Still the Best
It’s early August, late in the morning with light rain, a 10 knot wind from the southeast, 3 to 5 foot seas. The day started out well, but we’re wondering when we’ll get the next bite which will hopefully end up being the next salmon. I’m pondering when a day will come when this gets just a little easier, when we stop on a school of baitfish that has salmon all over it, when we catch a limit of silvers in one crazy, ecstatic hour. I call around on the radio and get the “nothing to run to” report. I look at my anglers, all of whom have fished with us for years. They are focused, working it. They ask me what’s going on. I relay the “nothing to run to” report. For a moment it feels sort of slow and gloomy, then I start adding it up. It’s 11:30. We’ve already put a limit of halibut in the boat. We have a bunch of magnum-size black rockfish (seabass) in the hold. 14 silvers and 2 kings are neatly stacked on ice in the front cooler. Where else, I wonder, can this kind of score not be cause for celebration? Sitka is still the best, even when it’s not at its best.
2016 will go down in my memory as the year of the scratch. We enjoyed a few periods when the pedal hit the metal, that barely controlled chaos we love. But, for the most part, the season was all about working hard, fishing effectively, and putting in “rod time”. Thankfully it was the Sitka scratch, meaning if we worked hard enough on high percentage spots, we’d satisfy the itch. Folks went home with plenty of fish, countless photos of exciting catches, and ample memories to fuel the winter daydreams.
A final thought: I had a customer ask me this year how long it would take to catch a limit of silvers 20 years ago. He’s from Washington, where a steady, depressing decline in salmon abundance has gone on seemingly forever. Implied in the question is that fishing everywhere inevitably trends downward. We’re not seeing that in Alaska. The day he asked the question, we ended up with 15 silvers, plus limits of halibut and rockfish. The day before we caught 24 silvers and 4 kings. The day after we caught 20 silvers – hardly the end of the world. The answer to his question? Catching a limit of silvers wasn’t any easier decades ago. Since arriving in Sitka in 1993, the most challenging silver season for me was 1994. The easiest was 2013. Despite the scratchy quality of stretches of 2016, the silvers came early (mid-June) and were robust in size. We caught limits many days. We had a few clunkers and plenty of days that were pretty damned good. No indication of long-term decline, nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s called fishing.
Grades: Chinook – C for size, C for numbers
The season kicked off with record hot weather and good king fishing at Biorka for the Hook It and Cook It. On May 14, the temperature hit a record 79 and people we complaining about being hot – nothing we’ve heard before in May. The king fishing remained steady throughout May and most of June with various ups and downs. Most days took us to the Cape, but Biorka, Vitskari, and the Shark Hole all had their moments. We didn’t find massive schools, but we generally got the job done and silvers, pinks, chums, and even the odd sockeye began showing up by early June.
Throughout most of the season, the kings were substantially smaller than normal. The explanation for this isn’t clear. The cause might have been “the blob,” a warm water phenomenon that began in the Gulf of Alaska in 2013 and likely resulted in low ocean productivity. Whatever the reason, this year’s crop of kings encountered less than ideal feeding conditions at some point in their development and were stunted a bit. We expect the size to rebound in coming years.
The last three days of June brought an absolute white-hot bite for kings, silvers, chums, and pinks at the Cape. Very few baits went out without getting a bite. We did mile-long drifts with fish on all the time. The bite slowed by sometime in the second week of July for kings and never got 100% reliable again the rest of the season. There were stretches when kings went well, but it was much more sporadic than normal. One of our boats might land on a bunch of kings, but boats right next door wouldn’t. There seemed very little rhyme or reason to it. This remained the case through the end of August.
The highlight of the king season was a 64-pounder caught by Brody Rohlfs on Captain DJ’s boat on July 7 and a 48 pounder was landed by Nic Martell on Captain Bo’s boat on July 28.
Silvers – Grade A for size, A for early arrival, B- for not attending schools
The first silvers showed up in catches in late May at the Cape – just a few here and a few there. Nothing to target, but a nice bonus. They were robust fish for early season – good size to a point of being almost plump. By the end of the third week in June we were finding silvers in sufficient numbers to spend time on them after king and halibut fishing. It looked like we were poised for a spectacular run – good numbers, great size for June. What followed is described in the introduction – lots of scattered silvers. The size just got better and better. Unlike the kings, these fish were coming from a stretch of ocean where they’d found excellent nutrition. By mid-August many of them were over the 10-pound mark with a fair number in the teens and some pushing the holy grail of 20 pounds. They did all the things we love about silvers – wild jumps, constant changes of direction, and strong runs. The sight of a 15-pound silver airborne is not to be missed and can’t be forgotten. Talk about fuel for winter daydreams.
Aside from starting early, silver fishing held up well until the very end of our season. Captain DJ brought in 15 big silvers with the Slette party on September 11 to end the season. The big silver of the year was 20 pounds caught on Captain Chuck’s boat by John Dwyer on September 3.
Halibut – A+ for numbers and action
It was a great year for people who enjoy halibut catching a lot more than halibut fishing – and that’s most of us. Halibut continue on an upward trend in numbers as a result of tighter restrictions on both the sport and the commercial catches. We see no reason for this to change. The 2016 season again delivered the 20-minute limit select spots and we seldom fished much more than an hour to get a limit. The halibut fishing was frequently excellent in the same spots we salmon fished at the Cape, which meant more “rod time” for salmon and less running around. The fish we’re allowed to retain are the perfect eating size, so people went home with plenty to enjoy.
The bag limit remains one per day. In 2016 halibut had to be less than 43 inches or over 80 inches. We had a few groups try for the elusive over 80 inch and the Fulton party got close with a fish estimated at 78 inchers on DJ’s boat.
What can we say – they’re abundant and willing every year. They are also managed very conservatively with a daily bag limit of 3 pelagic rockfish and 1 non- pelagic. Pelagic is a term that means relating to the open sea or inhabiting the upper layers of the water column. In simple terms, we’re talking black, yellowtail, blue, dusky, window and a few other species of rockfish in the pelagic category. All the rest are non-pelagic.
Lingcod: A+ for size and numbers. D for regulations.
Lingcod numbers remain strong and it’s pretty easy to catch big ones. The problem is finding lingcod in the slot limit of 30 to 35 inches, and there is a one per year annual limit. We keep working at it and we find them but it’s not always easy.