Friday, September 9, 2022

El Norte


Gentle Readers:

Once again, it is time for the report on the bi-annual Alaskan trip with Chartermistress Nike Wuhu and her band of thralls.  The crew on this Homer's Odessey included returning veterans Ajax Hagerty, Dionysus Satran and your narrator. This is a team that cuts players, so you'd better bring your game. We were joined by replacements Archimedes Boyd, Paris Fragoso, never-caught-a-fish Penthesilea Ventriglia, and new generation starter-yeast Isaac Schmitt, now relocated on the left coast from a year as a sternman in the Boston lobster fishery.

Thanks to the military planning of Nike, all members of this scattered squad made landfall  in Anchorage within hours on the same afternoon.  We took two giant vans down the Sterling Highway to our destination at a fabulous home nested above its namesake of Homer, overlooking outer Kachemak Bay.

We spent the first day provisioning dainty samplings of alcohol and end-of-times supplies of food.  Archimedes made a major miscalculation and bought a 195 pound bag of pancake mix after recalling stories his parents told him about the Great Depression.  It almost ruined the whole trip when there was still some left after our final breakfast of this journey.   

This failure of breakfast consumption is primarily because Nike's regimen called for lazy sleep-in ocean fishing days when we did not have to get up for fishing until 4 am, as well as early days when we were on the road just after midnight to make sure we were the first humans standing hip deep in the swift waters of the Kenai at 3:30 am to stake our nocturnal claim to the good spots, just like bears.

On our day of acclimation, we wandered into the Salty Dawg to get some free money and mark our spot. Homer was much livelier this time around compared to the masked dystopia of our last visit during the covid plague.

We fished seven days.  This report will concentrate on and hopelessly scramble the ocean experiences we had together over three days with OFish'ial charters.  If my readers do not protest loudly enough, this report will be followed by the essay on the virtues of night-time fly-rodding for sockeye in the next edition.  I am also considering a separate report on the one day that our group rubbed Isaac and  your reporter off on the rail when we had to split up on different boats and crews for dedicated salmon trolling on the only day without significant rainfall.  We all caught fish, but Isaac and I were put on a boat with a family of midwestern grifters, who ran a con on us as part of their masquerade as wholesome, innocent farmers.

We started the first of our three trips with skipper Garret, deckhands Austin and Zeke crewing the 35 foot Asteria.  The deckhands were fabulous and both on their way to higher education after this summer season.  Garret is an extremely charismatic captain who is a relatively recent transplant from the east coast.  He is the oldest of 6 and has brought out four of his sisters, all of whom work in the local sportfishing community.  His sister Sierra runs one of his boats, the Sweet Tea, and we buddy boated with them on a couple of the trips.

Like most of the guides on Nike's trips, he was initially selected based on his good looks, which is one of Nike's many prerogatives as our fearless leader.  Garret also guides boat-based hunting trips to Kodiak for Brown Bear.  He had some great stories about clients discovering what that adventure can bring to human predators if the tables start to turn and a rifle becomes a defensive weapon.  We did learn from all of our guides that harvesting bears under monitored circumstances has helped to bring balance back to the moose population, as these bears each consume at least twenty moose per season.  We also learned that the bag limit for residents hunting wolves is ten - per day, so they are not exactly treated like cows in India.

Our destination on day one was the Chugach islands, where we made big halibut our first priority on a 35 mile race to get in place for the right tide.  

The tides this time around were huge - up to 25 feet, so the currents were fierce at full flow.  The charter included others outside our group, several of whom were incredibly knowledgeable about the fishery in Homer and and every aspect of the northern commercial boat building industry, especially the popular Delta made in Seattle.

On the long rides this kind of fishing featured,  your reporter spent way too much time in the wheelhouse, peppering our very knowledgable skipper with questions about every kind of fishing,  hunting and game management program that Alaska has to offer.  I think he might have been ready to fake an abandon ship drill to get me to stop asking for information like a 3rd grader, but he stayed on the wheel and never reached for the flare gun as he tried to help make me smarter than I was when I got on the boat.  If only he knew the number of people who were depending on my journalism for this data, he probably would have been pretty bummed out.

I would like to bore my readers with all I have learned, but I will wait until I have you trapped at my house in a conversation that will constitute payment for attending one of the fish feasts that this excursion should afford.

Penthesilea (she calls herself Penny) had never caught a fish in her life and started things off by dragging in a 50 pound flattie that turned out to be the first and biggest, affording her hallowed status as Butt Whisperer of the Day. 

 Each angler is entitled to keep one halibut over 29 inches and one under 29.  We were fishing where we expected big ones and it turned out a fish under 29 was a pretty rare find in these locations.  Though many filled both slots on some days, your reporter was not able to land a fish small enough to take home. 

