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September 21, 2007

Catch as Ketchikan

Four kinds of salmon, plus halibut of all sizes, are only part of what makes this Alaskan town so special.


Author Bob McNally shows off a coho taken on a well-worn fly.

As the single-engine Otter descended towards Prince of Wales Island, bush pilot Jerry Scudero suddenly banked the plane, giving us a clear view of six humpback whales exhaling plumes of spray high into the crisp Alaskan air. Even from 1,000 feet the creatures looked huge, especially when they turned to dive, raising their massive tails above the water.

"Whales have been thick here all summer," Jerry said above the drone of the floatplane's engine. "Plenty of baitfish down there for 'em to eat, which is also why the salmon fishing has been so incredible.

"We'll be landing in that cove up ahead. Ron's waiting for you - says on the radio that he's already catching salmon."

The Ron in question was Ron Moyer, who, along with his wife Cynthia, own and operate the Beacon Hill Lodge just outside the coastal Alaska town of Ketchikan, where friends Art Carter, Randy White, Mike Garner and I had spent the previous night after flying in from Seattle. The Moyers' beautiful three-story log lodge is located right on the water's edge, providing ready access to some of the best salmon, halibut and lingcod fishing in the Northwest.

While the action can be plenty hot close to home, Ron had decided to fish the area around Prince of Wales Island, where a big salmon bite was taking place. He had gotten up early to make the run north in his 28-foot cuddy-cabin boat, letting the rest of us sleep until 7:00 before taking the 20-minute floatplane trip.

Thanks in part to excellent weather, the plan worked out beautifully, and the Otter touched down a few hundred yards from Ron's boat. Ron ran over and welcomed us aboard, then we watched as Jerry turned the plane around and took off for Ketchikan.

"He'll be back later this afternoon to fly you back to the lodge," Ron said.

"I'll run the boat back and meet you for dinner. We'll have plenty of time for all the fishin' you want today. Bet your arms give out before the fish do."

Coho in the Kelp

The tide was running hard when Ron pulled up beside several large kelp beds near Prince of Wales Island, their olive fronds showing slightly above the surface. "It's deep here - 100 feet or so - but there are seamounts that rise to within 20 feet of the surface, which is where the kelp grows," Ron explained. "Baitfish are pushed through the slots of deep water between the kelp during strong tides, especially in the early morning. With the bait - mostly needlefish - come salmon. Right now the fish are primarily silvers, but there are still some kings around, as well as pinks and a very few sockeye and chum salmon."

Catch as Ketchikan
Mike Garner battles a typical Ketchikan halibut in the 20-pound range.

After dropping anchor next to one of the kelp beds, Ron became a whirlwind of motion - tying leaders, inspecting lures and checking drags. Then he handed me a three-ounce, green-and-silver jigging spoon.

"Tie this onto a short shock leader, then drop it down through the bait schools and hang on," he instructed.

I glanced down and noticed that the water below was filled with millions of long, slender baitfish. These were the needlefish Ron was referring to, although they didn't look anything like the needlefish I was used to seeing in Florida. A quick check of the depthsounder showed a solid mass of them from the surface down 25 feet.

After rigging up, I opened the bail on my spinning reel and let my spoon free-fall to the bottom, then started bringing it straight up with a fast, snappy retrieve.

Nothing.

I tried another drop and retrieve.

Nada.

"It sounds crazy, but you've got to drop those spoons back on a completely slack line after you lift 'em," Ron advised. "That slack makes the lure spin and dart crazily, just like an injured baitfish."

I followed Ron's advice and immediately felt a bump. I let the jig free-fall and had another hit. On the third drop I connected. The fish went berserk, streaking off on a 50-yard run that culminated in several surface-skipping leaps and an Olympic-style somersault. Thinking the fish was pooped, I quickly worked it to the boat. But just as Ron was about to scoop it up, the coho got its second wind and took off toward the bow. After following the fish around the boat, I was finally able to lead it into the waiting net.

Catch as Ketchikan
Halibut fishermen sometimes get a rockfish surprise on their heavy jigs.

There was no time for accolades, however, as Art, Randy and Greg were all fighting salmon of their own. While they wrestled with their leaping fish, I readied a fly rod with a fast-sink shooting-head fly line and a weighted streamer. After failing to draw a strike on my first few casts, I tried casting far upcurrent and allowed the fly to sink deep as it was carried with the tide. When the line was parallel to the boat and nearly vertical, I began a fast, erratic retrieve. As my yellow streamer neared the surface, I could see several salmon darting and slashing at it. Finally, one fish closed in fast, opened its mouth, and the streamer disappeared. That opened the door to fly-rod action for us, and we spent the remainder of the morning battling big silvers on eight- and nine-weight gear.

I've caught many silvers in many places, but never have I fought such bright, strong fish in the open ocean on light tackle. Most of the salmon ran eight to ten pounds, but we regularly caught fish to 12 pounds, and a few even hit the 15-pound mark. These coho were a month or more away from spawning, so they were as strong as salt water salmonids can be. They were chrome-steel in color, peppered with sea lice, and fought like demons, particularly on eight-pound spinning gear and eight-weight fly gear.

Halibut "Break"

By late morning the tide was slowing and we were showing signs of battle fatigue. That was hardly surprising, seeing as how we'd caught dozens of salmon - all we wanted in fact - on light spinning and fly gear.

