I Want to be Like Mike – Article reprinted from Fish Taco Chronicles Spring Edition 2000
by Leonard Davenport
The first people stumbled into the place that is now known as Sitka, Alaska near the dawn of civilization. The mist hangs on the water dancing up the hilltops of this enchanted land like spirits of ancestors long dead but not wanting to leave. Picture the first native following a small bear cub down stream with spear in hand. He thinks the bruin might be an easy meal.
Just one of the Big Blue Charter boats out for some great action as they cruise by Mt. Edgecumbe. (26ft. Ospreys)
Around the bend he startles the cub’s mother who has been gorging on salmon. She is not hesitant to leave the rich meal as her instinct tells her the cub is in danger. A mock charge at first, but then comes the real deal: Six hundred pounds of fury attack the native’s eyes and with one swipe he’s blind. The second swing strikes quickly across the throat and mercifully the battle is over. The native didn’t live long enough to find out that there are few easy meals in his wild country.
In the distance a young buck witnessed the whole event, including the bear feasting on the remains of his elder. He reports to the tribe and relates the story. It was decided that this bear must be hunted and killed. It was believed that once they tasted humans that is all they would want to eat from then on.
Once the gang slaying took place and the bear was dead, she was dressed and roasted for the big victory celebration. These natives came from the mountains and had never seen the salmon that jammed the rivers mouth. They could be picked up easily by hand. Several were gathered and cooked along with the bear. The salmon was a different flavor than the bear, a nice alternative and didn’t put up near the fight of the grizzlies. The natives took up residence in the valley and lived peacefully for many millennium.
The Russian fur trade was busy with the slaughter of the otter in the Aleutian Islands. It wasn’t hard harvesting these passive mammals and the once rich waters were quickly running out of the fur bearing animals. The Russians held the otters in high esteem for the fur which kept them very warm during the winter and also served as a statement of wealth. The heavy demand kept the Russians moving east in search of more pelts. It wasn’t long before they encountered the vast beds of otter near Sitka.
In 1799 many battles with the natives ensued after peaceful attempts to co-exist didn’t work. Many on both sides were slaughtered before the Russian weaponry and more personnel arrived from the Motherland. A fort, church and town eventually were built and sustained once dominance was established over the native Tlingits.
The Russians owned the land of Alaska even thought they didn’t have the resources to totally control her. This vast land was one of the few remaining untapped and virtually unexplored places left on earth.
In 1860 William Seward purchased the Alaskan Territory for the United States for nineteen cents an acre, and as you might remember from history, he was widely ridiculed at the time and his purchase was forever referred to as ‘Seward’s Folly’.
It wasn’t long before miners from all over the globe came to Alaska when giant nuggets of gold were reportedly found lying unmolested in many of the streams. The gold fields of the area brought even more rich diversity to the territory which is evidenced today in the variety of architecture of Sitka. Totem Square, Saint Michael Cathedral, The Sitka Hotel and the Alaskan Native Brotherhood Building are just some of the finest examples this city has to show. The six-shooter became the new law for the territory as minors fought and many died of that vile sickness, “Gold Fever”. Like the salmon of the region, only the strong survived.
The next rush for the territory of Alaska was its vast wealth found in the water which teams with life sustaining fish. Salmon of several species, halibut, Alaskan King and Dungeness crab top the list and the world’s fishing fleet arrive quickly to dominate the new markets. Nets, traps, long lines and even rods and reels were used to capture this new found treasure.
I have visited Alaska three times now, once to ski at Mt. Alyeska which is located just outside of Anchorage, once to fish the rich waters around the Juneau area and the last to visit with good friends Mike and Karen Keating. They make their home in picturesque Sitka, located in Alaska’s Southeast.
“The Judge” from New York knows how to show off his beautiful Kind Salmon. He and his wife are repeat visitors and love fishing with Mike. Photo by L. Davenport
For us Southern Californians who see more than our fair share of sunshine 360 days a year, Sitka is a nice change. Low visibility often dominates and it is considered to be one of the worlds few remaining rain forests. However, when it does clear up and you can see what this magnificent land has to offer visually, wow!
