Sitka DIY Article & Photos by George Krumm
Doing Time in the Sitka Silver Mine
One of the definitions of the word “mine” is: a rich source of supply. In that regard, it seems that Alaska is a fish mine for many, with plentiful fish available to harvest and enjoy. Certain species are more plentiful than others. For example, Chinook salmon are the largest but least abundant of all salmon in North America. They are arguably the most desired by sport anglers. However, they’ve been at a period of low abundance for the past several years. Pink salmon are the smallest and most numerous. However, they’re the least desired. Perhaps it’s their size, or that their meat is not as rich or as deeply colored as other species. Coho salmon strike an interesting balance. They’re not as large as Chinook but are larger than pinks. Their fat content is not as high as a Chinook’s, but the meat is flavorful and richly colored. Coho are much more numerous than Chinook, but not as numerous as pinks. Coho are hard-fighting and capable of reaching 20 pounds, though the average fish will likely be in the 7- to 10-pound range. In many saltwater ports in Alaska, a generous daily bag limit of six coho per person per day with no annual limit means anglers can harvest a fair quantity of salmon even on a short trip, if they can find them. For anglers looking for great sport, great eating, and an abundant harvest, coho just might be viewed as the mother lode of salmon in many saltwater ports due to their quality, both on the table and on the line, combined with their abundance. Sitka sits smack-dab in the middle of the west coast salmon superhighway. It’s a fantastic place to mine for silver salmon.
My sister, Delores Krumm of Portland, Oregon, cousin Tom Krumm from Anaconda, Montana, and I flew into Sitka on August 21st. The weather forecast looked great for the next several days with seas between two- and five feet and light winds. This was my second DIY trip to Sitka last summer. The first trip was earlier in the year—June—targeting kings and halibut. I found the fishing as well as the equipment and service provided by Fish Baranof to be so perfect for a great DIY fishing experience that I just had to try it again, targeting coho. Despite not being an expert in the Sitka angling scene, we did quite well and had a most enjoyable experience.
Day one found us trolling with downriggers northwest of Vitskari Rocks. Anticipation was high, but after a couple hours of trolling all we’d managed was a single pink salmon. We released that fish and decided to head out towards St. Lazaria Islands. Upon arrival, the fishfinder showed lots of fish. We again dropped the lines down and trolled, but unfortunately, what we encountered were large numbers of small, suspended rockfish. After an hour or so of constantly releasing rockfish and redeploying the gear, we decided to move out to Cape Edgecumbe.
As we approached the Cape, we could see a large number of boats working the area, including commercial trollers as well as private and charter boats. Most were trolling, but a few of the charter boats were mooching. We dropped the gear down and began trolling north. Less than five minutes into our troll, the first fish yanked the line out of the downrigger release and the rod tip popped skyward, then was yanked down and line peeled from the reel. It turned out to be a small king which we released without netting. We continued trolling with the fleet and though we didn’t experience hot action, we did put four coho in the box, and released maybe twice that many pinks. Most of the fish were caught at 60 feet of depth in water from 200-to 300 feet deep.
Struggling to find good numbers of coho, we decided to drop the hook to try for halibut. I motored to the coordinates of a spot in 210 feet of water that had produced limits of halibut in June. Tom and Delores deployed bait rods while I chose to jig. Their gear consisted of typical halibut bait rods, Daiwa Tanacom 750 electric reels, spreader bars with 16 ounces of lead, and a bait rig consisting of two 10/0 J-hooks snelled on 135-pound-test Izorline First String. An eight-inch, luminous hoochie, size 6 luminous Corky, and a scent chamber filled with Pro-Cure Butt Juice Super Gel rode on the line above the J-hooks, and we skewered herring and chunks of pink salmon onto the hooks. We then slathered the entire thing in Pro-Cure’s Butt Juice Bait Oil. We call this rig “The Reaper” because halibut are nearly always hooked and landed when they bite it. I jigged with a Daiwa Harrier X model HRX66HB with a Daiwa Saltist 35H reel and 65-pound-test Daiwa J-Braid x8 Grand line. My jig of choice was an eight-ounce lead-head jig with a luminous, eight-inch Berkley PowerBait Saltwater Grub with a liberal coating of Butt Juice Super Gel. I hoped eight ounces would be heavy enough; turns out it was. Unfortunately, a couple hours’ effort only produced two small halibut (20- and 25 pounds).
Sitka coho and halibut DIY
I was expecting limits or near limits of coho, limits of halibut, and maybe a bonus king. We didn’t even come close, and I motored back to the dock with my tail between my legs and the gears in my mind spinning ideas for the next day.
