Until we hit the double hookup on surface-crashing silver salmon while an iceberg floated past, this trip had all the earmarks of too good to be true.
We’ll meet on his 42-foot Nordic tug, Legend, at Harris Harbor in Juneau, Dave Carnes says, then head south on a fishing adventure unlike any other into Alaska’s remote, fish-rich and spectacularly scenic Southeast Panhandle.
The plan is to fish for salmon, halibut and other saltwater game fish, dig clams, set pots for crab and shrimp dinners, and cruise and anchor in whatever protected cove whimsy takes us.
When we get fished out, he adds, we’ll put our feet on the railing while crab water boils and halibut rods nod, eat prawns the size of Honduran cigars, and glass for drifting icebergs, whales, sea otters and other wildlife. There’s a good chance we’ll see brown bears swaggering up the beach, or maybe wolves, mountain goats or blacktail deer. Bald eagles are as common as crows, and we’ll tire of watching sea lions, seals and dolphins, he promises. It’s doubtful we’ll see another sport-fishing boat.
Carnes is one of several saltwater outfitters who rent or charter upscale tugs and small yachts for multi-day adventures into the primitive outback of Alaska’s Southeast. Run the boat yourself or have it skippered; either way is an adventure.
Jim Goerg and I are on a multiday expedition with Dave and Kurt Dzinich. There is nothing second-cabin about the M/V Legend. It was built specifically for this, and it shows in the brass and teak that reflect unfathomable scenery. A tray of steaks is in the fridge, rods are rigged for coho, and ahead of us are some of Alaska’s best salmon, halibut, crab and shrimp waters.
Rumor has it that a run of silvers wedged into Stevens Pass. Rod holders and downriggers on the transom hold 9-foot rods with levelwind reels loaded with 25-pound monofilament, and rigged with 360 flashers, two-hook leaders, and tentacled plastic squid. A sliver of herring adds scent and flavor. While we troll from Slocum Point to the mouth of the Speel River, our baited pots will be soaking for Dungeness crab. All tackle and gear are provided. So, why bring ours?
Legend swings around a point, noses into the froth of a rip, and slows to 3 mph, which is trolling speed for silvers. Fish blips show on the fish-finder screen. Goerg and I stare like herons at the throbbing rods, but the scenery is tough to ignore. Dave points to a cliff scraped bare by glaciers and explains that mountain goats raise their young on the precipice, where wolves won’t follow.
When I look back, a coho bright as chrome cartwheels across the wake. I grab the rod out of the holder, but it’s too late. Dave laughs, “There will be more.”
The first night, we anchor at an isolated state marine park. A black bear flushes off the clam beach, stumbles on yellow kelp and disappears into alder tangles. We eat fillet mignon with buttery shrooms and shrimp, and a bushel of salad, toast to our day and fall asleep. Outside, a 38-knot wind howls but barely rocks our hull.
Alaska’s charter tugs are not workboats spiffed and pulling second jobs as fishing cruisers, but instead are modern vessels built to fish and cruise at the edge of luxury. Each is outfitted with upscale comforts: heads, showers, full beds, ovens, stoves, dining areas, and all the fishing tackle you’ll need. Meals can be included or self-provided. The tastiest are fresh-caught.
The availability of “tugfitters” has added a freewheeling new dimension to Alaskan saltwater fishing adventures. They allow traveling fishermen to go vagabonding like ritzy fish bums through 35,000 square miles of archipelago, bays, passages, sounds and scenery that blow away the rest of the continent. We have 24-hour fishing from the tug, and almost that much summer daylight. I would fish around the clock—if I could handle it. Each day might include king salmon, silvers, chums or humpies (pinks). Salmon rods are rigged to troll, and others are loaded with 9/0 circle hooks and 24-ounce balls of lead for halibut, lingcod and other bottom dwellers. A couple of spinning rods with spoons or jigs sit ready, just in case.
Mornings start with coffee, searching seabirds, whistling eagles, and curious seals in a misty cove somewhere in the Inside Passage. We spread out the chart, debate our options, check the crab pots and thaw some herring for bait. And over the morning steak and eggs, we take a vote. Where do we go today? What should we fish for? Who wants to drive?
The direction rarely matters on a tugboat exploring and fishing like a serendipitous vagabond. The throaty diesel drops into trolling mode, and we put out coho lines at Butler Point. Squalls bounce around the inlet, and the wind steadily builds, but the cabin heater is holding its own.
Goerg is feeding the flasher, hoochie and leader off his reel, holding the downrigger release when a silver salmon unloads on the hoochie still skating in the prop wash.
Before he gets that salmon in the net, I hook twin 12-pounders. Goerg catches another, and I cracker one at the boat that dodges left when the flasher skates right. Carnes laughs, swings the net, boats all three silvers for dinner, and asks if we’re now ready for halibut.
I’m starting to feel like that bear we watched on the beach—just fishing, feeding and exploring. At dark, wherever I am, I’m home—like a tugboat tramp.
Alaska’s Southeast Panhandle is a geological jigsaw of land and water, roughly 90 miles wide and 150 miles long, wedged between the Pacific and British Columbia. It’s the definition of wild, roadless Alaska. Seeing another sport fisherman is rare.
We fished from the railing on the M/V Legend, but fishing kayaks and dinghies are available. Some tugfitters have a one-week minimum; others charter at day rates. You write your own ticket; all-inclusive packages include a skipper, meals and a cook, or you can provide your own food, skipper and crew. Some groups opt for round trips from the same port; others elect to start in Juneau and end in Sitka, Ketchikan or Gustavus, with jet service to the Outside Passage.
Prices range from $1,200 to $1,900 per day for bareboat and skippered charters, respectively, plus fuel and user fees.
Self-skippered packages include charts, travel routes, destinations, and a suggested itinerary for the best scenery, fishing stops and recommended anchorage areas. All boats are Coast Guard-certified and equipped with a full range of electronics.
Dave Carnes offers only skippered packages. Steve Birkinbine’s Auke Bay Adventures includes three tugs with optional departures from Sitka, Petersburg and Ketchikan. Lituya Adventures charters DIY bareboat and skippered packages. All are based in Juneau. In Haines, Alaska Charter Yachts brokers a fleet of fishing tugs and small yacht rentals.
Boats range from 37 to 42 feet. Skippered packages include a licensed captain to handle navigation and boat operations, and contribute go-see-do suggestions. Requirements for DIY bareboat rentals vary, but most tugfitters require at least one experienced big-boat skipper who won’t be intimidated by the region’s 20-foot tidal swings.
Start your adventure planning by contacting one of the following tugfitters:
Legend Charters, 907-586-4886, alaskalegendcharters.com
Auke Bay Adventures, 208-631-3478, aukebayadventures.com
Lituya Adventures , 907-957-6509; nordictugcharter.com
Expedition Broker, 877-721-3470, expeditionbroker.com