Sunday, August 25, 2013

Surf and Turf Weekend...Alaska Style- Pt 3.

The following morning found me sore and groggy. We'd driven back through the night and had arrived sometime at 0'dark hundred. I showered and basically tipped over into bed. I'm generally an early riser but this morning found me hiding out between the sheets well into mid-morning. I managed to pry myself vertical and make my way to the coffee pot and start the day's chores. The primary chore was to clean out the chest freezer and make room for a bumper load of halibut that was due in from Valdez in a few hours.

That chore was easily completed since my freezer contained more air than not and I moved on to prepping my hunting gear for the next adventure. Caribou season had opened while we were on the boat and today's plan was to get out there and look for one. When my hunting and fishing companion arrived from the processor- we offloaded halibut into the freezer, hunting gear into the truck, stuck the ATV to the trailer and off we went.

No rest for the weary.

We headed for a close by spot that is scenic, rugged and although a popular hunting spot, it has yielded great results in the past. We unloaded the ATVs and headed up the steep approach to the plateau that would serve as out glassing platform. Arrival was pretty much non dramatic and we were soon engrossed in picking over the terrain with binoculars and a spotter. We must have glassed over the area for about an hour when I caught movement on a stark mountainside to the south.


We looked them over and they seemed to be meandering down the sheer face for the river bed several thousand feet below using a very long natural depression in the mountain that I could only guess was an ancient creek bed or some other drainage feature long since dry. We made plans to maneuver the ATVs down the trail, set up at it's end and then make the final intercept on foot as they arrived at the bottom where the dry creek arrived at the river- a distance of some 3 miles.

The plan was going very well and then at half the required distance we saw two other ATVs parked on the trail. We stopped and although slightly aggravated yielded the animals to the more opportune party. We sat there for about twenty minutes, expecting the shooting to start at any moment and hoping that some of the caribou might bolt and run our way when it did.

But it didn't.

I glassed over the other party carefully and it was almost comical but here was a group of four hunters laughing and smoking while a band of six caribou walked past them on a sheer mountain face in plain sight...less than four hundred yards away! Well if they weren't hunting, I still was. We decided to put on our best poker faces and just maneuver past. As we approached we had to engage in the usual small talk... "how's the weather?" and finally the customary, "Seen anything?" I've often wondered what people are doing in the hunting field without binoculars and will frequently gauge another party's level of competence by the presence of glass hanging around their necks- these guys were in epic fail mode as no binoculars were evident anywhere.

It was a lot of effort to quell my natural bent to sarcasm and reply with a deadpan, "Not really" instead of something like, "Only the caribou trying to climb up your back!" but I managed and we were soon free of the casual conversation and once again in pursuit of the caribou who had meandered below the level of the plateau. We hit the end of the trail and picked our way to the planned ambush point on foot. We arrived at the end of the rocky ridge line in time to see our quarry make it's way down the dry creek bed to the river.

Too late.

Without the lengthy delay engaged with our less visually acute brethren we would be there right now, opening fire from the nearly perfect ambush spot and concluding a long and well planned stalk. We watched as the caribou swam the river and climbed the mountainside on the other side. What difference it made we had no idea, but caribou behave in bizarre ways and what advantage one mountain held over another in the pre-migration season we had no idea. We discussed our next step and looking at the mountain face to our immediate south, decided that since we couldn't follow where the caribou had went we would explore where they had come from instead. We abandoned the ATVs and were soon climbing the rocky, dry creek bed to the top of the mountain which was situated as a long sharp ridge with drainages falling away steeply to each side. From my sheep hunting experience this was likely looking sheep country and although no sheep lived here, they did on the mountain to the immediate north.

We walked slowly across the ridge top and glassed carefully down each drainage most of which held some green summer grass, one held nothing but sheer cliff and one held an extremely interesting ice cave in a small glacier. On out next drainage my partner exclaimed in quiet urgency, "Caribou!"

And there was.

