It’s All in the Details
By Marcus Weiner
The very best lodges in Alaska exhibit common characteristics, regardless of the location, the species of fish pursued or the preferred angling technique.
A knowledgeable and personable guide and lodge staff is among the top of the list. Location, and the proximity to prime water, is another. The last, and I think most critical, is management’s ability to see the whole picture and act proactively rather than reactively.
This ultimately means a tightly-run program with superior attention to detail. Rarely have I seen a lodge run with the precision and complete attention to detail as Captain Larry McQuarrie’s Sportsman’s Cove Lodge.
Captain Mac’s background is a significant factor in the seemingly effortless precision in which the operation runs. From his early days as a Navy pilot followed by many years service as a United Airlines pilot to the years owning a large fishing-charter operation in Westport, WA, Capt. Mac’s lodge is a culmination of a life’s work where anything less than the execution of a well-considered plan means failure.
Each guest’s stay begins with a welcome packet giving explicit instructions as to what to expect on your vacation, including packing and travel instructions, a pre-trip checklist, advice on lodging and what to do with your fish upon leaving the lodge, and a FAQ page. Another package is given to each guest upon departure, which includes a fish care and recipe page, departing instructions, as well as a survey to help the lodge make improvements.
When you arrive at the lodge it is immediately evident that the staff is welcoming and there to help make your stay a good one. The sprawling seaside lodge is a small community – with infrastructure off-the-grid to accommodate 30 guests and at least that much lodge staff. Everything appears to be in tip-top shape. The food is good, kitchen staff upbeat and friendly, rooms clean and showers hot. Breakfast begins promptly at 6 a.m.; you are on the boat by 6:30 and back to the dock by 4 for pictures of your group with the day’s catch, followed by hors d’oeuvres. When you come to dinner each evening, there’s a copy of the best picture waiting for you at your table. It’s a nice touch. Each evening awards are also given to the anglers who caught the largest fish of the day, fish stories are shared, the head chef delivers a pre-meal introduction of the evening’s fare, the dock master reviews the fleet’s catch for the day and any special events after dinner are announced. While we were there, an evening tour of Mackenzie Inlet was taking place. And to wrap a terrific day in indulgent fashion, warm cookies are served each night at 8:30.
In consistent manner with the lodge’s well-considered fishing program, rain gear and boots are pre-determined for size for each guest, and a named-cubby with an electric boot dryer and appropriate rain gear and boots await each traveler. Over and over we realized that the little details were considered to optimize the whole lodge experience.
After the first evening’s meal, captain and deckhand meet lodge guests at the boat to review the gear, techniques and safety procedures on the boat. Rarely have I seen a captain give such explicit instruction as to how to fish and handle the tackle, and never the night before fishing. Capt. Mac realizes that anglers usually have a better experience when they catch more fish. I found his instruction to be useful ,and when I implemented his mooch-stroke length and retrieval speed, I caught more coho. Fish Alaska publisher Melissa Norris listened to his advice on catching Chinook and aptly was the queen king-catcher of the trip.
Factors that aid in the success of a saltwater lodge in Alaska include proximity to quality fishing, fishable water fairly close to home – no matter the weather – variety in fish species, the ease in which guests can get to the lodge, especially in foul weather, and the overall quality of food, housing and staff in the fishing and lodge experience. Sportsman’s Cove excels at these factors. Average running time to fishable water is less than an hour, and rarely does the fleet get weathered out (three days in 2011 and none in 2012). In four days of angling, we caught a saltwater bonanza and I brought home two fish boxes of king, silver and pink salmon, rockfish, halibut, lingcod and true cod. Not only terrific fun to catch, but healthy, top-shelf seafood for the family.
A 15-minute floatplane ride west from Ketchikan lands us at the docks of the lodge on the eastern side of Prince of Wales Island. It’s far enough north on the east side to be protected, but still provides prime access to open water, as well as to salmon migration lanes and feeding zones where baitfish congregate. On rare occasions where weather makes it impossible to fly to the lodge, the fleet can run two hours to Ketchikan. This is a nice combination of access to Ketchikan, which is readily accessible by jet from Seattle, as well as being remotely based so as to enjoy less fishing pressure and a more authentically wilderness experience.
