 97 pounds 4 ounces with one lucky (and presumably very tired) angler setting the state halibut record of 459 pounds in 1996.
With box lunch in hand, we boarded our watercraft, a 28-foot-long cruiser christened Thunder Chicken, and hung on trying to find our sea legs as twin 150 Mercs fired up to full speed ahead for a spray-filled 12-mile ride into deeper waters. Our destination was a non-descript chunk of coastland called Ship Island where our new neighbors would include dolphins, seals, sea lions, and an occasional whale. And fish. Lots of fish.
“Everything in the world swims by this island because we’re so close to the big water and fish follow the tide,” says Chicago Jim, a veteran guide of over 10 years on these waters. “We catch everything from our regular salmon species and halibut to a never-ending variety of rockfish. Everything the ocean has to offer can be found right here by this one island.”
Depending on the time of the year, anglers stand a chance of encountering five kinds of wild salmon returning from the open ocean — Kings (Chinooks) to Sockeye (Reds) to Coho (Silvers) to Pinks (Humpies) to Chum (Dog salmon) that hit both shallow and deep. Rig a herring onto a 6/0 hook and mooch for silvers, or bait up a strip of fish filet on a double rig with 16 ounces of lead weight and drop it down for halibut — down several hundred feet till it hits the ocean floor — and start jigging.
Although our trip was a bit in advance of the big fish fall ocean migration, our catch of silver salmon ran a respectable 8-to-12-pounds and halibut catches started at 20-pounds and got heavier by a factor of three — ideal supper fare.
“By mid-August, silvers are rowdy and ready to spawn, coming in from the big pond, deeper and colder ocean waters, and headed this way to some of the 23 rivers and streams on the island,” says our captain. “By September, Coho will be running from 20-25 pounds and attack the bait like a fast-moving freight train. The weather may sometimes be crappy, but the fishing is good most days and absolutely awesome on many outings…so good, in fact, that aggressive salmon have been known to slash at the flash of a bare hook.”
Drifting parallel to our target island, the skipper keeps a close eye on his bank of fish finder electronics and when the appropriate color combinations of reds, oranges, yellows, and bright greens indicate huge schools of baitfish being besieged by equally large schools of sportfish, he kills the motors and advises: “Gents, we be fishin’.”
While there’s almost always something hungry that will give a herring-baited hook a look, variety is the spice of life and from just-below-the-surface to hundreds of feet deep, there is no single best method of fishing — just daily experimentation to find out what the fish prefer.
“Whatever works,” Jim profoundly proffers. “I’ve got more gear on board than most tackle shops have on display in their entire store, so you get to try everything before going back to the old reliable — that six oh hook with a 4-ounce chunk of lead and a hunk of herring.”
When the bite is felt, the hook is set, the rod tip is bent, and the fight to bring the fish to the surface is on, there are four words a Pacific salmon doesn’t want to hear Captain Jim utter: “Welcome aboard, little buddy,” a greeting that is followed by a quick dispatch and stowage on a bed of ice.
As our day on the water ended and we headed back to Thorne Bay for libation and lodging, our catch tally for 9-hours of neophyte nautical angling offered up an olio of ocean options — 13 silver salmon (also known as Hooknose); 11 of the most abundant salmon species in the local waters, Frisbee-shaped pinks (Humpies); a bucket full of rockfish of varying sizes, kinds and colors mixed in with some pollock, cod, tiger snapper, flounder, and four halibut, largest of which weighed 65 pounds.
While a lot of hooks go in the water hoping to claim their share of filets, the salmon industry is well-managed for future generations. “The pie here is big enough to sustain sport, subsistence, and commercial use,” says Sportsman’s Alliance Director Scott Hed.
The only thing missing is you and reservations are now being taken for this summer’s fishing fun.
www.boardwalklodge.com (800) 764 3918