Tuesday, July 19, 2011

1st Memorial Fishing Trip Report or....The Mysterious Island

The alarm went off much earlier than I wanted it too that morning. I was still groggy from a late arrival after driving in to Valdez late the night before. The road down, while mostly devoid of summer traffic, was undergoing construction and what wasn't undergoing repair needed it badly. To top it off it rained all the way down too. I got my groggy bones out of bed, grabbed a quick shower and wandered down to the lobby in search of coffee. I got several stares as I placed my "Big Man Mug" under the caffeine spigot and let it roll- bypassing the Styrofoam shot glasses most of the other patrons had used. Sufficiently fueled I zipped my jacket and strolled out of the hotel into the Valdez harbor. Looking suspiciously at the sky with one scowling eye- I drank back a long slug of the hideous brew. It looked like an awful day for fishing.

I stopped by my rig and shouldered my pack with all my gear and checked the note in my pocket with the slip number written on it- and headed for the correct boat where hopefully my companions would be joining me. A few minutes later I arrived  on time and checked in with the skipper of the boat. Today's shark charter would have 6 of us on a 28' boat- 4 fisherman, a deckhand, and the skipper. Colloquially called a "Six Pack" in these waters it was a pretty standard configuration albeit older and showing considerable wear and tear; room for 4 to fish from the back, a small head and cuddy cabin below forward, elevated con in the middle under a canvas top. This boat was named the Swifty and the two massive 300 horsepower outboards hanging off the back should be an indication that the boat was aptly named. Since I was the last to arrive on board I presented my fishing license to the captain who recorded my information and we were off to the fuel dock to take on fuel and more coffee.

The captain was a friendly enough sort, apparently to hear him tell it one of the foremost shark men in the Sound (more on that later) and as we motored through the "No Wake" zone out of the harbor gave us the standard safety speech and let us know that we would be making the run out to Hinchinbrook Island in pursuit of salmon sharks. The weather was looking rougher by the moment and I was happy to have new rain gear and a total lack of predisposition to seasickness. My companions for the trip were a couple of coworkers and friends, Gary and Dan, as well as Dan's longtime girlfriend Jenny. We all made ourselves more or less comfortable on the aft deck and as we drifted past the buoy the captain fired the starboard engine and pushed the throttles forward. Swiftly was apparently correctly named and as the captain planed out the boat we were streaking across the water past the hulking trawlers working the run of pink salmon in the bay.

Two and a half hours later after crossing a large chunk of the Gulf of Alaska we drifted to a standstill over some unknown underwater structure where the captain told us was a good spot to fish for sharks. According to the radio chatter on the marine set the boat moored a half mile west was none other than Larry Csonka, who was busy trying to catch sharks for his North to Alaska television program. We rigged two marine "big game" rods with huge Penn deep sea reels with steel leaders and dual hooks. The bait was a whole pink salmon-one hook through the gut and one through the head. Anything the size of a shark that hit this bait would be very likely to be secured onto either or both of the large circle hooks.

We ran the two rods off the aft and affixed proper weights to both and rigged the starboard one to run relatively deep and the port to run shallower to present a bait to sharks cruising at either depth. We quickly established a batting order for who would fight the first shark and began cruising slowly with the bait deployed. The skipper explained that sharks would normally hit a bait hard in the middle resulting in a sharp jerk to the rod and we should call out- allowing him to cut the engine. The shark would then apparently be satisfied that the initial strike had killed his target and then proceed to eat it- tail first and impale himself on the forward facing hooks. It sounded like a perfect plan.

With one exception. No one had informed the sharks that this was a participatory sport on their part.

After an hour of cruising- slowly pulling the bait- we stopped and readjusted, checked weights, and changed depths. The formerly enthusiastic and chatty captain was now somewhat crestfallen and oddly silent- driving the boat in a course and chain smoking cigarettes. The deckhand went below and fell asleep.

It started to rain.