Perched on a spire of rock topped with green grass some 1500 feet below us was a lone yearling bull. More like a sheep than a caribou, he was there escaping the summer heat and the bugs by resting in the evening breeze rolling off this mountain. We hunkered down and crept to the edge and glassed him over- he was resting, dead asleep in fact and completely unaware of our presence. We looked the situation over and made our war plan. My partner was someone whom I'd mentored as a new hunter for the last couple of years and he'd yet to take an animal- he'd take the shot. The caribou was about 1500 feet below and perhaps the same distance horizontally down a very steep rocky slope and on a small spire just over the southern edge of the ridge than ran sharply to the valley below. Although getting into a decent range wouldn't prove difficult the steep, barren terrain would make approaching quietly arduous and somewhat dangerous. We dropped over the northern edge of the ridge and would use it to shield our approach from the caribou and hoped it would keep our scent away from his nostrils as well.

We crept quietly down the sidehill for what seemed like an impossibly long time until we arrived at the landmarked we picked that would signal the caribou was on nearly the same elevation as we were. The plan was to creep to the ridge's summit and then shoot the caribou in his bed. We had just made the summit and although our distance was off somewhat we were in very executable rifle range. Just 80 yards and slightly above the sleeping critter.

As my companion was getting set up for the shot his boot dislodged some large stone  and it bounced loudly down the bare scree slope. It sounded impossibly loud in the small rocky canyon and with each impact it dislodge even more stones and they bounced and crashed down the slope in a cacophony of noise. Muttering curses under his breath I told my partner to get in sitting position and get ready to shoot as soon as the caribou stood up. My partner assumed a sitting position and looped up in the sling like we'd practiced many times on the range. This should be a chip shot unless the dreaded buck fever took hold of his senses. I looped up my own rifle- ready to back him up if required. We certainly didn't want a wounded caribou running further down this terrain.

The caribou just eyed us and didn't move. I was certain the animal would shortly stand and present us with a perfect broadside shot. The seconds turned into a minute which turned into two. A standoff at close range between the hunter and the prey but the caribou never some much as moved. In fact, he fell back asleep.


I told my partner in the quietest tone possible, "Aim about 4" high and shoot him." I wanted to make a good shot and while an animal is bedded the internal organs are shifted into different places with the heart blocked by the shoulder and pressed into the ground. In this case a "high lung shot" should punch through both lungs, the network of blood vessels at the top of the heart and with more luck, smash the juncture of the neck to the spine.

My partner steeled himself and took up the minute slack on the trigger of his .338 Winchester Magnum.


The gun was impossibly loud in this canyon and the caribou snapped his eyes open and looked right at us. "A miss!", I said out loud since silence was now pretty much pointless with the cannon going off, "Reload and get ready for when he stands." I expected the caribou to jump up and trot off but the brief second he took to get his feet under him would give us a perfect broadside shot.

Except the caribou refused to move. He just sat there in his bed and eyed the strange  and noisy creatures who had invaded his bedroom. And sat there. And sat there. It felt like hours but in reality was only about minute, which in retrospect is a long time to sit with the crosshairs on a beast at somewhat close range.

"He's not moving, shoot him again." I said. My partner tightened up and I could see the muzzle shaking slightly like a taut wire in the wind. Apparently the previous miss had rattled him badly. "Do you want me to shoot him?" I queried, "I can pull this off pretty well from here."

"I've got this," my partner replied.

"Ok then, just breathe and focus on the crosshair," I coached him. "No rush, this guy isn't going anywhere." I was watching the bull though my scope and was ready to make the shot if required. My partner took several long breaths and tightened his grip on the sling. I could see the muzzle steady out as he got into the zone and focused on the shooting fundamentals. This should be better. I turned my attention back to the bull just a moment before the sear broke.

"KaBOOM!" The .338 rang out again and we were much too close to hear the strike of the bullet but the input wasn't needed. The 180 grain .338 slug hit the caribou in precisely the right place and he simply shuddered at the impact and dropped over apparently stone dead. I didn't get much cleaner than that.

