Bucket list trip: Sitka never disappoints

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A SHORTRAKER that fell to the jig.
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BY PAT McDONELL

WON charter trip last year encountered late-season storm but we still fished all three days out of Kingfisher Charters lodge; Consistency and quality keep anglers coming back to Seth’s Bone’s southeast Alaska operation

SITKA, AK – You know when you have a captain for three days whose last name is Aaron Hooker, you are going to catch fish. Preordained, but that’s nothing new for anyone who fishes out of Kingfisher Lodge in Sitka, Alaska.

No matter the wind or swell or rain, you are going to bring home plenty of tasty fillets: a mix of halibut, king and silver salmon, sablefish, rockfish and lings, The best of the best. And unless you have an inhuman metabolism, you are going to pack on some extra weight like a wintering bear and because you are fishing hard, you’ll hibernate like one, too. It’s a variation of a great country song: Eat, fish, eat, sleep, repeat. Somewhere in the usual three-day fishing schedule you might have time for a few beers at the Pioneer Bar in town, a little sightseeing in the picturesque and historic Sitka downtown shops or an evening stroll on a nearby trail.

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THE SECOND DAY on the Katie Lu we cored limits of sablefish in deep deep water, plus three shortrakers, which are great eating

For the most part, Kingfisher folks come to pull on fish and fill wax boxes with fillets. And get pampered. Fred Schiel of Huntington Beach was among the 2021 WON group, and fished on the Katie Lu with this writer, Chris Wheaton of Norwalk, Matt Lawrence of Thousand Oaks and his father Bob Lawrence, of Lompoc. It was a rough three days on the water as we dodged the effects of a monster Alaska storm.

“It was terrible the crap we went out in,” Schiel said with a laugh. “It was my first time with the lodge, so yes, it was affected by the virus and stuff but I was impressed with their service, which was impeccable from the time we got off the plane to the time we left. It was their attentiveness to every detail and obviously there was so much food, and it was a good, clean facility; just wonderful. I can’t really embellish because it’s all true. Look, I’m a fisherman, a camper and a hiker and I’m usually out there self-sufficient, so it’s nice to be coddled, especially in those weather conditions. Aaron was a great captain and great fun and he did the best could considering the weather and swell. He knows where to find the fish, even under tough conditions. The experience, well, it was a joy to be a part of the trip and fish with you guys on the boat.”

This May, the first week of the lodge’s 2022 season, there is another trip planned as this writer hosts the annual WON charter for up to 12 people. I believe it is my 20th visit to Sitka over 25 years. You may not believe this, but there are some lodge patrons that have been there more times than me. It’s the captains, the hand-picked young and friendly staff, and kudos have to go to the kitchen staff that every single year prepares meals of 5-star quality.

Bob Lawrence ready to dig in.

Food is a big deal at a fishing lodge. You don’t skimp, and Kingfisher goes after it. For dinner, first come the hors d’ houvres at 5:30 as you relax on your patio overlooking Sitka Sound, a view of the majestic Mt. Edgecumbe in the distance with a drink or a cigar. Then you either head to the main dining hall with your group and pick from the chalked menu on the wall. It changes each day, but a constant item is a juicy burger, with nightly options for halibut, king crab, top sirloin and others.

The past two years with Covid safety protocols on gatherings, the staff has delivered the appetizers to the condos, the main course soon after and then dessert, then returning one more time to clear the dishes. Breakfasts before fishing are the same scenario on a quicker, predawn timeline to get in the vans and onto the boats by 6:30. The lodge itself is composed of an office and processing building, with anglers comfy in four main lodging buildings, each floor a “condo” with a common kitchen, washer and dryer, dining and living room (with spectacular views of Sitka Sound and its islands) and several rooms with two or three beds, each with its own bathroom. The full kitchens are fully stocked with Keurig coffee stations, cereal, snacks, fruit, yogurt and milk and soft drinks. Many guests in the vans returned from fishing have the option to stop at the market or liquor store for libations, food and personal items.

If the Covid protocols have affected anything negatively, it is that you can’t participate and hear the excited and happy voices in the dining room as 50 people gather after a day of Alaskan fishing. Will the dining room be open this year? Half of the season like 2021 before the numbers shot up?

“This year, I’m not sure how we will work it, to have the dining hall open for the meals or deliver them,” said Seth Bone, the lodge owner who takes staff and angler safety in these times seriously. “It depends on the circumstances.” Even if the dining hall is used for meals, concerned guests can opt for meals to be delivered to the condos. That was the case for half the season last year before group dining was halted.

TAKING ADVANTAGE of the $100 lodge credit, exclusive to the WON group, was Bob Lawrence of Lompoc, a first-time visitor. He fished with his son, Matt Lawrence,

Covid protocols have not slowed business, however.

The lodge is jammed with returnees, plus carryovers from 2020 when the lodge opened mid-summer and lost two months of business. It did not hurt that the state of Alaska liberalized halibut regulations. And, of course, it was human nature, the desire for people to “get back to normal.” Bone said summer is sold out, and on the edges, spring and fall, there are a few spots. A few other spots will open up to wait-listed anglers as cancellations pop up when payments are due for reservations. The WON trip has eight openings as of Feb. 1, and there are perks.

