Southeast Alaska is Full of Big Fish, Float Planes, and Nonstop Adventure
The author spends four action-packed days at Salmon Falls Resort hitting the salt- and freshwater fisheries near Ketchikan, Alaska
Captain Mike Bunker cuts the engine on our 27-foot Riddle Marine fishing boat and cranks up the music. Liz Johnson, Jesse Liebrecht, and I peer over the rail and look out over the ocean. Around us, small charter boats dot the horizon—all without a doubt chasing cohos and kings. But we’ve already boated our share of salmon and a halibut; now we’re after something else. We’ve used just about every one of the rods that line the roof of the boat’s cabin, save three lightweight spinning outfits that would look more at home on my local reservoir than the open water of Southeast Alaska. Bunker distributes the rods, and Johnson can barely contain herself. She’s been waiting for this all day.
Johnson and her crew invited me up to Ketchikan to check out the Salmon Falls Resort and fish for a few days. A big part of what to do here is right in the resort’s name: salmon. Guests can either hire a captain or try their luck in one of Salmon Falls’ self-guided boats. Either way, they have a good chance of catching something. The waters near Ketchikan are loaded with five different kinds of salmon, as well as halibut, lingcod, and more. There are also whales, porpoises, sea lions, and bald eagles to watch, and they’ve been putting on a show from the moment I got off the plane.
What hardly anyone talks about, though, except for the Salmon Falls staff, is the seabass fishing. Why travel over 3,000 miles to catch a fish I could target in my home waters off of New York and New England? Because, according to Johnson, the bass bite is on fire. I see this firsthand minutes after I cast over the rail. As soon as the bait on my line sinks into the dark water below, I feel a bump.
I reel in, but I don’t feel any resistance—just a bump here and there. Then I see them: four sea bass each about the size of a wine bottle hitting the banana weight on my line. I nudge Liebrecht, Salmon Falls’ Marina Manager, and I point to the hungry pack. Liebrecht drifts the lime-green Senko worm on his line closer, and it’s like watching a group of bluegills mouth a lure.
The first goes for the worm and bites the end off of it. Then the second comes up and slams it. Liebrecht sets the hook, and the fish peels off from the group shaking its head. I watch the slinky rod bend and hear the drag on Liebrecht’s reel buzz. I pull my bait into the remaining bass, and it doesn’t take long. The same one that took the end off of the worm engulfs the bait and now Liebrecht and I are both reeling in. Behind me, I hear Johnson on the port side say, “I’ve got one.” Ten minutes later, we’re one bass shy of a limit.
Trout Fishing in The Misty Fjords
Early the next morning, a 1959 de Havilland Beaver floatplane buzzes the dock at Salmon Falls then banks into a steep turn for a landing. I’m standing with a bag full of fly fishing gear. The plane taxis to the dock, and Timber Pesterfield, the pilot, opens the hatch and hops down on a pontoon. I toss my gear to Dave Smiley, my fishing guide for the day, who’s sitting in the back seat, then climb into the fuselage.
Inside, the plane feels like an old car. It’s upholstered in velour and brown leather and has mechanical art-deco-style gauges. Pesterfield climbs into the cockpit next to me. He pushes on the throttle, and the nine-cylinder rotary engine roars to life. We move from the dock, and I hear the engine’s supercharger inhale deeply as we glide into a takeoff. Once we’re airborne, Pesterfield banks hard and points us east towards the Misty Fjords.
Pesterfield’s voice crackles through my headphones. “They fjords are just beyond those mountains,” he says pointing to a snow-capped range dead ahead of us. “All of them were gouged and cracked from millennia of ice.” Then he pulls back on the sticks and we climb, threading between the snowy, rocky peaks.
As we cruise over the mountains, the coastal rainforest we just came from turns into a completely different landscape. Sheer cliffs rise from the fjords with deep fissures running down into glassy inlets of water below. Pesterfield catches me out of the corner of his eye. I’m awestruck gazing out the window. “I’ve been up here thousands of times,” he says. “It still overwhelms me—just the sheer energy of it. It’s spiritual.”
