Brother and Nephew pay a visit

Joel and Clay Stopha on Mark's boat

Took brother Joel and his son Clay out fishing and exploring this week. Clay is my last nephew who had not been here before.

We fished all week on the boat, anchoring each night. The tug has comfortable beds, enough space for 3 or 4 people, XM radio to listen to ball games, and ample cooking and bathroom facilities. So, nobody is in a hurry to get back to civilization, as we are already living quite comfortably.

We fished for king salmon each day, and I set my two-hook longline skate for halibut. From Sunday through Thursday, we fished all over the islands. We managed only two kings and no halibut. We’d hear of fish being caught elsewhere – we even saw what looked like a 30+ lb king caught right where we were fishing – but couldn’t buy one ourselves. I have to laugh at myself in retrospect, as this is not the first time this has happened to me. Even when I was a fishing guide out on the Nushagak River in Bristol Bay, it would happen. I’d doubt myself, wondering what I was doing wrong. Was I fishing the wrong lures? Was I fishing too deep or too shallow? Should I be fishing another spot?

On Thursday, we fished in sight of the cabin. After catching only the two fish a few days earlier, it took me a second to recognize what the buzzing sound was as I was making coffee in the galley. Then I got it – it was the line being dragged out the reel! Out I piled onto the back deck, as I was closest to the fishing rods. When I grabbed the rod, it was doubled over but not pulsing, and I hoped it wasn’t just a bunch of kelp that had pulled the fishing line out of the downrigger release. But a second later, I felt the heavy fish pull, and knew we had one on. I handed the rod to my nephew now at my side and cranked up the downriggers and the other rod. I got the net out and was ready when he brought the nice king salmon to the boat. What a relief.

We’d planned to fish the rest of the day and go back to the cabin for a relaxing Friday, as the boys left on Saturday. We saw deer on most every smooth beach on the drag, including a nice buck in velvet on a point. Not sure what brought the deer out, but they all seemed happy for the sunshine, and several seemed to be running back and forth on the beach, just for fun. The boys had seen a black bear on the beach where we’d anchored the night before, so they’d seen the big mammals on the islands, except for a wolf. Even though the fishing had been slow, there were always new sights to see for them.

Then I got a message from my brother-in-law – there were fish where he was. He’d fished the same drag as we were at now earlier in the day, but had caught nothing and moved. The spot he moved to was a spot we’d fished a few days earlier, where there was lots of feed and whales and birds, but we couldn’t catch a fish. I wasn’t going to tell my crew and make them feel bad we weren’t catching more, but when my nephew asked me how my brother-in-law was doing, I told him. I told the boys we could still go to town today as they’d wanted, or we could run the two hours to the spot my brother-in-law was fishing, anchor there for the night, and fish their last day here instead of relaxing in town. “Let’s go fishing,” said Clay. That’s my nephew! We pulled in the gear and headed for greener pastures.

On the way to the new spot, I set out my two-hook halibut skate. I set it in the same spot Joe and I caught the two big halibut about 2 weeks ago. I had set there once or twice since and caught nothing. When we got to the salmon spot, we still had plenty of evening daylight left, so we put the lines out. There was tons of feed showing on the sounder. Whales were everywhere. Many surfacing uncomfortably close (for me) to the boat, but the boys seemed unconcerned and enjoyed the experience. Some of the whales were feeding at the surface. What a show. Bang. We got a nice king. So the fish might still be here. We got to our anchorage, hopeful we might get lucky the next day. The boys wanted to get home midday, so I guessed we’d fish til about 10 am, and then a two-hour ride home.

I was up early as usual. I pulled the anchor, and Joel and I set the salmon gear as we idled out of the anchorage. It was a little before 5 am. The sounder didn’t show as much feed as yesterday, and the whales were more dispersed (thankfully), but we were hopeful. It took about an hour and a half when we got the first fish on. And then another. And then another. By now it was 9:30 am. I said we can leave now and get home at noon, or do we want to try for our last fish for our daily limit? “Keep fishing,” said Clay. That’s my nephew!