Being "on deck" with Gary "at bat" I was not expecting any monster fish fighting action anytime soon so I went below decks and donned my rain gear and retrieved my camera and went above to study the shoreline of Hinchinbrook hoping to spot one of the islands fabled monstrous bears. The whisper thin beach rose sharply to thick maritime temperate rain forest, thick and dark and then continued steeply up into the low lying cloud bank with occasional rocky peaks sticking above. The rain and dark appearance of the island coupled with my knowledge of the bears lurking within gave the entire coast a feeling of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. A recently marooned boat laying cracked open on the beach completed the picture.

It started to rain harder.

Another hour of trolling for the non-starter sharks and the captain called a meeting on the cramped deck. While the adage "A bad day fishing beats a good day working" is certainly true- it does however overlook the perspective of a chartered fishing captain. A boat full of paying clients getting skunked and soaked to the bone in the process was not good for business. With fuel at over $4 a gallon and expenses piling up a boat captain simply must return happy (well tipping) clients to the dock with whopping piles of fish to just stay financially afloat. And skunked fishermen don't tip. In this new era the number of charter boats in Valdez is half of last year and that is half of the year before. When charters cost $100 a day and fuel ran a $1.50 per gallon the captains had a booming business- now with limits tights, fuel sky high and costs astronomical- the price had risen to the point die hard fishermen who once might have chartered several times a season would now go once. The folks who might charter annually were now going every two or three years and the other folks who might try a once in a lifetime trip weren't going at all. The skipper was desperate for the grizzled and unhappy folks before him to reel something in.

"I know a spot, about 4 miles away where the tide line runs we can catch some huge halibut if you guys are willing to give up and sharks and go for flat fish" the captain proffered. I was not impressed but I decided that continuing to keep doing what we were was going to just be unproductive and I cast my vote- "I'm in." The rest of the folks quickly added their vote- anything was better than driving a boat in circles under a pouring raincloud with the only fish on the line a dead one used as bait. I was skeptical of the skipper's claim- it smelled of desperation but my own foul mood on this failing adventure occurring on the anniversary of my father's death may have colored my judgement. At least a little.

A few minutes under the Swifty's considerable power and we were there- anchored off the shore in deep water with a ripping current rushing under the boat. At precisely 2:05 the tide turned and the boat swung on its anchor and we dropped lines with generous chunks of salmon on circle hooks with three pound weights down to the bottom. Even the rain cloud that had drenched us for hours moved on to the west, leaving us a little sun. Within moments Dan had cried out, "Fish ON!" and just a few moments later had a thirty pound halibut next to the boat. It was hooked just barely and the skipper urged Dan to let it get off and escape- "That's a real little one for this spot," he said. "Ok", replied Dan (just a little defiantly I thought) and let his line go slack. The wriggling fish flipped his tail and disappeared in the black water. I was hoping that wasn't the only thing we caught.

Something that only happens once in great while at that moment began to happen. Like a mathematical equation that equals more than the sum of its parts, a planetary alignment, a magic trick the amazes even the magician- the current, the fish, the temperature, yeah even God Himself smiled on us and a wave of fish ran under our boat that defied imagination. While the skipper would certainly say the result was his knowledge and expertise, I'm not so sure (not to discount the skipper's skill) that it wasn't the benevolence of a higher power on a much needed occasion.

We caught fish.

Not just caught fish...miraculously caught huge fish. Gary cried out with a grunt, caught by surprise he managed a muffled "Fish on" but the screaming drag of his reel drowned out his call as a monster of a fish ran with his bait. I quickly reeled mine in to give him more space to fight his clearly giant fish. A well over six feet and powerfully built, Gary fought this fish for twenty minutes of huffing and sweating and a truly massive fish surfaced by the boat- the captain quickly harpooned the fish to anchor it to the boat and reached for the bang stick as the deckhand pulled it alongside. A swift motion and the power head contacted the fish just over the region of the brain- the .38 Special shell exploded and the massive fish went limp in the water. Fish of this size are never pulled live into the boat- their struggles could easily destroy equipment of injure shipmates. A power head made swift and humane work of killing the fish. Several gaffs were placed in the fish's giant jaw and it took three grown men to haul it over the side of the boat.

