Trip Stories: Just for the Halibut? Guess Again?

Posted: 11/24/2008 Last Updated: 3/9/2011

Written by Alan D. Martin

As Alaska Airlines Flight #71 touched down in the little town of Gustavus last July, we were more than ready to get our feet on solid ground and find a real meal. Thirteen hours, and three connections, earlier we'd left Milwaukee greatly anticipating the trip that was almost two years in the making. After months of intense planning and anticipation, we were just a night's sleep and a water taxi ride away from Gull Cove and a week of fishing.

Halibut were our priority, and we could not wait to wet a line for the big flatfish we'd read so much about. We wondered how elusive, or how easy, they would be in the waters of Icy Strait. We caught a couple of small ones our first afternoon, a good sign, but also had orders to catch 25 salmon for the smokehouse. The salmon didn't cooperate on our first try (as we later learned that was our own fault), so we took a detour to see the local sea lions on an outer island. We rode some waves to get there and experienced tide rips for the first time, boiling and churning water as it sloshes from one side of the earth to the other with the pull of the moon. The waves are not for the faint of heart, nor for the inexperienced boater. The lions were neat. There were also humpback whales in the area, coming right towards us. We shot photos and video of them blowing and diving, and then they vanished, but only long enough to swim right underneath us and surface again behind us, less than 100 yards away, and put on a real show on the surface.

Before the trip, we had HOPED to see whales at least once. Little did we know we would see many of them, everyday, but the best show was that first afternoon. That is until the Orcas made an appearance. On a bluebird day, in the flowing tide of South Inian Pass, a pod of at least eight killers gave us another thrill, and again at close range, sometimes just 20 yards from the boat. Their vivid black and white patterns and huge dorsal fins made for another nice show on a brilliant blue day.

Back to the fishing. Most was done in 100 to 250 feet of water, jigging large leadhead jigs (one pound) or saltwater jigging spoons tipped with Berkley Power Baits or cut bait. The local sculpin proved to be the best cutbait, being abundant with tough skin, staying on a hook even with the incessant nibbles of small fish. Our tackle consisted of 6-foot heavy action, long-handled rods, coupled with large casting reels capable of holding about 300 yards of 40-pound test monofilament. Our preferred line however, was no-stretch superbraid, in 50-75 pound test. Monofilament is OK, except when you snag bottom in 200+ feet of water -- breaking it is a major chore.

Halibut proved easy to catch, once you found their hangouts. Most were in the 15 pound range, but every so often you'd set the hook into an obviously bigger prize. We boated halibut at 35, 50, 55, 87-pounds, plus one much larger fish (60-inches long and 110 pounds according to the weight charts) which was released. Dozens of smaller ones filled in the gaps. Most of our halibut fishing was done within sight of Gull Cove, near Lemesurier and Inian islands. The two biggest were caught by the same person (not me).

After our return home, we heard from an acquaintance who had just fished the Homer area of Alaska on a multi-day and very expensive charter. They didn't catch any 'butts over 40 pounds. I guess what we had read about Icy Strait being excellent halibut water was true.

For the week, we kept 16 halibut, plus a dozen or so true cod, a few rockfish, lingcod, sole, about 50 pink salmon and a few cohos. Many many more fish of various species were released. Friend Mike also caught one four-foot-long skate on the southeast shore of Lemesurier Island. Skates are similar to stingrays, supposed to be excellent eating, but this one was photoed and released. We flew home with seven boxes and coolers full of fish, crab and shrimp totaling about 400 pounds.

The pink salmon only grow to about six pounds, and live out their life cycle in two years. They say the odd numbered years are when pinks are most abundant and we could certainly concur on our 2001 visit. They were often a nuisance when trying for the larger cohos and kings, but later in the week the pinks (also called humpbacks or humpies) provided non-stop action on light tackle and were a nice break from the deepwater fishing.

Trying to decide what to do on any given day was never a problem, in fact, the problem was trying to fit everything into our seven day stay.

We pulled shrimp traps three times about 10 miles from camp in Idaho Inlet. Four traps were placed in 200 feet of water, baited with salmon carcasses. It takes a fair amount of effort and some help to retrieve the 4X4 mesh cages, and it is awkward to haul them into the boat and empty them into a cooler, but it is well worth the prize. The shrimp are large and come with assorted other creatures of the deep (several types of small crabs, eels, giant sea stars, jellyfish, etc).

We also set crab traps, similarly heavy units, but smaller, easier to handle and in only 25 feet of water. Each trap would typically contain about 25 large Dungeness crabs. The limit is just 5 per person per day, but even that is well worth the 25 mile one way boat ride to Dundas Bay. It took an hour to get there and an hour to get back, but the crabs are even more worthwhile than the shrimp as far as I'm concerned.

The weather in Southeast Alaska is typically around 55-degrees in summer, with low clouds, drizzle and calm to light winds each day. We had our share of that, but also had days with warm, clear skies and stiff on-shore winds. But even when large waves built on Icy Strait, there are enough protected areas where you can get out of the waves, something very necessary for drift fishing in deep water.

One option for getting out of the wind, if need be, is to fish the rivers. On our trip, the pink salmon were just beginning to enter the rivers to spawn, but wouldn't bite there. The resident Dolly Varden char however kept us busy for hours in the swift water of the Trail River. It's a long hike across a tidal flat to get to the fishing grounds, and an even longer hike back when the tide comes in if you didn't take a canoe with you. Flies, spoons and spinners provided good action on twelve to eighteen inch Dolly's once we reached the holes. These are delicate fish in a delicate environment, so careful catch and release is highly recommended.

No way could I ever do justice to this trip with just words. It's pretty hard to take, you know, fishing in nice weather, catching lots of fish, many different kinds, sometimes very large ones, while being surrounded by whales, orcas, sea lions, harbor seals, porpoises, blacktail deer, brown bears, sea otters, bald eagles and a myriad of other coastal critters, and all with the salt spray on your lips and unfortunately on your glasses too.

But I do need to talk about where we stayed.

We stumbled across South Passage Outfitters on the internet. Their website is quick and to the point, no fancy sales pitches, but we knew immediately it was what we wanted. SPO is unlike most Alaskan destinations. SPO caters to the experienced sportsman who doesn't want to be waited on hand and foot. Dennis and Peg provided clean, comfortable cabins to sleep in, seaworthy boats and some fine homecooked meals, mostly seafood we brought in (and all of it is outstanding!) plus fixins from the kitchen. We felt "at home" every minute of our stay. And aside from tips on good fishing areas, we were on our own. Here, there are no guides, so you fish when you want, where you want, how you want, and for what you want. And if you fish through lunch or dinner, the kitchen is always open and leftovers are always good, upon your return. Dennis and Peg run their place in a very practical way that keeps their rates low. It was all we wanted and so much more. The total experience was simply awesome.

On the South Passage website is the phrase "come as a guest, leave as friend." Many businesses use that line, but most of them don't mean it. SPO does. Not only did we leave as friends, but we'll return as them too, in 2003, and not just for the fishing. It was an outstanding place, with outstanding fishing, run by outstanding people. There are certain places in this world that you just can't stay away from. This is definitely one of them.


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