Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Alaska: Day 3.

We drove out to Sisters this morning beneath threatening skies but also facing beautiful snow-capped sunlit mountain tops in the distance. Sisters is apparently named for an underwater "landmark" of two flats 200 feet below the surface surrounded by a large area of 400-foot deep water. Another boat – not from our camp – was in the same spot where we anchored up. Fishing for halibut began along with a new feeling of, "I almost don't want to catch one." After my experience yesterday I knew what it meant to have to drag that thing to the surface. Thankfully, it's so thrilling you ALMOST forget how hard you're working. Dad brought up a big one first and I was glad to have the rush without the work, but shortly after that it was my turn.

It's incredible when these things not only resist your pull, but also take the extremely tight line on your reel OUT while you're trying to drag them in. In order to land this first fish (and many after I found out) I had sit on the handle of the rod, reel with my right hand and raise and lower with my left arm to gain any line while I struggled to bring it up. My rod tip was almost in the water while the center of the rod was at the highest point. Then I'd lean back and pull/lift, and when I couldn't bring it up any higher, I'd let it all back down slowly, keeping the line taught, while I reeled like hell. You do this about 100 times and then the thing surfaces and you about die at the size and pray that the guy with the shark hook can stab it in its jaw while the whole mess of line and lead ball and huge hook furiously thrash against the side of the boat.

And then you thank god when the fish finally comes up over the gunwale.

After this you just sit there while your arms throb and you get your breath back thinking, "There's no way I can do that again."

But eventually, you slowly re-rig your bait, put your line back in, and gently hope you get to watch someone else bring one in before you have to do it again. We did this all morning. The sun came out in full force and despite losing an hour fishing because Brad's line got caught up on something on the bottom, I caught two more before we maxed out with our eight around noon.

Unfortunately, early on we kept one that was too small, and in our final push 3 of us had fish on at the same time. The last one to come up was Brad's but we'd maxed out by then and he had to put back one of the bigger fish of the morning.

We trolled for salmon along Home Shore the rest of the day but only caught black bass, one dolly and one pink. This was despite the ceaseless jumping of salmon all around us. I think everyone was exhausted and combined with relatively calm water, bright warm sunshine and the incredible views, we spent a nice lazy afternoon. It was the only time I took off my top layer and wool hat all week. 

Some landmarks and locations I've learned:

Grey Cabin
Green Buoy
Log Dump
Mary's Flat
Russian Flat
Home Shore

We fished 9 hours today. My first catch today was about 50# and the consensus was I brought the biggest into the boat.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Alaska: Day 2.

I slept for 11 hours last night. Woke up, ate, dressed and we were boarding the boat by 7am. Nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for the ride out to Mary's Flat. For 45 minutes I sort of prayed the bottom of the boat wouldn't crack in two or that we wouldn't hit a whale or that I wouldn't get tossed overboard as we full-throttled through 3-4 ft waves getting pelted in the face and covered with sheets of sea water. Many, MANY times I tried to estimate how far the shore really was and whether I could swim there, in my heavy boots and layers of clothing, before I froze to death in the 45ยบ ocean.

We arrived thankfully alive and the waters mellowed out and we alternately fished salmon and halibut all day along the shoreline. I finally got a sense of the feeling of the tap-tap of a halibut strike and was able to land 2-3 of them and one very ugly cod fishing that way. The last I caught was maybe 3x the size of the others and took everything I had to bring to the surface. My pole was literally bent in half most of the rise and I had to actually sit on the handle to provide the leverage I needed to reel it in. I couldn't believe the size once I could see it. But, it's incredibly awkward to shark-hook a flat angry thrashing board of a fish with a sharp bait hook already in its lip and a 1-pound ball hanging off the other end of the line slamming around. Disappointingly, it fell off before we could get it in the boat but that fight to bring it up – and the sheer size of what could have been – made me excited to go back and try tomorrow.

Luckily the "We'll catch one more halibut before we try for salmon" catch was Brad's and he brought up about a 50#-er, the largest we'd caught by far. A few more details about catching halibut:

What I didn't learn when we were catching the little ho-hummers (~10#) yesterday was what you have to do to catch a "big" one. Previously all it took was grabbing the V-shaped rope leader down by where the hook was set and hoisting it in. Today, the bat and shark hook came out. When someone it the boat has a halibut on, you first make sure your lines are out of their way. You might reel in, but you can fish for a while if you want because it will take the guy who's hooked one a considerable amount of time to reel it up. Halibut are shaped like huge flat, oval platters. There's tons of resistance because, as I've heard it described, "It's like reeling in a barn door." This is no joke. So you're sweating and struggling and cramping and spasming and resting and winded and straining to bring it up.

Then after an eternity, you catch a glimpse of what it could be as it comes into view, and the excitement spreads through the boat. Everyone secures their poles in a holder. Then one guy grabs the shark hook – about a 6" sharp metal hook on a short rope, and another guy grabs the bat – literally like a baseball bat but half the size. While the fisherman holds his rod up high, bringing the fish right up next to the boat, the guy with the shark hook takes a hold of the rope leader with one hand and with the other hand tries to jab the shark hook into the underside of it's jaw and pierce all the way through it's mouth so it pops out the top of it's head by the eyes. You know, so it's got the jaw bones to keep it hooked up in case the flesh around it tears.

You might imagine that the fish does not like this one bit. Just like it did not like the original bait hook stuck in it's mouth, it did not like being pulled by it's lip up 300 ft. to the surface. It did not like the change in water temperature and it certainly did not like not being able to breath now that it's being hauled out of the water with a second giant hook in it's head. So the fish? It goes crazy. Which is where the bat comes in. Now someone has to knock the fish out by bashing it a few times right between it's eyes, which lie flat on the top of it's body, not on either side of it's head like most fish. Thrash-bash-thrash-bash and the eyes roll back and it's out cold. Now "subdued", you can safely get the two hooks out before you stick a knife in it's gills to bleed it out as you put it in the "live" well.

