The Lure of Alaska - Alaska's Boardwalk Lodge

The Lure of Alaska

Texas Sporting Journal

March 2005 – By Brian Thurston

Texas Sporting Journal Alaska fishing article

The line is peeling off the reel so fast I just know the spool will overheat and fail. The second the fish hit, I knew that if I didn’t break it off, this freight train was going to be a wall-hanger.

Four runs into the fight, this fish is still making acrobatic leaps in a frantic attempt to break the line, or beat me into submission, whichever comes first. But this is my day and my time.

Ol’ Silversides makes one more short dash, then finally comes wallowing to the boat. Waiting at the gunwale, my ace guide, Red, deftly slips the net under my prize.

Yessss! This is fishing, Alaska style!

You know the drill: You book an awesome fishing trip, and you’re itching to go. You toss in your sleep. You check your gear list a dozen times, and as the countdown continues your friends can’t wait to see you leave. After all, you are heading for the Shangri La of fishing while they stay home and work.

But too often, once you reach your destination, “guide talk” begins… The tides are too high. The spawning run is late. It’s too windy. There’s too much bait. The moon is in the seventh house of Jupiter.

Then there’s the dreaded, old standby: “Shoulda been here last week. Man, they were really biting.”

But every once in a great while the fish Gods align everything perfectly, and you actually do find yourself living the dream.

That happened last September when my wife Pam and I boarded a flight from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska, then hopped a Beaver floatplane to Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island, home of the Alaska Boardwalk Lodge.

I had heard amazing stories about the Thorne Bay area and Boardwalk, so when we were greeted by lodge manager Art Moody, my enthusiasm was already piqued. Then came Art’s brief intro:

“Boardwalk Lodge is all about you. Simply tell us what you want. This is a personal experience, not just about fishing. Our goal is to be the destination lodge in Alaska.”

With that, Art’s crew grabbed our bags and we headed for the lodge along a walkway made of cedar boards (hence the lodge name) spanning a small inlet. We stowed our bags in the rooms — more on that later — and were joined by my co-worker Don Fenton and his wife, Deana, who had arrived a day earlier. When Don approached, I could see he had this silly grin and a glaze in his eyes that a Lab pup gets on his first whiff of a pintail.

“You won’t believe it, Brian,” Don says. “We must have hooked into a dozen big silver salmon, and we were only out there for two hours! Biggest problem is trying to get these freight trains to slow down and cooperate!”

That was all Pam and I needed to hear. Lunch could wait. The four of us headed down to meet Red who would be our saltwater guide.

Standing by was an oversized, ruddy Swede with a big smile, a beard that supported the nickname, and a wealth of local knowledge. Thorne Bay has been his home for the past 30 years, and like all Boardwalk guides, he has invested a huge amount of time learning his home waters and the giant fish that live there.

Silver Salmon fishing in Alaska
To our delight, the lodge uses safe, stable boats, 26-foot rigs by Olympic, ideal for Alaska’s quirky weather. However, the area around Thorne Bay offers many protected inlets and fjordtype waters with relatively calm areas where you can fish without worrying about losing that fantastic breakfast you just ate. Roughing it?

The boats feature heated cabins, enclosed head, comfortable seating and of course, nothing but top-quality fishing gear. Red did nothing to quell our fires.

“It’s not if you are going to catch something, it is how many and what variety.”

I liked this guy right away! Red determined we needed to run 15 minutes across the bay where silvers (coho salmon) in the 10- to 18-pound class, were feeding. These fish put on as much as a pound a week prior to heading up the streams to spawn, and they are famous for their hard fighting and acrobatic skills. Often, they jump several feet out of the water numerous times before you’re able to bring them to the net.

The action was immediate and fierce.

“Fish on!” Deana yells, as line began spilling off a rod with a huge bend in it.

One look at my wife, and I knew she was not ready to tangle with 17 pounds of angry coho, so it was up to me to lend her a hand. I willingly assumed the rod, with a huge smile. I got the fish close to the boat when Deana yelled again.

“Fish on!”

Again she grabbed a severely bent rod. It went this way for the next two hours. For once, it was not merely fishing, but catching.

This put everyone in jolly spirits, resulting in a lot of high-fives, teasing and competitive spirit to see who landed the biggest. It was only the beginning. To my amazement we saw action like this every single day.

If this kind of fishing is appealing — are you still breathing? — it’s yours to be had out of Boardwalk Lodge. It’s especially good in September, when Texans are weary of the summer heat and ready to turn the page.

While there is tremendous fishing for all kinds of fish from April into the Alaska autumn, literally millions of silver salmon are gorging themselves during the September run. Alaska is famous for its weather, but in this stretch the day-time highs may be in the 60’s, sometimes in the 70’s.

What an awesome time to add a little variety to your coho fishing. It’s not often you visit a fish haven where the angler can have his choice for the day — Saltwater or fresh? River or lake?

One morning the boys and girls split up. Don and I went with Forrest (one of two Orvis specialists at the lodge) to his favorite spot for flyfishing and spinning. We found the river to be absolutely choked with silvers and pinks.

Once we got the hang of things I would estimate we caught and released more than 50 salmon in three hours of fishing. If you have never experienced a chrome-bright silver salmon on a fly rod, you owe it to yourself to commit to the effort. Eight pounds of silver can turn a big guy like me inside out if they decide to treat you to some 50 yard runs and acrobatic leaps. It is a sight you will never forget.

Back in the salt, you can have a go at Hippoglossus stenolepsis, an outsized beast shaped like a Texas crappie, otherwise known as the Pacific halibut.

This fish is the real Paul Bunyan of the North, as it can grow to 8 feet long and weigh more than 700 lbs. The largest halibut caught on rod and reel weighed 459 pounds.
Halibut, salmon and rockfish were part of the group's saltwater fishing catch

Halibut feature a delicate, sweet flavor, and the snow-white flesh yields a firm flaky filet that is absolutely delicious. Keep this reward in mind when you are working the reel handle, trying to retrieve 250 yards of line. Cranking up a stubborn halibut can be work. The big boys don’t give up easily.

Leave it to Pam to come up with her own unconventional way to jig for halibut. No matter how often I chided her for poor technique, a minute or two later she yelled for somebody to grab her so a runaway halibut didn’t pull her overboard.

Her biggest halibut, 121 pounds, brought a gleam to her eyes I haven’t seen since the Nordstrom’s post- Christmas sale. Not to be left out, we all caught halibut, along with two other tasty bottom-feeding species, the lingcod and yelloweye (snapper). Snapshots all around.

The fish preparation was nearly as remarkable as the fish catching. Back at the lodge, all fish were expertly filleted, the meat vacuum-packed in meal-sized bags and frozen for our trip home.

On the return flight I suddenly realized that there was no chance for us to jam 150 pounds of filets into our freezer. Solution? First call of duty was the purchase of a new chest freezer. You might want to assess your own storage situation prior to this trip!

As a side note, each passenger is allowed two checked bags of 50lbs. each at no additional charge. This adds up to a lot of filets.

Alaska Boardwalk Lodge was a pleasant surprise and it lived up to Art’s original statement about being a personal experience. With rustic-looking rooms that offer all the comforts of home, we found it to be a delightful spot for couples and families. This Orvis-endorsed lodge has rooms with queen-sized beds, with roomy showers that deliver plenty of water pressure. And the view… it’s straight out of a Chamber of Commerce postcard.

Boardwalk is just right for hardcore individuals, too. For the angler looking to test his tackle — and his stamina — this is the place to be.

Five days at a lodge like this leaves a visitor with enough stories and memories to last until he or she comes back. That’s just what we plan to do!