Finding a Sitka-Sized Haul of Lings, Rockfish, Flatties and of course, Big, Bright Bunches of Silvers.
It’s easy to forget just how special an Alaska fishing trip should be.
It’s even easier to be reminded.
As I meet Eric and Bill Ward in person for the first time, their excitement is contagious. Eric Ward is the 2014 Sportsman’s Warehouse Sweepstakes winner and chose to bring his dad, Bill, with him. The pair hail from Eureka, CA, and have been fishing together for all of Eric’s life. At 44, this was an opportunity for Eric to pay his dad back for all the fishing and hunting trips he’d orchestrated.
When Eric was told that he was the winner, he went over to Bill’s house, just a couple blocks away, and with tears in his eyes asked his father if he wanted to go fishing with him in Alaska. When it finally sunk in that they were going on an all-expenses-paid trip to Kingfisher Charters and Lodge for four days of fishing, the permagrin set in on both their faces. When I met them, it was still there. Bill hardly slept the first night, unable to contain the anticipation of what lay ahead. And in the four days that I spent with them fishing for salmon, halibut, lingcod and rockfish, that grin never left.
Eric also won a $500 gift card to Sportsman’s Warehouse. And that’s a wonderful thing for a guy who routinely goes to the Redding, CA location and walks out with an armload of items.
These were the perfect people to win this trip: avid outdoorsman, seasoned saltwater anglers, good friends and better men.
Kingfisher Charters and Lodge
I was thoroughly impressed with Seth Bone’s operation. Upon arrival, we were met by lodge staff and their vans. Luggage was loaded and a short ride later (Sitka has only 14 miles of road), we arrived at the lodge. Staff helped us get luggage into our quarters, which was the very comfortable second floor of the Mountain Goat guest house and incorporated three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, kitchen and dining room. Fishing licenses were filled out; lodge orientation and the daily schedule were reviewed. We learned that breakfast is at 5 a.m., vans depart for the boats at 5:45, fishing occurs from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., hors d’oeuvres are delivered to your quarters at 5:15 p.m. and dinner is at 6.
The schedule was executed to perfection during our trip, food was homemade and excellent, and the staff were always friendly and helpful. What made it even more impressive was that we were within a week of the end of the season, and the staff was not burned out; to the contrary, they were still smiling, much like we guests.
We meet Captain Keith Shuler aboard the 26-foot Parker named Striker. Keith is an excellent captain who lived in Sitka for 10 years, captaining his own boat for 14 years, and now lives in Spokane, WA. He is a one-man machine: keeping us in the fish, netting, gaffing, re-baiting, gliding onto the deck to put the lines at the right depth on the downriggers after marking fish on the finder. Many times I would catch the rod thumping out of the corner of my eye and think it was a fish, but it was Keith dropping the troll rig to fish depth. He was so quick and silent that I rarely heard him approach He is easygoing, soft-spoken, very nice and a real pleasure to fish with. The fourth angler on the boat is Vern Hahn.
The Striker rode nicely in the heavy swell and chop on the 17-mile run to the coho grounds. With winds at 20 knots, the swells were tightly spaced, and the ocean began to look like a washing machine. Despite less than flat conditions, the fishing was red-hot. We boated 24 coho among the four anglers in about two hours and many of these fish eclipsed the 15-pound mark. Next we moved to a halibut destination, set the pick and got scent in the water. With very little tide and current, we knew that it would take some time to draw in flatfish. During the next three hours, we landed four halibut and kept two, and we also boated three lingcod, which were released. Lingcod regulations for out-of-state anglers dictate that the fish must be between 30- and 35 inches or over 55 inches to keep. These three specimens ranged from 40- to 48 inches, were great fighters and impressive fish, and lived to grow larger.
The final stop was dedicated to rockfish and in short order we landed 13 black, three yelloweye, and one quillback rockfish. Eric and Bill were entirely amazed, excited and satisfied with the day on the water. The fish haul was huge and an indication of good times to come.
Despite forecasts for even bigger water, the weather calmed a bit. Coho fishing was red-hot again, and the highlight of the morning was a 21-pound coho. After I measured it with a BogaGrip scale, Captain Keith declared that was the largest coho he’d seen all year. We all realized that we would be eating coho all year-long if this kept up, and with the top-notch job that Keith did to care for the fish on board—which included bleeding, gilling, gutting and icing the salmon—and the commercial-grade fish-processing facility at the lodge—filleting, vacuum-packing and blast-freezing the fish in meal-sized portions—the end product was always going to be high-grade.
Keith’s preferred methods are to troll at 2- to 3 knots with two rods on downriggers and two flat lines. He uses Seeker rods, Shimano reels and Izorline monofilament. On the flat lines we troll herring and on the downrigger rods we troll a Silver Horde Gold Star Flasher and Silver Horde 4 1/4-inch Double Glow Octopus and a pair of 4/0 Gamakatsu hooks tied about an inch apart. We hook about three-quarters of the coho on the flasher/octopus combination and I am intrigued. Upon closer inspection, the 12-inch flasher is connected to a 31-inch leader of 60-pound Izorline monofilament. I love the simplicity of the rig, the absence of bait and the obvious results.
