Feeder Kings blog by John Averill
Pursuing saltwater feeder king salmon in southcentral Alaska
It was mid-September 2018 in Kenai, Alaska and we were experiencing a 100-year weather event. It had been sunny and calm for more that 14 consecutive days and on the 18th day of the month, there was still not a drop of rain or even clouds in the long-range forecast. What’s more, I was on vacation!
Throughout the spring and summer my son and I had high hopes of hunting moose again above the Arctic Circle with a friend, but after considering his heavy class load at college, my over-achieving young man felt he couldn’t afford to miss two weeks of school. Although the opportunity was still available to me, the idea of leaving him behind took the wind out of my sails and I decided not to make the trip.
Hence, I found myself off work with no solid plan and only beautiful weather in the foreseeable future. What to do in Kenai, Alaska in the fall? Hmm? Hey, why not go saltwater king fishing?
I rarely fished for feeder kings purposefully in September; mostly because time off during September had traditionally been reserved for big-game hunting, duck hunting or chasing big rainbows on the Kenai river. However, I had caught a king incidentally once while on a rare fall coho salmon fishing trip. A quick check of the marine weather forecast followed: “Variable winds 10 knots, seas less than 2 feet.” It doesn’t get any better than that! Next, a call to my father-in-law. “Dennis, is your boat still in the slip? It is, eh? Do you mind if I use it tomorrow for a little king fishing? Great! Thanks very much!” One last hurdle. “Honey, my sweet, darling, beautiful wife, do you mind if I go king fishing tomorrow?” She gave me a kitchen pass. That settled it, I would be making the hundred-mile drive to Homer, AK the next day to fish feeder (winter) kings in beautiful Kachemak Bay. Now all I needed was a partner to net my fish.
I dialed the phone. “Jim, it’s John. Hey, listen, bring Zach (his 12-year-old son) along and we’ll go catch a feeder king tomorrow out of Homer. What do ya say?” They couldn’t make it, so I called Ted.
“Ted, hey, it’s John. Let’s go catch a king tomorrow in K-Bay?” Ted had the same answer, for different reasons, so I continued down my list. I called three or four more of my buds and all of them had substantial reasons why they couldn’t join in the fun. Made me wonder, just a bit, “Is it something about me?” I considered that briefly, but decided that, hey, I’m on vacation. I can just go by myself.
Normally, I don’t go fishing in the offshore waters of Alaska alone. There are just too many things that, should they go wrong, could turn the trip into a fight for survival, like 45° water for example. Fall overboard when you’re all alone and you may never get back on board and that’s without the boat being under power. If you fall in while trolling, you may not be heard from again. Then there’s the 20 feet or more of water movement as the tide ebbs and flows, plus wind and fog and rocks…Alaskan waters can be mighty inhospitable. What if I took a hook in the eye or cut myself badly while filleting a fish? Several years back a friend was filleting halibut on his boat in Tutka Bay and ran his knife clean through his bicep, narrowly missing his humoral artery. Though not as serious, what if I hooked into a king that was too big for me to deal with all alone? I shuddered at the thought. I shook off the negativity, made up my mind to go and started gathering my gear and loading it in the truck.
I’m a dreamer where fishing and hunting are concerned. As a fishing or hunting trip approaches, I start dreaming about the possible outcomes of the trip. Take duck hunting on the upper Kenai, for instance. The night before going, I dream about setting the deeks in pre-dawn darkness in a quiet backwater slough of the Kenai while Mr. 600-pound brown bear watches from the tall grass 15 yards away. Really helps me sleep soundly.
When it comes to king fishing, however, my anticipatory dreams are on the other end of the spectrum. My recurring pre-king trip dream finds me engaged in an epic battle, finally, and with incredible skill, landing the new world-record king (over 100 pounds) on unbelievably light tackle. The fame of this piscatorial prowess results in me being given a brand-new 20-foot Willie Predator and making big money from my book sales recounting the exciting event, while adding more gold to my fortune by traveling from sportsman’s show to sportsman’s show endorsing the fishing products of my myriad sponsors and autographing one G. Loomis or Sage rod after another for hopeful anglers who want some of my mojo. It could happen.
