Spring 2005 – By Chris Shaffer
Earl Pullum doesn’t tell fish tales. When asked why anglers should fish the saltwater off Prince of Wales Island rather than dozens of other popular Alaska destinations he pondered for a few minutes while removing the hook from a 15-pound yelloweye pulled from the Clarence Strait.
“Because of that,” said Pullum, pointing toward a 15-foot cloud of spray sprouting up from a whale 50 yards from the boat. Pullum is the lead guide at Boardwalk Lodge, located in Thorne Bay. “I’m not going to lie and tell you that we offer better fishing than other places in Alaska, because we don’t. You can catch fish anywhere in Alaska. I’d fish here for the experience.”
Different incidents take place up and down Alaska’s scenic and halibut rich shoreline. What makes the east shore of Prince of Wales Island special?
“People come to this area to fish for halibut because of the protected waters,” says Forrest Hosier, a long-time commercial fisherman and Boardwalk Lodge saltwater guide. “You can go out and fish just about every day. Where I lived in Kodiak you have a better chance at catching a bigger halibut, but you may be sitting inside watching 30 to 40 knot winds three or four days a week instead of fishing.”
Again, it comes down to fishability. And, in this situation, there are few days where anglers can’t get out on the water. If you are going to spring for a trip to Alaska, you’ll probably want to be on the water as much as possible.
By the east shore of Prince of Wales Island, we are referring to Clarence Strait, a place where whales and eagles can be as common as salmon and halibut. The Clarence Strait is located in Southeast Alaska, just north of Ketchikan. It separates Prince of Wales Island from the Cleveland Peninsula and the islands around Ketchikan. It’s an area loaded with salmon, halibut, rockfish and yelloweye.
“People come to Alaska for the experience, not just for the fishing. There’s a special mystique here. The name Alaska is big to a lot of people,” Pullum says. “Fishing is fishing, but the chance to see a gray or humpback whale splashing water into your boat or to see a group of killer whales alongside while you are reeling in a salmon is why we are special. If someone comes here to catch a fish, they are coming for the wrong reason. You come to see a bear, to be wakened by the chirp of an eagle or to breathe the fresh air.”
The Fish Are Here
Don’t discount the fishing, though. With conditions generally so favorable you won’t even need Dramamine, your experience is likely to be a pleasurable one, filled with memories of catching trophy fish.
“People come up here to fish and to get away from it all. The fish are here. We have as good fishing as most places, but that’s only a small portion of it,” Pullum says. “We don’t have to fly out to fish. Within 30 minutes of our lodge your could be catching salmon, halibut or crabbing.”
Depending on what species you want to catch, you’ll have to plan your trip accordingly. If you’re targeting halibut and other saltwater, any time from June through September will probably be good; however, salmon have more designated runs.
King salmon run 25 to 45 pounds on average, but can reach 50 pounds and are best from late June through mid-July. You can catch silvers from July through September averaging 7 to 9 pounds during the first of the run and 14 to 17 pounds in September. Chum salmon arrive from late June through August and average 9 to 15 pounds. Pink salmon are the smallest fish, but likely the most abundant. They are available from July through September and will likely range from 5 to 9 pounds.
Halibut, lingcod, yelloweye and rockfish are also abundant. The top season for halibut runs June through September. These fish average 25 to 50 pounds, but 100-pounders and larger are common. In 2003, a lodge record of 260 pounds was set. Lingcod and yelloweye are common throughout the summer and run 9 to 15 pounds, for the most part. More than 25 different species of rockfish are also available.
Halibut are probably the most sought-after species in the strait. Anglers can back troll to control the speed of their drift or anchor and fish. If it’s completely calm, your bait is vertical and only working one area, which means you’ll be forced to move around and cover more ground. Either way, limits are frequent. For the most part, you’ll want to fish along the small islands, off the edge of Prince of Wales Island and the mainland. It’s up to 1,700 feet and deeper in the heart of the strait. It’s not easy to find structure offshore.
“Pretty much anywhere, at any given time, you can catch halibut out here,” Pullum says. “Look for a place where the bait can settle or a place the halibut can ambush live bait. Fresh bait makes a big difference. When I use fresh bait, I catch more fish.”
Optimum fish-catching spots include troughs, in front of areas where freshwater comes in — for example, river inlets. Dead salmon and other debris get washed into the bay and halibut move in to feed. Another prime location is a big flat with a slough set in the middle of it. Bait will settle here and draw fish in.
In Alaska halibut migrate. During the winter they can be found 1,000 feet deep, or more. In April and May, as the water starts to warm, they’ll come up to find their feeding zones. As the water continues to warm, many halibut leave open water and move into bays or straits to feed.
“Halibut are a lot like caribou. The main pack moves together, but there are always a few that will stay behind,” Hosier says. “In a sense, the halibut come out of the trench and into shelves and other places to feed.”
In Alaska, you’ll find halibut are on the move a ton.
“When the tide comes in, a halibut will come into sandy bays and off rocky points to hunt,” Pullum says. “Then, that same halibut may go into 300 feet behind a rock or in a hole when the tide goes out. We have so many pinnacles and rocks here that it’s easy to get hung up. Check the bottom consistently and reel your bait 6 to 8 feet off the bottom. If you are in a sandy area, you can drag the bottom, which makes it look like you are bringing in baitfish. A lot of times halibut will be drawn in.”
