Harrowing Alaskan fishing tale highlights need to be prepared

Some waters in Alaska require the use of tractors simply to launch a boat.

HOMER, Alaska — You would be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque and stunning corner of this planet or any other than the end of the road on the Kenai Peninsula.

Each wandering glance elicits another image fit for a postcard, including snow-capped volcanoes looming on the broad horizon, swarms of eye-catching bald eagles fluttering in the glacial breeze and the venerable Spit, a place steeped in as much salty lore as the salty folks who first settled this rugged backdrop.

This fishing community, like so many in the Last Frontier, ebbs and flows with the massive tidal movements that come with the territory and beneath which provide a great bounty of saltwater battlers for man and animal alike. On sheer scale alone, there’s nothing that compares in the Lower 48, but looming below the blissful ambiance of summer’s best days rests an ever-present amount of danger that can make things dicey more quickly than you’d like to think.

A July outing aimed at stocking the freezer with halibut fillets taught the age-old lesson that it doesn’t take much for relatively small issues to escalate into big problems, which is true regardless whether you’re chasing doves and deer in Texas in the fall or angling for gulf snapper or wintertime largemouths and catfish.

Our trip aboard a sturdy and stable 34-foot catamaran that was planned for a Tuesday was rescheduled for a Friday due to blustery conditions in Kachemak Bay that had seas swelling to double-digit heights in some exposed locales. However, the day of the trip also brought unexpected inauspicious conditions for open-water areas that had been producing limits of big fish — a classic example that it doesn’t take much of a storm to create havoc for boaters in Kachemak and the nearby Gulf of Alaska. Our crusty veteran fishing guide let Mother Nature make the decision for us, which meant a shorter run to somewhat more protected Kachemak waters near aptly named Halibut Cove.

The fishing was dead as a hammer for a couple of hours — far from normal — as the anchored boat rocked in choppy waters kicked up by winds that slowly seemed to pick up steam. About the time boredom began to take hold, one of the stout poles rigged up with cut octopus doubled over and by the luck of the draw had my name on it. A five-minute fight ended with a nice 50-pound eating-size halibut being gaffed and brought aboard by our captain who also served as deckhand.

The accompanying beaming smiles were replaced with apprehensive grimaces moments later.

On cue, the catamaran’s alarms began wailing, setting off a frantic minute of hectic searching to discover the origin. After inspecting the electronics and figuring out that the issue stemmed from a bilge pump malfunction, our curmudgeon captain lifted a deck hatch covering an engine housed in one of the pontoons — only to see it halfway submerged amid more water gushing in.

Safe to say, panic often takes hold with any type of malfunction that theoretically has the ability to swamp a boat, especially when you’re still a hefty swim from land and the seas you’re pitching in are hovering near the 50-degree mark or less. The captain pulled out a hand pump to start the process of bailing water but after a few minutes, we realized it was wasted effort — the water was pouring in from a leak from a hose that was in a confined hatch at the back of the boat — which made any manual fix impossible.

By the time we figured out that the bailing efforts weren’t gaining, the back engine was almost submerged. By that time, the miser radioed a few of the half-dozen captains who also had charters within sight, requesting any help they could provide. The charter guides in these waters all understand the rigors of their profession and gladly pitch in whenever even simple issues arise.

Within 15 minutes, one boat cruised over with an automatic pump offered up in an outstretched net, and 15 minutes later another boat did the same. Once we got the pumps cranking, the pair of efficient expellers capable of bailing thousands of gallons per minute combined provided enough of a solution to safely pull the anchor and slowly motor back toward the harbor on another engine located under the wheelhouse. The leak couldn’t be fixed so the pumps remained on all the way back until we tied off at the dock, providing quite a sight to onlookers expecting to catch a glimpse of the day’s charter haul.

That was one boat ride that couldn’t have ended soon enough.

Of the many lessons an experience such as this one teaches, perhaps the greatest is to not press your luck. Most of the time you must take what Mother Nature gives you, and in this case had we been farther out in rough seas as planned or without the close aid of others for any reason, things could have been sorely different — the kind of different that involves the Coast Guard.

We certainly could have tried to head into rougher waters and probably been able to drop lines, but the process only would have led to frustration since it would have put the kibosh on successful techniques — and obviously would have been much more dangerous.

This situation also provides one of the greatest reminders for all outdoorsmen and women: Always inspect your gear prior to any outing, regardless of the situation. Our captain, who has three decades of guiding experience, had the boat worked on the day before and there simply could have been a hose or housing that wasn’t properly snugged down by a mechanic — another classic example of a little issue that swelled into a big problem.

In the end, the trip wasn’t the greatest fishing excursion ever, but we still came home with a hefty fish that provided some great eating, the boat didn’t sink (our captain pointed out numerous times that even if it filled with water it still wouldn’t have gone under) and we made it back in time to visit the Spit’s most famous landmark – the Salty Dawg Saloon.

It certainly could have been worse.


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