The night before this king trip, I dreamed I caught a huge feeder king and had to ask a total stranger on another boat to take a picture of me and the big fish, so I’d have solid proof. It could happen.
Feeder kings (Chinook or more specifically, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as winter or spring kings, depending on whether you catch them, well, in the winter or spring, are highly prized by the anglers of Southcentral Alaska for their delicious, oil-rich meat. They can be successfully taken during any month of the year in the rich waters of Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. They’ve been dubbed “feeder” kings because they are not yet mature, not yet ready to return to the river of their birth to spawn. So, they feed voraciously and pretty much non-stop on whatever prey (candlefish, herring, squid, hooligan, etc.) they can catch. Over the years, I’ve caught feeder kings that literally could not swallow the bait they had just hit because they were absolutely plugged with other bait fish. My 20+ years of chasing feeder kings has seen a couple of 20- to 25-pound fish come over the side of the boat but these great tasting, hard fighting fish typically average between 8 and 16 pounds in the waters I fish.
September 19th dawned clear and cool with the early morning temperature just 4° north of freezing. I rechecked the marine weather forecast for Kachemak Bay and hearing almost the same, nearly perfect message as the day before. NOAA had added the rarely significant, little two-word phrase, “patchy fog.” I pointed my truck south toward Homer.
The trip went as expected for the first 45 or 50 miles but as I drove through the little roadside hamlet of Clam Gulch about 45 miles north of Homer, I began to encounter a wee bit o’ that patchy fog that the computerized voice of NOAA had mentioned. “Hmm,” I muttered. “Hope this stuff doesn’t cause problems.” No such luck! The closer I got to Homer, the thicker the fog became. “Well, I’ve come too far to turn back now. If it’s foggy when I get there, I’ll just wait it out. I’m on vacation in September. The weather’s gonna be great and the water’s gonna be flat. I’ll be darned if I’m gonna let a little fog ruin my day,” I declared to myself.
That thick, soupy fog persisted through Anchor Point, only 14 miles north of Homer. Then…a miracle! As I dropped down along the Anchor River three miles further on, the fog suddenly started to break up and two more miles had me basking in rich, golden, autumn sunshine under a cloudless, sapphire sky. Patchy Fog! In a pig’s eye! HA! En garde, king salmon!
A few moments later I crested the big hill that overlooks Homer, the Spit and Kachemak Bay to the east. My heart sank! Several hundred feet below, all was lost in a sea of murky gray, the likes of which one might encounter on the Moors of Scotland. But I had arrived, so I thought I’d go down to the harbor and see what happens. I stopped by the bait shack on the way and grabbed some yellow-label herring (20 to a pack instead of the typical 12, a cheapskate’s delight). When I finally reached the Homer small boat harbor, it seemed like the fog was starting to lift just a bit. I backed the truck down the pier to save a few steps, threw all my gear out at the top of the ramp and went to find a parking space. I grabbed a cart on the dock and somehow hauled everything to the boat in one trip. My father-in-law’s boat is a lovely, 26-foot aluminum Bay Weld with twin Honda 150s and plenty of deck space for fishing. A sweet set up.
Once all gear was stowed, I puttered around on board for another 20 minutes or so, letting the engines warm up, getting my rods ready, setting up the downriggers and making up several baits. The silver lining to fog is that it typically comes sans wind, which made it a cinch for this solo skipper to back out of the slip and ease out of the harbor. Unfortunately, the opaque, gray junk had rolled back in during my preparation and visibility was less than 200 feet when I rounded the east end of the Homer Spit. “Rats!” I cursed the rotten fog under my breath. “That’s not part of the plan.” I was pinned to a tiny slice of ocean looking in the windows of the Land’s End hotel. I thought to myself, “Hmmm, guess I’ll just make the best of it right here until she clears up and then head to more predictable waters.”
To be fair, the three amigos–my son Isaac, my long-time fishing partner Steve, and myself, enjoyed two stellar days of king fishing several years ago only a few hundred yards from the very spot on the sea my boat now occupied. It’s also worth noting that Isaac had caught a beautiful 25-pound feeder, again, only a few hundred yards further out from where I was. However, those kings were caught in August, when the Inlet and Bay are alive with bait fish and several species of salmonids. But September? I had no confidence that there was a king within five miles of my current location.
