By Melissa Norris
The ancient village of Larsen Bay lays nestled in a stunning valley off a narrow fjord on the western coast of Kodiak Island. Just 60 miles southwest from the city of Kodiak, but accessible only by air or sea, the Alutiiq village overlooks Uyak Bay and is predictably rich in wildlife, offering travelers the chance to view deer, eagles and foxes, as well as the famous Kodiak brown bears. Once on the water, puffins, sea lions, sea otters and whales take center stage, witnessed up close and personal, of course, in their natural habitat.
It was late August when we went, and while the multitude of viewing options presented a pleasing diversion, it was really the region’s abundant silver salmon—and everything else swimming through the rich saltwater grounds—that caught our attention. Cheryl Kindwall, sporting-goods buyer for Fred Meyer, and Martha Petersen, the Fred Meyer liaison for Maurice Sporting Goods, a major distributor, joined me for this trip to Larsen Bay.
Named after Peter Larsen, an Unga Island fur trader, hunter and guide, the village is home to only 96 year-round residents, though Icicle Seafoods’ Larsen Bay plant brings an international population to the island for the summer months. Along with the cannery, commercial fishing and hunting- and fishing-tourism businesses account for the town’s remaining industry. The area has made national news precisely once—in 1991 when the Smithsonian Institution returned the remains of 756 Alutiiq people, originally excavated in the 1930s and dated from around 1000 B.C. to post-contact times. Reinterred in a mass grave, the burial marked the largest repatriation of Native remains ever conducted by the Smithsonian.
However, as is so often the case when visiting Kodiak Island during the peak of the angling season, any sense of history is swiftly trumped by the present chance to fish these bountiful waters. Cheryl, Martha and I arrived in Kodiak via an ERA Aviation flight and were immediately whisked away by a driver for Andrews Airways. They were to fly us to Larsen Bay in a wheel-plane stored at their airport location, but first we got a quick tour of the operation’s new office overlooking the bay, which is also the home of the floatplane fleet they use to fly people to points scattered across the island for their choice of fishing, hunting and bear-viewing excursions. Eventually on our way, we enjoyed a scenic flight to the village, even having the chance to see a few herds of goats scattered on the sides of the mountains.
Allen Walburn, the owner of Alaska’s Kodiak Island Resort, greeted us at the Larsen Bay airstrip to take us to the lodge.
“I hope you like dogs,” he said to me as I climbed into the backseat of his pickup. Fortunately, I am a big dog fan, and so I was happily introduced to “Bull,” a thirteen-year-old white pit bull who is Allen’s sidekick. We were offered a tour of the town that lasted all of five minutes. “There’s the post office,” he said. “There’s the school. It houses students from K-12.”
Arriving at the lodge we meet April, Allen’s lovely wife, and she took a moment to educate on the lunch-pail drill. We were then each assigned rooms and dispersed to plant bags and change to go fishing. The rooms were so comfortable that I immediately found myself impressed with the details that went into the décor. The linens are a good quality, mattresses comfortable and each room has a full high-board dresser and headboards on the double beds. I’ve been to the highest-end fishing lodge where there is a twin bed for you to crash in.
The cedar log home-style lodge is quintessential Alaskana and I admire the craftsmanship as I head out to meet our group to fish for the afternoon. We drive down to the beach where the boat will come pick us up. The captain, Joe Walburn, is already out on the water with guests Jen and Stan from Colorado. In a catamaran crafted by Allen Marine, an Alaska-based boat dealer in Sitka and Juneau, they beached the boat and opened the bow loader for us to climb aboard.
The first afternoon was a little slow as it was a sunny day with high wind and it was creating some chop in Shelikof Strait where we first anchored up. No harm, I had confidence that fishing would be good over the next couple days; one definite benefit to fishing this area is that if the water is rough from strong winds, there are other nearby places to fish that are protected by the coastal mountains and will inevitably feature calmer seas. Besides, with the blue skies, we were afforded an excellent view of the Aleutian Range.
Allen and Joe, a father and son team with 30 years experience running a successful charter business in Naples, FL, soon made the decision to relocate, and at this time, to change our focus as well.
“Caveman cookout?” Allen asked, and we quickly agreed, focusing our energy toward pulling crab pots.
That night we feasted on fresh out-of-the-ocean tanner crab, the most delicious I have ever had, accented by a light coleslaw and garlic bread. But first we were introduced to an original idea I had not seen before. Chef Shawn Martin, who went out of his way to prepare exquisite pescatarian food for me, made us a halibut bite similar to how you would see buffalo chicken, deep-fried bites dredged in tangy buffalo sauce. He also made a hoisin-flavored stlye and sweet chili. (Learn Shawn’s technique next month when this appears in the Fish Alaska recipe department.) Filled to the brim on good food and wine, we retired early knowing that the morning will require our bright eyes.