A final thought on being weathered out – it’s part of fishing in Alaska. Rarely does it happen at Sportsman’s Cove due to the location of the lodge on the relatively sheltered Inside Passage. But when the weather is deemed truly unfishable, you won’tsit around the lodge. There are popular alternatives like a shore lunch of fresh guest-caught crab and shrimp served with a hot tomato bisque and a glass of house wine on a remote dock in the sheltered inlets adjacent to the lodge, followed by bear watching at the Polk Inlet bear observatory nearby. Capt. Mac told me that people enjoy that so much that they request the program again.
Salmon fishing is conducted with custom rods and Penn level-wind reels, as each angler mooches a cut-plug herring. We search out baitfish schools, as well as baitfish-attracting structure and vegetation, as that’s where the salmon will be. Mature king salmon migrating home to their natal spawning streams are most readily found in May and June, pinks in July and August. Silvers show up as 6-pound fish in good numbers in late June and early July and put on a pound a week until their peak in late August through September when they will be 12-to 16 pounds (The lodge record silver is 23 pounds). Immature “feeder” king salmon live in the area all year, and during our four days of fishing from August 18 to 21, the boat caught many feeder kings from 10- to 20 pounds. It’s a rush to suddenly be ambushed by a fat king that burns line from your reel. On several occasions we had double hook-ups and had a triple for a moment. On another day, one of the other boats from the fleet boated a six-king limit in about 20 minutes. Silvers are great fun to catch and they eat well, but kings are my first choice, both on the plate and on the end of the line.
While I applaud the effectiveness of trolling for salmon, and enjoy rigging and setting the gear, there’s no comparison to mooching. In my opinion, it’s much more fun for each angler to handle a rod and feel the salmon strike a moving bait. Salmon hit on the way up and down, and some of the more comical hookups happen when an angler suddenly wonders why they’ve lost touch with the bait and weight at the end of their line as a salmon picks up the bait and heads for the surface. Frantic reeling and sudden elation usually ensue.
Bottomfishing is solid most of the season, where anglers can catch halibut, rockfish, lingcod and true cod. Gear is stouter and larger in order to bounce baits of the bottom, but considering the milder currents and small weights (12 ounces on our trip), rods and reels are lighter and more user-friendly than most bottom gear used in Alaska. During our second day of fishing, after starting the day fishing for halibut and limiting the boat with 15- to 40-pound fish, we switched rods and locations and limited the boat for Chinook. There was still time left, so we switched locations and gear again and brought back a 30-pound lingcod and 17-pound yelloweye rockfish. Another highlight of the trip was watching an angler fight a 75-pound halibut on salmon gear. A long battle that started when the angler thought he was snagged on the bottom only to find that the snag started to swim.
Fish care is of prime importance at Sportsman’s, and each fish is bled and iced immediately as they are brought on board. Fish are then filleted, vacuum-sealed and flash-frozen before being sent home with you in boxes. It’s a great way to eat prime fish all year long. In addition, the lodge can smoke any of your fish and offers four different flavors. We really liked several varieties and had some of our salmon smoked to take home. The lodge was smoking a batch of Cajun king salmon bellies and let me say they were purely delectable. The high-fat content of the belly and the spicy, perfectly smoked texture made them a smashing success.
We fish aboard a 37-foot Fibercraft named Show Girl, one of the six fleet boats specially designed with input from Capt. Mac for the water and type of fishing being done at the lodge. Five boats are used each day and one remains at the lodge as a spare. Additionally, the year-round maintenance staff keeps the boats in top-notch shape, and each evening both the captain and deckhand spend considerable time cleaningthe boat and prepping for the next day. Decks are scrubbed, baits are cut and salted, rods and reels are cleaned and stowed. Each morning the boat is ready to go with fresh bait, sharp hooks, hot coffee, cold beer and a stout lunch. And each evening they return full of fish and satisfied customers.
Sportsman’s Cove Lodge is an appealing place to visit on a number of levels. From good fishing to excellent boats, captains and deckhands, tasty meals and friendly staff, in my opinion, the lodge rated high among saltwater lodges in the state. Capt. Mac personifies the concept that proper planning prevents poor performance. But in the end, the one thing that impressed me most about the operation was how they recognized their repeat guests. Guests that have returned for 5, 10, 15, 20 and soon to be 25 years are recognized, thanked and given a gift of appreciation. You’re running a top-notch operation when guests return 20 years in a row.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.