A flock of bald eagles enters into a feeding pattern, swooping down en masse, grabbing fish, eating in midair and then circling back around for more. It looks like a little airport in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, the eagles executing touch-and-go’s one after another, circling the runway that is the school of fish. But the feast is short lived. A humpback whale rises from the water, belly-flopping back down as air rips through its blowhole. The bald eagles scatter and head for shore. The whale relaxes, presumably pleased with its position atop the food chain.
This all happens 25 yards from the boat. It’s another concrete reminder that we aren’t the only ones fishing these waters off the coast of Noyes Island, Alaska. As if I needed one. Earlier, I was all set to celebrate my first king salmon when a sea lion ambushed it, biting the fish in half as I hauled it next to the boat. Southeast Alaska has some of the world’s most fruitful fishing holes, and competition amongst all forms of life is fierce.
There’s nothing quite like coming home after a day at sea to a wood-burning sauna and a bowl of hot cioppino in the great room. Yes, fishing is a rough endeavor, but Steamboat Bay Fishing Club provides the yin to the sport’s yang. That the lodge is small, with only 10 rooms, means that every staff member knows your name (and what you drink) by the end of the first day. It also means you eat well: every night the lodge’s chef offers an ever-evolving menu of local fish and game meats. Rooms are huge, with wood-burning stoves and floor-to-ceiling windows; the wood-burning sauna, pool and poker tables, and cigar lounge make it a plush version of the old-school fishing cabin. Altogether, it’s the perfect way to take the edge off of what amounts to some of the best fishing in the world.
The 3-night package starts at $5,825 per person and includes round-trip seaplane transfer from Ketchikan, daily guided fishing trips, professional seafood processing, accommodations and all food and drinks. steamboatbay.com
Sea lions upset a lot of people in these parts, but the privilege of seeing nature in action is worth more to me than any fish. Besides, for once in my life, the fishing is easy. I’ve never been talented with the rod and reel, yet these waters outside of Ketchikan are as close as it gets to shooting fish in a barrel.
At first, I thought I had really mastered the art of “mooching,” a style of salmon fishing that involves a slow drift across a wide range of depths. But it didn’t take long to notice that all of the other boats, as well as the other fishermen on my boat, were catching fish at the same insane rate. Was the herring we were using especially tasty this year, or had we truly come to a place where fish catch themselves?
My guide, Everett, a local, lifelong Alaskan fisherman, told me that he had left this region a few times for other guiding gigs, but that he was always underwhelmed by the fishing in other parts of the world. In Maui, for example, he said it was not uncommon to go out for a few days and catch only one fish. My immediate eye-rolling impression was that Everett was a homebody, and quite possibly one of the only people in this world to be bored on a visit to Hawaii. Yet as the week went on, it became easier to understand where he was coming from. The waters surrounding Ketchikan are a feeding ground for five different breeds of salmon that travel south to spawn, many making their way the 1,000 miles or so to the Columbia River in Washington. The high concentration of baitfish entices them — and others like halibut and rockfish — to stop to feed in Alaska’s channels, bays, and shorelines each June and July. It is the sheer amount of hungry fish in the water that separates this area from others, and what ultimately makes the fishing seem so easy.
Here’s how it went: I’d bait a new herring on the hook and drop my line, letting it run out until it hit the bottom. I’d reel a few times and feel a strong tug. If it was a king salmon, a mighty fight would ensue, with the fish running multiple times into deeper water. Otherwise, two minutes of steady reeling later, there was a halibut (or a rockfish) in the boat, the biggest one 15 pounds and just shy of two feet long. In one half hour of fishing I caught three halibut and a rockfish, all biting within a few seconds of my line hitting the bottom.
When I mentioned to Everett how easy it all seemed, he told me about the 370-pound halibut someone caught a few years ago, an experience they described as pulling a barn door off the ocean floor. “It’s not always so easy,” he said.
As fun as it was to consistently reel in fish, the best part of the trip didn’t reveal itself to me until I left Alaska and arrived back home with my catch — something like 30 pounds. (Just to give you an idea of what that’s approximately worth, fresh wild-caught King Salmon was selling for $23 per pound at Pike’s Market in downtown Seattle at the time of my trip.) The obvious effect is feasting on fresh, high-quality fish that you yourself caught by hand — something 99.9 percent of the population does not get to experience. But the afterglow of the trip goes on well beyond the practical. I always like a good takeaway from a trip — sometimes a gift for someone, sometimes a memento to remember the good times I had. In this case, the fish is both. Right now, my freezer is absolutely jammed, and every time I open it to get some ice, I think about my time in Alaskan waters, the stories of the bald eagles and the whales and how the king salmon would always run just as soon as you were about to get them in the boat. And I get to share those memories with my friends for the rest of the year. Since I’ve been home, I’ve hosted dinner parties of salmon, halibut and rockfish; I’ve brought frozen fish to barbecues; I’ve surprised friends with filets as a housewarming gift. On each of those occasions, everyone has been excited to hear the stories, asking me questions about where I was and how I caught it.
I gladly tell them everything they want to know. But, like the best fishermen, I leave out how easy it really was.