Story and photos by George Krumm
Fish Baranof: Sitka DIY Kings and ‘Buts
Lift. Drop. Lift. Drop. Freespool to thump bottom. Lift. Thump bottom. Li—Solid weight registered on my new favorite jigging stick—the Daiwa Harrier HRJ64MHB, and I set the hook. The halibut retaliated forcefully and made a short run. The deep bow in the rod and unyielding weight suggested a good fish; maybe too good…
I called my friend Austin Moser late last May just to see what he was up to. Being a full-time guide in Washington, he’s a pretty busy guy but he wasn’t working on that particular day. He mentioned he was getting his gear ready to go to Sitka on a do-it-yourself (DIY) trip for kings and bottomfish. I quizzed him about it, as I wasn’t knowledgeable of DIY operations in Sitka. I was intrigued with Sitka, knowing it sits smack dab on the biggest salmon highway on the west coast. He explained he had a group of several friends who’d be going, and that they’d be renting boats from Joel Martin of Fish Baranof and staying at the Totem Square Hotel and Marina. Sensing my obvious interest, he said there was room for another if I was interested in going. Since he was leaving in just a few days, I thought my chances were slim. I said I’d check with the boss. We’d be wrapping up the July ‘20 Fish Alaska issue just prior to the departure date, and it turned out I could do it. I booked the flight to Sitka and began to feverishly get my gear together.
June 2020 was a time of uncertainty as far as travel was concerned. COVID had changed everything. At that time, the state hadn’t yet implemented much in the way of restrictions, other than requiring a 14-day quarantine for people from out of state. Many of the guys going on this trip, including Austin, lived in Washington. They were all nervous. They planned to quarantine at the hotel, and to not go into town. The boats were docked about 150 feet from the hotel lobby, so this seemed reasonable. A few days after we all arrived in Sitka, the state implemented mandatory testing for those from Outside traveling to Alaska. I know of one person who arrived a few days after us who was actually approached by law enforcement in a Sitka grocery store and asked to provide proof of a negative COVID test. Luckily for Tom Nelson (radio personality for The Outdoor Line, KIRO 710 ESPN on the AM dial), he’d followed the rules and had proof of his negative test with him.
The airport was eerily quiet. I’d never seen an airport so empty. The gate for the flight to Sitka had quite a few people, though. Still, the jet was only about half full once everyone was onboard. It seemed so strange to see everyone wearing masks.
The flight was quick, and as the jet circled over Sitka Sound to set up its approach, I noticed boats fishing in the vicinity of Vitskari Rocks. I counted 14, mostly on the Sitka side of the rocks. The ocean didn’t look friendly, with big whitecaps visible from my eye-in-the-sky vantage point. I could feel the wind buffeting the jet as we approached the runway.
Upon landing, I collected my bag and rod tubes and headed outside with the rest of the anglers who were part of our group. The hotel shuttle got us to the hotel in five minutes. We all checked in and took our bags to our rooms. Then we went down to the Fish Baranof office/tackle shop (same building as the hotel) where Joel gave us an overview of the operation and handed out gear packages to take down to the boats.
The Fish Baranof boats are 19- and 21-foot Hewescraft Sea Runners, all hardtops with Yamaha 150 HP main motors and 9.9 HP kickers. The boats have 90-gallon fuel tanks, Garmin fishfinder/chartplotters, a VHF radio, 600 feet of anchor line, anchor buoy and Bruce anchor, salmon net, rope and shark hook, two Scotty electric downriggers and more. I remember feeling acute optimism as I knew we’d be able to get safely to the fish with these boats—even to the outside waters, weather permitting.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening getting our rods rigged up, tying terminal tackle, brining herring and loading the boats with our gear.
Fish Baranof provides rods, reels and some tackle free of charge, including good-quality salmon and halibut rods and reels. Many in our group brought some of our own gear and used some of Fish Baranof’s, too. In addition to the gear package provided for each boat, additional tackle and bait is for sale in the office. Joel keeps the pegs stocked with the kind of gear you need to fish this area, including flashers, lead heads, spreader bars, lead weights, grubs, spoons, mooching hooks, circle hooks, line, and so on. You could show up without any fishing gear and be fine, though you’d probably want to buy some additional terminal tackle in the office to suit your preferences. You’d probably save a few bucks if you bring your own, though.
