Article by Melissa Norris / Photos by Brian Woobank & Melissa Norris
Variety is the spice of life, they say, and I have enjoyed that concept over the years visiting many cool places and quality outfitters around Alaska as publisher of Fish Alaska. But after a trip by myself scouting out Kodiak Legends Lodge the previous summer, I knew it would make a great location to gather the crew.
Setting the Stage
It’s not just one thing that keeps me coming back to this locale. There are several reasons Kodiak Legends Lodge is special. The first is nature. The second and third are too. Larsen Bay, Alaska, is a place where mountains collide into the sea to create protected bays teaming with life. Kodiak Legends’ captains will plant you smack in the middle of thick schools of rockfish, growing populations of lingcod, healthy runs of Chinook, massive slabs of halibut, and voracious gargantuan silvers in a stunning backdrop; then they’ll deep dive for buttery tanner crab that you can gorge on back at the Crab Shack. This is enough to get me here even without all the amenities.
This area on the western side of Kodiak Island offers protected fishing grounds where the elevation surrounding Uyak Bay discourages wind and weather. A salty dog with a bit of a sea-legs problem, this is the center stage I seek. Not that I let a little terrestrial motion sickness deter me from my pescatarian quest. One of the best compliments my brother gives me straight from his heart is when he says, “For someone who gets so seasick, I sure do see you on a lot of saltwater boats.” What’s a little puking among friends for halibut’s sake?
The truth is feeling seasick is miserable and there are open bays in Alaska where I get queasy no matter what, but Uyak Bay isn’t one of them. Chad tells me it’s because we came during the only nice weather they had last summer. Chad is the lodge manager. He knows a lot of stuff but I think he must be jaded. It was bright blue skies, glass seas, warm sunshine and the fishing was good. Isn’t it always like that on Kodiak Island? Although fish often react adversely to what fishermen want from the bright sun, we managed to pull up plenty of the sought-after quarry and the intensity of the floodlight overhead illuminated the fish for some incredible underwater footage captured by our main photo/video rockstar, Brian.
For our fishing debut onboard the 35-foot Armstrong catamaran captained by Rafe, one of my favorite humans, we sought halibut for the fish boxes. Among our purposes for this visit was to load up with each of our families’ bottomfish quota for the year. We eat the fish we harvest and only take what we need. That’s our philosophy, which also happens to be synonymous with the lodge’s way of thinking, and that’s why we all agreed to release big fish. That’s another major reason I love to visit here. That conservative-harvest point of view, met with simply great friends, is a winning combo. Chad and Rafe are both dear friends after working with them and getting to know them over the years. Chad is one of the good guys and Rafe is the guy who will make you wet your pants laughing, while still being highly effective and useful.
The cerulean sky was awash with expressive white brush strokes in the vast arena. The no-foot swells were serenity to my eyes and stomach. Those who get their hands dirty started scurrying about. Deckhand Natasia, aka “Tash”, started cutting herring. Then she and Captain Rafe got all up in the chum bag. Marcus’s Butt Juice found its way on deck. In a matter of minutes all things smelly were sunk deep, ready to attract even the pickiest of flatfish.
Halibut fishermen know the stankier the better to coax fish to the boat. Noise, electricity and other fish also beckon wandering halibut. And my brother on a jigging rod does too. “Anyone want to jig?” Rafe asks. We all look at Marcus because…we know he wants to jig. In fact, he is already setting up a two-piece Santiam travel jigging rod he brought. You can bet anytime he is aboard a saltwater vessel he has a gear bag full of invitations with sharp points he wants to send down to the ocean floor and lift a few feet, enticingly. It’s a fish-fry party and the halibut are invited.
The bright light above didn’t concern the halibut at a depth of around 80 feet because pretty soon one found itself being winched up from the ocean floor, gargling bait until its fate ended with a quick dispatch from the yellow bat. Chad had started the steady action, landing that first eater-sized halibut, then the rest of us got in on the action. Rafe and Tash were busy making an ice/seawater slurry, employing best fish-care practices while we all added halibut to the cooler. After a bit they pulled anchor, Rafe in the captain’s chair, while we piled in the cabin to make haste to a couple of charted spots for black rockfish, lingcod and other rockfish. We all agreed it was a good first day that resulted in many perfectly packaged fish fillets in the freezer.
