Into The Great, Wide Open: The Ultimate Alaskan Fishing Trip
Through the windshield, I watched the de Havilland’s front propellor spin furiously as our small 8-person prop plane hurtled forward through the Alaskan sky. It was a bright, clear morning, and below us I could make out the outlines of a few of the small islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago.
Looming in front of us was one of the island chain’s biggest island, Prince of Wales Island, home to a smattering of Native American villages, remote logging outposts, more black bears than there are humans, and a former salmon cannery now turned Alaska’s premier fishing resort, Waterfall Resort Alaska, my home for the next four days. Here I would be fishing, an activity I had once sworn off back in my teenage years, an era of my life when the thought of long stretches of time spent doing nothing surrounded by nature would have been considered torture. Lucky for me, my outlook on life had since changed.
“Welcome to Waterfall Resort,” a staff member said, greeting us after our plane landed and motored to the dock. “Your bags are being brought to your rooms directly. Please head to the cannery at the top of the ramp to pick up your slickers so we can get you out on the water as soon as possible!”
And with that we were ushered into a room crammed from floor to ceiling with rows of yellow slickers where we were fitted with gear that would be ours for the duration of our stay. As I stepped into a pair of galoshes and pulled on a pair of the oversized, yellow pants with over-the-shoulder suspenders, I wondered if I would evoke the image of the classic sailor that graced the front of the Gorton’s Fish Sticks boxes I used to love as a kid. As I pulled the suspenders over my head, I realized I had put the pants on backwards, resulting in the crossed suspenders nearly choking me. A staff member rushed to my aid and helped me to put on the pants properly. Needless to say, grizzled fisherman I was not.
News to me upon arriving, a good portion of Alaska — that section referred to as Southeast Alaska — is actually made up of about 1,100 islands that span a 300-mile stretch of coastline bordering British Columbia to its east, an embarrassing admission to make for someone that prides himself on his sense of direction and knowledge of world geography. Due to the island’s many freshwater lakes and streams that feed into the protected island channels — and therefore prime spawning locations — it is here where sport fishermen from around the world flock for some of the best salmon fishing in the world.
A half-hour later, myself and three other fishermen, along with our assigned fishing captain, Captain Mitch, were floating alongside the shores of Baker Island, dropping our lines into the cool Pacific water, hoping to attract the attention of a school of silver salmon grouped below us.
I learned alot about Captain Mitch over the next few days — let’s just say fishing far from any cell towers lends one to share many life stories. I learned Captain Mitch was a retired aviation mechanic who used to work at the Boeing headquarters in Seattle, that Captain Mitch, since retirement, has been asking his wife permission to lead boating expeditions here at Waterfall and that she’s said “yes” for the past 20 years, that Captain Mitch drinks black coffee in the morning, eats fried chicken for lunch, and Skypes with his wife every night before going to sleep around 8 p.m., and that Captain Mitch’s mascot is Papa Smurf, a nickname given to him due to his grey beard, less-than-wirey stature, and the fact that he’s the captain of the entire fleet. As a present, the staff gave him a small Papa Smurf doll that now dutifully hangs above the steering wheel. We were in good hands.
“Drop to 50 feet and reel up!” Captain Mitch instructed with the conviction of a man clearly experienced in minimizing the time needed to start catching fish.
I did as I was told, and just a few drops later, I felt a tug, followed by a hard pull on the end of my line as the fish worked to free himself free of my hook.
“Work the line up, lifting and reeling at the same time, then dropping your tip down back to the water!” Captain Mitch advised, clearly observing the ineptitude I was displaying after the bite.
As I reeled in, the adrenaline hit me, and I could feel the envious eyes of the others on me. Pulling the end of the line close to the beginning of the reel, an 8-pound coho salmon (more commonly referred to as a silver salmon) suddenly appeared thrashing on the water surface. Captain Mitch told me to guide it to the boat’s edge, where in one quick motion he leaned over, grabbed the line, pulled the fish into the air, and whacked it on the head with the back of his gaff, stunning it temporarily, then hooking it and pulling it into the boat. My first catch of the trip.