No sooner than we took photos and admired the size of the barn door than Dan cried out "Fish on!" and the scream of his drag reel carried over the water. Dan fought the fish while the deckhand and I wrestled Gary's massive fish into the fish hold. It was so large its tail had no choice but to hang out under the door. Dan landed his fish and the power head once again went to work and another fish was added to the hold. My rod  gave a severe jerk and I began to fight another large fish as they hauled Dan's over the rail. A few minutes later I had it near the side and the captain (whose stock had risen considerably at this point) harpooned it and dropped the power head expertly on the fish's skull. The firing shell made a loud pop (much like a cardboard box being dropped from a height onto concrete) and the fish went satisfyingly limp. The bullet doesn't have to hit the brain as the most destructive force is the gas and shock of the power head essentially venting into the fishes body cavity. We hauled it up into the hold just as Dan took over fighting another fish for Jenny, who had exhausted herself fighting another fish.

I stepped back and contemplated what was happening...we had three large fish that any one would have been the pride of any boat on the water and then Gary hooked into another one! I took over reloading the power head after the captain had popped Jenny's fish and hurried over to harpoon Gary's second one. No sooner had I slipped it back into the rack than Dan called out for it again! The poor deckhand was pulling in fish right and left and had a hard time keeping up with all the fish hitting the boat. It was glorious. I reached out to take my rod as my second fish hammered it, bending the rigid rod nearly double. Thirty exhausting minutes later I had my second fish to the side and the harpoon was jabbed- the blow missed home and the fish ran for the depths a second time. My aching muscles screamed pulling a second hundred pounder up from the depths...the exhausted fish finally yielded to the exhausted fisherman and this time the harpoon struck home. The power head once again popped and another fish went into the hold after being wrestled aboard.

Jenny was fighting another huge fish and after a valiant effort yielded the rod to Dan who fought what would be a huge skate to the surface. We released it and the Dan's reel shrieked to life and an exhausted Jenny took over and held the fish for an exhausted Dan before he began reeling in his second fish. At this point we all had two fish (the daily limit) except Jenny whose reel came to life again- she wrestled a twenty five pounder aboard with the help of the deckhand. After raising fish hold door we saw there was simply not room for the fish in the crowded hold. "Oh heck, its just a baby compared to the others." she exclaimed, "just let it go!" The deckhand complied by placing the still wriggling and yet unharmed fish back into the water and what would have been the highlight of many of my trips slipped back happily into the dark water  and headed for the bottom where it lived.

It was four o'clock and we had limited a boat of anglers with consistently large fish- simply unheard of these days. The skipper, smiling ear to ear- his bragging rights among the other skippers secured, helped the deckhand collect our gear and turned the boat toward home. Gary's monster would weigh in at the dock at 150.6 pounds and the aggregate weight of our seven fish would be just over 650lbs, an average of 92 pounds- each! Gary remained in Valdez overnight to pick up our fish from the processor- 303 lbs of processed filets. A winter's supply of fish for our families. It was incredibly gratifying to see the boys struggle up the ramps with two carts full of fish. I was thankful for the fish and a sea adventure story worthy of telling in remembrance of my Dad.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The 1st Memorial Fishing Trip

As many of my regular readers are aware, today is the first anniversary of the death of my father. While it is a sad milestone, it is also one that I feel I need to remember in a special way. My father lived a life of no regrets- he was a consummate adventurer with a passion for machinery, motorcycles and the sea. In fact, I've often credited my own substantial wanderlust to his DNA as well as general fondness for things that generate torque and recoil. Undeterred by what others saw as limitation- my father pursued all sorts of things- never with the reckless abandon that marks the irresponsible man but rather a calculated risk taking meant to broaden his horizon and yield more experience from this life. I could tell all kinds of things about him- race cars, motorcycles, private pilot, mechanical genius, travels abroad, but this story is about the sea.

As a young man frustrated by college studies he signed up for the Navy, left the hills of East Tennessee and headed out to sea. Some of my favorite photographs of my father are from his Navy days- many years before I was born. They show a much younger man- exploring new places, showing off a new tattoo, fishing from the aft end of a Naval destroyer, swimming in the deep water while anchored in the middle of the Atlantic. His Navy days were something of a carefree life-  full of adventure, a BSA 650 Lightning motorcycle, Mediterrean ports and my Mom if the picture albums do an adequate job of storytelling.

