Kayaking for Silver

Kayaking for Silver

Story & Photos by
Doug Wilson

Valdez outfitter and guide Otto Kulm was doing a Nantucket sleigh ride, silver-salmon style. There wasn’t a wake from the bow of his 16-foot Wilderness System kayak, but he was definitely being towed down Irish Cove by a hefty fish that was attached to the business end of his eight-weight fly rod.

Rain dimpled the cove, which is located some forty-five miles out of Valdez but only a few minutes run away from Ravencroft Lodge, where I had spent the night after a day of salmon shark fishing off Hinchenbrook Island. Silver salmon were jumping along the shoreline as far as we could see. They were concentrated in a channel on the east side of the cove, gathering to enter the feeder streams in which they would spawn.

We had slid our kayaks from the stern of the MV Bold Eagle, Otto’s 34-foot Fibercraft. It was flat calm and the cove was alive with silvers andpinks. The pinks had been in the cove for sometime and were losing their silver luster, but the coho were ocean-bright and aggressive. Armed with fly gear, Otto, Pat Welch, a local fly-fishing expert, and myself, a visitor from the Lower 48 with numerous fishing adventures in Alaska, were about to attempt a fairly new and adventurous method of seeking salt and freshwater salmon.

We were using sit-on-top kayaks, stable enough to stand and cast from but small and self-propelled, unlike the usual fishing craft used by Alaska salmon fishermen. With these kayaks we could silently paddle within casting range of pods of silvers, which we did with ease in the calm waters of Irish Cove.

Otto told me that there were at least half a dozen saltwater coves and bays that were alive with silvers in this part of Prince William Sound that could be reached by kayaking after using a mother boat to get close.

Today we would sample the saltwater options; tomorrow, our silver salmon adventure would be on a river a few miles from downtown Valdez.

Valdez is not the best-known destination for salmon-seeking tourists from the Lower 48. It is a daylong road trip from Anchorage via the Richardson Highway, or a 45-minute flight on ERA, the commuter airline that services southcentral Alaska. Local fishermen know what a prize they have in their nearby waters, but the news hasn’t been widely spread.

August in Valdez is a silver salmon bonanza. Adding in the excitement of the annual Silver Salmon Derby with some serious prizes gives even more reason to go, as I quickly found out when Otto finally reached for the net. He hoisted a silver in the 8- to 10-pound range and pulled it into the kayak, grinning like a little kid that just found a candy store.

Beaching our kayaks so I could shoot some photos from solid ground, we decided to fish the channel from the shore. An aerial attack by no-see-ums found us scrambling for the bug spray before we started casting again. Meanwhile Pat was patrolling the shoreline in his craft, trolling a bright pink and purple fly of his own design.

While Otto worked the shoreline with his fly rod, I picked up the six and one-half-foot telescoping spinning rod I’d packed and tied on a three-quarter-ounce leadhead jig with a barbless hook that was dressed with blue and silver Flashabou to imitate a small baitfish. A savage strike answered my first shoreline cast. One jump and the barbless jig went flying one direction, the coho another.

Using a medium weight-spinning rod, I was probably under-gunned for these fresh 10- to 12-pound wild fish, but it sure was fun. My second cast was an immediate hookup with a nice coho over 10 pounds, which I beached after several minutes. A somewhat worn pink salmon with a pronounced hump slammed the jig next, while Pat was playing a strong hook-nosed silver buck from his kayak several yards from Otto and me.

In perhaps the next dozen casts, I hooked six silvers, landing only one on the light tackle and barbless hook combination. The rest tossed the jig with aerial acrobatics and sizzling runs. As we walked back to our kayaks, Otto pointed out the handiwork of a local fisherman. A bald eagle had swooped from a tree and snatched a large silver from the surface. The partially eaten fish lay in the grass on the shoreline. If the eagle didn’t come back to finish it, it would likely be dinner for one of the local black bears that called the dense forest home.

I’m sure we could have caught silvers until our arms were too tired to play another fish, but since filling a freezer was not our goal, we left the certainty of Irish Cove and went exploring. Our destination was Hell’s Hole, a bay halfway between Valdez and Cordova. It has a reputation for providing coho hookups about every other cast.