Waking up to pain perdue with warm peaches and cranberry butter with a side of blueberry compote, I caught myself thinking, “I could get used to this,” an all-too-common experience when visiting a fine Alaskan fishing lodge. After scarfing down too much food, we scrambled into our fishing clothes and ambled to the boat to see what the day of fishing would bring.
And at first it brought a 5-per-person limit of silvers for everyone, an extraordinary way to start the day. We both trolled and mooched for the ocean-bright coho, with more success on the trolling gear on this morning. I brought out some Mack’s Lures products that needed to be field tested for the annual gear review and we proceeded to slay them on one particular hootchie with flash. Then, lo-and-behold, Jen from Colorado boated a nice king—about 40 pounds, quite sizeable forthis area. Not bad for a gal on her first fishing trip.
Afterwards we mooched for halibut, two rods on downriggers, one with a flasher, one with a dodger, and everyone achieved their limit. These halibut were a nice-eating size with the average fish around 25 pounds, providing plenty of meat and the most delicious-tasting…which I already knew, but would have guessed anyway due to the antics of Bull the dog. Bull is an elderly dog and you can tell by the way she lays about a lot, until someone boats a halibut. Then it’s on. The dog goes crazy attacking the halibut. She doesn’t do any damage, but it is an amazing sight because she attacks no other fish that are brought on board.
We concluded with a nice bout of fishing for rockfish and lingcod then dropped the crab pot in anticipation of the next day. To round out our afternoon, Allen ran Martha, Cheryl and I to the Larsen Bay Mercantile to check things out. Of course, I was pleased to see the latest Fish Alaska for sale on their magazine rack, but the big hit of our excursion was witnessing a big boar brownie playing in the creek right in the center of town. We must have been 20 feet away from the hefty bruin, and as is so often the case with Kodiak browns during the height of the fish runs, he barely cared.
That evening, Chef Shawn blessed us with a six-course show of his capacity for culinary arts. From sushi and potstickers to halibut cheek carpaccio, the meal ended with molten lava cake topped in lavender cream and orange zest. (Clearly I have a recurring theme about food here, folks, but you know I’m obsessed).
The next day brought dreary weather with a light drizzle and high winds, making it difficult to troll but we still managed to pick up some silvers. Additionally, we all took turns bringing in yelloweye and countless other rockfish. There were a couple nice-sized ones and after a while we moved to a halibut spot where Cheryl brought on board a 50-pound flatfish.
One of my favorite parts about being with a group of people who don’t fish like this every day–or actually, who have never fished like this–is witnessing their unbounded excitement as fish after fish comes over the side of the boat. Even the ladies from the Pacific Northwest, who do some fishing for halibut and salmon, exclaim that there’s nowhere else with fishing approaching ours here in Alaska and Kodiak. “This is the saltiest experience I’ve had in a long time,” Cheryl went on. “The variety of fish in a three-mile radius blew me away.” Martha went further, commenting also on how impressed she was with the lodge and the hosts, as well as the terrific fishing.
The last day may have been the most fun of all. Although we were down half our crew and it was just Martha, Cheryl, and I with Captain Joe, we caught the silver fishing just right and Joe had us into the action in no time. With only a couple hours left until our Andrew Airways flight back to real life, we each limited out on silvers with varying technique. I had my largest silver of the trip, every bit of 15 pounds, take my jig as it was free-spooling down to the depths of the ocean floor. In a quick reaction I set the hook and flipped the bail to fight this fish to the boat.
Heading out to the airstrip for our departing flight we saw two male bears fishing in that same creek where we had seen the earlier bear. They bluff-charged each other and made all sorts of snorts to let the other know which was the dominant bear.
I can still hear Allen’s voice in my head, as he commented while watching the scene: “I just think Kodiak is so special. I really do.”
In the end, between the outstanding scenery, great fishing, fine food and accommodations, and excellent company, our experience at Kodiak Island Resort taught me one thing for sure: If catching a tremendous variety of the freshest fish Alaska offers in calm, protected seas while staying at a luxurious Alaska lodge, dining on amazing cuisine, all with the opportunity to see huge Kodiak brown bears right in the middle of town sounds like a trip for you, then give my buddy Allen a call and pick the dates that work for you.
Melissa Norris is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.