"Reload and watch him for a minute," I instructed. "Sometimes when they drop like that you've just hit a spinal process and then they get up and run off." I was cautious although I was pretty sure in this case it was unwarranted. After a long minute, I finally said, "Congratulations! Good shooting. Unload and let's go get the animal." I heard the action eject the shells and my partner exclaimed in a long exhale.

His first big game animal.

We made our way down to the bull, a yearling bull in fine condition on summer feed. We worked quickly to field dress and quarter the animal and a brief rain squall made the rocks around us slick. I was a little concerned now that we were here and looking up the terrain looked much steeper and more forbidding than on the descent. We gave some consideration to going after the quads and crossing to another fingerling ridge but abandoned the idea as too dangerous. This one was only getting out of here through exertion and sweat. We split up the meat between the packs and picked our way carefully up the ridge, back to the top. Given our exhaustion and heavy load it took quite a long time and we stopped frequently to rest. We eventually topped out on the main ridge and dropped our loads. A whole bull caribou is quite a heavy load in two packs but I can't say I'd want to do that again. I lay back and dried in the stiff breeze a bit. We could easily get the quads to this location and retrieve both our gear and the meat via the BLM trail system that served this area and with a half hour had the meat secured to the racks.

We drank some water and broke out some much needed food- it was 5:00p and I hadn't eaten since mid morning. I was pretty exhausted but it had been a great day. We recounted the day's events and discussed the various ways to eat caribou and how to finish processing the animal. We ate and watched as a huge rainstorm rolled in from the mountains to the west. In an hour or two this exposed summit would be no place I'd want to be as the angry storm bore down.

Bone tired, we turned the quads down the trail and headed for home.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Surf and Turf Weekend...Alaska Style- Pt. 2

I must confess that I slept like a baby in the hold of that boat. The dim interior, the sound of light rain on the deck above, and the gentle rocking of the ocean combined into a force that would put modern sleep aids to shame. I was jarred into consciousness by the staticy crackle of the NOAA weather radio giving the forecast for the morning. I lay there quietly listening to the disembodied, computerized voice recite the wind speed, precipitation and wave height for location after location around the Prince William Sound. From the forecast it was apparent that the wary angler would go light on breakfast.

I rolled out of the rack and headed above decks to see what the day was looking like. The skipper and the deckhand were moving efficiently about- clearing bedding and reassembling the interior of the boat.  Remembering the forecast, I powered down a cereal bar and hoped I might get a cup of coffee when the engines fired and we could run the microwave. A couple of the "rear deck crew" must have had a rough evening as they were still asleep when we got underway. The skipper was in hurry to get going- the engines were barely started and the anchor chain was coming up. Within minutes we were running flat out across the 5 foot swells, headed for the fishing grounds.

I guess that coffee would have to wait.

We anchored off of some non-descript point of land and made some effort to maneuver to a specific point on the GPS readout. The swells made it difficult to hold position while the anchor chain unspooled the 300' to the black bottom. Even with the skipper's practiced hand we had to make several attempts before the anchor secured us in the right spot. Despite the pitching of the deck, Deck Chick made her way with practiced efficiency and had us all rigged for fishing in just moments. The skipper disappeared below and we started to fish.

It always is a long wait for the first fish of the day to hit- sometimes it happens fast and sometimes it doesn't happen at all but the tedium to see which it will be is something that's both delectable and detestable at the same time. It took 35 minutes by my watch and The Boss had one on the line. It was a long haul up from the bottom and we had a nice halibut on the deck. Not repeating yesterday's indecision, he said "Keep it" before Deck Chick had the fish completely subdued. It would go on like this all morning. Slower fishing overall, but the fish were larger and we kept a higher percentage of those we put on deck.

Safety Man climbed above deck and began to fish by mid-morning and due to the pitching of the sea was chumming at the rail in minutes. Whatever mysterious Jaegermeister and Red Bull combination he spewed into the water must have been miraculously attractive to the fish. He was still green around the gills when Environmental Man's reel started screaming. He did the usual thing that all fishermen do when confronted by a running drag- he tried to stop the fish's advance and turn it. No such luck- the stiff deep sea rod bent precariously and the drag never slowed.

