Chatham Adventure

Took my first trip to Freshwater Bay in my skiff. I’ve been down there numerous times with Larry on the landing craft, and on the Dutchmaster when I power trolled. But this was the first time I ran there in our 20′ Hewescraft aluminum boat.

Opening day for summer king salmon fishing for the troll fleet is July 1. I considered places to fish from Juneau. The outer coast would be the most productive for fish, but the run there would be 100 miles, and the conditions would need to be calm for me to run there and back, and calm on the big ocean to fish in my small boat. Not a likely scenario over a 4 or 5 day period.

The second option was north Chatham Strait. When I power trolled, fishing there could be good right to the end of June, and then I’d go outside to fish summer king salmon. So, I figured there still could be a few king salmon in north Chatham. I knew the Hidden Falls Hatchery king salmon return had dwindled to nothing, but figured those weren’t the only stocks of fish we were catching in late June. I picked East Point as a place to try.  It is the point between Freshwater Bay and Tenakee Inlet. The Bay and the Inlet both provide shelter in a wind, and I knew there were protected anchorages in Freshwater Bay from my power trolling days. And if something went awry, I could always get to Tenakee to tie up.   If the weather looked perfect, I’d run down there and give it a try.

Well, the weather forecast WAS perfect. Record high temperatures forecast with light winds and mostly calm seas. This trip was on. I started getting things ready the week before.

I had pulled out the nice bench seats from the boat when the hard top was welded on this past winter. There was just the passenger and captain seats remaining. So out came the passenger seat.

Now I had room to line up 4 big Igloo coolers end to end in two rows on the port side of the cabin. These would serve to hold the ice, and to pack the fish in. They would also serve as the base to a makeshift bed where I could sleep at night. When I had the hard top welded on to replace the soft top, I told the welder not to make a rear wall and door for the cabin, just so I could do what I’m doing now. Instead of a back wall, I installed the strips of plastic used for walk in coolers and freezers, allowing me to drag coolers into the cabin with ease.  It was all coming together now.

The strips do a good job of keeping the weather out and allowing ease of passing through. One thing I wasn’t counting on with the hard top was the echo chamber it’s created for the engine noise. That’s the one downside to the strips, as they don’t block out the noise from the 2 stroke Mercury Optimax 140 hp outboard. This is the engine my brother in law gave me, and I do love its power to carry a load and still get on step, and and its fuel efficiency, burning between 6 and 7 gallons and hour. But it’s still louder than a 4 stroke. It’s not so much that it’s loud in decibels as it creates some sort of resonance frequency that’s tiring to a person. Like listening to a diesel engine on a commercial fishing boat all day. To compensate, I wear ear muffs on long runs.

Opening day was July 1, so I planned to get down to Freshwater Bay the day before. I woke up early on the 30th, and drove with the coolers to Taku Smokeries to get ice. They had just put it out, and it was beautiful. Like sand. In 15 minutest, I filled 3 of the coolers to the top, and half filled the 4th, which would be the first cooler to ice. Everything was ahead of schedule now. By early afternoon, I was ready to go.

I thought the trip to Freshwater Bay would take 3 to 4 hours based on my trips with Larry. With calm seas and a bluebird day, I was there in 2 hours. I couldn’t believe it. Even the juncture of Chatham Strait and Icy Strait was nice. I anchored in Pavlof Bay, where I’d anchored years ago with my cousin Marc Reisner and my Dad on a June trolling trip. We’d seen numerous brown bears feeding on the new grass in the bay, and Marc rowed the punt over to check out the water falls of the creek at the head of the bay.

I started in to get things ready for tomorrow. I got four spreads of troll gear staged for each of my two makeshift gurdies. My buddy Kurt turned me on to a lure called King Kandy last year, and I was using the cut plug version behind a flasher, and the “whole herring” version by itself on a spoon leader. I also had some number 7 Canadian Wonder mother of pearl spoons in the mix as well, as this had been my go to spoon in my power trolling years.

Once I had things ready for the next day, I got my bed set up on the coolers, and then laid down and started to read Wayne Short’s “This Raw Land”. He and Mike McConnell are two of my favorite Alaskana authors, likely because they wrote about the Southeast Alaska that I love. Wayne has written several books on the country I live in, and, like Mike’s books, each chapter in his books are their own short story. One of the chapters was of his brother’s miraculous survival of a plane crash near Tenakee on a flight from Baranof Hot Springs to Juneau, and I was now anchored right in the neighborhood where the plane went down.

Wayne’s son put something on Craigslist or Facebook years ago needing a favor in Juneau (he lives in Petersburg) and I helped him out – and of course, he is good friends with my friend Paul Bowen there. He sent me signed copies of all of his Dad’s books as a thank you.

I was up at 4 am the next morning and got the gear down and fishing by about 415. I had fish on right away. I couldn’t believe it. I was gonna catch some kings in this backwater location. I caught all shakers (sublegal-sized king salmon), except for one legal (28 in) fish that first hour, but I was hopeful with so many fish around that I’d find the promised land!  Well, it was not to be. I only caught one more legal king that day, and some 20 shakers. I also caught a coho, a pink, and had to shake many, many halibut as I could not retain them. After 12 hours of fishing, I called it a day about 430 pm. I caught one more legal king, to make 2 for the day. I anchored again in Pavlof Bay, and took a nap.