For our second day, I felt a big change in location might be helpful, so we motored southwest to the inside of Biorka Island. Our game plan was to fish the morning for salmon, then head outside of Biorka to try for halibut. Once again, we were unable to find big numbers of coho. There were lots of fish around; it’s just that the majority were pink salmon. We tried a lot of depths, and due to the number of pinks we were encountering, we chose not to use herring and instead trolled Silver Horde Coho Killer spoons smeared with Pro-Cure Herring Super Gel behind Pro-Troll 11-inch flashers, also smeared with Herring Super Gel. We used both Pro-Troll ProChip and HotChip flashers. We didn’t notice either flasher style being more effective than the other at this fishery. The Herring Aide and Black Two-Face Double Glow UV Coho Killer both worked well. We ended up putting several coho in the box, released three times that many pinks, and kept a few pinks to use for halibut bait.
We headed outside in the early afternoon and anchored at coordinates given to me by Joel Martin of Fish Baranof in Sitka. This hole was in 350 feet of water. I didn’t have a clue as to how much current we’d be dealing with as I’d never fished halibut at this location. It turned out to be mild; I was able to jig my eight-ounce lead-head jig throughout the tide. Tom and Delores rigged up with the Reaper. It didn’t take long for the first fish to bite. It bit one of the bait rigs. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a large yelloweye rockfish. Since yelloweye can’t be kept in this area, I had a short, but heavy rod rigged with a Shelton’s Fish Descender (SFD) and three pounds of weight. I attached the rockfish to the descender and attempted to lower it back down to the bottom. Turns out three pounds of weight isn’t enough to sink a bloated, 14-pound yelloweye. It took five pounds of weight to effectively send the big rockfish back down to the depths. This was a significant time and energy killer; it’s no fun to retrieve five pounds of weight from over 300 feet of water. Fortunately, the halibut showed up and we filled our limits with fish from 25- to 60 pounds in a couple hours.
Feeling good about our halibut results, we decided to troll north along Biorka Island for salmon as we’d seen a few commercial trollers working the area. We managed a few more coho and a Chinook of 15 pounds for our effort. Halibut fishing was great, but we only brought back 10 coho, eight fish shy of a boat limit. We then headed back to port to process our fish.
Since we did a little bit better on day two, we decided to return to Biorka on day three. It was nearly a repeat of the previous day. After fishing the inside of Biorka, landing half a dozen silver salmon and three times that many humpies, we headed outside to our halibut spot. Unfortunately, there was a boat on it. There was another hole about ¾ of a mile further out, but there was a boat anchored there as well. I looked at the charts and found similar structure and depth a short run to the north and we anchored there. We put two halibut in the box in short order, but then caught three big yelloweyes in succession. We descended them, attaching the SFD to one of the bait rigs with the Tanacom electric reel. This saved a lot of time and energy as the electric reel retrieved the five pounds of lead with the push of a button. We moved, and again landed on yelloweye. We moved again, and the third time was indeed the charm. This spot produced the rest of our halibut limits with fish to 70 pounds.
We again trolled north on the outside of Biorka and caught three more silvers before heading back to port.
Our fourth day of fishing proved a little more challenging as a stiff wind blew out of the southwest and it rained hard all day. With the wind limiting where we could go (the outside halibut grounds would be a no-go), we fished inside of Biorka, and eventually worked a little east to Hanus Islet. This area had a few small charter boats and private boats working it. It was also somewhat protected from the southwest winds, and lots of fish were showing on the fish finder at depths from 30- to over 90 feet deep. We caught a lot of salmon, but as had been the trend, the vast majority were pinks. We found in time that we caught more silver salmon and fewer pinks the deeper we fished, with most of our coho caught between 60- and 90 feet on the downriggers. We also found that a green, splatter-backed Ace-Hi Fly adorned with a sliver of herring and slathered in Herring Super Gel was attractive to coho, but the pinks didn’t seem to like it as much as they did the Coho Killer spoons. Delores hooked a good Chinook on the Ace-Hi Fly, too, but after five minutes of heavy battle, the 30-pound-test leader broke. We finished the day with nine coho and a bright chum in the box, plus a legal-sized ling that took a Coho Killer; not too shabby on a bad-weather day.
