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July 19, 2011

Sitka's Abundant Waters

The remote waters around Sitka, Alaska, teem with silver and king salmon, giant halibut and more...

Some say the fishing in Alaska is so good that anybody can catch fish. This is true to some extent — the remote waters around Sitka teem with silver and king salmon, giant halibut, brightly colored rockfish and alligator-size lingcod.

Depending on the season in these remote waters, some or all of these fish are usually ready to pounce on baits or lures lowered into their midst.

That the fish are large, numerous and willing here doesn’t mean that serious anglers won’t have their skills — as well as their stamina — put to the test. Capt. Tom Ohaus, noted outdoors writer and co-owner of Angling Unlimited in Sitka, sees all kinds of clients over a typical season, from first-timers to old salts. The ones who enjoy the greatest success, he says, are those who keep their minds open and listen to the captain.

Salmon Time

The waters around Sitka are rife with king (chinook) salmon up to 50 pounds and coho (or silvers) running from 8 to 20 pounds. Sitka, on the Pacific shore of Baranof Island, is ideally situated to benefit from annual southward salmon migrations. These waters are also rich in herring and needlefish, providing salmon an ideal stopover in which to fatten up before heading upriver to spawn.

While annual runs can overlap, action on kings is usually best from May until late July. Big numbers of silvers usually start showing up in late June and can be around through mid-September, when most lodges shut down for the season.

Whether fishing for king or silver salmon, Ohaus and his Angling Unlimited guides prefer the hands-on technique of mooching to trolling, in which fish hook themselves. Mooching is certainly more fun for anglers, but it also makes them more responsible for their own success or failure.

“Salmon fishing is unique,” says Ohaus, who, in addition to his other credentials, has a degree in fisheries biology. “I know this because I’ve fished all over the U.S. and the world. The gear for salmon is different, the bite is different, and the most effective response isn’t what you would do for a striped bass, tuna or other species. Even experienced salmon fishermen from other parts of the country make the mistake of assuming the fish we catch in Alaska behave like fish in their home waters.”

Magic Carpet Ride
Another attraction that brings anglers to Sitka is the opportunity to snag carpet-size Pacific halibut. While the majority of the catch are 10- to 40-pound “chickens,” there is always a chance of hooking a monster. An Angling Unlimited client in 2010 managed to drag up a 430-pound behemoth after a thrashing, shotgun-blasting battle captured on home video (and viewable at anglingunlimited.com).

Ohaus likes to anchor in 150 to 220 feet over flats with gravel bottoms and nearby high structure when targeting “small” inshore halibut up to 60 pounds. He found a spot like this on our trip, and I downsized my tackle to target these flatfish with lighter than usual gear and artificial lures. I brought along a three-piece conventional travel rod and compact lever-drag reel, which I used to bounce soft-plastic lures and heavy iron jigs over the bottom. It takes a 10- to 12-ounce lead-head or lure to stay down in the heavy currents. Still, the strong take and fight of a big halibut or lingcod on 65-pound braid and this relatively light rig is a blast.

Go Deep
“Most of the really big halibut we catch come from offshore, in depths of 300 to 500 feet, with the best action near but not on the structure,” Ohaus says. “We like to anchor right on the edge, where the rock meets flat, hard bottom. Ideally, you want the current running toward the rocky structure.”

Fishing halibut on the anchor like this requires a fair amount of sitting and waiting, at least until the scent of the salmon bellies, herring and fish guts coaxes these roving bottom feeders under your boat. “We generally fish halibut with large baits on circle hooks or smaller baits on J hooks or jigs,” says Ohaus. “With the big circle hooks, the key to hooking a halibut is patience. Let the rod tip go down and stay down, then reel into the resistance. Halibut grab a bait, pull hard and drop it. But they almost always return to try again. They may return to a different rod, but they just can’t help themselves.”