D.C. was at his side in a flash- it was obvious to her experienced eye that this was a really nice fish and she did her duty and had everyone reel up to allow room to fight the big halibut. After the fish stopped running it was E.M.'s turn to reel the fish in from the depths- foot by foot. It took a very long time and we tried various techniques to ease the strain- a fighting belt, a butt cup (attached to the rod butt, not E.M.'s) and good old fashioned padding kept the rod from digging into his abdomen and thigh. I've had huge bruises from fighting large fish and he would definitely have one when this was over.

D.C. yelled for the skipper to get up. Despite her remarkable ability the laws of physics still applied- she would not be able to control the leader, load a bang stick and then flip the fish that likely exceed her own body weight over the rail. He appeared in the cabin door right away and upon seeing the rod and the strain on both E.M. and D.C.'s face knew we had a really good one. He reached back without looking and retrieved the bang stick from it's place starboard of the cabin door. Skipper took over coaching duties and D.C. retrieved the harpoon and gaff and handed them out. We must have looked like Frankenstein's mob on the back of a boat- a motley crew of shouting and struggling peasants each holding and waving some deadly implement in the air over our heads.

With a splash the fish broke surface beside the boat. Without asking the obvious question of whether we'd keep the fish or not, Skipper deftly dropped the power head of the bang stick on the halibut's skull right behind the dual eyes. With a muffled pop that sounded like a cardboard box dropped on a concrete floor, the fish suddenly went limp in the water. The skipper exchanged the bang stick for the harpoon and despite the razor sharp point failed to fully penetrate the fish's body. This worried him somewhat as losing a fish of this size would certainly cost him reputation (and tips!). The gaff was inserted under the jaw and with a large effort- two on the gaff and two on the harpoon line- heaved the fish through the diver door on the rear of the boat. By some luck, the harpoon head turned under a gill plate and held fast- in fact, we'd have to cut it out later with a knife.

No sooner had the fish slid onto the deck than the circle hook just simply fell out of it's own accord.

We all gasped like we'd seen a miracle. With the slightest twist or even the smallest amount of slack line  we'd all have screamed as this huge fish slipped back into blackness. This same crew had boated a 160 pounder two years ago, but this one was bigger. The skipper was really excited as he looked at a potential derby winner, without fail a top three and said to E.M. rather proudly, "Bet you're glad you got that Derby Ticket now!"

The look on E.M.'s exhausted countenance was priceless. Unforgettable in fact. He'd not been able to find the Derby Ticket vendor....and had gotten a coffee instead. The whole Derby affair was marketed around just such an occurrence.

"Friends don't let friends fish without a Derby Ticket."

But he had. E.M. had a giant fish on deck and no ticket. The fact that he'd not win any of the purse placed a down trodden mood on the party the rest of the day. Except for the jabs at E.M. over the derby ticket, we were pretty much too tired to talk. We caught and boated several more fish in the afternoon and the seas got rougher and the swells got higher. I believe that by lunch I would have been happy to just turn for home- still a 4 hour boat ride and a 6 hour drive from my location in the Sound.  I was exhausted and we had meat in the hold.

Lots of it.

We finished the trip in anticlimax; exhaustion, seasickness and just plain hunger. We boated our limit just five minutes before the cut off and satisfied that we were well and truly fished out, the skipper pulled the anchor and we headed for port. I managed a few minutes sleep since the following sea was a much gentler ride and within an hour we were in protected waters and the sea shone like glass. I woke briefly to see a pod of killer whales breach- a perfect end to the trip.

The day ended in a long series of chores. Cleaning up the boat and packing our gear, offloading our fish and turning them over to the fillet guy who manned the table at the slip, then arranging the fillets to be transported to the processor by a small army of young kids armed with plastic bags and wheeled carts. The final tally on the monster fish was 198 pounds, bled dry. Probably well over 220 if we hadn't slit the gill. Our check in at the processor was over 500 pounds. Some gross math would estimate our pre-filet weight at something like 850 pounds before the inedible parts of carcasses were fed to the waiting crowds of gulls, eagles and harbor seals.

