Spring into Sitka!Story & photos by Barry Gibson, Senior Editor
May and June are prime months to target big king salmon, huge halibut, colorful rockfish and more amidst some of the most spectacular scenery Southeast Alaska has to offer.
Sosik shook his head in disbelief, flipped the reel into free-spool, and lowered the offering 500 feet to the bottom courtesy of a two-pound weight.
“It can take some time before the halibut smell the bait and move into the area,” advised skipper Tom Ohaus, “so don’t expect too much for an hour o so.” Mike nodded and stared intently at the tip. And stared. An hour later, almost to the minute, his rod bucked an 80-pound Spectra left the reel in short bursts.Tucking the butt under his arm, Mike started reeling determinedly and began regaining line. After a 15-minute see-saw battle, a bathtub-sized brownish shape materialized from the depths. Tom leaned over the side for a look.
Fishermen aboard Angling Unlimited’s Gannet work the waters off Sitka for kings. Drifting and mooching is the perfect tactic.
Scott Maguire bested this bright spring king salmon on mooching tackle. Kings often strike the bait deep in the water and then rocket to the surface.
“It’s a keeper all right,” he announced as he donned a pair of shooter’s ear muffs and grabbed the leader. Bang went the well-seasoned .410 shotgun. A sturdy gaff hook was inserted into the fish’ jaw, and with a heave-ho by Tom and Tyler some 80 pounds of fresh Pacific halibut came sliding in over the rail and onto the deck. Mike, who had never caught a halibut of any size, couldn’t believe his good luck.
“You guys try to top that!” he crowed.
No problem. Scott Maguire quickly boated a beautiful ten pound yelloweye rockfish, and then tied into something more substantial. Pump-and-grind, and a second halibut — this one a “chicken” of 25 pounds —was quickly de-hooked and released to fight another day. A 20-pound ling cod, two more hefty rockfish, another chicken released, and then something size-large started making off with my own bait. I set the hook, the rod tip arced toward the water, and the battle was joined. Bang went the shotgun, and a 90-pounder hit the deck. Then Mike bested another halibut, nearly a twin to his first.
“OK, we’ve got enough bottom fish,” announced Tom. “Let’s move in closer to shore and see if we can finish up with a few more kings.”
Finish up with a few more kings?
Busman’s Dream Holiday
Mike, Scott and I, all New England charter skippers, were on a late-May busman’s holiday to Angling Unlimited in Sitka, on the west side of Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. Started in 1993 on a shoestring by Tom and guide/business partner Chuck McNamee, Angling Unlimited now features a private, two-lodge complex, a fleet of eight custom-designed, 28-foot Almar aluminum center-wheelhouse boats with heated cabins and diesel Volvo Duoprop power, and dock facilities with a filleting/flash-freezing operation.
“We wanted to bring more of an East Coast style of fishing to the Pacific Northwest,”explained Tom.“We felt we should to go beyond just filling our clients’ limits, and offer a full day of fun and sport with light tackle and catch-and-release as well.”
What the three of us found was a fishing experience we could only dream about in the Northeast – huge halibut practically on cue, limits of big king (Chinook) salmon, cohos (silvers), and a variety of accommodating and tasty bottom species including rockfish and ling cod. And all of this took place in the midst of some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.
Getting to Sitka isn’t complicated, and can be done in a single day from many points in the U.S.We took an Alaska Airlines flight from Boston at 8 AM and got into Seattle at 11 AM PST. The next leg to Ketchikan departed at 3 PM, and we arrived in Sitka just before 6 PM Alaska time. Lovely Angling Unlimited hostess Brielle Weyer, a college senior from Minnesota in her fourth summer with AU, met us at the airport and drove us to the Sitka Rock Suites 15 minutes from the airport. The complex consists of two small lodges, one waterfront and the other water-view, that offer a mix of one-and two bedroom and studio units complete with fully equipped kitchens, private bathrooms, and grills on the deck.We found the accommodations cheery and more than comfortable, and after a quick dinner we hit the sack.
The fishing day starts early in Sitka with a wake-up call at 4:15. Breakfast fixings are provided (we made Deckhand Tyler Dahlhiemer display one of Mike Sosik’s 80-pound halibut back at the dock.
Our van departed at 4:50 for the short ride to the dock where we met up with Tom and Tyler.Within a few minutes we were heading up Olga Strait, which then becomes Neva Strait and finally Salisbury Sound, a 20-mile, hour-long run to the open ocean in smooth, protected waters bordered by bluffs and snow-capped mountains carpeted with evergreen trees.We were honored to have Tom as our captain – he doesn’t run a boat every day since he’s so involved with all the other aspects of the business – and he filled us in on all the lore or the area. We were greeted with calm seas when we reached the ocean, and took stock of the situation. A number of boats were working the vicinity, but there wasn’t much happening.