As a child, family vacations  frequently took place near the ocean- Virginia Beach, Kure' Beach, Hilton Head, Destin, Hawaii, Puerto Valerta. If a vacation didn't involve the sea as far as my Dad was concerned- it was a waste of time. He frequently took deep sea fishing trips with coworkers and later as a company owner sponsored many fishing charters for his employees despite being located hours from the ocean. I also remember one rather humorous adventure that nearly involved my family relocating to Florida- I was only spared that horror by unusually low local wages and a monstrous hurricane that had my Mom packed in the car with my sister and I and a statement that it was leaving in five minutes whether he was in it or not!

So to honor my Dad's love of the sea and adventure, I've decided that on the anniversary of his passing I would mark the occasion by travelling to Valdez, where several companions and I have arranged to pursue some of the most exciting big game fishing Alaska has to offer- the Salmon Shark. By the time this is posted, we will have boarded the Swifty and will be venturing out into Prince William Sound after these wonderful creatures. I think my father would approve.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Wish us luck- story and photos to (hopefully) follow!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Atypical Results

I've been doing a bit of reloading over the last couple of weeks and really practicing with my hunting rifle. Here's a series of photos that show some atypical results achieved one rainy and overcast day at the range.
Loading up...

Prone position...

5 shot group...

One happy camper! Look out sheep!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hornady Lock-N-Load AP Review or....Rollin' Yer Own.

A few months ago I was given the opportunity to review a new reloader from Hornady. While I've used many of Hornady's ammunition products over the years, reloading for rifle cartridges is something I'd never tried. With a couple of choice tags in my pocket for this fall's hunting season (including a coveted sheep tag!), I was delighted when my number came up to have the chance to review this reloader. Special thanks to the great folks at Outdoor Blogger Network for setting up these opportunities. As a note, while I don't normally do many gear reviews at all, this one is one of the rare ones where I've been provided the equipment by a manufacturer in exchange for a written review. Hornady provided the press and I purchased all of the ancillary equipment so it isn't like I don't have any "skin in the game" myself. As a note of apology, this review is pretty tardy by OBN's standards- all I can say is all those ancillary devices are a bit hard to come by here but some persistence and a couple of trips to Fairbanks and some back ordered mail order parts took care of it nicely (albeit slowly on my part). So with the introductories taken care of...on to the review.

In anticipation of doing the review, I did a bit of research and picked up a reloading manual so I could at least be familiar with the process ( I should have looked at the publishing date, more of that later). I had done a little reloading for pistol cartridges many years ago when I was an avid IDPA competitor so I was roughly familiar with the overall concept but I had my reservations about making ammunition that runs in the 65,000psi range rather than the much lower pressures of pistol ammunition. I needn't have been concerned, when I unboxed the press the first thing I noticed was a DVD lying right on top. So before burying into the packaging I actually did something rather rare for men in general and myself in particular- I watched the instructions....first.

While most of the attempts at video instruction manuals are usually little more than a spokesman referring a guy back to the manual for anything more complicated than opening the box; this one had a spokesman who showed me step by step how to set up the loader, for pistol cartridges. While the best video instruction I've seen to date I do wish they had included a segment on setting up for rifle dies, but that's more personal wish list than criticism. The instructions with the press and dies were more than adequate for the task. In my search for reloading accessories my wife came across a well loved but sturdy metal desk at a yard sale- $5 and it was in my van and destined to be my new loading bench. Setting up the bulk of the mechanicals was relatively simple requiring few tools other than a power drill, a couple of wrenches and some 5/16" hardware. All of the tooling required for working on the actual press itself (mainly hex keys) was thoughtfully included in the box.

