The bowed salmon rods bounced slightly each time the flasher and the hoochie at the end of their lines dragged through the strong current and met a mass of schooling herring that were balled up in tight groups, hoping safety in numbers was still the way to travel.
The wiggling sensation was enough to make the most cool-headed fisher want to lunge over, snatch up the rod and give it a Herculean jerk.
The good part was it took a little more than bait to release the line from the downrigger clip- like when a sturdy king or silver salmon nearly ripped the rod from its holder and burrowed through the emerald water with the squid-like, plastic bait in its hooked jaws.
After the fifth or sixth time this scenario played out near Juneau, Alaska, my father and I were taking in the horizon dotted with tree-infested islands and white-capped mountains — but still keeping one peeper on the depth-finder.
Out of nowhere, an echoing wall of sound similar to a small plane taking off in a windstorm carried to us, quickly followed by the resonant boom of a massive object crashing into the water. We each wheeled around in time to see a second barnacle-encrusted humpback whale lurch into the air and complete an amazing belly-flop.
I’ve seen whales up close and they’re darn impressive creatures, but to see them test their aerobatic prowess numerous times — even from football fields away — is unlike anything I’ve laid eyes on.
More than anything, events like these are what make Alaska one of the last truly wild places on earth.
— Will Leschper (@TexanOutdoors) August 3, 2013
There’s no doubt most of the state can be dreary and dark during the winter as the days get shorter and the sun seemingly decides to take its own vacation as the year winds down. But during the summer, the state becomes a tourist destination — and a nonresident spectacle — for those seeking big fish, big scenery or a big getaway.
The Last Frontier has long been a top sportfishing destination for anglers across the globe, and for good reason: there’s something for everyone.
Nothing gets me giddier than catching a fish on a fly rod. Except a really big fish.
Fifty-fish days are as rare as Dick Cheney shooting someone: It might happen only once, but it sure is hard to forget. But if your timing is spot on and you hit the peak period of Alaskan salmon activity when they move into freshwater from the salt or when the tide flows out and they remain at the water’s edge, it can be an event you will attempt to duplicate forever.
In Texas, plucking a hook from fish lips that many times only happens when the white bass are running or if you’ve got a catfish pond in your back yard. In Alaska, pink salmon (also known as humpbacks because they undergo a change in freshwater which produces a large hump) are especially susceptible to a fly caster’s streamers like the pink “humpy hooker.”
On a couple of fly-fishing excursions to a protected cove at low tide, we found pinks lined up shoulder-to-shoulder within easy pitching distance. You didn’t even have to be Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It” to pass a tempting streamer in front of a lurking pink, hook up and let the ride begin. As salmon move into freshwater to begin the reproductive cycle, many go from taking a fly to being lukewarm at best to spying your imitations with any real threat of hitting.
However, fish that are still in the salt are geared-up and willing to take anything that looks tasty. Those are the fish that are the most fun to catch. They are so full of spunk that even with an 8-weight they still test your forearms and don’t come in until they deem themselves ready.
Alaska will change your angling perceptions. I used to think an 18-inch brown trout caught on a fly was at the upper echelon of the pursuit. Now, I’m spoiled. A 5-pound pink salmon, much less a 15-pound silver on a fly rod, will tend to do that.
Let’s just say that it’s advised to have plenty of extra backing on whatever reel you use.
If you’re not into fly fishing, you can catch salmon by trolling or other methods including jigging and sight casting.
And then there’s the halibut. He’s not that pretty a fish but sure tasty, and it can be as much work — if not more — to haul in a big “barn door.” Halibut are deep-water dwellers, often living as much as 300 feet down or more, and they are opportunistic eaters. Halibut fishing guides often will chum up a spot they intend to fish with cut bait and then fish it with the same, using 1-pound sinkers or heavier to hit the deep depths where the flat fish are lurking with the bait, and it’s not uncommon in many Alaskan locales to haul in a three-digit halibut.
While Alaska offers plenty for the angler or hunter, the state offers even more for those interested in other pursuits. From kayaking and biking to camping and sightseeing, there’s no shortage of activities to fill days that might have 18 or 19 hours of good light during the middle of the summer.
Many tourists see Alaska from the comforts of a cruise ship as they sail the Inside Passage or other locales, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to really soak up what the state has to offer, you should just pick a spot to spend that time in and partake in the activities that wouldn’t be available if you were on a boat.
There already have been more than 95 million pink salmon harvested this year in a variety of ways, which actually isn’t a drain on the resource. They are the most common of their salmon cousins and come back in droves to many popular fishing areas in Alaska faster than other salmon. They’re much better table fare fresh in the salt, but they also are great catch-and-release fodder for anglers in freshwater rivers and streams.
Make an Alaskan summer the top priority on your bucket list, for whatever reason you may need. There’s still time this year …
— Will Leschper (@TexanOutdoors) August 16, 2013