The weather forecast around Sitka for our fifth day wasn’t any better. The stiff southwest wind was still blowing at about 15 knots, limiting our choices. We headed straight out to Hanus Islet, knowing we’d be able to fish there. There were about a dozen boats working the area when we arrived. Trolling deep, we landed eight coho, at least twice that many pinks, and lost another king. We weren’t planning on doing any halibut fishing, but we had the gear with us and around noon, it seemed the wind had diminished some. We decided to poke our nose around the northwest corner of Biorka to see if it was fishable outside, and it was. We headed to one of our holes in 350 feet of water and a 25-pounder inhaled my jig a few minutes after we started fishing. Strangely, we didn’t get another bite for 45 minutes. We were contemplating a move when the halibut found us, apparently drawn to the scent field put out by our baits and the chum bag. It wasn’t fast and furious; rather, it was steady. In time, the bloody water washing out of the in-floor fish box attracted a seven-foot salmon shark. It patrolled around the boat, sometimes nosing right up to where the bloody water oozed out of the boat. Thankfully, the shark didn’t attack any of the halibut we brought up. A gull floated nearby, hoping for a handout. I watched it as I jigged. For reasons known only to the gull at the time, it hopped out of the water, hovering three- or four feet above the surface and looking down at the water. I thought to myself, “That’s odd behavior.” Suddenly, the shark erupted through the surface, half its body airborne as it tried to eat the gull! The gull wheeled away before the shark could grab it and landed 20 yards distant. If I was the gull, I think I’d have put a little more distance than that between myself and the shark. Despite my doubts, the shark didn’t attack the gull again.
Delores landed a fish of 60 pounds or so; we only had one to go. Tom hooked a fish that turned out to be a twin of Delores’s. After subduing it, Delores and I began to wind in our lines. As mine approached the surface, it was clear that she and I were tangled. I had her push the stop button on the Tanacom and began to work on the tangle. She still had about 50 feet of line out.
My line was wrapped around hers two or three times and her line had worked its way into the corkscrew swivel to which my jig was attached. I created some slack in her line to try to get the line out of the corkscrew, when suddenly the line was yanked from my hand! It seemed to be happening in slow motion as I saw the slack 80-pound braid loop around my pinky finger at the first joint. In that split second, I knew I was going to lose the end of that finger. Was it the shark that grabbed her oversized bait? Or had a big halibut followed it up from the depths? Regardless, the line cut into my finger, slicing as a heavy but unknown quantity pulled, the line becoming alarmingly tight around my pinky. I yelled for help; but there was nothing anyone could do. In less than two seconds from the time the fish took the bait, it was over. The braid broke, and I kept my finger. Talk about lucky.
That evening I stood at one of the Fish Baranof cleaning tables, fillet knife in hand, slimed and bloodied up to both elbows; my usual evening pose in Sitka. Delores and Tom were shuttling fillets up to the chamber-vac machines, then over to our assigned chest freezer in the back of the Fish Baranof office. Our chest freezer was nearly full. Another day of halibut and salmon fishing would likely result in way more fish than we could reasonably use in a year’s time. I considered what to do for our last day of fishing and decided we’d head up to Salisbury Sound for a change of scenery to fish for black rockfish and perhaps a ling or two.
We headed north out of Sitka, enjoying the pristine rainforest scenery through Olga Strait, then through Neva Strait and into Salisbury Sound. We attempted to fish some rocky pinnacles in the middle of the Sound, but the east wind had us drifting too fast. We attempted to control our drift with the motor, but though we were able to keep our lures close to the bottom, we were still drifting too fast. With no lings to show for the effort, we left the pinnacles and fished nearer to shore on the north side of Kruzof Island along the kelp beds. Black rockfish were numerous, and we were having a ball catching them in 20- to 40 feet of water with light gear, Daiwa SK jigs, and Chasebait Ultimate squids rigged on lead heads. Since we were fishing so shallow, it was safe to release the small ones while looking for a higher grade of fish to fill our three-per-person rockfish limits. We landed at least 50 black rockfish, and we released a few big quillbacks, copper rockfish and a China rockfish. As a bonus, Tom caught a really nice cabezon on a Chasebait Ultimate Squid. Cabezon are hard fighters, and when this one started ripping line off Tom’s reel, I wrongly thought it would be a decent ling. Cabezon are a uniquely flavored fish. They eat a lot of crabs, and that probably has a lot to do with it. With our rockfish and the bonus cabezon on board, we returned to port tired, but happy.
We’d been mining the waters inside and outside of Sitka Sound for the past several days and the bounty of coho, rockfish, halibut and the occasional king we’d harvested would easily meet our fish needs for the next year. No, we didn’t once limit the boat on coho, but we did catch four of the five species of Pacific salmon native to the west coast, along with numerous halibut and other bottomfish. This do-it-yourself (DIY) trip based out of Sitka with Fish Baranof is an excellent way to experience some of the best Alaska saltwater sportfishing there is. The package deal provided us with rooms at the Totem Square Hotel & Marina, a well-outfitted Hewescraft 21-foot Sea Runner, and of course the use of the chamber vacuum sealers and a chest freezer. For DIY saltwater anglers with first-hand saltwater boating experience, and who relish DIY adventures, Fish Baranof in Sitka is a tremendous option. It is getting popular; I recommend booking at least a year in advance.
This article originally appeared as Doing Time in the Sitka Silver Mine in the June 2021 issue of Fish Alaska.