Saturday, November 20, 2021

Southeast Alaska is Full of Big Fish, Float Planes, and Nonstop Adventure

The author spends four action-packed days at Salmon Falls Resort hitting the salt- and freshwater fisheries near Ketchikan, Alaska

Salmon Falls works with Carlin Air to transport guests around the region.

Field & Stream
By Matthew Every
Published November 19, 2021  5:00 PM

Captain Mike Bunker cuts the engine on our 27-foot Riddle Marine fishing boat and cranks up the music. Liz Johnson, Jesse Liebrecht, and I peer over the rail and look out over the ocean. Around us, small charter boats dot the horizon—all without a doubt chasing cohos and kings. But we’ve already boated our share of salmon and a halibut; now we’re after something else. We’ve used just about every one of the rods that line the roof of the boat’s cabin, save three lightweight spinning outfits that would look more at home on my local reservoir than the open water of Southeast Alaska. Bunker distributes the rods, and Johnson can barely contain herself. She’s been waiting for this all day. 

Johnson and her crew invited me up to Ketchikan to check out the Salmon Falls Resort and fish for a few days. A big part of what to do here is right in the resort’s name: salmon. Guests can either hire a captain or try their luck in one of Salmon Falls’ self-guided boats. Either way, they have a good chance of catching something. The waters near Ketchikan are loaded with five different kinds of salmon, as well as halibut, lingcod, and more. There are also whales, porpoises, sea lions, and bald eagles to watch, and they’ve been putting on a show from the moment I got off the plane.

What hardly anyone talks about, though, except for the Salmon Falls staff, is the seabass fishing. Why travel over 3,000 miles to catch a fish I could target in my home waters off of New York and New England? Because, according to Johnson, the bass bite is on fire. I see this firsthand minutes after I cast over the rail. As soon as the bait on my line sinks into the dark water below, I feel a bump. 

I reel in, but I don’t feel any resistance—just a bump here and there. Then I see them: four sea bass each about the size of a wine bottle hitting the banana weight on my line. I nudge Liebrecht, Salmon Falls’ Marina Manager, and I point to the hungry pack. Liebrecht drifts the lime-green Senko worm on his line closer, and it’s like watching a group of bluegills mouth a lure. 

The first goes for the worm and bites the end off of it. Then the second comes up and slams it. Liebrecht sets the hook, and the fish peels off from the group shaking its head. I watch the slinky rod bend and hear the drag on Liebrecht’s reel buzz. I pull my bait into the remaining bass, and it doesn’t take long. The same one that took the end off of the worm engulfs the bait and now Liebrecht and I are both reeling in. Behind me, I hear Johnson on the port side say, “I’ve got one.” Ten minutes later, we’re one bass shy of a limit. 

Early the next morning, a 1959 de Havilland Beaver floatplane buzzes the dock at Salmon Falls then banks into a steep turn for a landing. I’m standing with a bag full of fly fishing gear. The plane taxis to the dock, and Timber Pesterfield, the pilot, opens the hatch and hops down on a pontoon. I toss my gear to Dave Smiley, my fishing guide for the day, who’s sitting in the back seat, then climb into the fuselage. 

Inside, the plane feels like an old car. It’s upholstered in velour and brown leather and has mechanical art-deco-style gauges. Pesterfield climbs into the cockpit next to me. He pushes on the throttle, and the nine-cylinder rotary engine roars to life. We move from the dock, and I hear the engine’s supercharger inhale deeply as we glide into a takeoff. Once we’re airborne, Pesterfield banks hard and points us east towards the Misty Fjords. 

Pesterfield’s voice crackles through my headphones. “They fjords are just beyond those mountains,” he says pointing to a snow-capped range dead ahead of us. “All of them were gouged and cracked from millennia of ice.” Then he pulls back on the sticks and we climb, threading between the snowy, rocky peaks. 

As we cruise over the mountains, the coastal rainforest we just came from turns into a completely different landscape. Sheer cliffs rise from the fjords with deep fissures running down into glassy inlets of water below. Pesterfield catches me out of the corner of his eye. I’m awestruck gazing out the window. “I’ve been up here thousands of times,” he says. “It still overwhelms me—just the sheer energy of it. It’s spiritual.” 

As we get closer to our destination, I look down at small lakes dotting the landscape—some seem small enough to paddle across in a pool float. I ask Pesterfield which one of them he could land on. “All of them,” he says. Then he eyes a patch of water the size of a farm pond. “But I might have trouble getting back off of that one.” 

We cross over a small lake, bank, and come down for a landing. The water is still, and I can’t even feel the pontoons hit when we touch down. When we reach the middle of the lake, Pesterfield turns the plane to face a small cabin with a jon boat next to it. It’s like watching someone parallel-park a Mini Cooper. 

No comments:

Post a Comment