“We look forward to a WON trip earlier in the season than in past few years, during peak dates for king salmon,” said Bone. “All the bottom fish species are also peak in May, as they are all season long. The abundance forecasts for both king salmon and halibut are up for 2022, so the fishing should be strong for this trip.”

Note that this year Kingfisher will not exhibiting at the Long Beach Fred Hall Show, a first for the lodge that Bone opened about 25 years ago. “We are really at capacity and at least this year we can’t justify the expense of it and having staff away for a week,” he said.

WON’s early September 2021 trip for nine of us was – as it always been – at the end of the season. The weather in southeast Alaska usually holds steady and the silvers are thick in their run. After so many years of great weather and solid silver runs, our luck ran out. The silver run was late, and while weather inside Sitka Sound was pleasant, outside it was nasty. Wind, rain, 12-foot swells. Despite all that, Hooker and his spacious aluminum sportfisher Katie Lu had the three days dialed in.

OUR FIRST DAY, despite super tough conditions, we got a half limit of quality silver salmon.

The first day was rough, and our two boats scratched at 15 silver salmon on waters sheltered by Biorka Island to the south. The Katie Lu crew (us, and you learn that quickly that the more you help set the downriggers and net fish (there are techniques to learn, but it’s fun), the better the overall results. Our team deployed the downrigger with flashers and hoochies below and were hit on the occasional surface troller with a cut plug herring. It was way too rough to go into open water to target halibut that first day, but Hooker had high hopes for day two.

Indeed, while our first day was a survival grind for half limits of silvers, we enjoyed a needed break on the wind and swell the second day, which I’ll detail in a bit, then toughed out the third day for 14 salmon, 2 Pacific cod and one halibut inside Biorka Island. It was enough for the fish processors to pack us up a 50-pound wax box of freaking amazing fillets. Many thanks for Hooker for making that happen, but we had a pretty good, determined group on deck.

Okay, so back to our second day, our best by far as the swell and wind were manageable. We ignored the silver salmon. Most of the charter the fleet had decided it wasn’t going to happen, there were few fish and they were scattered, and we had a one-day weather window to get halibut and sablefish in deeper water. We zipped out of Sitka Sound and blazed outside and drifted for limits of sablefish, tasty but ugly critters in 1,200 feet of water using electric reels. It might seem boring, but there is a technique to “loading” up two fish on the gangion.

My buddy Chris Wheaton thinks 1,200-foot drops are a challenge and a possible world record sablefish (he had the IGFA all-tackle record for a month) so the result of a few hookups waaay down, and subsequent looooong retrieves was a trio of hefty orange shortrakers while Matt, his dad Bob Lawrence and Fred Schiel worked the halibut rods. Lots of smiles were on our faces when the sablefish came over the rail and we had our limits on the deck. That accomplished, Hooker switched gears ran inside, and anchored Katie Lu in 300 to 350 feet of water off Cape Edgcumbe. Thankfully, the halibut wanted to bite. Nothing huge, but they were quality fish of 30 to 40 inches.

FATHER AND SON SILVERS went to Bob Lawrence of Lompoc and his son Matt Lawrence of Thousand Oaks.

“My son, Matt, and I have always wanted to go on a fishing trip in Alaska,” said Bob Lawrence. “Kingfisher Charters provided us with the absolute best experience to explore Sitka and fish in the nearby waters. I’m retired, but Matt is in a successful yet stressful occupation, so a trip with Dad to Alaska was a perfect experience for both of us.

“Despite some horrible weather, rough seas, and, at times, mediocre fishing, Matt found himself in his element. It was the perfect antidote to his workday blues, and he got some quality time with his dad!! We both loved every part of the experience, and we were each able to take home a 50-pound box of fish! We both look forward to our next Kingfisher fishing trip.”

When the dust cleared after three days, we didn’t do too badly as a group as our other WON boat scored with the same success. A nice extra for the trip was a $100 credit in the lodge store, exclusive to the WON group. Kingfisher was well-represented in the airport terminal. We were decked out boarding that plane! I picked out a new sweatshirt and cool hat and some tiny socks for my grandchildren, and shopped in town as well for more local gifts. And I always hit the Old Harbor bookstore for children’s stories with Alaskan themes produced by local writers.

I should add a few things. You do not need to bring a lot of luggage on this trip with laundry in each condo. A carry-on is sufficient, leaving your fish boxes to go as luggage. Kingfishercharters.com is a great website for lists of what to bring, what is provided (raingear on boats, boots at lodge) and amenities at the lodge.

There is a great deal to do in Sitka, so much Indian/Russian/American history, and I urge folks to come up an extra day or two to hike, visit museums, the Raptor Center and even flyfish the bays and rivers with Sitkafish.com charters, who I have fished with several times. All equipment s provided. It’s a great experience.

Sitka never disappoints.

 

Freelance writer Pat McDonell is the host of the annual WON Kingfisher charter and the former editor of WON. He is now the paper’s Baja Reports Editor and hosts several other WON trip charters during the year. 

 

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