We stayed on the halibut spot long enough for everyone to claim one fish over 29, with long cause award going to Archy, whose patience was finally rewarded with a quality specimen, as he and Pentheselia raced each other on this double hook up at the end of the halibut part of the day. 

This allowed us to move on to target ling cod, rock cod and breezing salmon that ate the same vertical jigs we were dropping on the rockfish.

The lings bit like mad, but a legal has to be three feet long, so many  of these ferocious gators were pitched back after providing lengthy rod bouncing battles.  Below, Austin plants the steel on one that stayed on the boat after its long but losing battle with Isaac.

This was the largest ling of the trip and Isaac's personal best by a wide margin. He was fishing a big white grub.

Dionysus got in some good gruntin' action shots

before hoisting in a posed photo denigrated by his need to drop the fish and gulp refreshments.

He also had good luck with the yellow eye and is so photogenic that I have to give him three in a row.

Paris nabbed a quality 'butt, 

along with a beautiful yelloweye, for which the limit is one.

Nike went bendo and got into the grind off the bow.

She got a nice flattie, courtesy of Austin's gaffmanship.
She had to throw her big stompin' yelloweye back 
because she had already boated the one resident rockfish per day allowable under the strict rules of this fishery

Over the three days of fishing we had on this vessel, we spent one day at the Chugach Island passage. The other two took us out to the far edges of the Kodiak archipelago to fish the Barren Islands, where we found even larger halibut, insanely aggressive lings and piles of black rockfish visible beyond the side-eyed glance from Nike's ziptied victim.
Ajax managed the most efficient program, getting a legal ling...,

 and filling both halibut slots each day to go along with the easy limits of  delicious black rockfish that ate every chrome jig that fluttered down among the clouds of them that gathered below us.

Penny and Archie struck an impossibly cute pose with the elusive small halibut they managed to add to their tallies.

Penny also managed a dreamboat shot with our skipper and the drunken Irish Lord she released after this photo.

Your narrator managed to bag a personal best pigfish halibut of the trip on day two at the Barrens, but we had many fish in this weight class.

Your reporter also lost a monster on day three after stealthily working it up the water column to where I thought I would be able to get a picture. She bit a whole greenling that had already caught the same ling twice. It woke up when it saw the boat and smoked 100 yards off my righteous Accurate reel to run right back down to its hole and cut me off on a ledge.  I already had a limit and was duty bound to let it go, but we all wanted to get a shot of that fish before it beat us to the release.

Nike cheered Isaac on as he wickedly recovered his line on his own personal best halibut at the Barrens on Day Two.

Each day the carnage in the stern provided an opportunity to grab a shot like the one below, although a couple of those 65 miles trips involved railgrabbing rides home that caused us to shine on recording our slaughter on the slimed up deck.  The father-son shot is from Day One at Chugach, where, after limiting on halibut, we drifted through clouds of rockfish, lings and salmon that struck our yo-yo jigs.  Isaac even managed to net a salmon that I jigged up and brought to the boat.  It came unbuttoned and momentarily became a free-swimmer at the rail, only to be put to death due to Isaac's anticipation and deft netmanship.

                The primary lesson Nike has reinforced in all of us is: Don't wait for these experiences to straggle forward from the notion column of "some day we will do this."

Once we got home to our fabulous pad, the cocktails flowed  and we took in the view.

After sufficient lubrication, Isaac, Dionysus and your reporter wandered up the road to track an intriguing sign that had earlier sparked our curiousity.

We followed the handy arrow and got to meet yet another remarkbly colorful fellow by the name of Dale, who had one great resident Alaskan story after another and an inventory of curios that I only wish I could have bartered over.  He had a nice single action .44, as well as some lesser guns right on down to a blank pistol with a rusted shut cylinder.  There was really a bunch of great stuff that I would have liked to put into the trunk of my nonexistent car to clutter up my garage at home.

At the end of three days of larding up freezer fodder with this valiant crew, we bid our goodbyes and were on our way, but not before our leader got her glamour shot with Austin, Zeke, and Garret.

It did rain on us almost every day, but we all had rubber boots, as well as an enthusiasm for keeping loose and walking about to sample all this town has to offer.

Isaac and I toured the harbor, ogling all of the boats we wish we could try operating.  We took this photo of a 32 foot Bristol Bay gillnetter because we wanted to send a picture to Isaac's sister Sarah Jane, not realizing that this was the same model boat on which Isaac would sign on to crew out of Half Moon Bay when we returned to the lower 48.

I cannot stand typing any more of this story than you can reading it, so I will sit back in my chair and pause my narrative of our adventures on the brine, before we transition to the freshwater experience in the report to follow.  I will think about that later.

Though we did not need a heavenly sign from the ever-present rain, Nature never stopped reminding us of how lucky we are, or of the obvious fact that

These are the Days