Story by Marcus Weiner
“I left at about noon for some trolling at one of my hotspots; had one on but never did see it,” writes Captain Jeff Peterson in his May 11, 2011, fishing report. “I put another herring on and about an hour later I pulled the downrigger up and released the line from the clip. I was thinking I would try this new lure that I had picked up at a show.
“I grabbed the new Seeker rod and started cranking the Accurate reel slowly, when I felt a slight resistance. I jerked and it got heavier. So I jerked harder.
“Up floated a king; it didn’t look big, but as it thrashed slowly on the surface, it sounded big! The fish never ran, letting me crank it right to the boat, where I whacked it on the head with a wooden gaff. That pissed it off and now it ran!
“I whacked it two more times when it came close, but it never did submit, so the next time I managed to bring the beast into range, I stuck it with the gaff!
“I was hooting and hollering, and damn near lost my voice! Yes! The Kodiak tuna are in!”
How about a 68-pound Chinook to get the blood pumping? Welcome to Old Harbor.
The village of Old Harbor sits on the southeast end of Kodiak Island, protected from the Pacific Ocean by Sitkalidak Island, about 40 air miles from the city of Kodiak. The area has been inhabited by the Alutiiq people for over 7,500 years and continues to provide a rich bounty of fish and game. The land is picturesque, from jagged peaks to expansive rolling green hills, stunning rock formations and ocean beaches.
Humpback, Orca, fin and gray whales migrate through the area, and a myriad of bird species return each year to nest. Marine mammals like seals and sea lions are abundant. Families, mostly Alutiiq, continue a tradition of subsistence hunting and fishing in the village. Many residents smoke, dry and pickle fish, harvest berries, gather seagull eggs, kelp, shellfish, sea urchins and octopus, and hunt for ducks, ptarmigan, goat, deer, seal and sea lion.
It’s a place where people know and help one another. And it’s internationally known for its great angling, trophy Chinook and world-class hunts.
Kings prowl Sitkalidak Strait all year, as feeder kings remain in the area’s baitfish-rich waters. May heralds the return of the big fish destined for other watersheds, as they venture near Old Harbor through feeding lanes. The largest Chinook of the year, fish in the 50- to 70-pound class, are traditionally caught in May and June, with quality fish available throughout the summer. It’s not uncommon for the largest fish of the year in all of Kodiak to be caught in Old Harbor.
In addition, anglers can readily find halibut, lingcod, true cod and rockfish of many species at different places throughout the fishing season. Silvers start returning in August, and I’d venture that a good day in late August might yield all the species available.
Jeff Peterson, native Alutiiq, 48-year resident of Old Harbor, former US Marine and Village Public Safety Officer, fishing and hunting fanatic, family man and both crazy and funny, runs Kodiak Combos (site). He’s one of the best king-trollers out there, spending at least 250 days per year on the water, most of them trolling but also taking the time to target cod andhalibut, as well as shooting deer, goats and ducks. He’s a lot of fun to fish with and has displayed an unrivalled, in-depth knowledge of the areas that he fishes.
On a past trip with Jeff, while trolling in a nondescript location, he commented that the kings would be found in a tight pattern, roughly a circle over this particular spot. He also said that if we were to stray outside of the circle then we would hit rockfish. No sooner did he make the statement then we doubled on kings. After landing the twin 25-pounders, we set the gear again but drifted outside the circle and doubled on rockfish. It’s this kind of intimate knowledge of the aqueous terrain that makes Peterson deadly.
Jeff’s business revolves around the combination of fishing and hunting opportunities that abound in the Old Harbor region. In April, May, June and July, Peterson targets big Chinook and halibut. In August and September, fishing revolves around king and silver salmon, lingcod, halibut and rockfish. Deer season opens August 1, so this is a great time to shoot a deer and also bring home a fish box of saltwater fillets. While hunting the area for blacktail in September 2009, we were able to land seven species of fish in one day, which included several fat kings. Now that’s a Kodiak combo.
In October, one is still able to catch kings, halibut and lings in the ocean and bright silvers in the rivers, and duck hunting opens on the first of the month. In November, duck hunters can start to find sea ducks in the bays and deer and goats on the mountains. Deer are usually in full rut. Saltwater anglers can still find an array of fish. In December and January, Peterson dedicates his time to king eider hunters, but reserves space for deer hunters and can find halibut and cod in deeper water.
Kodiak Combos accesses prime fishing and hunting grounds with two well-equipped boats, the 34-foot Ocean Roamer Fishy-Fishy and 26-foot SeaSport Refuge Rock. Both offer state of the art electronics, trolling equipment, fishing gear, a private bathroom and heated cabins. Both boats have been modified with stabilizers to allow for better trolling in rough seas.
Fish are bled and iced immediately upon hitting the deck, and Peterson fillets, vacuum packs and freezes your catch so that you can enjoy succulent seafood. This attention to detail yields fresh-tasting fish from the freezer year-round. I can’t understate that poor care of your catch will result in sub-prime quality fish, so always be sure to bleed and ice your fish after the catch and then get them in quality vacuum-sealed bags and frozen as quickly as possible.
Kodiak Combos is a family operation. Jeff’s son Garett runs the Refuge Rock and daughter Kelly is deckhand on the Fishy Fishy. Lianna Peterson, Jeff’s wife, manages both the business and The Old Harbor Lodge, and Jeff’s daughter Kathleen does the baking for the lodge. Peterson learned to fish and hunt from his father while growing up on Dad’s fishing boat, and owned his first boat at 13.
Guests stay at Peterson’s Old Harbor Lodge. Good friend Dave Calleja and I stayed there in May 2012 and found it to be spacious, comfortable and full of amenities. I really appreciated the view of the harbor from the living room, as it just fuels the desire to be out there trolling for huge kings. The property was remodeled in 2010 and boasts a full kitchen, wood stove, private bedrooms and bathrooms, laundry facilities and comfortable beds. Meals are included, and we appreciated the fine meals cooked by Lianna and the rest of the family. We enjoyed fresh seafood, steaks, chops and fine soups, as well as fresh produce and tasty deserts.
Access to Kodiak Island is most readily accomplished by flying on ERA Alaska from Anchorage to Kodiak. The trip is about an hour long, and there is a plentiful schedule of daily flights. We have worked with ERA Alaska for a decade and appreciate the airline’s commitment to serving many fishing destinations throughout the state. Look for a recent copy of Fish Alaska in the seatbacks of their planes.
After arriving in the city of Kodiak, your next plane ride will take you to Old Harbor. We recommend using Andrew Airways. We have flown with them all over the island, both on wheeled- and floatplanes, and have always appreciated their friendly attitudes, good pilots and excellent service. The flight from Kodiak to Old Harbor is about 30 minutes long and filled with glorious views of mountains, bays and wildlife.
I’d gone to Old Harbor to catch giant Chinook and hunt trophy blacktail deer and came away with a lot more than just fish and game. Modern life moves too quickly, in my opinion, and the sense of community is evaporating, as the digital world threatens to constrict the real one. Going to a remote village where everyone knows each other and shares a hand reinforces the core principles that I want my children to learn. Watching Jeff interact with his daughter and teaching her how to fish is symbolic of a way of life. Even though they live and operate in the modern world, there is a sense of respect and care for the natural one.
After returning from a long, cold day on the water last spring, Jeff’s father was outside working on the lodge. It brought me a smile that the man, now in his early seventies, who had taught his son to fish and hunt, was still there to help.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.
Born 2 Fish originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fish Alaska.