On the morning of June 2nd, our first fishing day, we all stumbled down to the cafeteria at 5:45 a.m. for a complimentary continental breakfast and coffee. The weather and sea conditions sucked. Seas were 8- to 10 feet, with rain and winds of 15 mph. We’d have to fish inside the Sound.
Austin, Stevie Parsons (100% bona fide fish trooper, all five feet and 120 pounds of her) and I hopped in our boat, fired up the engine, turned on the VHF and chartplotter. Joel had suggested we fish the area just west of Vitskari Rocks. Austin and I looked at the chart to determine the best route. Fortunately for us, track lines on the chartplotter from previous anglers showed the way to various fishing spots. There were numerous waypoints showing good fishing areas, too. Joel had explained that if we stayed on the track lines, we wouldn’t find any rocks, of which there are many in Sitka Sound, often sprouting from otherwise deep water, sometimes submerged, sometimes not, depending on the tide stage. I’d studied the charts of the area prior to the trip, so I had a pretty good idea of likely fishing areas and hazards. We untied the mooring lines and headed out.
Turning southwest upon leaving the harbor, the wind and seas hit us in the face and made it clear that we were heading into the ocean. Though the boat could easily go over 30 mph, we were plowing along, just barely on plane, and sometimes not. With 8- to 10-foot sloppy seas, it took us about 45 minutes to make it to the north edge of Vitskari Rocks, some eight miles southwest of Sitka. Undeterred, we dropped triangular flashers and plug-cut herring 55 feet down with the downriggers. Boat control was hampered by the wind and seas, but we zig-zagged our way south. We picked up one Chinook in the teens and though we were seeing bait and fish on sonar, we didn’t hook any others; just a few small silvergray rockfish. After a couple hours of trying various depths, we decided we’d head south and fish the lee side of Biorka Island, the area referred to as the Monkey Cliffs by locals.
Biorka was nearly nine miles south of Vitskari Rocks through open water. Again, it was a long, slow slog and it took nearly an hour to arrive. We saw a couple of the other Fish Baranof boats trolling along and reached out to them on VHF. One boat had Steve Lumsden of Angler Innovations in it along with a few of his friends. The other had Mike Marano and Gerald Roemer of Seattle, and their friend Pete Edwards. They’d landed a few fish, but reported the same slow fishing we’d experienced. Most of the group was seasick at Vitskari, but the lee side of Biorka was somewhat sheltered from the wind and waves. We dropped the lines and over the next few hours we landed one more Chinook and had a few bites that didn’t stick. All our fish were hooked at 55 feet. We wondered why we weren’t doing better, but this was the first time we’d been to Sitka, so we had a lot to learn. Sitka Sound is pretty big—roughly 20 miles from east to west and a little more from north to south, depending on where you draw the lines. With numerous islands, points, pinnacles, inlets and underwater structure, you couldn’t figure it all out in a lifetime. That said, for an enterprising angler the opportunities for salmon and bottomfish are tremendous and endless. With the day growing old, we fished along the rocks for bottomfish and caught a mix of black and widow rockfish, then headed for the barn.
Back at the docks we filleted our fish while a Fish Baranof staff member washed down the boats. Then we vacuum-packed our fish using the VacMaster VP215 chamber sealers provided for our use. Each boat of anglers had a chest freezer designated for their use. As we loaded our fish into our freezer, I was impressed by the fish cleaning and processing facilities provided by this DIY operation, and I knew we’d be taking home quality fish. We ordered delivery pizza that night and turned in early, planning to meet in the cafeteria at 0500.
On our second day, the conditions were still sloppy, but the seas had diminished to six feet or so and the wind had also withered a bit. We stepped into the boat at 5:45 a.m. and set a course back to the lee side of Biorka. Having been there once, we had a better idea of what we needed to do. We hit kings of 14- and 18 pounds in short order using moon jelly patterned triangular flashers and plug-cut herring at 55 feet. We also landed a small king on our third rod, which was rigged with an 8-ounce cannonball and mooching leader fished straight out the back about 100 feet. We had a few other bites over the course of the day but landed no more kings. With the seas diminishing, we decided to head outside of Biorka to a promising reef a little over a mile from the island.