We would have to paddlefrom the open water through a narrow slot to reach the fishing grounds. Unfortunately the weather began to pick up and we decided it was too dicey to launch in the open water and paddle through the breaking waves in the shallow entrance to reach an area that Otto had not fished before. It appeared that the water was too shallow for the 34-foot Bold Eagle to enter at this stage of the tide. Getting in looked doable, but paddling out was the question, particularly if the weather got worse. Deciding caution was the best option; we left Hell’s Hole for another day and headed back to Valdez.

Looking for a sure thing, with jumping silvers on display, we cruised into Shoup Bay, an Alaskan Marine State Park with calm waters towered over by spectacular mountains, which give Valdez the nickname of the Switzerland of Alaska.

Rain clouds obscured the scene, which on a sunny day would be absolutely breathtaking. Even under a layer of clouds the site was impressive. Pat Welch told us this was his favorite spot in all of the Valdez area and he lived for the days when the sun came out and he could run his Zodiac from town for a day’s fishing or just picnicking and enjoying the splendor of this special place. The fish weren’t showing so we headed farther back to Valdez, passing through a flotilla of kicker boats, skiffs and cruisers fishing the outgoing tide in Port Valdez. Tomorrow was to be another day.

Back at the marina, the city fish-cleaning station was a bustle of activity with anglers hauling ice chests and wheel-barrels full of bright silvers to be filleted by experts like Pat, who can fillet a salmon in seconds- and will, for a dollar a fish. Pat estimates that he fillets an average of 20,000 salmon a year during the summer season.

Fog shrouded the marina in the early morning as I walked from my motel to meet Otto by the fish-cleaning station. It looked like the weather was going to get sunny, a welcome respite for Valdez, which does tend to be on the wet side during the month of August. Otto loaded the kayaks on a trailer behind his SUV. Today was going to be a river fly-fishing adventure.

Our destination was the Robe River, practically on the edge of downtown Valdez. Flowing from Robe Lake, this small river, more like a creek in size, flows about six miles through tangled alder and spruce in a wilderness setting while only a few hundred yards from the main highway at some places. It is a fly-fishing-only stream with a one-salmon limit and is rarely fished even by locals. Access is difficult, though, unless you have the ultimate paddling craft, a stable kayak that will slip through the tight spots of this meandering waterway.

Otto’s friend, James Erickson, who fills in as a skipper and works at the local tackle shop, joined us for our day’s paddle in search of silver salmon. At well over six feet tall, James is a good man to have along when maneuvering through tight spots in the fast current. My kayaking skills are moderate. Heavy rains had raised the river over a foot, putting the water over the grassy shoreline and making the meandering stream a bit more difficult than normal. While one might be tempted to try this river on his or her own, I’d advise against it and leave this adventure to being led by an experienced guide, which in this case is Otto, who is the only outfitter in Valdez offering this kind of guided trip.

Robe Lake is surrounded by mountains, which on this sunny day reflected in the calm lake. Pink salmon were spawning by the boat ramp, some in only a few inches of water. The first few miles of river are just a scenic and placid paddle, getting to the silvers requires getting downstream to where salmon stack up in a series of holes. My first surprise came when we approached a culvert and James, with a whoop like a surfer taking a wave, shot through. I followed and whooped myself.

Below the culvert we began seeing salmon, mostly pinks that had been in the river for some time. Dolly Varden hung in the current feeding on loose eggs from the spawning pinks. My blue and pink fly was quickly grabbed by a humpy before it washed past the Dolly that I was targeting. Working our way downstream we began seeing silvers finning in the current. Rounding a bend, we came up on a hole that was full of silvers, Otto, James and I all hooked up as we cast to the edge of the brushy shoreline.

These fish were extremely aggressive, striking our offerings as soon as they hit the water and began to sink. Flies for salmon seem to have one thing in common, as Pat Welch had said the day before; something with pink is what works. James and Otto used marabou streamers while I used a pink and blue Flashabou fly that I tied at home before the trip. As we worked out way downriver, we continued to see silvers, pinks and Dolly Varden. Otto hung a large red hooknose with a weighted fly in a deep run, which he released after a quick photo.

