"I can't hold it," Pam shouted between breaths, struggling to maintain her grip on the bucking graphite rod. With our attentive captain and deckhand providing instruction and moral support, I was free to sit back and soak in the surreal scene. Less than 24 hours earlier I had been fighting for a parking spot in the crowded, chaotic jungle known as Los Angeles International Airport. Now, after a short floatplane trip from Juneau, I was perched on the upper deck of a spacious 34-foot yacht, watching my wife fight the fishing battle of her life against the idyllic backdrop of the snow-capped Fairweather Mountains. The air was clear and crisp, bald eagles circled above, and the surrounding waters were filled with fish. It was easy to get lost in it all.
I was jolted back to reality by the sound of a big fish splashing at boatside and the excited yells of the crew and passengers. Furiously pressing the shutter button of my camera, I watched through the lens as the mate slid a huge landing net under Pam's 35-pound king salmon.
It was a magical moment, and a fairly typical introduction to fishing at Tanaku Lodge, a cozy, family-run resort tucked into a cliffside near the mouth of Elfin Cove, Alaska. Over the next four days, the action rarely slowed as our group caught plenty of big king salmon, Pacific halibut ranging from ten-pound "chickens" up to triple-digit monsters, alligator-sized lingcod and scores of big, colorful rockfish.
Located on Chicagof Island at the northern end of Alaska's Inside Passage, Tanaku Lodge is ideally situated for fishing either the open Pacific or the many sheltered inlets, coves and straits of Cross Sound. The region's cold, plankton-rich waters are teeming with life, including otters, orcas, humpback whales, and, of course, more fish than you can shake a long, graphite stick at.
With abundant schools of herring to eat and plenty of pristine rivers and streams flowing nearby, the area is a natural highway for thousands of salmon with the urge to feed and breed. Depending on the season, the daily fishing menu might include king salmon (up to 60 pounds), coho salmon (up to 18 pounds), pink salmon (up to ten pounds), Pacific halibut (up to 300 pounds), lingcod (up to 65 pounds) or a mixed bag of rockfish (up to 20 pounds). In addition, kings, cohos, pinks and Dolly Varden trout can be caught in the local rivers and streams during late summer and fall.
King salmon are the resort's main attraction, and we targeted them by slow-trolling whole and plug-cut herring on downriggers, diving planes or trolling sinkers. All of Tanaku's boats are outfitted with levelwind reels spooled with 20-pound line and custom eight- or nine-foot graphite rods for a lightweight, sensitive combination that lets you feel every head shake and tail beat during the fight.
According to lodge co-owner Dennis Meier, the fishing strategy changes later in the season when coho invade the local waters. Anglers can catch them by vertical jigging with Crippled Herring and other slab-style spoons on light tackle. When the captain positions the boat over a cloud of baitfish and hungry salmon, the action can be fast and furious.
Another big draw is Pacific halibut. The Tanaku skippers know areas where the bottom seems carpeted with flatties in the ten- to 40-pound range, and we had a ball with these fish on 20-pound tackle. In deeper water, where the giant triple-digit halibut hang out, we broke out the serious gear: offshore stand-up rods sporting 4/0 or 5/0 reels spooled with 80-pound Dacron. The standard terminal rig is a one- or two-pound lead ball, a short length of nylon rope or 200-pound-test monofilament leader, and a 10/0 circle hook baited with a chunk of herring, a strip of salmon belly, a rockfish head or any other piece of fish that happens to be handy.
To the uninitiated, such heavy gear may seem like overkill. However, I can assure you that any such thoughts left my mind as soon as I felt the raw power of one of these fish. Despite the heavy-duty stand-up gear and fighting belt, all I could do was hang on for the ride. We didn't catch any 300-pound monsters during our trip, but each day members of our group tested their strength and stamina by battling fish in the 70- to 125-pound class. Combined with our take of salmon and rockfish, these hefty fish helped ensure that we all had full fillet boxes for the flight home.
Alaska, Tanaku Style
People expect excellent fishing when they travel to an Alaskan resort, but it's the atmosphere, the staff, the food and the scenery that makes it memorable. On these counts, Tanaku Lodge offers a standout package. Meier and co-owner Jim Benton have created an intimate, friendly resort that makes you feel as if you've stepped into someone's rustic mountain cabin - one with a million-dollar view, an attentive staff that fulfills your every need, and a world-class chef who will put a few extra notches in your belt. The creations of chef Skip Congers, a Floridian who trained at the Southeastern Institute of Culinary Arts in St. Augustine, quickly became a highlight of our trip. Congers amazed us with everything from fresh-baked pastries in the morning to fireside hors d'hoeuvres to dinners featuring fresh local salmon, halibut and crab.
Meier and Benton take a hands-on approach to resort ownership, and on any given day you're likely to find them working on the boats, helping anglers on the water, unloading fish, handing out nightly fishing awards or enjoying an evening drink with guests. To accommodate guests with interests other than fishing, the lodge staff will coordinate trips to nearby Glacier Bay National Park, set up kayak sightseeing tours, take guests on hiking excursions and more. This has made Tanaku especially popular with couples and families, and Meier said the lodge often customizes packages for those who want to combine a romantic getaway or family adventure vacation with Alaska's famous fishing.
If you've never visited Alaska, Tanaku Lodge is a great way to experience the fishing, wildlife and scenery that have made this last American frontier so popular. Unlike some other large resorts, Tanaku offers an intimate, casual atmosphere where you'll quickly get to know all the staff and other guests on a first-name basis. Take it from me, it's a recipe for a magic.
The Town: Elfin Cove is reached via a 45-minute floatplane trip from Juneau. The quaint village is built into a steep cliffside and features a boardwalk that runs from one end of the town to the other.
The Lodge: Rustic cedar and pine lodge with private rooms and a "honeymoon" cabin accommodating 25 guests maximum. Highlights include an inviting lobby/dining room with wraparound windows, outdoor deck and Jacuzzi.
Season: Open mid-May through mid-September. May/June peak period for king salmon. July peak for pink salmon. August/September peak for coho. All summer for halibut, lingcod and rockfish.
Rates: $2,795 for five-day/five-night package; $2,495 for four-day/three-night package.
What's Included: Lodging, meals and snacks, all fishing, fish cleaning and packaging for travel, fishing gear (except fly tackle) and rain gear.
What's Not Included: Airfare, fishing license (available at resort), fish freight charges, hard liquor, gratuities.
For the names and numbers of other lodges that offer fishing in the Elfin Cove area, see "The Traveling Fisherman" in the back of this magazine.