It seems cliché, but standing on the 46-foot Crackerjack Voyager watching the southern Alaskan coastline roll by, I can think of only one word that adequately describes the scenery: breathtaking.
As Capt. Andy Mezirow of Seward guides his boat from Resurrection Bay into the Gulf of Alaska, I gaze in wonder at the beauty surrounding us. To the north are the snow-capped peaks of the Chugash Mountains, a spectacular landscape replete with glaciers, waterfalls and wildlife. North-country seabirds — puffins, murres, kittiwakes and guillemots — fill the sky. Dolphins rise and slip beneath blue-ice waves. Steller’s sea lions lounge on stony shores.
Views like this are reason enough to make the long journey to “The Last Frontier.” But unlike thousands who visit Seward, a quiet town of 3,000 on the Kenai Peninsula, I have not come for sightseeing. I’m here with a singular goal in mind: to catch a trio of Pacific sport fish long on my “bucket list.”
The halibut — big as a barn door and powerful as an ox — tops the list of fish I want to catch. The lingcod, a hideous dragon from the deep, also ranks high. The king, or chinook, salmon, a glistening silver torpedo that sometimes pushes 100 pounds, also has a place on my list.
I’m here with old friends: my hosts, Bob Funk with O. Mustad & Sons and Chuck Smock with Cabela’s, and writers Dan Johnson of Minnesota and Keith Jackson from Washington. Several new friends are with us as well: Al Belhumeur and Rob Nichols from British Columbia, New York outdoor writer Joel Lucks, plus Capt. Andy and his mate Jeff Seward.
We’ll motor to prime fishing grounds 60 miles out from Seward and spend the night there aboard the Crackerjack Voyager, a comfortable craftwith plenty of room for our sizable crew. Eating and sleeping on the water will extend our fishing time from one to two days.
Twenty minutes after we start fishing, I hook my first halibut. I’ve heard it said that fighting one of these brutes is no fun. “Like reeling in an old door,” one friend said. But tussling with this fish convinces me otherwise. It’s like fighting a door, but a door fitted with a revved-up 50-horse outboard.
The harder I reel, the more line the fish takes. After a 10-minute fight, I haven’t gained an inch. Half an hour later, though, I win the battle with the 60-pounder.
The air is cool this morning, but the halibut action is red-hot. Strikes come just seconds after a bait is dropped. One hard hit is answered by Rob Nichols. Thirty minutes pass before we get our first glimpse of the sizable halibut.
“It’s huge,” someone shouts as the fish becomes visible in the azure depths.
Rob prevails, and Mezirow brain-shoots the fish with a shotgun before gaffing it. With first mate Seward’s help, the captain hoists the fish aboard — a big mottled specimen he estimates to weigh 120 pounds.
The waters here are home to a super-healthy population of halibuts up to 300 pounds. In some places, the bite is so fast it seems the bottom must be totally covered with 30- to 100-pound flatfish. Everyone catches at least one fish in the 100-pound class, plus several smaller fish.
While the big halibuts are coming in, so are the lingcods. Both species are bottom-dwelling predators and will take the same baits.
Dan Johnson is first to reel one up. And when he and the captain pull it over the gunwale, everyone watching does a backward two-step. This reptilian fish looks like it might chew your arms and legs off, and no one wants to risk losing an appendage if the monster somehow gets loose.
Lingcods aren’t cods at all, but members of the greenling family. They’re delicious table fish, a fact that makes them popular with anglers despite their unsightliness. And as we quickly learn, a lingcod on the line can test your mettle. Eighty-pounders are possible, and fish half that size can pummel an angler till his arms tremble and his legs turn to Jell-O. Lingcods are great bonus fish for halibut anglers.
After a quick lunch, it’s king salmon time. We catch these ocean beauties primarily by “mooching,” a form of mobile fishing that employs long rods, heavy sinkers and dead herring baits.
In the South, catfish anglers like me use a similar tactic known simply as “drift fishing.”
“Moochers” are people who borrow stuff and don’t bring it back.
The name as it applies to fishing apparently originated in the 1930s in the Seattle area. Trolling plugs were the main salmon-catchers used by local anglers, but Japanese immigrants caught more salmon by trolling dead baits. The Japanese fishermen did so well the locals would wait for them at the docks and “mooch” their leftover baits so they could go out and mooch themselves. The name eventually became associated with the fishing method — so the story goes.
We release each bait a designated distance behind the boat, put the rod in a rod holder and wham! The pole arcs, and we have our hands full with another silver torpedo.
Every salmon we catch is in the 20- to 40-pound range, and every fish tries its darndest to yank our arms from their sockets. The incredible action continues for five hours, during which time my companions and I land more than 100 nice salmon, and I become a salmon-fishing convert.
When we finally stop fishing late in the afternoon — more from sheer exhaustion than anything else because the sun never sets — Capt. Mezirow anchors the boat off a beautiful island and prepares fresh, grilled salmon and halibut for dinner. We all dine like kings, feasting on the bounty of our harvest in a setting of rare beauty.
We have more fishing to look forward to tomorrow. But for now, with snow-capped peaks and crystal-blue water in every direction, all of us are content to be sightseers.
When I finally crawl into my bunk, exhausted after one of the most incredible days of fishing I’ve ever experienced, I do something I’ve wanted to do for 35 years. I cross the halibut, the lingcod and the king salmon off my bucket list.