With the press solidly in place I moved on to setting up to load my primary hunting rifle- a .300WSM. The reloading manual I had was apparently out of date since it had no .300WSM load data in it at all. While still relatively new I would have thought 10 years would have garnered it a spot in the load book but alas, in the Far North load books must move slowly from the shelves. Of to the Internet in search of data and I found it in abundance at most of the powder manufacturer's web sites. As a note of caution- I did find scads of data on Internet forums but I'll caution the reader that it's buyer beware. Some of those folks may be master reloaders with thousands of dollars in equipment and a lifetime of experience but I wouldn't count on it. They could just as easily be a "mall ninja" or "Internet B'wana" who just casually suggested that you overload your cartridge by 15% like they're a regular authority on the subject. So despite what you see, read or hear- I would avoid any load data not provided by a manufacturer of either bullets (Hornady, Speer, Barnes, Nosler, etc) or gunpowder (Alliant, Winchester, Hodgdon, etc) or some other entity providing professional services related to handloading- those companies have the labs and the expertise (and enough product liability) to ensure the data they publish is safe to use. I would approach published data with caution much less that provided by some anonymous person on the Internet.

So after you set up your press you'll need some other equipment. I chose Hornady's New Dimension rifle dies, a Hornady digital powder scale for measuring charges, and a digital caliper for measuring OAL. I also had to buy consumables- gunpowder, brass, primers and bullets- I chose Remington brass, Remington magnum rifle primers, Alliant's RL 17 gunpowder and Nosler's 150gr Ballistic Tip Hunting bullets. One thing I noticed is that the amount of variety available to the handloader is staggering- be very careful to choose components that are suitable to your cartridge and purpose. Other than my choice of bullet all the other components were chosen based on either cost or limited availability in my location. For my impending sheep hunt the 150gr Ballistic Tip is a very good choice. For general hunting of caribou, moose or bears I would have chosen something heavier and tougher than the relatively soft BT but sheep are neither comparatively large or tough. There are so many bullets on the market a person would have a hard time not finding a suitable projectile for any creature on earth.

With no trouble at all I degreased the dies, primer feed, and powder measure and assembled them on the press. While not the simplest task it is pretty straightforward, I had no difficulty setting the press to load specifically for my rifle- you just need to take your time and read (or watch) the instructions. My first loads were derived from the powder manufacturer's data and I took the maximum powder charge and reduced by 10%. and loaded to the minimum OAL to ensure functioning through my rifle. As a word of caution- be careful with OAL because cartridges that are too long can either contact the rifling in the barrel (raising pressure) or function poorly through the magazine. Guys that are really into loading play endlessly with seating depth in an attempt to influence accuracy- it works but should be approached with caution. After the first rounds worked fine, I incrementally increased the powder charge to something in the middle of min and max until I got the accuracy I was looking for.

American riflemen in general tend to be overly enamored with raw muzzle velocity but in my experience its not required. Most rifles shoot the "middling" load more accurately and its the rare rifle that shoots maximum loads really well. With my load I'm getting somewhere around 3250 fps and that's quite fast enough for my purposes considering the outstanding accuracy I got. A few more grains of powder would yield just north or 3350fps according to Alliant's data but it will be harder on my rifle, my shoulder, my wallet, less accurate and the sheep I hope to shoot will never know the difference.

For the economics of reloading I've often wondered how the costs would break down. When I was loading for competitive pistol shooting (long ago) the break even curve was something like 3000 rounds annually- I sometimes shot more than that in a single week so the cost savings were well worth it (given my budget back then, required!). But as a hunter and rifleman, could I really make reloading pay off? Here is the break down that I made- a pound of powder, 100 Nosler bullets, 100 primers, 20 cases (reloaded 5 times each) costs $81.75*- that's enough to make 100 rounds of ammunition. That same load (150gr Nosler BT) in Federal's excellent Premium line will cost $37.99* per box or $189.95 per 100 rounds. That's a considerable savings- given those prices an initial investment of $500 could be recovered in under 500 rounds and that's using premium hunting bullets. The average hunter might not shoot 500 rounds in the life of his rifle, but he should- lead down range is a huge benefit to field accuracy and I've written on it frequently. While not a strict apples to oranges comparison a person could load less expensive bullets or perhaps load lighter charges or use cases more before discarding and generate even greater savings but the real benefit of reloading in my opinion is not economic (although in these tough times it doesn't hurt). But the bottom line is, when you're rolling your own ammunition you will shoot more and that's a very good thing for your chances of success in the field.

*- Prices per Midway USA's website, not including shipping.