Unlike with bait, if the lure gets struck and missed, you are still fishing. The stiff leader keeps the presentation straight and provides for durability after catching so many fish. On multiple occasions we fight three and even four fish simultaneously. After watching Keith work the gear on day one, Eric and I run the downriggers for the second day. This adds to the fun for us and gets baits in the water more quickly. Every time I look at Bill he is grinning. I’m grateful to get such a good man into quality fish. He spoke to his wife of 53 years after the first day of fishing and recounted all the great fish they had caught that day. He tells me that she was as excited as he was. That’s what it is all about.
When we move to the halibut location, I break out a bottle each of Pro Cure Butt Juice Bait Oil and Super Gel, and we switch over to stouter Seeker rods and Shimano two-speed lever-drag reels. We lather up the baits with oil, pin them on Alaska-sized circle hooks and send them down. Action improves considerably over day one for flatfish and Eric’s got the hot rod. One fish after the next bites his Pro Cure-enhanced bait and we take turns reeling up fish. I begin to get some action and when the rod buckles over and peels out line, I know that I’m into a good one. Having fought some big halibut over the years, I’ve learned to ease them up slowly and have found that the harder I pull on a big halibut, the harder it pulls back. When I get it most of the way up from 200 feet, it decides to head back down. But the contest is now in my favor and soon we see color. It’s a beauty, fat and healthy, measuring 52 inches and about 70 pounds. We get a picture and release it unscathed. Slot limit for charter-boat anglers in Sitka in 2014 was under 44- or over 76 inches. In about two hours we limit the boat on good halibut.
A great day of fishing gets even better when we switch to rockfish and lingcod angling. The boat is quickly limited on pelagic rockfish, which means 20 for the four of us, and then we begin to land lings. Our luck changes when two of the six landed fall within the 30- to 35-inch window. Eric is simply amazed at the quality, variety and quantity of the fish we have caught. I’m beginning to wonder how many fish boxes we will each leave with and how I am going to carry them all!
Sun breaks through the clouds and gives us the first clear look at Mt. Edgecombe. The seas continue to calm, though it no longer matters so much to us, as we’re now standing on sea legs. Trolling the same lanes as the previous two days yields only two coho in an hour. Keith takes to the airways and talks to one of his many charter-boat captain friends, and we quickly secure the gear and motor to a hot spot. From that point until the fishing ends at 2:30, we enter a state of angling nirvana. The next hour yields 22 fat coho. Without moving locations, Keith spots rockfish on the fish finder and we quickly swap out salmon leaders for Point Wilson Darts. On my first drop I get stopped at 200 feet, which I think is bottom. Next drop stops at 170. I tell the other anglers that bottom is 200 and Keith corrects me to 300. That’s when I realize that there is a horde of open-water black rockfish under us and they are coming up. These oversized specimens range from 5- to 8 pounds, and in 15 minutes I never made a drop without hooking a fish. That’s also how long it took to limit the boat.
Next stop was halibut, and the flatfish were cooperative. Thirty minutes later we pulled anchor with four 15- to 30-pound flatfish in the box and went looking for lingcod. As if it could get much better, two lingcod within the slot limit were hooked and landed in succession. After sorting through lings for slot-limit fish over the first two days, we realized that today is special. So with an hour and a half left on the angling day, we set out for known king salmon haunts.
And as if on cue, 30 minutes into the troll a 15-pound Chinook flopped on the deck, emitting the signature smell of a king salmon. That smell fills me with promise of succulent, finger-licking-good chunks of spice-rubbed fillet fresh off the barbecue. Over the past 15 years I have been on enough saltwater missions to realize when you have a really awesome day. And this day, fishing with Captain Keith Shuler while at Kingfisher Charters and Lodge, we experienced a really awesome day at sea.
On our final day we join Captain Scott Miller on the Gracie K with Rick Gibson and Doug Elkins, fishing buddies from California. The custom 32-foot Alaska Skiff is roomy, comfortable and fishy. Scott is a super guy, and this is evident from the moment we meet him. It takes the right personality to be a charter captain, and Scott has it. He’s friendly, loves people, loves to fish, is high-energy and gets everybody involved. He spent time in the commercial fishery in Sitka starting in 1987 and began chartering in 2004.
His coho program is to troll two Seeker rods equipped with Daiwa casting reels at between 50- and 100 feet on Scotty downriggers. Once a rod goes off, one of the five anglers fights the fish, while a second retrieves the downrigger weight and a third angler lets out about 20 feet of line on the next rod before the line is attached to the downrigger clip. The weight is deployed to the same depth that got the last fish, and two lines are fishing again. The fourth angler grabs a net while the first angler battles to land the fish. With any luck another rods goes off and all five anglers are working. Coho rodeo, and truly a gas.