Among their many landmarks is Mt. Edgecumbe, a classic volcano cone which commands your attention on clear days. Because of the tremendous amounts of rain that fall in the region everything is lush and green. Outrageous wild flowers and berry patches intermingle throughout the forest and help break up the nearly all green scenery. Majestic bald eagles soar over head with eyes sharp for their next fish dinner, while the ravens do all things possible to exist.
This Is Where The Story Gets Good!
Mike and Karen Keating have a business plan that just seems to keep unfolding year after year. With four 26′ mirror image Osprey fully outfitted for the ocean surrounding Sitka, Mike has plans to add more boats and even an float plane. His boats are perfect to fish four quite comfortably allowing each fisherman plenty of gut-wrenching elbow room for those famous barn door halibut.
Karen Keating is the first, last and best landmark you see arriving and leaving at the Sitka Airport. She is on time and it is always door to door service with a smile. To keep her patrons from complaining about the weather she wears shorts and no jacket. Karen is always friendly.
Each day on the water, come rain or come shine, Mike’s intent is to capture a limit of as many species for each angler as possible. Mike will even tailor your adventure to your specific needs. For me I was in search of a giant ling cod.
First day out Shawn Arnold limited out on silver salmon and halibut, while I made sure my daughter Sierra (featured on the cover with Mike and a nice King) had a great experience. Mike is terrific with young kids and old buzzards alike. I told him I wasn’t a big fan of trolling, so he set us up with some nice fresh, dead herring to mooch with. This method of fishing allows you to feel the subtle bite, set the hook and fight a trophy fish full of energy. While I hadn’t had much time at the rail for myself I did manage to catch my specimen lingcod, which I intend to have fossilized by Andre O’Campo, Sal Mar Design of Huntington Beach, California.
On the second day, the weather took a turn for the worse. Being the sissy that I am, I was really starting to wonder what I was doing out in the cold rain with water running down my face. My wonder stopped minutes later, when the first fish of many picked up my bait. A thirty-five pound Chinook, a full limit of Coho and some nice eating halibut made the weather a non-issue fast.
You don’t have to bring any equipment with you. Mike provides Loomis Rods and Shimano Reels in tip top condition. The next two days on the water were optimum. Visibility beyond belief, seas flat and the fishing better than the first two days, which seemed impossible. Mike was now spoiling me. With four rods out, Mike and the deckhand refused to reel anything in (which included changes of bait in deep water halibut holes). Just as I thought I was getting to tired to do this anymore, a strange thing happened. I started to sprout fishing muscles and caught a second wind. It was a good thing too. The last two hours on the fourth day of fishing, the halibut got bigger and hit with more frequency. Mike was in fine form telling funny stories and jokes which helped me fish through the pain these huge flatties were inflicting.
Most of our fishing was set up drifts across Shelikof Bay on the west coast of Baranof Island in the shadow of Mt. Edgecumbe. The end of each drift was signaled by quick hitting hook-ups of hearty bass, which Mike referred to as junk fish. This fishery placed almost anywhere else in the world would be revered. Yelloweye, Quillback and China fish are just a few of the other so called junk fish that you are likely to catch in between the sought afters.
The most impressive thing about Big Blue Charters is the way they process the fish. During the frenzy when fish are over the rail one after another, Mike handles each one with the skill of a surgeon. Clubbing, removing hooks and rebaiting. Subconsciously I wondered where all the fish were. The deck was clean, no blood and no fish. I figured he must be dropping them in the hold. The part that I missed in my concentration on fishing was that he was cleaning the fish as he went along. Yes they were in the hold already, cleaned and on ice. Best job I have ever seen. The fish were picked up at the dock and whisked away for packaging, freezing and boxing. Every time I eat an Alaskan filet, I thank Mike in my prayers for the spectacular flavor of the fish.
After eight great days in Sitka it was time to leave, and as we were herded into the plane, I felt like we were a human school of salmon heading into space. And, like the salmon, I hope I will return to the same spot in a couple of years to mate. But unlike the salmon, I hope I don’t die shortly after doing my business.