As we get closer to our destination, I look down at small lakes dotting the landscape—some seem small enough to paddle across in a pool float. I ask Pesterfield which one of them he could land on. “All of them,” he says. Then he eyes a patch of water the size of a farm pond. “But I might have trouble getting back off of that one.”
We cross over a small lake, bank, and come down for a landing. The water is still, and I can’t even feel the pontoons hit when we touch down. When we reach the middle of the lake, Pesterfield turns the plane to face a small cabin with a jon boat next to it. It’s like watching someone parallel-park a Mini Cooper.
Smiley and I disembark and Pesterfield hands us our gear, which includes a six-horse-power outboard motor for the boat. Smiley and I set to work assembling rods and loading the skiff. Then we put the plug in the boat, clamp the motor on the transom, and shove off into the still water. We’re the only people on the lake, and we have three hours before Pesterfield returns.
“Last time I was here, the bugs were thick, and the fish didn’t want to rise,” Smiley says. “We should set up some streamers.” But as soon as I finish tying on a wooly bugger, we see a dimple on the surface that’s too big to be a raindrop. Smiley turns the boat towards the rise while I bite the line and tie on big shaggy dry fly made of deer hair.
Smiley turns off the outboard, and I cast at the rise from the bow of the boat. We wait, looking at the fly. Just as I’m about to lift for another cast a cutthroat comes out of the water and smacks the fly. I set the hook and strip the fish in. Smiley looks at me and, well, smiles, and so do I. It looks like we’re going to have a different kind of day than the one he had last time he was here.
An hour in and Smiley and I are working like an assembly line. I hook a cutthroat and bring it to the gunwale. Smiley unhooks it with his forceps, takes my fly, plops it in a tube of desiccant powder, gives it a shake, and says “all set” before tossing the fly back towards the water. Then I lift with a quick backcast and push forward to lay the fly on the still water near the closest rise I see. A cutthroat strikes, and we repeat the process. It isn’t long before I lose count. Then it’s onto the next spot.
All over the lake, the trout congregate near springs that come off the mountain. Smiley knows where each one is, and we hit all of them on our way to a big sandbar at the edge of the lake. The average size of the fish we catch is about 8 to 10 inches, though some are smaller. They’re healthy fish, too, and all of them put up a good fight. But at the sandbar, Smiley says we’ll find bigger trout.
We beach the boat and walk onto the sand. The water is ice cold and about thigh-deep. The last time he was here, Smiley had a client in the same spot, and the fishing was so good the fisherman didn’t want to quit. He was shivering and numb before Smiley convinced him to get out of the water.
Smiley sends me out on the sandbar with a 4-weight rod and a streamer tied to the line. In the clear water, it’s easy to see where the sand gives way to the full depth of the lake. I cast and let the streamer dip just over the edge of the dropoff, then I slowly retrieve. But each time I do I come up with nothing. On the fourth cast, while watching the streamer swim back, I see four 14-inch cutthroats cruising perpendicular to me just at the edge of the drop-off.
Trout keep coming one at a time, swimming just feet in front of me. I stay put, casting and stripping, trying to spoon-feed them the streamer, but they have no interest. I’m so focused I don’t hear Smiley wade next to me. He hands me another rod with sink tip line and a pink worm on the end of it. “Give that a try,” he says.
I toss it out and wait for the fly to sink and get a hard strike. The rod doubles over and line peels from the click-and-pawl reel. I let it spin for a moment, then crank the reel and pull a 13-inch cutthroat to my hand. Smiley ties a big stonefly onto his line and casts next to me. We catch big healthy cutthroats in tandem one after another. The water is so clear you can see them eat the bait each time. And when the plane comes over the mountain tops, I barely hear it. Just like Smiley’s last client, I don’t want to leave.
One Big Fish
On the last day of my trip, I head down to the dock early to meet captain Bunker while he loads his boat for the day. Bunker used to live in New York City before he moved to northern Idaho and started coming to Alaska every year to guide. We have the same taste in music, and we talk about New York bands and bars while the other captains walk by. Soon after, Johnson arrives along with Matt Herod, the General Manager at Salmon Falls, and we set out to find a nice halibut.
Out on the water, the depth on the sonar screen reads 265 feet, and we rock in the boat while Bunker rigs up three rods that look like pool cues. Bunker sets two of the rods up with big hooks then gives me a rod with an even bigger one, which is about the size of my index finger bent in a J. I know that I won’t catch a lot of fish with this kind of rig, but the one I might get could be a giant.