This reef comes nearly to the surface, and as big swells rolled over it, the sea would rip open and a big swath of whitewater would roll over the shallowest part of the reef. With a big high tide and a negative low tide that day, and the large current swing that comes with it, I didn’t have a lot of faith that we’d be able to fish effectively. As I feared, the opposing wind and current made us drift too slowly and our lines scoped out making it impossible to stay close to the bottom, so we approached the downwind side of the reef, put the main motor in reverse, and that countered the wind enough to allow us to vertically jig the structure. All the while, we kept a close eye on the gaping maw of whitewater that would form over the shallowest part of the reef, roughly 40 yards from us.
We began to hook a variety of bottomfish in rapid succession—sub-legal lings, China, quillback, yellowtail, black, and yelloweye rockfish. We were fishing in 50- to 80 feet of water, so we descended all the nonpelagics back down to the bottom using a Shelton’s SFD (Shelton’s Fish Descender). We had a short rod rigged just for this purpose. We caught all these fish using 6-ounce lead-head jigs with Berkley Gulp 5-inch grubs in the Nuclear Chicken color. We kept a few black rockfish and called it a day. It was a much more pleasant ride back than the previous day; we were actually able to go 25 mph with the wind and swell pushing us along.
After we processed our fish that evening, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of sablefish marinated in Yoshida’s, beans, rice and coleslaw on John Emmi’s boat at the dock. The sablefish was memorable indeed—Now I know why it’s in such demand. It was great to mingle on the deck and embellish the day’s fish stories, and with the forecast looking up and us feeling more dialed in, spirits were high.
The next morning, we launched at 5:00 a.m. with a plan to fish Vitskari early, then follow Tom Nelson out towards Cape Edgecumbe where we’d troll for Chinook, then drop the hook and try for halibut. Vitskari didn’t produce, so we hailed Tom on the VHF, then followed his 30-foot, black Offshore Duckworth west towards the Cape. Tom stopped on the way at St. Lazaria Islands and trolled west. Tom had suggested we fish much deeper than we had been, and suggested we use Silver Horde Coho Killer spoons in green/glow patterns behind a lighted Pro-Troll HotChip 11 flasher in the Green Stryper pattern. 10 feet off the bottom was his recommendation, which we noted but didn’t immediately follow. As we approached the islands, the fishfinder lit up with bait and fish. We fished two rods at 55 feet in 120 feet of water with the HotChip flashers. One of them had a Cop Car Coho Killer, the other a green/glow Coho Killer. We didn’t fish a third rod, figuring we’d just take turns landing fish.
The bite was on! Coho Killers catch everything when candlefish or sand lance are present, and they were. We caught several ping-pong-paddle halibut, a few sublegal lings, some nice black rockfish and one Chinook in the 20-pound class. It was a fast hour or so of fishing, but we planned to be on anchor at 10:00 a.m. so we pulled in the lines and headed to coordinates in 330 feet of water that Tom had suggested.
The sky was clear and as we dropped anchor, I noticed Mount Edgecumbe rising up from Kruzof Island like a lone sentinel watching over us. We were late; the tide was already slack. Stevie and Austin fished bait rigs Austin had tied featuring two 10/0 Maruto hooks snelled on heavy mono with a 7-inch glow hoochie attached to a spreader bar and 16 ounces of lead. They skewered herring, squid and salmon guts on the hooks, then slathered the whole thing up with a generous amount of Pro-Cure’s Butt Juice. They used rods Joel supplied and Daiwa Tanacom 750 electric reels. I fished an eight-ounce lead-head jig with a Berkley eight-inch Saltwater PowerBait grub in glow. My weapon of choice was a Daiwa Harrier HRJ64MHB jigging rod paired with a Lexa 400 reel spooled with 65-pound-test J-Braid. This rod is perfect for jigging lead-heads up to 16 ounces.