And with that, I began to “get it.” Simpler than any cliched Hemingway-esque metaphor between man and beast, I experienced the pure sport of fishing, and the excitement that comes with wresting a large fish from the depths of the water with only a thin pole and a bit of bait, a surprising feeling for someone that abhors the thought of hunting land animals.
Captain Mitch flung my trophy into the large cooler in the center of the deck and re-baited my line. The others had quickly gone back to dropping and reeling in their own lines in search of the next catch. We had several hours of daylight left in the day, and little time to dwell on my first catch.
Mornings start early out on the water. The next day, having woken, showered, and eaten a quick breakfast, we were leading the way out of the docks at 6:30 a.m. sharp, the Alaskan early morning sun already high above the horizon after emerging more than an hour earlier. This morning we were heading 1 ½ hours south to the open expanse at the tip of Dall Island where the nutrient-rich, cold waters of the ocean meet the warmer waters of the archipelago’s many inlets. Here we were in search of the prized halibut.
For those like myself who, prior to this trip, wouldn’t have been able to describe the difference in shape and size between a halibut and a salmon, the halibut is a flat-faced, diamond-shaped bottom feeder with a complexion matching that of army camouflage. They are also hard to find, one of the tastiest fish to eat, and notorious for putting up some of the hardest battles with fishermen in the sea.
After motoring to a spot Captain Mitch favored, we dropped our lines down 100 feet to the ocean floor and quickly located a school. Minutes later I had a bite. Rather than the side-to-side thrashing I had experienced with the salmon the day before, when the halibut bit, I felt an initial tug, then an immediate yank downward as the fish seemed to flatten out in protest, using the principles of water displacement to its advantage.
In reality, halibut just grow to be really huge. Several fisherman during my time there caught ones weighing over 100 pounds, and record-setting catches often exceed 300 pounds (the weight limit currently stands at 300 pounds, which means those truly large catches are thrown back in the water with the assurance they will end their life due to natural circumstances courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game).
My first and only halibut of the day put up a hard fight, my forearms throbbing by the time I pulled it up after 15 minutes of constant reeling and pulling. As Captain Mitch yanked it aboard, I was intrigued by its alien-like bulbous eyes situated unevenly on its head — apparently there’s not much to look at on the seafloor — and its scaly, green body, nothing like I imagined it would look like having eaten plenty of the delectable white fillets at respectable restaurants throughout my life.
Current limits set the daily haul at one halibut per fisherman per day. After we all successfully caught one each, we headed back to shallower water where we were able to whittle away the rest of the morning and early afternoon until we caught our boat maximum of 24 salmon (6 each per day), leaving plenty of time to motor back to the resort with enough daylight left in the day for me to finally explore its grounds.
Shortly after lunch, I was on my way to start exploring the resort when I was stopped by an excited member of one of the other boats.
“If you go now, you may still see the bear!” he said, pointing backward in the direction of the hill where the dining hall was located.
Not one to miss out on wildlife sightings, especially those involving animals that could potentially eat me at their whim, I hightailed it forward. Unfortunately for me — though fortunate for perhaps my physical health — said spotted black bear was nowhere to be found, replaced instead by a disinterested fawn grazing on a patch of grass.
I snapped a picture with my phone and continued on. At the top of the hill I took stock of the resort below me. Waterfall can date its history back to when the Waterfall Cannery was founded in 1911. Over the years, as it grew, the cannery added housing units for the workers (now cabins used for the guests), along with massive wooden structures to house the cannery itself. At its peak, the cannery produced 220,000 cases of silver salmon. Today, the complex has been converted into the state’s largest sport fishing resort (it’s also home to the state’s largest private boat fleet), welcoming over 2,000 guests a year.
The bulk of the 52-acre property is undeveloped forest, part of the Tongass National Forest, where the dense growth and mossy underbrush makes it hard to explore by foot. For that reason, an elevated wood bridge was built to allow visitors to explore inland to the namesake waterfall where the resort gets its name.
After a short walk along the beach, then onto said bridge for a half-hour trip inland, I finally emerged at a clearing in the forest that revealed the massive, multi-story-high waterfall. Fed by a slow-moving stream above, I lost track of time as I listened to the sound of the falling water and watched the hypnotic show the water produced as it trickled its way down.
