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September 21, 2007

Take Off to Tanaku

A trip to scenic Tanaku Lodge in southeast Alaska promises to deliver action with a variety of cold-water species, and keep you coming back for more.


The seaworthy fleet sits moored and ready to go at Tanaku Lodge.

We were anchored just off Column Point, fishing for halibut, when the radio crackled with a message for our skipper, Kevin Young. It was Roger Paddock, captain of the High Roller, another Tanaku Lodge boat, and his message was brief: "Better get over here, Kevin."

Even though we were having a pretty good morning of halibut fishing, we alldashed for our rods and began reeling in as fast as we could. We knew that Roger had experienced fantastic fishing for both chinook and coho the previous afternoon, and it sounded as though they had found the fish again.

As we approached the High Roller, we saw that three of the four anglers aboard were hooked up. The deckhand was netting a salmon, while Roger was busy sorting through a deck of flopping coho.

Take Off to Tanaku

Take Off to Tanaku

Take Off to Tanaku

Tanaku Lodge's Nick Campbell deftly nets a nice coho (top), and stares down a lingcod prior to release (middle). (bottom) Eric McGee shows off a brace of 30-pound chinook, which are available from May through July.

In record time we tied on jigs and tossed them overboard. As I watched my jig flutter through the clear water, a coho darted out of the depths and grabbed it. We had been fishing less than 15 seconds and I was already hooked up! Within moments, anglers on both sides of me were fighting fish of their own. Coho were tail-walking all around the boat. Lines were crossed, tangled and occasionally broken, but we didn't care. This was a fisherman's dream. This was why we had come to Alaska.

Incredible Scenery

Our trip had begun five days earlier, when ten eager fishermen had piled into a floatplane near the Juneau airport. The 30-minute flight to the lodge was worth the trip all by itself. Everywhere we looked were majestic mountain ranges, glaciers the size of cities and white surf crashing against spectacular headlands. Upon arriving at Tanaku Lodge, which sits at the edge of Elfin Cove on Chichagof Island, we were given a tour of the grounds and fed a hearty lunch. Then we had the afternoon to explore and prepare for five full days of fishing.

After dinner we were assigned to our boats and asked to complete a form indicating what species of fish we wanted to catch - salmon, halibut, rockfish or lingcod. I figured the fishing must be pretty reliable if the guests can choose their fish as if ordering from a menu.

I decided to kick things off with halibut. The next morning found us anchored on a prime halibut spot, where we landed several "chickens" in the 20- to 40-pound class, three keepers in the 50- to 70-pound class, and two "shooters" - halibut weighing more than 70 pounds. (For safety's sake, all halibut weighing more than 70 pounds are dispatched with a 410 shotgun.)

The Tanaku skippers often anchor near structure such as small humps, gravel flats or other terrain favored by halibut. When the current runs too hard to keep baits on the bottom, the skippers power-drift with the engines in reverse, constantly backing into the current. The method is effective, but often results in a soaking for those in the cockpit.

Take Off to Tanaku
Nick Campbell helps Captain Kevin Young wrestle a healthy halibut aboard.

In the afternoon we searched for chinook salmon. The group before ours had limited out easily on chinook weighing from 20 to 30 pounds, so our hopes were high. The Tanaku skippers usually troll two lines off downriggers and two off the transom rigged with four- to six-ounce banana sinkers. Two of the lines are rigged with cut-plug herring and two with thin-bladed spoons.

In spite of a serious search, we couldn't locate the chinook, but still managed to return with a fine load of halibut and several coho in the ten- to 12-pound range.

River Run

That night, lodge owners Dennis Meier and Jim Benton told us that a local river was producing great catches of pink salmon and the occasional chum, and they passed around a sign-up sheet for those who wanted to try fishing in the river. I was all over it, as I love casting flies to salmon in tidewater.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. The first stage involved a 75-minute cruise on one of the lodge's larger boats, then we hopped in a skiff for the run across a shallow flat to the river entrance. After that it was "shank's mare" through mud and bear grass for the last mile.

Take Off to Tanaku
The harbor entrance to peaceful Elfin Cove, Alaska, still has a frontier feel.

