FRITZ COVE, Alaska — This wildlife-rich landscape in late spring and early summer is fit for a king, and when the bruising monarchs of the salmon family show up, it’s a crowning achievement to be anywhere near the party.
The gritty, pebble-laden beach that was submerged only hours before now glinted in the afternoon sun, drawing a troop of chattering bald eagles as a double-digit tide receded and left some aquatic dwellers high and dry. A few juveniles mingled with their white-headed brethren near a freshwater stream that dumped into the saltwater cove, and the predators, like most other hungry critters here, had designs on a scaly lunch.
In the distance, scads of shorebirds dodged and weaved above the salty surface dotted with the occasional seal head as the mammals came up for air amid rolling balls of frenzied bait fish and then darted below.
And cruising the emerald depths were king salmon that had returned to their home waters but hadn’t started their spawning runs.
It was the magic hour — low tide.
* * *
The aluminum Hewescraft slowly jogged a familiar pattern on the shimmering surface, and every so often the Lowrance fish finder would register a pink mass of herring grouped tightly at all levels of the water column. And usually not far behind would be a series of inverted V’s, larger fish that showed up on the device.
Each time the trolled plastic hoochie and flasher would glide through a school of bait fish, it would wiggle the bowed rods in the downriggers, making them bounce as the looping attractant shimmied off herring and gave the impression that something had inhaled the lure. Each time it was enough to want to leap over and snatch up the rod, but after seeing it happen a half-dozen times, that need quickly dissipated.
At least until the next ball of bait was announced, and after a few seconds of wiggling, the rod popped up and the line was yanked out of the downrigger clip.
“Fish on,” my uncle shouted as he leaned over and yanked up the rod to slow the migration of the feisty salmon on the other end. Moments later, the other rod came to life, standing straight up as another fish released the pressure applied by the cannonball.
“Another fish on,” my father chortled as I hoisted the rod to let the salmon work the drag.
After a short fight, the first fish rose to the surface not far from the boat and the iridescent green hue on its back revealed it as a bright chum, about an 8-pounder. When the sleek torpedo was netted, the attention turned to my efforts, which seemed to be gaining little. A few minutes after the fish first hit, it slowly nosed toward the surface and its dark appearance and stocky profile in the distance showed it was a king, about a 30-pound specimen.
Knowing you’ve got a big fish on often can mess up the netting process because the first instinct is to scoop it up as fast as possible. However, the best method is to let the fish tell you when it’s ready. And with a decent-size king, you know when there’s still some fight left and when is a good time to snatch them.
Another couple of minutes passed and the fish finally seemed ready to come in, so I kept the king’s head down in the water as I worked him to the surface and my father stood by with the handle in one hand and the sagging net material balled up in the other. A short step back, a quick lift of the rod and a fast dip of the net elicited hoots and hollers a second later as the hefty fish found itself on a boat ride.
In the end, salmon fishing is all about timing. And sometimes it’s better to let someone else grab the first rod!
* * *
Growing up king salmon isn’t an easy proposition in a land where there’s always something gnashing its teeth or wringing its claws not far away, and predators key in on fish runs and gorge themselves since their next meal could be tough to find. Eggs, fry and fingerlings are prime targets for Dolly Varden that will snatch up every one they can catch in freshwater. Eagles and bears also take their fair share of salmon from streams and rivers, though the majority die and end up left to rot, which will happen in overall runs that number in the millions. And even in open saltwater many salmon often can’t escape the jaws of orcas, sharks, seals and sea lions.
The kings in Southeast Alaska don’t grow to the monstrous proportions that their kin on the Kenai River can – reaching 60 to 70 pounds after spending up to seven years in the salt – but they pack the same disposition, which makes any size and shape fun to find. And like all other varieties of salmon, the key to finding them is being flexible after planning ahead since Mother Nature doesn’t always follow the same pattern. In some years, the kings barely showed at all in the Juneau area while on this outing a few years back they came early and in force.
Our days of angling in late July that year ended with about 50 pounds of chum and king apiece, though it certainly could have been more, and when you’ve already got freezers stacked to the gills with fish, it’s good to be selective.
Now through the end of the summer, Alaska is an angling paradise as other varieties of salmon — including sockeyes, pinks and silvers — congregate closer to shore to begin the spawning process. However, not every stream or river will hold fish, and salmon that could be thick one week in a particular area could vanish the next.
That being said, there’s a good chance that wherever your plans take you there will be some kind of fishing opportunity not far. Fly fishing in Alaska is out of this universe and late July into August often provides fantastic action in many locales for pink and silver salmon which remain the feistiest of the species even after they’ve started the spawning process.
And if the salmon don’t want to cooperate, there’s always trout action for the fly angler and halibut, rockfish and lingcod for those looking to stack up the fillets.
At least during the summer, it’s heaven on earth.