We decided to give it a shot, and within 20 minutes Scott hooked and landed his first-ever king, a mint-bright 20-pounder that gave a spectacular account of itself on the 8 1/2 –foot mooching rod and Shimano Tekota 500LC reel loaded with bright green 20-pound mono.
We then headed to a popular spot called “The Bowl,” an area of flat, gravel bottom 160 feet deep surrounded by higher rocky structure, and began to fish in earnest. All of Tom’s skippers far prefer mooching to trolling, since it’s more hands-on and sporting.
“You hold the rod, feel the bite, and set the hook yourself,”Tom explained. “You’re not just waiting your turn while someone else sets the gear in the downrigger and then hands you the rod when the fish hits so you can crank it in. Sitka salmon are densely schooled feeders and mooching is not only more fun, it’s more effective.”
The Art of Mooching
Mooching, however, is something of an art — as we found out. Tyler expertly plug-cut our herring, deftly rigged them on a tandem hook setup paired with a four- to six-ounce crescent-shaped “mooching sinker,” which we then lowered anywhere from 50 feet below the surface to the bottom. Now the drill was to wait for the fish to pick up the bait as we drifted along. Detecting the bite is the key. When the line tightens and you think you’ve got a customer, simply reel until your rod arcs over and the drag begins to slip. At this point there’s no need to set the hook, although lots of anglers do just that out of habit. (If you’re using circle hooks, don’t attempt to set the hook at all). It’s not as easy as it sounds, and the three of us missed a number of solid bites by reacting too quickly or slowly. After a while, though, we got the hang of it — and you will too.
The bites came intermittently, and we picked away at beautiful 15- to 22-pound kings throughout the day. Larger fish – some better than 40 pounds — are fairly routine catches in the spring, although most run 20 to 25 pounds. And, there is always the chance of a surprise catch. Scott set the hook on what he thought was another salmon, only to find he’d tied into a 40- pound keeper halibut, an outstanding catch on such a light rod. We caught several lingcod to 15 pounds, lots of black rockfish in the three- to four-pound range when we drifted into shoal water, and on the second day Mike landed a five pound coho salmon, perhaps the first one of the season in Sitka and a month ahead of the normal coho run. We grilled it up that night on the deck, along with some yelloweye rockfish fillets, which made for a superb fresh fish-dinner.
Angling Unlimited’s deckhands and skippers pitch in to fillet the catch at the end of the day. The fish is cut into serving portions, carefully vacuum-bagged, and quickly frozen for travel.
Our halibut, salmon, rockfish and lingcod were expertly filleted, skinned, labeled, vacuum-packed in serving-sized portions, and flash frozen right there at the dock. The fish was then packed in sturdy foam box coolers for the air trip home.
“We allow our guests two 50- pound boxes each for a three-day trip, and two 70-pound boxes for those staying four or five days,” explained Tom. “We developed our own catch limits in order to protect our precious resources. Alaska is a fisherman’s paradise, but everyone needs to do his or her part to preserve it.”
On top of all the great fishing action, Sitka itself is a fun and interesting place to visit. We enjoyed a fine meal one The author displays a typical spring king salmon, taken by mooching off Sitka. This one went 22 pounds.
We spent that evening at Van Winkle & Sons Restaurant right in town, and spent several hours exploring the local shops, which feature an amazing array of Alaska artifacts and crafts by native Tlingits, who originally settled this region. But one of the biggest kicks we got, as New Englanders, was to stop and photograph the eagles perched on the limbs of the dead pine tree next to the local McDonalds restaurant. We counted seven of them, all of which seemed to be staring intently at the drive-through window. Bald eagles are everywhere in and around Sitka, and although they hardly draw a yawn from the local populace, they provide a real thrill to those of us “from away.”
All in all, Mike, Scott and I had one heckuva fabulous trip. The fishing was great, and the Angling Unlimited staff was among the friendliest and most accommodating I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. On the flight back home to Boston, the three of us were already scheming a return visit.
If you’ve always wanted to fish Alaska, Tom and Chuck’s Angling Unlimited in Sitka is the place to go in May and June.
Booking a Trip to Angling Unlimited
2008 accommodations/fishing package rates range from $2,045 per person for 3 days/4 nights to $3,195 for 6 days, 7 nights, based on double occupancy. There is a 30% discount for all trips taken before May 22, and a 20% discount for trips taken May 26 – June 1. You’ll need an Alaska fishing license ($35 – $55) and a Chinook stamp ($20 – $30) depending on length of stay. There is a $10 Sitka fish box tax for each box of fish that leaves Sitka, regardless of weight.
Your package includes round-trip airport and dock transportation, full days of fishing, lodging at Sitka Rock Waterfront Suites, breakfast in your room, lunches and snacks aboard the boat, a complimentary car for groups of four, rain gear, tackle, bait, and fish processing/packing to airline specifications.
Not included are airfare, evening meals, Sitka sales tax, and gratuities.
Angling Unlimited has a great web site that’s loaded with information and photos at www.anglingunlimited.com. – Barry Gibson