The day starts off slow, but Johnson and Herod eventually start pulling up sable and a small halibut. Still my rod sits motionless as we bob up and down in the waves and listen to Bunker’s 80s playlist. Two hours in and still nothing, but Bunker insists it’s going to happen. “All we need is one big fish,” he says.
When it does happen, the strike is unmistakable. It nearly drags the rod into the water. Two days earlier I’d caught my first halibut. It was around 45 pounds, and it felt like a car door when I tried to reel it in. This one feels like the whole car. I pull the rod from the cleat and start reeling, and the halibut keeps pulling drag. I cradle the rod and my back and shoulders strain against the full power of the fish. “Don’t pump the rod,” Bunker says. “Keep steady pressure. If you pump, the hook will slip, and we’ll lose the fish.”
I gain line, and the fish pulls, but I keep cranking—265 feet, one foot at a time. With each turn of the reel, I feel the pressure of the fish and the pressure to not mess this up. When the fish nears the surface, Johnson and Herod cheer, and Bunker ducks into the cabin for the harpoon. He comes back out and sticks the fish behind the gills, and it takes another run.
There’s a rope at my side on the deck that’s attached to the harpoon at one end and a buoy at the other, and I feel it uncoil over the rail at full speed. The buoy launches over the gunwale and skips on the water as the fish dives. I keep up the pressure and keep cranking.
I get the fish close to the surface again and pull it towards the boat. Bunker says it’s so big that he’ll need to shoot it. He reaches over the rail with a 10mm handgun and fires twice. The muzzle blast reverberates off of the water, and for a moment I can’t hear a thing—just silence and adrenaline ringing in my ears.
Herod slaps me on the back, bringing me to, and we pull the fish onto the boat. Then we stand around without a word, staring at the long, heavy fish. Looking at the halibut I get a similar feeling to the one I get when I kill a big-game animal. I’m grateful, happy, surprised, and a little sad all at the same time.
Back on the dock, we drop off our fish at the cutting shed. We were the first boat out of six to return, and now the other captains and guests are getting off of their boats, unloading their catch, and rubbernecking as they walk past the shed. They stop to look at 80 pounds of halibut being processed and the huge slabs of filet meat being laid on the table. Some are excited, some are whispering and pointing, while others snap pictures of it with their cell phones. Somebody asks “Who reeled it in?”
“I did,” I say and the crowd shifts their attention. Then it hits me. We probably just landed the biggest fish so far this season at Salmon Falls.
One More Round
After dinner that night, Johnson and I have some time to kill so we head into Ketchikan. The town is eerily quiet. It’s set up for masses of people disembarking from cruise ships. But with the cruise industry offline because of COVID, it’s just me and Johnson and a few locals. We walk by closed-up gift shops on a large boardwalk that’s usually teeming with tourists hunting for souvenirs.
One place that isn’t closed is the Sourdough Cocktail Bar. It’s the kind of place that’s easy to tuck into and lose track of time—which is even easier with the almost never-ending Alaska sunlight. Every square inch of the walls is covered in pictures of shipwrecks. And the whole place has a brownish golden glow, like shining a flashlight through a beer bottle.
At bars in Alaska, there are pull-tab lottery cards that kind of work like mini slot machines. You peel off three strips of cardboard revealing symbols and prizes beneath. They cost a couple of bucks each, and it’s customary to order up a pile of them to shell like peanuts while you drink. Johnson and I work through the cards and talk about the trip, the big halibut, and the last king salmon she reeled in at the end of the day. We win some and lose a lot, but when we get to the last card, and Liz says I should do the honors, I decide to tuck it into my wallet un-opened for good luck.
The next day I fly home with 90 pounds of frozen fish in two big cardboard boxes. I meet my wife at the airport and we drive home. At midnight after loading our freezers with so much meat that they need to be duct-taped closed, I give her the pull-tab card. She peels the tabs one at a time revealing what Johnson called a “triple rippy win.” It’s worth enough cash for one more round at the Sourdough, and it’s more than enough of a reason to go back to Ketchikan.