A few moments later I was trolling lazily back and forth about 80 yards off the beach in about sixty feet of water. Coincidentally, I trolled past another fella who appeared to be in the same predicament as me–no friends on board to net his fish, either. “Duly noted,” I thought. “When last night’s dream comes true and I catch my monster king, I’ll ask him to take the confirmatory pic.” About that time my rod popped out of the downrigger and sure enough, I had my first king of the day on the hook. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the smallest feeder kings I had ever caught, weighing approximately a pound and a half and only about six inches longer than the herring he had tried to swallow. “Go grow up,” I said, as I shook the brave, little guy off the hook. “Come see me again in about 4 years!”
I wound a leader with fresh bait onto the flasher swivel, reset the gear and settled back into the same short loop pattern as before, thanks to the confining fog. Fifteen or twenty uneventful minutes ebbed by as I stared at the fish finder hoping to see an encouraging blip on the screen. I heard a faint pop, and looking out of the cabin door saw my rod standing straight up. A tug at the throttle slipped the boat out of gear and I quick-stepped it aft to the stern. I reeled quickly to take up the slack as I snatched the rod from the holder, and just as the line came tight, I felt a short, sharp tug. “There we go. That’s better.” I gave the rod a snappy yank to bury the barb and felt a bit of lazy, but weighty, resistance on the other end. “Hmm. What have we got here?” The answer came a nanosecond later. Wham! The rod straightened out dramatically and the drag began to buzz. A burst of excitement swept over me as I watched the level wind sweep rapidly from side to side. Then a flicker of fear scratched a sharp nail across the back of my neck as my reel continued to empty at an alarming rate and whatever I had on the other end showed no signs of slowing down anytime soon. I began to thumb the spool trying to turn, or at least slow the fish, with no noticeable impact. If only I had someone else on board, we could give chase. 10 seconds later and I yielded to what now appeared to be the inevitable outcome. This fish, which I now believed to be a large halibut, would continue his smokin’ hot run until reaching the arbor knot and then snap me off as easy as pie without ever looking back. “Come on you pig! Slow down!” I spat as I bore down harder on the dwindling wraps of line with an already overheating thumb. I could now see the arbor through the clear monofilament and knew the battle was nearly over. Then…the 2nd miracle of the day! With approximately eight feet of line remaining on the reel and about 200 yards off the reel, the halibut, or shark or whale, or whatever it was, stopped! I held my breath and tried to turn some line back on the spool, but the leviathan, now seemingly spent, still refused to yield. Time seemed to stand still. Then, ever so slowly, he turned my way!
Have you ever hooked into a really big fish that shanghaied you, as my friend would say, one that you never got to see? Well I have, and I hate being left wondering forever about the big one that got away. It’s a situation akin to an intense, white-knuckle suspense thriller that ends without showing you who did it! Argh!
Now, I was just hoping for a glimpse of the fish that had effortlessly stripped my reel within a few feet of breaking me off. Again, I thought, “It’s probably just a halibut (yawn) but what if it is a king? It could be!”