It was late when we managed to grab a burger and some gas- filling our bellies and our tanks and turned the rigs toward home for the long drive back. A industrial sized cup of hot coffee was like manna from heaven when the truck topped Thompson Pass at dusk.
At last look, the fish placed number three in the standings (had E.M. had a ticket) and would have been a $15,000 fish.

But it eats well just the same and the weekend was only half over.

Next: the Turf in Surf and Turf...Alaska Style- Pt. 3.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Surf and Turf Weekend...Alaska Style- Pt. 1

Pacific Halibut
The week started out as any other, the usual workday drudgery but the promise of an adventure awaited  at the end of the week. My annual halibut fishing trip had been delayed until the first of August due to the change in plans my frequent fishing companions had cooked up in the spring. Rather than the usual one day charter where we would leave Valdez and return that evening (whether we had fish or not)- we would charter for two days and camp shipboard overnight. We would, of course, be entitled to two daily limits and fore go the long treks from Valdez to the better fishing grounds. Over the last few years the halibut stocks have been declining so charter operators are having to go further from port to get into good halibut numbers and it's not unusual to start and finish your fishing trip with a three to four hour boat makes for a long day and with marine diesel soaring well past $4.00 a gallon, an expensive day of fishing as well.

The two day charter seemed like a wonderful idea. More time fishing, less time boating, slightly less cost per day due to the fuel savings. More skippers are offering the option these days as many clients are unwilling to spend the kind of money a day charter now costs for a single limit of halibut when combined with half the day spent under power. Not too long ago most skippers would never consider overnights- too inconvenient. It's now relatively common.

Our adventure would prove to be the usual late summer affair. With hunting season opening simultaneously we wanted to waste no time. Usually I fish in June and July, when hunting is mostly closed, and then transition to acquiring red meat when the season opens in August. We departed town at 10:30p destined for Valdez and after a long and bumpy ride down the highway and some pea soup fog crossing Thompson Pass we arrived uneventfully in Valdez at 4:00a. We found the dock easily enough and managed a couple of hours worth of nap in the truck while we waited for the 6:00a boarding time.

At the crack of dawn our companions had all assembled at the dock and ready to board. The skipper asked if we all had Derby Tickets (the usual seasonal 'biggest fish' contest) and everyone did- with one exception- our friend Environment Man. He was given the opportunity to run up the dock and purchase one, but declined. Hindsight being 20/20 and all- this was a monumental mistake. We were all a little taken aback when the skipper's deckhand made an appearance and began to stow our gear. I've encountered all sorts of folks working as deckhands... the down and out, the college guys needing room, board and the opportunity to make some bank before school started in the fall, even a couple of retirees (pensioners for SBW) for whom the tedium of inactivity had gotten to be too much. Deckhanding is hard dang work- hauling large fish over the rail, baiting hooks, untangling lines for an endless stream of customers. I was very surprised to find the deckhand was the skipper's 17 year old grand-daughter. I really didn't know what to make of that- particularly around the (usually) "salty" crew  that I fish with. I hoped that The Boss's significant other- Quality Woman- being on board for this trip would keep the commentary at least PG rated. Otherwise, I mentally prepared to bait my own hook and flip my own fish over the rail. Maybe I'm just old fashioned that way.

The trip out was uneventful and several hours of pounding across the chop brought us to the non-descript location and after a little bit of GPS hokey-pokey and messing with the anchor- we were ready to fish. Deck Chick broke out the rods and soon had everyone with bait in the water. It was apparent from the efficiency she handled the task that she was no beginner at this and the way she barked orders at my crew of sportsmen ( and woman) that she could likely hold her own verbally. After a few minutes of fishing, The Boss, had a bonafide tug on the line and after a long struggle to pull the fish from the 300' depths had a nice 50 pound halibut beside the boat. Deck Chick was right there and she deftly pushed TB to the side with a cursory "I got this", leaned over the rail and wrapped a hand around the steel leader and tugged the fish over the rail in a deft motion. As soon the flopping flatfish hit the deck, she body tackled it and pinned it to the deck. She look politely at TB and queried," Keep it or toss it?"

