One of the things I’m asked when people find out I’ve been living in Alaska for a while is how much fishing and hunting I get to do. The truth is, so far not much – though I’m always more than happy to sample what friends harvest (smoked salmon, ground bear meat, moose jerky, caribou sausage, etc.). Mostly, it’s just because I’m not keen to make the “capital investment” to get into either pastime just yet. Last month, though, I was able to get in on the action myself.
My “second” alma mater – Gonzaga University, where I got my Master’s degree – happens to have an alumni chapter in Anchorage. That makes the college basketball season more entertaining, especially when Gonzaga has a season like they did in 2016-17, but they have other events through the year. The “Hauling in the Halibut” derby, now in its 10th year, is one of those. Last year, I wasn’t able to go along because of work travel (but don’t feel too bad, it was to Hawai’i). This year, I jumped at the chance, especially since it’s my last full summer in the Last Frontier for a while.
Our charter out of Seward was scheduled for a Saturday, with a 5:45am check-in. Since Seward is a little more than two hours away from Anchorage, there was no way I was going to be making the trip that morning. But I had been lazy in finding a place to stay the night before, and was considering camping out. Fortunately for me, Kelly Price from the Gonzaga University alumni office graciously invited me to stay in the house he was renting. Since he hadn’t bothered mentioning how much I’d owe, I made sure to hit the highway with a case of Alaskan Summer Ale and a bottle of Glenlivet 12 in the trunk.
Both of my previous trips to Seward had been rather gray. Not foggy, horribly unpleasant, or dangerous driving, but an overcast low enough to hide some of the higher peaks in the Kenai Mountains. Not this trip, though. It was clear the entire way south from Anchorage down Turnagain Arm and up over Turnagain Pass. Even though I’d managed to get out of work a little early that Friday, it was still pushing 7 by time I made my way into Seward. Since Kelly and his mom, who’d come along for the weekend, had already eaten dinner, I proceeded into Seward’s quaint downtown. I pulled into a parking spot right in front of a place called Seasalt, where I enjoyed a burger topped with fried oysters while sitting outside across from the Alaska Sealife Center. Seward’s not exactly a sprawling city, so after dinner it was a quick drive to the address Kelly gave me. Our house for the weekend was across the street from a strip of city park packed with tents and campers, less than a hundred yards from the sea.
The next morning came early but with a glorious sunrise. It was almost two months after the solstice, after all, so things like “sunset” and “sunrise” once again had meaning, even if they were still happening at times that were novel to folks from the Lower 48 (or, as they say in Alaskan, “from Outside”). After a quick trip to Safeway for last minute food and caffeine, we were at the harbor and Crackerjack Sportfishing. Our full day halibut and salmon charter ran $378 (not counting the sportfishing halibut license and salmon stamp), which might sound like a lot. But, even though they can’t QUITE guarantee it, you’re almost certain to come back with a considerable amount of fresh-as-can-be fish. Compared to market prices in the restaurants and the stores, plus the fact you’re out on the water hauling it in yourself and seeing it expertly filleted before your eyes, I felt like it was a pretty fair price.
Just before 6 am, 14 of us boarded the Crackerjack Voyager with Captain Nik and deckhand John, a Marine veteran who spends his summers fishing and his winters working at Alyeska Ski Resort. With the sunrise continuing to paint a vibrant picture behind the peaks on the far side of Resurrection Bay, we got underway for what turned out to be about a three-hour trip south and east into the Gulf of Alaska near the southern end of Montague Island. Many of my new “shipmates” had all manner of pharmacological and/or homeopathic seasickness preventative cures. I chose to bet on the fact that nearly three years of sea time and a couple thousand hours of fast-jet time had more than adequately prepared me. I was right.
It was almost a flotilla that proceeded out of Resurrection Bay, and as it happened some other boats apparently got to Captain Nik’s preferred spot before we did. So, we had to motor on a bit further before dropping anchor and setting out our lines. A couple rods were set up with jig tackle, which requires the angler to keep moving it around, but the rest were set up with circle hooks with herring for bait bait before being set into rod holders for almost-idiot proof fishing. The hardest part about the circle hook set up for me, having only fished on lakes and rivers, was the fact that the three-pound lead weight gave the rod tip a slight permanent bend. People who’d been halibut fishing before told me “you’ll definitely know when you have a fish on” but, until I was using jig tackle where you can feel the fish take the hook, I don’t think I ever completely cracked the code.
Nevertheless, I took some bragging rights from the fact I reeled in the first halibut of the day. Neither of my halibut were exactly spirited fighters (other peoples’ fish had to be welcomed aboard with a club to the head), but they were definitely heavy. Our guides helped land all the fish, which in the case of halibut, meant a gaff – a long pole with a hook that looks like it came from Peter Pan’s antagonist. It’s jabbed into the halibut’s side and used to haul it in, since the big flat bastards are too heavy for the line itself to support their weight out of the water. And just like that, within 20 minutes of starting, I was halfway to my limit of halibut.
Other folks brought in another one or two halibut before Captain Nik, who’s been fishing these waters for over twenty years, noted that the tide was slack. A slack tide, we learned, meant lethargic halibut, who apparently don’t have much appetite. So the halibut gear was stowed, the anchor raised, and we set off for salmon. As we took up spots more or less evenly spaced around the boat’s wrap-around deck, it wasn’t long before silvers started coming aboard. Not as big or heavy as the halibut, many of us found them more entertaining to catch since they put up more of a fight as they were reeled in. Nik and John were running around the boat almost nonstop with the nets helping get the salmon aboard and unhooked. Most people got their limit of three rather quickly – I only wound up with two, but if we had stayed another ten minutes before heading back for the halibut I’d have likely hit my limit too.
Our second halibut session was more productive, and everyone wound up catching their limit before we started heading back to Seward in the middle of the afternoon. After the obligatory photo op, John started filleting the halibut while Captain Nik drove us back in. John filleted our salmon at the pierside cleaning table (where at one point an older lady asked what happened to the discarded bits), and then Kelly and I took our fish to a small processing company. Kelly offered to split the salmon evenly, despite the fact I’d only caught 2, so I walked away with two whole halibut and five salmon fillets. We had them cut, flash-frozen, and vacuum packed by Captain Jack’s Seafood Locker for a reasonable fee. I paid something like $23, while Kelly paid more since he needed it packed for the flight back to Spokane.
Kelly Price (L) and your humble scribe, with some of our bounty.
Then it was back to the house, where we were joined by some other alums who came down while we were out fishing for an evening of food and drink. The next morning, Annie, our esteemed chapter president, made sure we didn’t hit the road hungry by serving up breakfast burritos. In exchange for her culinary efforts, her husband Preston and I made sure no one had to worry about leftovers, because that's just the kind of helpful guys we are. The weather had held out for the entire weekend, and while it was only my third visit, I had never seen Seward look better. I window shopped in downtown a bit before paying a quick visit to the Seward Brewing Company and Thorn’s Showcase Lounge, a retro-feeling joint my wife and I adored on a previous visit. The last stop was Captain Jack’s to pick up my fish before hitting the road. It was a great Sunday for a drive back to Anchorage, and I made a couple stops along the way to get the most out of it before work on Monday.
But I couldn’t stay at either of them for too long. Not with 20 pounds of halibut and salmon to get back to the apartment!
Not just basketball game parties. But we do those, too.