What is “normal”? We often hear that question relative to sea conditions, fishing, and weather. It’s tough to answer in a world of endless variability. It’s much easier to identify “not normal” and the 2015 season qualified.
We enjoyed good king fishing in early May when it’s normally scratchy. That was followed by very challenging king fishing in mid to late May when it’s normally good. The widespread mayhem that comes with massive king schools – normal to later in May and June – didn’t show with any consistency. The “normal” spots on the west side of Kruzof including stalwarts like Georgiana, the Bowl, Point Amelia, the Parking Lot, Point Mary, and Shelikof Bay delivered weak results most of the season. Yes, there were occasional moments in each, but the bread and butter of the season lived in sometimes maddeningly site-specific spots on “The Cape.”
Halibut continued establishing an ever escalating “new normal”. We had a few spots that produced limits so fast that it took longer drop and retrieve the anchor than to catch the fish. Clearly, halibut stocks are steadily building.
The silvers arrived in large numbers on June 21 – earlier than normal. They did a nearly total disappearing act by the end of the month. Normal is a slow steady build up to more and more silvers.
The best silver fishing in July and August took place on inside waters along with some spectacular king fishing – not normal. The best silver fishing of the year for numbers and size came during the last days of August and the first 10 days of September – a little later than normal. That late silver show occurred offshore in 300 to 500 feet of water – not normal. Large schools of good size needlefish (Pacific sand lance) never showed up on the west side of Kruzof and humpback whales were not a common sight – definitely not normal.
Continuing down the “not normal” list:
• Silver fishing was plagued in later August by so many blue sharks that we sometimes had to move.
• A thresher shark was landed – the first on Captain Tom’s boat in nearly 3 decades of fishing the North Pacific.
• Ocean sunfish (Mola Mola) were spotted a number of times often by late August.
• And, although the sport fleet didn’t participate – schools of albacore tuna showed up 30 miles west of Cape Edgecumbe in early to mid-September.
We don’t know why, but the most productive stretches of ocean for plankton and baitfish, normally adjacent to Sitka, were elsewhere. Was it warm water (El Nino and “the blob”) or a change in ocean currents? Who knows? What we do know is the salmon found ample feed somewhere out on the big ocean. Five kings over 50 pounds were boated by our fleet by Tom Fulton, Collin Fossum, Trevor Newhouse, Byron Borg, and Tony Weathers along with a fair number of fish in the mid-30’s and 40’s. The silvers were broad shouldered, strong and robust. Our fleet adapted to the new normal of 2015. We worked harder to find the fish, our customers put in a bit more effort to catch them, but, at the end of most days, it worked out.
Captain Tom’s Fish Grades
Chinook – A+ for size, C for numbers
The king run of 2015 brings me to a favorite saying: “Making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.” All indicators last winter from biologists and managers in Alaska pointed to a lights out season with liberal daily bag and annual limits. Trollers caught kings in record numbers off Sitka during the winter season of 2014/2015 and fisheries experts forecasted very high returns to the Columbia. Our first trips in May produced far more kings than normal.
We opened Hook It & Cook It on May 15 with king fishing in great form. Then two things happened: 1. The wind began to blow hard from the northwest and continued for more than two weeks. 2. The king fishing declined rapidly for about 8 days. By May 20th it was hard to find a king. After that, the fishing picked up, but you had to be in the right place at the right time and you had to be patient. Running around looking for the mother lode was not a reliable strategy.
By mid-June we began seeing big schools of kings around the Cape, but they’d be here one minute, gone the next. You had to take advantage of your opportunities or it could be a long wait. July saw great king fishing on inside waters that held up until a nearshore spot near “The Cape” lit up producing lots of kings and a parade of monsters including a few 50-plus pounders for the AU fleet. King fishing became more and more random in August as our focus shifted to fishing offshore for silvers. On any given day, you could run into good numbers of kings amidst the silvers, on other days you couldn’t find one.
Coho – B+ for size and numbers
A big showing around June 21st had us thinking it would the third year in a row of lights out silver fishing. Then we had on again, off again action for the rest of the month. In early July, Captain Chuck found the mother load of silvers and kings on protected waters where we enjoyed a long stretch of limits for both. During the same period the ocean had its days, but was anything but consistent. The fish were not densely schooled over bait – they seemed to just travelling through. For a few hours you could have a pretty steady bite, then it would dry up a while only to turn on again. The best strategy was patience and position as opposed to driving around in search of the promised land. As we got later into August, our silver focus pushed to offshore waters. By the very end of the month, large numbers of migrating fish were streaming past. The bottom depth was 300 to 500 feet of water, but most of the fish were in the top 50 feet. The hottest bite on my boat came with the Burnett party on August 31 when we beat our way out into a very rough ocean and caught 24 in an hour.
Halibut – A+ for numbers and action. B for regulations.
The trend with halibut for the past five years has been clearly upward with growing momentum. The 2015 season delivered the fastest action we’ve seen for halibut in a decade. The “20 minute limit” was the rule in a few locations during stretches of the season and we seldom waited more than an hour. The maximum size limit of 42 inches isn’t where we’d like it to be, but it does allow retention of very nice quality fish with a good yield. Why the restriction if the fishing is so good? The International Pacific Halibut Commission is taking a very conservative approach to increasing commercial and sport quotas in hopes of fully rebuilding the resource. Consider the bigger halibut that you release an investment in the future. So far, it appears to be paying off.
What can we say – they are abundant and willing every year. They are also managed pretty conservatively, so we expect them to remain that way well into the future.
Lingcod: A+ for size and numbers. D for regulations
We continue to find large numbers of big lingcod, but the regulations allow for the retention of few. The current bag limit for the visiting angler is one lingcod a year and it must be between 30 and 35 inches – a narrow slot indeed.