We headed back to an unbelievable dinner by Chef Daniel Black, AKA Chef Digger. It started with a spicy beet salad with roasted heirloom carrots, followed with rockfish served with a coconut-ginger-lemongrass broth, and for dessert a berry sorbet. It is top-of-the-line dining and comfort at Kodiak Legends Lodge.
The next morning our agenda started with a plan to drop crab pots and more great weather. The ocean floor in Larsen Bay is dotted with Tanner crab, a delicate and buttery-tasting crab that cannot be beat eaten fresh from the ocean. This place is a seafoodie’s heaven. We were excited to film a “How to Tanner Crab” video seminar with Rafe for our upcoming Think Outside: Virtual Outdoor Show, or TOVOS as we call it among the magazine staff. TOVOS is going into its third year, and it will go live on April 1 for 30 days of seminars, exhibitors and prizes. Plus, the lodge had been field testing a crab-pot puller by EZ-Puller for our spring Annual Gear Guide. Chad and Rafe had good things to say about the EZ-HT2 Pot Puller and I was looking forward to seeing it in action. In no time they had the trap filled with bait and weight to keep it down and tossed it overboard while one-take Rafe nailed his spiel in about 90 seconds. We were going to let that puppy soak overnight and retrieve it at the end of the following day hoping we would reveal enough legal-sized tanners to fill our bellies. On to fishing!
Day two was a scripted saltwater day of perfection written purposefully for Marcus, Brian and me. The action was steady. Everyone was getting what they needed from the beautiful halibut (my favorite) to the healthy lingcod (Marcus’s favorite) to the incredible weather (everyone’s favorite) and the underwater world that was producing some really outstanding video footage (Brian’s favorite). As much as we enjoy the fishing, camaraderie and the fruitful outcome for our freezers, we also enjoy producing good media and that’s exactly what we did. Make sure you go check out our online issue this month and watch some of the footage. In one shot, Brian captured a second halibut going for a jig Marcus already had hooked in another halibut’s mouth. Another clip captures young badass Tash harpooning her first halibut.
The day continued on like a blockbuster movie with twists and turns and interesting moments that kept us all involved. At one point, Marcus hooked a large halibut and it seemed an octopus had hitched a ride to the surface. We all had some theories on what happened. What we realized later, when looking at the footage, was that the halibut had actually regurgitated the octopus and it got snagged on the jig hook. It’s pretty cool to watch!
Late in the day, chance delivered the movie’s climax. Marcus hooked up to what you could tell was a good-sized fish. After a battle of the wills with my brother, the halibut came into view next to the boat and the speculation ensued. Is it one hundred pounds became the question. It’s challenging to gauge the size of underwater fish from up above but with our collective years of experience we put it close to 100. That’s when the talk started about whether to keep or release it. It is easy for even the most conscientious sportsman to get a little bloodthirsty when fish like this are caught. I am not casting any stones—the thought crossed my mind too, especially since I ran out of halibut last January. Thankfully, one of my dearest friends saw fit to rescue me and sent me 20 pounds of halibut to get me through to spring.
The discussion continued. Was it really 100 pounds? A 90-pound halibut is fair game to this group of conservation-minded providers. We have mouths to feed. The time stamp ticked 2:51. We all agreed we had to let this fish go. We had plenty of meat in the fish cooler for the day, including one beefy halibut around 75 pounds and several over 40. We try to live by example. And neither Rafe nor I wanted to look Chad in the eye if we killed this fish. I am proud to say it is their lodge policy to let big fish go back.