In my opinion, fishing for halibut is more like hunting for halibut. The largest our group caught was between 50 and 60 pounds. Some groups were bringing in fish up around 200 pounds. I do not know how they manage this. I do not want to know.

The salmon fish we caught today were mostly smaller pinks, but my own personal highlight was when I had one on the line and someone else had a much larger silver hooked at the same time. Once mine was netted and on the floor of the boat Brad yelled, "Bleed that one yourself!" And I said, "But I don't know how!" And he said, "You've seen it done enough by now."

I knew I had to suck it up because there was still the other big fish to unhook and unnet and no one was free to handle mine for me. So I stared at it on the deck until finally I summoned the courage and just stuck my finger through it's gills and up into its mouth and lifted it up. Doing that alone was enough of a first for me to call it a day, but then I had to hold it up over the well, avoiding cutting my fingers on it's sharp teeth, while fitting an extremely sharp knife into the gills to cut the white strips of cartilage in between the red gill sheets while it squirmed and slapped around. Accomplishing this was an extremely proud moment for me.

We saw a ton of eagles today. And whales were so plentiful that by the end of the day it was like, Uh, there's another whale. Saw some sea otters and seals as well.

Several times I daydreamed about getting back to The Drying Room. When that moment arrives, it was just as warm as ever but now it stank to high heaven so not quite as magical. 

It's debatable whether the ride to or from Mary's Flat was more rough. We were on the boat 11 hours* straight.

*I only used the luggable loo once.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Alaska: Day 1.

I took notes every night in bed before I passed out while the sun was still shining. My next several posts will detail the days of my trip. We stayed at Doc Warner's, Excursion Inlet, AK. It was actually the second day in Alaska, but first day fishing.

Today I learned the method for fishing both halibut and salmon. First the halibut:

We set out close to camp and anchored around a spot called Waterfall. Halibut fishing was slow, deep (100-300ft) and extremely heavy. It was exhausting just to bounce a 1# weight on the bottom. My arms got really tired, and my Dad laughed at me when I asked if there was a "trick" to make it easier. I did manage to catch 1 small one though, and when you hook one you kind of forget how hard it is to lift the pole and reel it in.

It's a terribly awkward rig: ~2 inch twisted hook and a ball weight attached to a rope in an inverted V – one at each end. Then where the rope meets at the point is where it attaches to your line. You let out the line until you feel the ball hit the bottom. This takes several minutes, and you are supposed to keep your thumb on the reel as the line runs out.

Then you jig (lift the pole about a foot, which lifts the ball, and then let it drop back to the bottom – over and over). This is tiring enough on it's own. That is, until you feel dull taps of a fish at the bottom hitting your bait and you try to set the hook. Half the time or more, after several taps and a pull, I'd reel up that heavy load sure I had a fish only to find my bait gone and only the ball on the end. Speaking of bait, the typical bait for fishing halibut was a salmon head or steak, and a piece or two of herring. The salmon gives the halibut something to latch on to, the herring attracts them by the scent of their oils.

That reminds me, I also learned to catch herring, which is its own kind of fun. One pole on the boat had 6 little hooks with flies all attached to one line about a foot apart that you drop in the water down around 10 feet, and in about 1 minute you reel it back in and hope to have 6 herring and no pollock fish. That rarely happens though. So then you have to unhook all the fish as they flap all over the deck and hooks fly around. You end up keeping the herring/tossing back the pollock, all while trying to avoid stabbing yourself with one of the flailing hooks.

During the halibut lesson, Brad caught an "undesirable" fish. We thought. At orientation we heard about several species you are required to keep if you catch. This ugly bulging-eyed spiky huge orange thing was called a yellow-eyed rock fish. It was bloated and gross, a nuisance. We forgot about it even, when we took a break from the halibut fishing and went up to the lodge to eat lunch (the only day we took a mid-day break).

So we're finishing our pb&j's when some of the staff came up all giddy and excited and said they would not fillet our rock fish until we took a picture, "I've never seen one so big!"

So we walk down to the dock and all of them are down there posing with the fish, "This thing's 17 pounds!! Do you know how old it is??" Turns out about 105 years old. And basically a delicacy, similar to red snapper (see top pic).

The second half of the day we fished the salmon. Trolling along the shore with the line out until there's a strike. Like walleye fishing only with a different rig, and shallower than the halibut. While you have your line out, the countless salmon taunt you, jumping all around your boat. Then suddenly someone gets a "Fish On!" the boat stops and everyone else brings their line in to get them out of the way, while they try and land it. This is because you need a net to get it in the boat and it twists and turns and flops around like mad. So one person drives, one person reels it in, one person mans the net and one person (usually me) tries to stay out of the way and keep the boat balanced. This collective effort becomes that much more extreme when 2-3 people end up hooking a fish at the same time. We had relocated to find the salmon (Home Shore) and once we got started this fishing was exciting – we brought in some large silvers which was exhilarating and fun.

By the end of the day, wet and freezing, before going anywhere else, the first stop is The Drying Room. The Drying Room is a magical place heated by the exhaust from generators that power the whole camp. It's walls and beams are lined with a couple hundred hooks. Here, you strip off your wet, scale-y, slimy, bloody, smelly top layer and hang it to dry as you walk up from the water. Or maybe you just sit down in there for a while to thaw out. Several times a day on the boat, usually when I was at my coldest and wettest, I day-dreamed about the magical hour when I would step into this room at the end of the day. Here even the wettest of clothing was piping hot and dry within about 45 minutes.