The entire stretch of water that runs along the east end of Prince of Wales Island offers excellent halibut fishing. Union Bay and Ernest Sound are prime locations, but there are thousands of popular areas. Halibut are most available in 150 to 400 feet, but most guides don’t fish deeper than 300.
While rigs vary, most anglers use jigs and bait. When using baits, a No. 5 circle hook and a 10-ounce to 1.25-pound weight is standard. The weight varies depending on the current, depth and tide. Octopus, squid, salmon and herring are standard baits. When jig fishing, a 16-ounce lead head with a Kalin’s Biggin jig and the appropriate size grub or curly tail jig dressed with bait is best.
“In my opinion, the only way to go is to use a glow-in-the-dark jig below 120 feet, because in theory you can’t see any other colors down there anyway. But they hit other colors because of noise and vibration,” Hosier says.
Many anglers flock to Alaska for their chance at trophy halibut. Consistently, many of these fish are taken near rock piles than harbor rock and grey cod. The Alaska state record halibut was taken in 1996 and rand 459 pounds. The limit is two per angler, per day.
“It’s just like the way a crappie is to a minnow,” Hosier says. “Big halibut will go the mouth of rivers to get salmon.”
Try and seek places where large halibut can ambush salmon and use a big bait.
“You’ll have to use a big bait, but you’re going to get less bites. The key is, by using the bigger bait you’ll weed out fish under 25 pounds,” Pullum says. “We have a lot of large halibut. Plus, we have calm water and at shallow depths there are places where there are larger halibut. If you want a trophy fish, or something about 150 pounds, try to use a bait that is 2 pounds or more.”
Lingcod are more accidental catches in this area, but that’s not because they aren’t available they just aren’t targeted as much as halibut are. There are a ton of lingcod in southeast Alaska, but with halibut stealing the show, the lings aren’t caught often because anglers aren’t fishing the depths they are commonly found in. They are commonly taken in 50 to 200 feet on high pinnacles and rocky areas near kelp beds and other areas rich with rockfish.
“Be close to the bottom,” Pullum says. “A lingcod will sit right on the bottom. Their eyes are on top of their head so your bait needs to be higher than them and they’ll come get it”
Fishing for yelloweye rockfish, also called “red Snapper,” is excellent in this region. There are few areas that yield as many quality yelloweye as the Clarence Strait. Many fish average 5 to 10 pounds. However, fish twice that size are common. Each angler may keep two per day. Yellow eye act the same as lingcod, but you are likely to find them in deeper water.
“Unless you want to fish a 5-pound weight in 1,000 feet of water, there are no better places I know about where you can catch a good red snapper,” says Hosier, who enjoys fishing for yelloweye in this region because they tend to move much shallow than other northern destinations in Alaska, which makes them more vulnerable to anglers. ” The yelloweye fishing here is phenomenal. There are places you can go to target yellow eye and get limits easily.”
Your best bet is to fish rocky pinnacles in 150 to 350 feet of water. The yellow eye relate well to anything vertical. You can employ the same set-up for yelloweye and halibut.
Anglers can catch Dungeness crabs with little effort in this section of southeast Alaska. Crab pots filled with dead salmon and halibut fished on mud and sandy bottoms do the trick. Crabs are found in a bay or estuary where food is washed in via a creek or river system.
You don’t need lots of knowledge to fish crab pots. After you drop your pots make sure to allow an incoming tide push through before checking your pots. Anglers are permitted to take six male crabs per day. Each must be a minimum of 6.5 inches. It’s best to fish areas that have sandy or clay bottoms with kelp or eel grass nearby.
Anglers will be happy to know that more than 25 species of rockfish are available, and they are very easy to catch. Those include, but aren’t limited to, quillback, black rockfish, dusky, bocaccio, vermillion, arrowtooth flounder and greenling. As long as you are fishing structure they are found from the tidewater to 400 feet and can be caught with little effort. Try dropping a spoon, spinner or bait to the bottom. Mooching and vertical jigging are effective. If you want to have a blast, use a salmon or trout pole where you’ll get more play out of the fish.
Silvers are prevalent from July through September. The first run is made up of smaller 7- to10-pound fish and takes place in early July. The best time to target silvers in September when 12- to 20-pounders are common. Anglers can troll or mooch. Mooching is best in 30 to 100 feet. You can use herring or jigs such as Crippled Herrings. Others opt to troll. Cut or whole herring, white and silver spoons and spinners are effective. Trolling is best in 25 to 65 feet and at 2 to 2.4 mph.
“Bait will outfish metal 90 percent of the time, but metal will work,” Pullum says. “The spots you are looking for have to be in the silver’s route to the stream where they are going to spawn.”
King salmon can be targeted with a short boat ride across the Clarence Strait. They best window is from June 15 to July 15, although the run varies year to year. The vertical wall on the east end of the strait is best, as salmon use this wall as a traveling highway. There are several areas near here that salmon are forced to swim past to reach spawning grounds. Focus on Lemesure Point, Meyers Chuck, Ship Island and Bradfield Canal. Many of these fish are headed to the Bradfield River.
“Normally you’d stay very close to the wall. I’d stay within 50 yards,” Pullum says. “But however, some years we find them in the middle of the canal.”
For king, it’s hard to beat plug cut herring. “It makes it look like a crippled fish. A salmon will go into a school of herring and sometimes slap their tails at them and bite them with their teeth,” Pullum says. “When a salmon sees something like a wounded herring they will take it.”