About this time, I glanced up to get my bearings and realized that I had drifted dangerously close to shore. Yikes! Now what? With no other choice, I darted into the cabin, the rod stretched out behind me in one hand as far as I could reach, trying to keep tension on the line but praying the fish didn’t take off again at an oblique angle and break my rod ‘round the door frame. I quickly nudged the boat into gear and estimated a safe course away from shore, making a terse adjustment to the helm. It’s funny how a seemingly minor course correction can cause the boat to literally spin around in circles when you’re not right there to make the necessary, small adjustments. My first effort bought me only about two minutes of relief as I found myself again heading quickly in the wrong direction. Back into the cabin I dashed, yanking the boat out of gear, my rod poking precariously out the back door of the cabin once again, with similar hopes and prayers as before. This second effort was all I needed. The fish had spent himself on his initial run and I began reeling with a vengeance to get as much line back on the spool as possible before my quarry got its second wind and tried to leave Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet once more. After what seemed like five solid minutes of reeling, I could see my flasher in the fog-darkened, teal water of the bay. Could it be a king there just out of sight or is it only a pesky halibut (pesky, only because halibut was not the target species)? A few more cranks on the reel’s handle and I saw a sudden flash of silver as the king turned to give it another go. “Oh, YES!” I shouted. “It’s a king and a good one at that!” I seized that moment during the fish’s last desperate effort to evade capture to snatch the net from the rocket launcher on the back edge of the cabin roof. Odd! My large net suddenly looked way too small. In the same moment, I remembered the time I bumped into my first grizzly in Alaska’s backcountry. I don’t recollect what caliber rifle I was carrying at the time but, like my net, it too suddenly seemed way too small for the job. Instinctively, I knew I was only going to get one shot at putting this big boy in the net. The instant he turned my way again, I forced the issue, reeling until the flasher jammed against the rod tip and lifted the rod forcefully upward. Before the behemoth could change direction, I stabbed the net under his head and scooped with all the force my left arm could muster. Throwing the rod on the deck and jerking the butt of the net handle straight up, I sealed the deal. Then, with a quick heave-ho and an involuntary grunt, I hauled that big, black-mouthed, black-lipped, biter aboard! A sharp blow to the head with the club and it was over. WOW! It was the biggest feeder king I had ever seen. I just stood there, slack-jawed, staring at the beautiful, iridescent purple hue that ran lengthwise down the fish’s long back. “What a gorgeous salmon!” I thought. “You’ll fill the smoker…twice!”
A deft slice with the filet knife behind the gill plate and the necessary bleeding was accomplished. As the adrenalin ebbed from my system, I recalled last night’s dream. “Hey, it came true!” I mused. “Now where is that guy?” The solo angler I had observed earlier was only a short distance away and I was easing up to his starboard side within minutes. “Good Morning,” I haled as he looked curiously my way.
“Good morning. What’s up?” he said.
“I need a favor. I just caught the largest feeder of my life and I’m wondering if you’d be so kind as to take a picture for me?”
“Sure, he said tentatively. Tell you what. There seems to be a bit of a bite on right now and I’d like to keep my gear in the water, but I’d be happy to help you out in a little while.”
“Fair enough,” I nodded, waived, and stepped to the helm to give him some space.
The stubborn fog continued to obscure the familiar landmarks so close at hand. I busied myself texting several of the buds who had declined my invitation, sending the following message and a picture of the king laying on the deck. “This is the fish you would have caught if you had joined me!” rubbing it in just a touch. About that time, my newly found friend showed up to take the requested photo. He pulled alongside throwing me a line as I dropped a couple bumpers over the port side and tied him fast.
“WOW!! he exclaimed. “You weren’t kidding! That is a big one and bigger than I expected when you asked for my help. How much do you think it weighs?”
My personality is such that I don’t like to exaggerate the weight of the fish I catch. The truth be known, I kind of take pride in my ability to nail the fish’s weight accurately, plus or minus a pound. I’d rather my estimate be on the light side and let the scale tell me differently than guess heavy and be proved a braggart. I’ve measured and weighed a lot of feeder kings over the years and they all look like twenty-plus pounders when they hit the deck, but the truth is, they’re usually well short of that.
“Well, I said, lifting my ballcap and scratching my head. I believe he’s well north of 30 pounds.”
“WOW!” He said again. I handed him my cell phone, trying my best to look nonchalant as I hefted the porker into position. Photo shoot complete, I reached out for my phone with a word of sincere thanks when my new friend asked if he could take one more picture with his phone.
“Uh, sure,” I stuttered, a bit surprised. “Here, I’ll lift ‘im up again.”
“No, no. Just leave him lying there on the deck,” he said with an ornery twinkle in his eye and a sly grin, “I can lie with the best of ‘em!” Still chuckling, I cast off his line and as we parted ways with a friendly wave, the entrance to the harbor vanished from view and I wondered how differently the day would have played out if it weren’t for that lovely patchy fog.
John Averill is an avid angler. This is his first contribution to FishAlaskaMagazine.com.