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.