It wasn’t long before the action started. Several nonpelagic rockfish came on bait, including big quillbacks and a giant yelloweye that looked like a pumpkin rising through the depths. All were descended. We also landed three impressive lings on the Butt Juice-drenched bait rigs, one of which measured 53 inches long! In Sitka, it’s only legal to retain lings that are between 30- and 35 inches, or over 55 inches. These fish were all well over 35 inches, but not over 55, so we took some photos and sent them back to the depths. We brought several halibut to the boat, keeping a couple in the 25-pound range and one of 60. It became crystal clear that when fishing deep, the Tanacoms save considerable energy when checking bait. While fishing, we saw several humpback whales blow in the distance and a pod of Orcas approached within 40 yards of the boat. As the current speed increased, I had to upsize my jig to 12, and then 16 ounces. The bite predictably slowed, and we decided to head back to St. Lazaria to try for kings.
MORE SITKA DIY: Doing Time in the Sitka Silver Mine
Back at St. Lazaria, we followed Tom’s advice and did our best to keep the downrigger balls 10 feet off the bottom in water from 110- to 125 feet deep. Tom has been fishing Sitka every year for 30 years, so we were grateful for his advice. It paid off, and we picked up two more nice Chinook in 45 minutes on the HotChip and Coho Killer (green/glow) setup, then headed back to port. We reflected on the way back that there seemed to be more fish around the Cape than either Biorka or Vitskari.
After processing fish, we ordered fish and chips for pick up at the hotel restaurant. Fish and chips in a town like Sitka is something to write home about—fresh and delicious.
On our last day, we started at St. Lazaria Islands to troll. Unfortunately, our pile of fish and bait from the previous day were no longer there. We caught some little halibut and small rockfish, but no salmon. After a couple hours we headed back out around the Cape. We’d located another promising spot on the charts that was 210 feet deep. This spot was loaded with fish!
A slow, give-and-take battle ensued as I slowly worked the heavy fish to the surface. I hoped it wouldn’t be over 100 pounds as I prefer smaller fish for the table and believe letting fish over 100 pounds go is a prudent conservation effort. Halfway to the surface, the fish sounded, running all the way back to the bottom. My biceps and forearms burned, but I kept steady, firm pressure on the fish and slowly worked it to the surface. Not 100 pounds! 75 or so, and that’s one I’ll kill any day. We inserted the shark hook through its lower jaw, whacked it on the head, secured the fish to a cleat, cut the gill arches and let it bleed out.
One of the tremendous advantages for the DIY angler in Sitka is you can keep two halibut a day, any size. That day, the three of us landed around 20 halibut, keeping six that were between 20- to 75 pounds. 12 of these were caught on the lead-head and 8-inch PowerBait Grub, including the largest fish; the rest came on the bait rigs.
With our halibut limits onboard, we headed towards port and hadn’t gone far when we saw some salmon finning, so we slowed down. Seeing bait on the fish finder, we dropped the Coho Killers down and nailed a nice 20-pound king almost immediately. We circled around the bait, but had no more chances in the 30 minutes we tried. The wind was becoming problematic, so we headed to port with a lot of processing to do.
Later that evening after processing our catch, Austin and I thought it would be nice to eat in the Mean Queen (the restaurant at the hotel), but we weren’t sure if we’d be allowed due to the pandemic. We approached the hostess and explained we were from out of town and asked if we could eat in the restaurant. She said, “Yes,” so Austin, his wife Randi, and I enjoyed calamari, conversation and prime rib. That meal was a wonderful punctuation mark on an exciting four days of DIY ocean fishing for Chinook and halibut. Austin and I were already scheming about the possibility of doing it again in 2021.
Joel Martin worked his tail off for all of us during our stay. Rising at 3 a.m. and leaving after all the fish were processed and put away, often as late as 8:00 p.m., there is no question about his dedication to his customers’ satisfaction. The boats, the tackle, the fish-processing facilities—everything was topnotch for the DIY angler. If you have some big-water boating experience and dream of a DIY trip to a premier Alaskan saltwater port, Fish Baranof is for you. Located on one of the most productive saltwater ports in Alaska, I know of no better location for the DIY angler to target salmon, halibut and other bottomfish than Fish Baranof.
George Krumm is the Editor of both Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared as Fish Baranof! Sitka DIY Kings and ‘Buts in the February 2021 issue of Fish Alaska.