The reward was well worth the trek. At the first deep pool above the mouth we found hundreds of pink salmon finning in the clear water. Soon everyone was hooked up. Even novice anglers who had never used a spinning rod were battling the small but scrappy pinks.

We caught and released fish until there was no point in catching any more. Then, after a delicious shore lunch of barbecued salmon, we hiked back to the skiff. The only disappointment to our near-perfect day was that we didn't see any of the bears that are so common along Alaska rivers during the salmon runs, although we saw plenty of evidence of their presence in the form of half-eaten salmon and huge tracks in the sand.

Great Bottom Fishing

The next three days were much the same as the first. We usually anchored in the morning on one of the hundreds of known halibut hot spots in the area, while our afternoons were spent trolling for chinook or coho. The halibut fishing remained consistently spectacular, with at least one 100-plus-pound fish taken almost every day. The incidental catch of huge yelloweye rockfish and gargantuan lingcod was also impressive. One angler took a 28-pound yelloweye, while another released a lingcod in the 50-pound class. Until recently, the IGFA all-tackle yelloweye record stood at 26 pounds. In 2003, Tanaku guests landed 15 yelloweye that large, and one 31-pounder. And while 50-plus-pound lingcod are not record-setters, they are far larger than those taken off most other west coast ports.

Take Off to Tanaku
Success! Nick Campbell shows off a summer coho.

Unfortunately, the salmon fishing was fair at best. Each day, at least one boat in the fleet would hit a school of coho and land ten to 20 fish before they moved on. However, most managed only a handful of coho and smattering of pinks per day.

Lots to Do

It should be noted that fishing isn't the only thing to do at Tanaku. There are plenty of interesting land-based diversions to keep visitors busy. For example, an extensive network of boardwalks at the lodge leads through a verdant rainforest to the top of a nearby ridge, where virgin muskeg stretches to the edge of a bluff with spectacular views of Mount Fairweather and the Brady Glacier. Some guests opted to take a guided trip in a skiff to look for brown bears foraging on the shoreline. Another favorite activity was visiting the tiny and picturesque village of Elfin Cove, where a community boardwalk takes visitors on a half-mile ramble along the serpentine shore.

Even though the salmon fishing wasn't spectacular on my trip to Tanaku, we did experience flurries of fast action, and everyone went home with full fishboxes. In addition, we could always count on halibut, rockfish and lingcod to pick up the slack. That's certainly one of the great things about fishing here - you're bound to find something that's willing to bite.

Travel Information

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The Runs: Chinook runs are strongest from May through July, and some chinook are caught in August and September. Coho begin arriving in June. The largest fish and the largest runs are in August and September. Halibut, lingcod and rockfish are abundant every month. In recent years, the lingcod season has been closed in June and July.

The Weather: Summers are mild, with temperatures running between 50 and 65 degrees. Expect a mixture of sun and occasional rain. The weather is variable, and any month can produce a string of sunny days, so make sure you bring layers of clothing to dress up or down depending on the current weather conditions.

What to Bring: Rain gear, hip boots (if you wish to stream fish), a medium-weight jacket, a warm sweater, slippers for lounging around the lodge, a camera with lots of film, any fly-fishing gear you need, sunscreen and binoculars.

Fifty pounds of luggage per person is the maximum the floatplanes will allow without incurring additional charges. You should plan on packing your gear in duffel bags for easy storage and handling.

What's Included: Lodging, meals, wine and beer, all tackle and bait, rain gear, fish cleaning, vacuum packing and boxing for shipment, local bear-watching trips.

What's Not Included: Floatplane fare to and from Elfin Cove (approximately $300), fishing license, hard liquor, gratuities, fly-fishing gear.

Getting There: The only major airline servicing Juneau, Alaska, is Alaska Airlines, with connections made through Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport. Tanaku staff will arrange your floatplane reservation for the trip from Juneau to the lodge. Tanaku trips start first thing on Saturday. Guests should plan on spending Friday evening in either Seattle or Juneau.

Who to Contact: Call Tanaku Lodge at (800) 482-6258 or e-mail tanaku@msn.com. For more information visit their website www.tanaku.com.