I awoke about an hour later baking in the oven of my skiff cabin. The temperature was in the 70’s, and I was hot, hot, hot. I had several hours til bedtime, and this heat was not cutting it.  I made a plan. I boiled 2 quarts of water in my jet boil, filled my thermos with hot water and instant coffee packets, and secured coffee for tomorrow morning. Then, I pulled the anchor and went fishing again. In my underwear and a tee shirt.  Trolling with the front door of the boat cabin open provided some respite to the calm, hot air in the anchorage.

I trolled for a couple hours. More shakers!  I also caught a nice bright pink salmon and bright small coho. These were cleaned and went on ice. The Contehs will like these. I saw a doe blacktail deer with her fawn on the beach.  I trolled until the sun had almost set at about 930 pm, and finally it cooled down enough to sleep. I read the last chapter or two of Short’s book, and went to bed.

The next morning, I didn’t get going til about quarter to 6 in the morning. I started just the 8 hp Yamaha kicker I troll on to get me out of the harbor so as not to awake the others anchored there.  Once the sounder showed I was past 100 feet, I put the gear down.  Not long after I had a fish on and brought it to the boat. A keeper!  28 inches with not much to spare.   Not long after, I passed a beach and there was a brown bear, foraging, I think, for sand fleas. Things were looking good with this early fish. But like the day before, it was not a harbinger of things to come.  It would prove to be the only legal king I’d catch on day 2.

I put the gear back down, and continued trolling up the coast line. I got out some other lures, snaps, line and crimps to put together some more king salmon lures. I was intently crimping a loop in the end of a leader line when I looked up and just about jumped out of my skin.  There, right next to me, was the trooper boat!  A rigid hull chambered boat. I could tell they were amused at my surprise. I walked outside the cabin, and the trooper greeted me and asked to see my paperwork – an ID, my limited entry card, and my commercial vessel license. Luckily, I had all three on hand. I brought them to the stern, and answered the troopers questions of my card id number, etc. It was all very cordial. They did not board me, which would have meant I would have had to pull all my gear, and I must say I would have been anxious if they had looked at 2 of my 3 kings, as I measured them to be 28 inches – several times to be sure! – but surely not 29 inches, and would the trooper see the same length as I……..

I caught 2 rockfish and a coho to add to the mix today, but no more legal king salmon. I also caught gobs of nice halibut that, if I lived in a, quote “rural” area, I could have kept, but since I live in Juneau, I could not..  But great knowledge to know for a sport fishing trip there sometime.

After crossing my two troll wires for the umpteenth time, I was ready for a change. Chatham Strait had laid down from the 1 to 2 foot chop at mid-day, and I thought I’ve move north to Whitestone Harbor, and try there tomorrow. I had one good day of spring king fishing trolling there years ago.

I hauled up my gear one last time, and headed to Point Augusta. On the way, I saw a group of humpback whales bubble net feeding.  They all dove together, then after a minute or two, they all came to the surface with their mouths agape to feed on the herring that were schooled together by one of the whales blowing a ring of bubbles around them.

As I approached Pt Augusta, I saw a purse seiner rounding the bend. Uh oh. Then not much further, another one. Dang it!  There was a purse seine opening in Chatham. So, I decided to soldier on to Funter Bay, where I hand troll for coho salmon from mid-August to mid-September.

Now came the lonely part:  crossing Chatham Strait. On a chart, it might not look all that far from one side to the other. But North Chatham Strait can be a witch’s cauldron. Even on a seemingly calm day elsewhere, the wind may be westerly where Icy Strait joins Chatham Strait, and the wind in Chatham Strait may be northerly. Or southerly. Creating a stacked up sea at this juncture.

It isn’t that pleasant on a displacement hull commercial boat. On a planing hull outboard boat like mine, it can be an hour of misery. Tonight, it wasn’t bad at all.

I arrived at Lizard Head, a land mark for fishing south of Funter Bay, with a sigh of relief. I was on my side of Chatham Strait now. I would fish here and sleep in Funter Bay. After an hour and a half of fishing I decided just to call it a trip and sleep in my own bed tonight. I pulled up the gear, and on the last hook, there was a big gray cod. Normally, it would go with me to the freezer, but tonight, I didn’t want to clean another fish, so back it went.

It took an hour to get to the boat ramp in North Douglas from here. The cabin was so hot, and I had to ditch the ear muffs and listen to the outboard the last half hour. They were too hot to wear. As I came in to Fritz Cove, the place was alive with people enjoying the hot evening and the 4th of July weekend. Some young adults were actually swimming and floating in blow up float toy things. One group had tents set up on a pull out. It was a perfect evening, except maybe for the bugs, which were bad at the boat ramp, at least.

The drive from the ramp to the house seemed especially long, as I’d been fishing 12 hours and running a couple more. I left everything on the boat except for leftover food that needed to go in the fridge, greeted Sara at the door, and poured myself a tall one. A perfect end to a perfect camping trip.