Double- and triple hookups were common throughout the three hours it took to land 30 silver salmon. I can confirm at least one quadruple hookup. Scott’s enthusiasm was contagious and I found myself bouncing around the boat like him, netting a fish, deploying the next line, bonking a flopping salmon, grabbing a thumping rod and fighting a beefy silver. I’m pretty sure we landed the most 15-pound-plus coho on this day, and I weighed five over 15, including Bill’s big 18-pounder, within the first half of the salmon spree. One of the early fish to the boat was a brawler from the get-go and after substantial coaxing, a 22-pound Chinook was added to the day’s catch. Bill looked on with childish wonder from his safe perch on the cooler, while Eric and I did our best to be competent deckhands. Not sure that either one of them could have had more fun.
After a short ride, and precise anchor placement by Scott, out came the Pro Cure Butt Juice Bait Oil and Super Gel, stouter Seeker rods and Avet reels. I appreciate when a captain equips his boat with good gear, and both Scott and Keith did just that. This time I jigged a lead-head with a curly tail, and I slathered it with Super Gel before the drop. After about 15 minutes, I got tight on the day’s first flatfish, and in short order, the day’s first keeper came over the rail. The other anglers fished baits on circle hooks, mostly consisting of pink salmon chunks and coho guts. We spiced it up with Butt Juice Bait Oil and the action was steady. Bill concluded the day and trip by landing a 42-inch halibut. A solid 35-pounder and the flatfish catch of the day.
We took home more than fish
We caught epic quantities of fish totaling 180 pounds of fillets per person and had a supremely enjoyable time doing it. Attention to detail, as well as top-notch service and excellent food, were all on display at Kingfisher Charters and Lodge. The care, processing and packaging of our catch was truly first-rate. And Eric and Bill Ward were gracious, appreciative, easygoing and as excited as kids at Christmas to have won the trip and be part of the experience. And now they have a lasting memory of the best fishing trip that either one of them has ever had.
Deepest thanks to Sportsman’s Warehouse for sponsoring the sweepstakes and to Alaska Airlines and Kingfisher Charters and Lodge for executing the trip. Stay tuned for next year’s location and sign up at sportsmanswarehouse.com for your chance to win.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seth Bone’s operationis the largest in Sitka, capable of housing, feeding and fishing up to 60 guests at a time. Guests fish four or five to a boat and target salmon, halibut, lingcod and rockfish from May through September. According the lodge’s website, king salmon fishing is best in May and June and remains fair in July and August. Silver salmon fishing starts in June and peaks in August into September. Bottomfishing is strong all season. Captains are skilled and personable.
The food at the lodge was quite good. A printout of some of the lodge’s seafood recipes is available in the office. I especially liked the Thai lingcod soup and came home and made a batch right away. The Teriyaki sablefish appetizer was also dynamite. Buffet breakfasts always had a range of hearty dishes like eggs, potatoes, sausage, different homemade breads, as well as fruit, cereal, yogurt and pastries. Lunch was a hearty sandwich made on homemade bread, accompanied by various homemade sweets and chips. Dinner started with soup and salad, continued with a choice of entrees, and ended with dessert.
Lodge staff picks you up upon arrival, brings you back to the lodge for orientation and filling out a fishing license, takes you to the boat and back to the lodge each day, and then brings you back to the airport upon departure where your fish is waiting with a staff member to help you get it checked in.
Captains care for your fish properly aboard the boat and then the fish-processing crew comes to the docks and gets your fish before bringing it back to the lodge, filleting, skinning bottomfish, vacuum-sealing, flash-freezing and boxing your catch with an exact breakdown of the quantities of each species written on the side of the box.
Lodging was clean, comfortable and we had plenty of space. In sum, I was very impressed with the experience at the lodge, the outstanding fishery and the skill of the boat captains.
Anchorage – 8681 Old Seward Hwy (907) 644-1400
Fairbanks – 423 Merhar Ave (907) 374-8800
Wasilla – 1901 E. Parks Hwy (907) 864-8000
Soldotna – 44402 Sterling Hwy (907) 420-3000
Sportsman’s Warehouse is a chain of stores that retails a wide range of quality hunting, fishing and general outdoor products. We’ve always found the shopping experience to be enjoyable and prices fair. The company currently has 55 locations in 18 states.
Alaska Airlines services many destinations throughout Alaska, as well as the rest of the country and into Canada and Mexico. It is headquartered in Seattle, WA, and is the seventh largest passenger carrier in the country and carries more people from Alaska to the lower 48 than any other airline. Most planes in the fleet are Boeing 737s of various sizes. We are personal travelers of the airline and find their service to be excellent.