"When the tide slows, the bait schools break up and the salmon scatter," said Ron. "We can stay here and wait for the tide to change, or move to another salmon spot where the current is still running strong. We can also try to find some halibut. Fishing for them has been good, but you have to go deep for the big ones, sometimes 200 feet down. You can find plenty of smaller fish weighing 20 to 35 pounds in 100 feet of water, though, and those are better eating anyway."

We started by fishing deep water for giant halibut, but soon found that lowering a 24-ounce jig with a whole dead squid attached through 200 feet of water, on 130-pound-class tackle, is rugged work, especially after pulling on salmon all morning. Most of the halibut were under 30 pounds, but then Mike hooked a fish that nearly brought him to his knees. In fact, it acted more like a tuna than a bottom-dwelling flatfish. After enduring several long runs, Mike finally gained control, and 30 minutes later he hauled up the biggest fish of the day - an 86-pound halibut.

"I'll be darned," Ron said with a wry smile. "I thought your fish was a big one. Well, maybe the next one will go over 100 pounds."

Mike just shrugged, looking tired but triumphant.

"How about we try shallower water?" I suggested. "Boxing a few smaller halibut to take home would be great."

Catch as Ketchikan
Garner needed to take a breather after landing this hard-running halibut that tipped the scales at 86 pounds.

Ron agreed, and we quickly ran to nearby spot where we found lots of halibut up to 25 pounds. The fish were very cooperative, and readily hit our jigs and spoons.

"Jigs are excellent for halibut, but it's a lot more work than just soaking a bait on bottom," Ron explained. "You've got to work a jig constantly, lifting it off bottom, dropping it back, lifting again and so on. When you're 100-plus feet from the ocean floor, it takes some arm muscle and angler attention to detect a strike and get a big halibut topside."

Late in the afternoon we heard the drone of an approaching airplane, and soon Jerry buzzed over, rocking his wings as he circled and set up for a landing. Minutes later, the Otter pulled alongside and the four of us climbed aboard, leaving the rods with Ron for the next day's fishing.

"You guys have a safe flight back. I'll drop the fish off at a processor in Ketchikan, then see you back at the lodge in time for dinner," Ron said as he shut the door to the Otter.

Jerry cranked the big engine and soon we were airborne, soaring over more whales.

"So, was the fishing as good as you expected?" asked Jerry.

"Incredible!" said Art.

"The best it could possibly be!" the rest of us added.

"Well, you guys just sit back, think about tomorrow's fishing, and I'll recite a famous Alaska poem." That said, we watched the magnificent scenery slip by and winged our way back to Ketchikan to the immortal lines of Robert Service's The Shooting of Dan McGrew - a surreal ending to a perfect day of fishing.

Ketchikan Trip Kit

Travel: Ketchikan is one of Alaska's most accessible fishing destinations, with commercial jet service from Seattle several times daily.

Season: June through September, with the peak time for king salmon in June; silvers in July and August. Halibut are available year-round.

Catch as Ketchikan
To score with big halibut, anglers use heavy jigs tipped with big natural baits (above). Flashy streamer flies designed to imitate the local "needlefish" are tops for salmon, but can look a little ragged after a dozen fish (below). Catch as Ketchikan

Tackle: Medium-light spinning tackle is ideal for salmon, with lines testing eight to ten pounds about right (a bit heavier for kings). Rods 6 1/2 to seven feet long are great. Be sure reels have smooth drags and spools that hold at least 200 yards of line. Grub jigs, such as the Lindy Fuzz-E-Grub, in both dark and bright colors, work well. Jigging spoons weighing two to four ounces are good, with blue, green, white and silver deadly. Halibut tackle must be rugged, like that used for grouper, tuna or billfish.

Fly fishermen should bring eight- and nine-weight outfits for salmon. High-density shooting-head and fast-sinking fly lines are required. Quality fly reels with plenty of backing are best. Bring split-shot to help get the flies deep. Bright streamers are good, with yellow, red, white and bright green preferred. Marabou and bunny-style streamers are good, as they have inherent action, a requirement for catching salmon around baitfish pods.

Accessories: Rain gear is a must. Be sure to also bring sunscreen, insect repellent, polarized sunglasses, brimmed cap, long underwear, heavy shirts, short-sleeve shirts, fingerless wool gloves, turtleneck sweater, fleece jacket and sweatshirt, jeans and fishing pants, waterproof boots, heavy socks and casual lodge clothing.

Catch as Ketchikan
The lodge often flies anglers to meet their boat at a distant hot spot, skipping a long, early-morning run (above). Handsome log buldings lend Beacon Hill Lodge a rustic feel (below).
Catch as Ketchikan

Accommodations & Cost: Beacon Hill Lodge has a five-star rating in Japanese travel and outdoor magazines, and is highly recommended by Cabela's. Owned and operated by Ron and Cynthia Moyer, guests receive first-class treatment, along with great accommodations and food. The three-story bay-front lodge allows guests to regularly watch whales, porpoises and salmon. Lavish, delicious dinners are served buffet style. Fishermen make their own brown-bag lunches from a wide assortment of foods the morning of each angling day. Up to 12 guests can be handled by the lodge. Boats are big, well made and fast. The lodge is only 20 minutes from Ketchikan, but it feels like a posh, remote haven. A three-day, four-night trip runs $1,954 per person, and includes almost everything once in Ketchikan. Fly-out fishing to many area waters can be arranged for additional cost.

Booking: Cabela's is the official Beacon Hill Lodge booking agency. Contact Jim Riley at Cabela's, (888) 805-5400; fax (308) 254-3658; e-mail: jriley@cabelas.com. - Bob McNally