Now one doesn't generally like to keep the first fish on board, otherwise limiting very early is a possibility and you'll be watching your companions fish from the cabin. You also don't casually toss what might be the nicest fish of the day overboard- no matter when you land it. I could see TB swirling those thoughts within his analytical brain.

DC, from her perch on the fish half her size was a little less analytical. "Are YOU *&%&^$# keeping it or am I   @(&*^(*&^% throwing it back!"

That stunned TB to make a decision, he uttered, "Keep" in a slightly shocked voice while the rest of us stared open mouthed. DC deftly fisted the circle hook  out of the fish's mouth and knifed it savagely in the gill (where'd the heck that knife come from?) and cramming a forearm up the fish's gill plate slid the bleeding fish expertly across the deck into the fish hold. She had TB's hook re-baited and back in the water in less than 60 seconds.

Well, I'll be.

After that, the fish occupied our thoughts. The fishing was pretty much non-stop. It was mostly chickens (halibut less than 20 pounds) and we returned anything less than 40 pounds to the water. The skipper, being a real pro at this, didn't waste a lot of time moving the boat and other such amateurish non-sense. He put us on a good deep hole, left the work up to DC and promptly went below and fell asleep. We reeled up more than 50 halibut that first day and had limited out sometime before 9p with a dozen very nice sized halibut (albeit nothing huge) in the 40-80 pound range and a half dozen Ling Cod. The Ling is a Leviathan looking beast with a huge, wide, huge and a gaping maw filled with reverse pointing, needle sharp teeth. They clamp on to their prey and basically crush it to death and then swallow it whole. It seems impossible that the fish could eat something large enough to require a mouth that big and get it to fit through their small body. My four foot specimen could have fit a regulation football into it's mouth and it had the appearance of being 1/3 head but it's body was only the size of a XXL red salmon. The minimum legal limit is 36" in length for a keeper and we boated nine of the prehistoric looking beasts- three being slightly undersized and returned to the deep. Despite their vicious look- they have a very good taste and are something of a rare treat. It was the first one I'd caught since 2002.

By nine'o clock the seas had gotten rough. Not so bad that the vessel had to retreat to a cove but rough enough to make you wish it would. One of our companions, Safety Man, was struck with a raging bout of sea-sickness and spent considerable time "chumming" everything in his gastric tract for the entertainment of the rest of the crew. An ungrateful lot we are. We had boated a nice limit of limit that the skipper and DC would fillet and put on ice to preserve the catch until we docked the next day. I was pretty well exhausted. TB and myself had fished the whole day and had boated the majority of the fish- everyone else had fished in starts and fits between snacks, naps, and retching. I was exhausted from a long night on the road and long day on the water and by the time we anchored in the cove all I wanted to do was power down a freeze dried meal and go to bed.

A word on boat camping. Unless a boat charter specifically sets up for campers there just isn't a lot of room for amenities. Given the size of our group, eight including the skipper and DC, we  pretty much filled up the boat and the skipper had discouraged us from bringing a lot of extra gear or food. "Keep it basic," he'd said, "we're there to fish, not cook." Dinner was a basic affair of freeze dried backpacker chow washed down with lukewarm instant coffee made in the ship's microwave. Sleeping arrangements were even more Spartan. Enough flat space to stick everyone and that was about it.
Ling Cod
I was exhausted and sore from a long day of reeling heavy fish off the bottom in rough seas. TB and his girlfriend, QW had taken the double bunk and were already turning in. The skipper and DC were just finishing filleting chores and would soon turn in. EM was looking pretty ragged and our friends Maintenance Man and Safety Man (despite spending much of the day vomiting) had produced a bottle of Jaegermeister and several cans of Red Bull and planned a cocktail party on deck while throwing pixies for silver salmon that were jumping all over the cove. I had no desire to partake of such shenanigans and headed to belowdecks where I wrapped up in a well used sleeping bag  and soon fell fast asleep to the gentle rising and falling of the ocean. be continued.