Several boats were showing up. All friends of my in-laws and me. They’d heard through my brother-in-law and me that there were some fish here, and several had kids with them to see all the whales. Plus, it was a bluebird day, with calm winds and sunny skies. The best weather of our trip, for sure!

About 10:30, we got our last king salmon. We’d also caught 4 coho along the way. Joel had taken over fish cleaning duties after I showed him how when we caught the first fish of the trip, and he kept up with cleaning and chilling the fish all morning. We picked up the gear, and Joel cleaned the last king salmon as I headed for home. We stopped to check my skate. I think all of us were thinking this might be the day for a halibut, since all our luck seemed piled into this final day. We were not wrong! I got a harpoon into the halibut, stunned the fish on the head with the backside of the gaff, and for the first time, easily pulled it up over the swim step and through the stern door, rather than it taking two of us and all we were worth to haul it over the rail as I’d done the previous – what – 10 halibut I’ve caught off the tug? I’m a slow learner, but still learning. I cut the gill to bleed it and headed for home. What a day. And not yet noon.

We steamed back to the beautiful cleaning tables they have on a dock here in Craig. White cutting boards and high-pressure city water from garden hoses. I got Joel started on filleting the first halibut he’s ever tried, and he took right to it. I got to filleting and portioning the day’s catch of salmon, while Clay double rinsed the portions. We let them dry in a colander basket, then piled them into a clean bucket. And as if things could not get luckier, 3 of the 4 king salmon were white-fleshed king salmon – a delicacy – especially here in Southeast Alaska. It’s rare to see a white king salmon in these outer waters of Southeast Alaska, much less 75% of your catch!

After the fish butchering was done, we hauled all the fish, gear, clothes, and trash up the launch ramp dock. Clay said he’d stay with it to protect the fish from the birds, and Joel and I took the tug to the harbor. We found a transient moorage spot, tied up, walked the green mile to the harbor parking lot, then up the street to the harbor master office lot where the truck was parked. We drove the few miles to the launch ramp and picked up our belongings and Clay.

Back at the house, we got down to vac packing. Joel filled the bags with fish, Clay ran the vac packer, and I wrote the fish species and year on each package. I filled the freezer with fish, separating layers with the racks I used on the boat freezer, and then begged Brian for more freezer space as we had more fish than space. He, of course, said sure, and we ran the overflow over to his freezer.

Bad luck struck this morning as I went to pack fish boxes at 4:45 am: the fish had not frozen in the freezer overnight. The fish were plenty cold, but not frozen. That was puzzling. I have racks I made to separate layers of fresh fish going into the freezer so they freeze quickly. They’ve always frozen overnight. But not this time.

Luckily, there was plenty of frozen fish from the previous days’ catch in there, so it was only the last day’s catch that was not frozen. So, I mixed the frozen fish with the chilled fish, carefully weighed the fish so I could get the two box weights right at the 50 lb limit, and taped up each box. I sort of limit my friends’ and family’s take home of fish to one box each. I don’t even know if anyone has asked for more than that. I know it irks locals to see boxes upon boxes of fish leaving their waters with non-residents – many asking how much fish can a person eat in a year, are these fish being sold or bartered, etc – so I try to do my part to be modest.

We loaded up and headed out for the ferry about 6 am. We stopped for the obligatory coffee (Clay got chocolate milk) and donuts at Black Bear store and chit-chatted all the way to Hollis. The boys were soon checked in and said they were boarding the ferry. We said our goodbyes, and I headed home.

When I got back, I went over to get the fish in Brian’s freezer, now that I had room in mine. The fish from his freezer were frozen solid. Huh. When I got home and started filling the freezer, I noticed something: the plug for the freezer on the floor! A power source plug from a radio on a cabinet had fallen yesterday when I was moving things around, but I didn’t notice it had unplugged the freezer on its way to the floor. Mystery solved.

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