The pool of water at the base of the waterfall is the final stop for many salmon who are born here, and who end up returning to die here after an arduous trip upstream to finally spawn at the very spot where they started their lives. Naturally, the bears know this, and on most days you can spot groups of bears and cubs as they congregate below in search of an easy meal. Today, however, there were no bears, only a sole brave photographer standing knee-deep in water, shooting the falls from below.
Returning back to camp, I headed to dinner at the dining hall. The tables are grouped by boat members and the day’s biggest catches by fish are announced at the end of the meal, with winners awarded commemorative hats (and patches for those with catches exceeding certain limits). Following dinner, as per ritual, most everyone retreats to the Lagoon Saloon, Waterfall’s sole drinking establishment where both guests and workers can congregate over local Alaskan brews and share fish stories from the day.
Late the next morning, after another successful haul of silvers that saw us creeping near our day’s limit by lunchtime, the blue sky that had blessed us since our arrival began to give way to a thin, grey overcast. Word around camp was that we had some “weather” rolling in, with rain and wind predicted to pick up considerably just in time for our departure.
“What happens if the weather is bad enough the planes can’t fly us out tomorrow?” I asked Captain Mitch.
“If they can’t fly, then we boat you out,” he replied, not looking up as he looped a fresh piece of bait onto a hook. “And if we can’t boat you out, you get to stay another day. But that’s only happened a couple times since I’ve been here, and I’ve been working here for over 20 years.” He paused, for dramatic effect. “Trust me, you’ll make your flights tomorrow.”
His response clearly indicated that the logistics surrounding the departure of close to a hundred people and their respective boxes of fish would revolve around the question of “how” rather than “if”; either we were leaving by plane or we were leaving by fishing boat flotilla, piloted by a fleet of captains who had spent their fair share amount of time navigating in disagreeable conditions.
“I’ve got one more spot I wanted to show you guys,” Captain Mitch informed us as we pulled up our lines. “Are you up for a bit of driving?”
A half hour later we were motoring out in the direction of the open ocean, the island masses spread out behind us. We veered north, skating around the pointy cape at the southernmost tip of Baker Island, then steered toward land, finally coming to a stop in a quiet cove surrounded by towering cliffs.
“Allright, I’ve gotten reports that the halibut are biting here. Let’s drop down 150 feet and see if we can catch our limit for the trip. I’ve also heard we may have other visitors around here.”
Visitors? I assumed he meant other fishermen eager to get in on our prime halibut spot. Minutes later after dropping our lines, we discovered what he meant.
Off the starboard side of the boat, halfway between our tiny vessel and the nearby coast, we heard a tremendous exhale, followed by the release of a massive spray of water blowing into the sky. Suddenly, the black head of a humpback whale breached the surface of the water, its gigantic body following behind in a tremendous arc, finishing with its fluke sweeping upwards towards the sky before its entire body dove back down below.
By this point most of us had little use for fishing rods, and we had lunged for our cameras that we were now clicking away with. For the next half hour, as we floated in place and took shot after shot, we were treated to a show as two other humpbacks joined in and fed in our little cove. Circles of bubbles would appear from below — the whales do this to cause fish to congregate for easier hunting — followed by breach after breach of the whales as they scooped up schools of tiny fish in their mouths.
After a short while, the whales began to finish hunting and swam away into the ocean. By this time the sky had turned a dark grey, the temperature had dropped precipitously and a cold rain had begun to fall. We broke out the yellow slickers that we had little use for the days before. We packed up our gear for the day, and took stock of our catch.
In total, our boat had caught over 50 silver salmon, 8 halibut, and a several pink salmons, rockfish and lingcods. Incredibly, this meant we would each be flying home with over 50 pounds of fish the next day via insulated luggage containers (each night our daily catch was cleaned, vacuum sealed and marked for eventual shipping home with us). Though unusual for mementos, I couldn’t think of anything better I would’ve wanted to take home with me to remember this ultimate fishing trip in Alaska.
Matt Stabile is based in New York City, and is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner which was founded in 2008. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.