About that time Rafe and Marcus began the task of letting the massive halibut go. Its hulking head broke the surface prompting a dramatic dive back down into the briny deep. For a second time Marcus reeled up the big ‘but. This time the fish was tired and the guys efficiently unhooked the Kodiak Custom Bottom Fish Jig that is among Marcus’s top tackle choices for bottomfish. It proves itself time and again. He landed 10 different species of bottomfish on this jig during this trip alone. I don’t know if that included the octopus that hitched a ride.
We were all happy with the choice we made to let the big halibut go. It was Marcus’s fish but we were all involved in the decision.
Kodiak Legends Lodge takes the same approach with yelloweye rockfish. You’re legally allowed to harvest one per angler, but the trophies get descended back. These fish are eager biters and they’re hard to release when their swim bladder inflates which makes overharvesting them easy. With an eye to the future, it isn’t worth killing them off. We chose to keep one eater-sized yelloweye rockfish that day and then released a massive old toad back the following day. It didn’t work the first time and we saw the fish floating, but we pulled it back in, descended it again and perseverance gave it life. Every saltwater-angling boat owner needs to know how to use a rockfish-descender tool properly, to carry one on board and use it. It’s the law.
With our cinematic day a wrap we headed back to the lodge eager to feast on more exquisite dining after we downloaded and reviewed the footage. Of course, we had to play cribbage. It was another great day, and the trip wasn’t over yet.
Over several meals in the main lodge, we had come to know a delightful father and daughter duo, Paul and Carry. Carry had surprised her dad with the trip to Kodiak Legends Lodge for the two of them for his 70th birthday present. We were happy to learn they would be joining us for our last day of fishing. He looked exactly like Santa, but they were both quite jolly and the day with them was as fun as we would have expected.
The weather lined up to be perfect yet again, to the point that Chad and Rafe decided we should try something different and head across Shelikof Strait towards Takli Island. It isn’t something they often do because it’s a big run—about 90 minutes each way. It’s not necessary because the fishing is so good close by and you don’t need to put guests through the long journey to get after some great fishing, but we’re an adventurous group and exploring is fun. Guests Paul and Carry were game.
Take me out of Uyak Bay into bigger water and my queasy rears its head. It was the perfect opportunity to field test the Reliefband Premier wrist band that sends signals to the brain via pulse technology to relieve many forms of nausea and motion sickness. But I am a stubborn Taurus, and I thought the blue-bird weather with the big-water catamaran was going to prove this fisherwoman to have grown a pair of salty sea legs. Nope. I had to suck wind off the back of the boat to calm my stomach while my band charged since I hadn’t prepared it. After a spell, the Reliefband was charged and I took advantage of any help I could get. The nausea hung with me a little but not enough to put me down and keep me off the deck as my final curtain call.
We tried a couple spots out in deep water for bottomfish. We kept getting pushed off our spot by wind, but we caught a wide variety of nice fish and then headed back to Larsen Bay because we had to pull crab pots. It was the moment of truth as the EZ Puller cranked, reducing back pain for at least a couple of folks on board. While the puller churned, stories of crab thieves were whispered on deck. I rarely feel anxious, but boy I wanted the crab so bad, and we had to deliver for our video. The trap broke the surface and glory be! What a sight to behold—creepy-crawly delicious crustaceans appear for the grand finale. The fellas set to task checking size and sex, keeping only legal males. A bucket got filled. We boated to the second pot and the haul was even better than the first. It’s the crown jewel fishing with Santa and his jolly mini me, bringing in pots of crab for us to overeat, and producing the good media we came to make.
We are already on the books for next year, the third week in June. It should be primetime for kings and we just love that. It’s a privilege to fly around Alaska and enjoy these moments of beauty with a special cast of characters we hold dear. If you want to experience the incredible beauty and bounty of this area with a couple great folks at the lodge and your own cast, give Chad a call at 907-847-3032. Be sure to check out all the cool video footage at fishalaskamagazine.com from this trip.
Publisher Melissa Norris has been happy to be on board many saltwater adventures over the 20 years since she co-founded the magazine, but this trip to Kodiak Legends Lodge will hopefully be perennial.