Sitka: Salmon and Halibut Paradise
Reprinted from Fish Taco Chronicles Fall Edition 1999
by Shawn Arnold
Imagine catching a 30 pound halibut and having the deck hand wonder why you want your picture taken with that little thing.
This recently happened to me in picturesque Sitka, Alaska. I was fishing with Big Blue Charters which is owned and operated by Mike and Karen Keating.
Two days of fishing with FTC editor Leonard Davenport produced two limits each of coho salmon, a 34 pound king salmon by Davenport, a 30ish pound ling cod by Davenport and limits of halibut ranging between 18 and thirty pounds. After all of this Keating apologized for the weather and the below par fishing.
These are not chickens. They are big halibut that have been caught out of Big Blue Charters in Sitka.
If this is below par, it would be a dream come true to be there when the fishing was good. Mike is a grizzly bear of a man who looks like what one would envision a rugged Alaskan to look like. His gruff exterior hides a nice guy. Leonard brought his 9 year old daughter one day and Mike was wonderful with her.
While heading out to the fishing grounds on our first day, Mike outlined his game plan for the day. We would head to a protected bay about an hour south. Once there we would fish for silvers and the occasional king. After we got our limits we would stop on the way home and fish for halibut and ling cod.
My initial thought was – after we get our limit – this guy must know what he is doing, or is full of you know what.
Turns out that Mike knows what he is doing. We got to our destination and while drifting we mooched for salmon. Mooching is nothing more than dropping your bait to the bottom and reeling back up. When your bait gets back to the top – repeat.
Most of the time we were in 70-120 feet of water and our bait of choice was cut her- ring. It did not take long before we were getting hit.Salmon have a delicate mouth and I missed a few early fish because I was trying to set the hook. Ml kept reminding me to just keep reeling when I got hit, the fish would set the hook by itself.
After I got the hang of it (Leonard caught on much quicker) we soon got our fill of the scrappy silver salmon that were quite abundant.
With our salmon limits in tack, we headed out to the halibut grounds.
Halibut up to 150 pounds are not uncommon in Sitka. Three hundred pounders are caught every year. I was anxious to catch my favorite eating fish.
We set up at 300 feet and Mike set our rigs up with something similar to what Robert Shaw used when he was trying to catch Jaws. When I questioned Mike about the size of the bait he responded “Big bait equals big fish”
It did not take long for us to start getting hit. You have to be patient when fishing for halibut. So when my line started moving, Mike was there to warm me not to pull to fast or hard. When I was certain that I had a fish on I started reeling. Mike offered me these words of encouragement “Now all you have to do is drag your fish who is pulling the other way across a football field.” That made me feel better!
As I was reeling the fish in Mike offered me a belt. I was either too stupid or stubborn to take it. (Belt? I don’t need no stinking belt) I should have taken it as I felt like I was bringing in a monster. When the fish finally got color (that means that you can see the fish) Mike joked “All that work for that little chicken?” The little chicken that he was referring to was a twenty something pound halibut that I had already made reservations for on my bar-b-que. Mike could joke all that he wanted. I was happy. For the next hour and a half I proceeded to drop my line to the bottom, get hit and bring up a twenty something pound halibut.
On the other side of the coin Leonard couldn’t catch a cold. He kept dropping down just like me with the same bait, but he just was not getting hit. Leonard was not to upset about not catching a halibut though. The fish that he wanted to catch was a lingcod. He wanted to catch this prehistoric looking fish so he could give it to Sal Mar Designs. They are the fast growing popular company who can make your fish a piece of art by fossilizing it.
On the last fish of the day, Leonard caught his lingcod. The fish weighed about 35 pounds. It was about 3 feet long or just slightly longer than the big grin on Leonard’s face. He was going to get his art piece so he was happy.
That grin never left Leonard’s face as we headed back to port. All fish had been gutted and cleaned on the ride in. From there they go to a fish processor who will filet, steak or smoke your catch at a minimal fee. Except for the lingcod. Leonard instructed Mike that the fish was not to be cut on. It was to just be wrapped up by the processor and brought home whole.
When we finally got into port, Mike gave us instructions to leave the fish alone while he went to get the processor. Leonard wanted a picture with his prize but Mike said to hold on till he got back in 5-10 minutes.
After two minutes Leonard could not take it anymore. He asked me to get my camera and take some pictures with his new love. Leonard then grabbed the fish by the tail and started to get off the boat on to the dock.
Like a watermelon seed going through your fingers, the ling cod slipped through Leonard’s hands. It fell into the water, which was about 15 feet deep. And since it was the last fish of the day it was still barely alive.
While Leonard stared in the water in disbelief (shock?) l quickly found Mike. He was partially ticked and partially amused. Mike and a deckhand from another of Mike’s boats tie on diamond jigs and tried to snag the fish. After about IO minutes they got it. As it was still barely alive it had swam a little away from where it was dropped in the water. Leonard was very relieved. And very lucky.
The next day was almost like the first day. The only differences were that the weather was rainy which made the oceans rough and Leonard did not catch or drop a ling cod. Otherwise it was limits of silver salmon, king salmon and halibut.
I had to leave the next day though Leonard stayed and fished two more days. He caught halibut to 50 pounds and more salmon. An upcoming issue will have Leonard’s story on that.
It would be hard to find two better host than Mike and Karen Keating of Big Blue Charters. If you ever plan on fishing in Sitka contact them at (907) 747-5161.