Otto encourages catch and release on these wild fish since the river is small and the run could be impacted from heavy fishing pressure. Access is pretty much limited to kayaking, though, which should help keep the fishing pressure low.

The Robe runs into the Lowe River, which is full of glacial runoff and tricky to navigate. Life jackets are required for this section of the trip due to the bigger water and fast current amid many gravel bars. Otto also warns that brown bears fish both these rivers and proper precautions need to be taken. We pulled out near the mouth of the river on Port Valdez.

It was a day well spent and a great finish to a two-day adventure that – through kayaking – created a new and unique approach to silver fishing. If you want to try this new adventure, you can contact Otto at Pacific Mountain Guides. He can customize your kayaking trip for both salt and freshwater fly-fishing from these stable open craft. For those that prefer tossing lures with spinning or casting gear, it is definitely an option for the saltwater areas. Using the Bold Eagle, Otto targets silver salmon, halibut, salmon sharks, lingcod and rockfish in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.

With salmon, Chinook, pink, chum and sockeye are also available, but the emphasis is on the spectacular silver salmon fishing that Valdez and its surrounding waters offer. Otto can also make arrangements for fishing with him and staying at Ravencroft Lodge, a remote wilderness lodge on Prince Williams Sound’s Port Fidalgo Inlet. Ravencroft is accessible only by boat or floatplane. The fishing for salmon, halibut, lingcod and rockfish is extremely good, plus Irish Cove offers calm water in its estuary setting with outstanding silver fishing and lots of pinks for light-tackle catch-and-release fun. You can catch silvers right off the beach in front of the lodge, too. In fact, Pete Young, who helps at the lodge, caught a 20-pound silver off the beach using a trout rod a few days before my visit. A pair of guest who just arrived as I was leaving couldn’t wait to go fishing, and they, too, promptly caught a nice silver from the beach. It made me wish that I had taken time to cast from shore instead of having a cup of coffee on the deck and enjoying the scenery before Otto picked me up for the day’s kayak fishing.

Rod and Laura Hodgin, who built this lodge on a former copper mining site in the middle of the Alaskawilderness, offer home-style meals, a large bunkhouse room for groups or individual rooms with shared bathroom facilities. They also have kayaks and open skiffs for guests with guided and unguided fishing. Fishing is done right in front of or within a few minutes of the lodge.

Valdez has salmon fishing year around, as there is a winter fishery for feeder king salmon for those that brave the ice and snow. However, it is the summer fishery for silvers that is its real attraction. Expect the best fishing to be around derby time, which runs from late July to early September. Halibut fishing is an added attraction in Valdez and has its own derby. The winning fish in 2006 weighed in at 343.6 pounds.

Salmon shark fishing is becoming a big attraction in Prince William Sound as well. These 300- to 500-pound relatives of great white and mako sharks gather by the thousands to feed on migrating pink salmon that number in the millions in Prince William Sound in July and August.

While most Alaskans and road-traveling tourist use the Richardson Highway to reach Valdez, it is a short flight from Anchorage for visitors on a tighter traveling schedule. Valdez is popular with RVers as well. It has 1,000 RV sites right near the harbor and marina. Lodging and dining is within walking distance of the marina. Popular restaurants are the Pipeline and the Alaska Bistro. The Totem Restaurant is a popular breakfast stop for locals and visitors. The Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn is right next to the marina. The Alaska Bistro with its marina and mountain view is located at the Valdez Harbor Inn.

Fishermen can get their catch filleted at the fish-cleaning station at the marina for a dollar a fish. Vacuum packing and freezing is available a few blocks away at Fish Central or Easy Freeze. Non-resident licenses are available at the Prospector and Hook, Line and Sinker, as well as many of the more than one dozen charter operations in Valdez.

Doug Wilson is a contributing photographer for Fish Alaska magazine; he has a feature and images on the Southeast port of Wrangell coming up in February.