We’re Baaaack! Chris and I spent last week at the Orca Lodge in Soldotna, Alaska. During the week we fished for Halibut, King Salmon, and Sockeye Salmon. We filled our limits on all three species and came back with nearly 100 pounds of fish for the freezer. And that says nothing about the bonding time we spent together. I had a business trip to Anchorage last year and tacked on a couple of days to spend time fishing. After my usual voluminous research I hooked up with a company called Fishology and had a great time fishing for Halibut and King Salmon and when I got an e-mail from the owner last year offering a great discount on packages booked early I jumped at it. We designed a custom package including lodging at the Orca Lodge and it was a marvelous week. Here’s the trip report.
Sunday: We caught the morning flight from Denver to Anchorage, picked up a rental car, and headed out the Seward Highway towards Soldotna….and ran into our only bad experience of the trip. I’ve rented from Hertz on average of 100 times each year and have never once come across a car that was not full of gas when I picked it up. It’s one of those things I never check unless the guy at the checkout booth asks me if the gas is full. And there’s no checkout booth in Anchorage. Anyway, about 10 miles down the highway the gas light comes on…..and I immediately started thinking of the story my wife told me about running out of gas in her Dad’s car a couple of years ago because they didn’t know how far they could go once the light comes on. Not knowing how far it was to the next gas station, we turned around and headed back to Anchorage, hoping we would make it before having a repeat of my wife’s experience. Made it! Got gassed up and headed out again for an uneventful trip to Soldotna. We got settled into the Orca Lodge and received our marching orders for the Halibut trip on Monday. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Jennifer, the hostess at Orca Lodge, cooks something yummy for supper every night except Wednesday. Sunday night was fish tacos made with freshly caught halibut and rockfish. Awesome! We sat around and were introduced to Carlos and Kathy Garcia from Florida who were to be our partners on the halibut boat. After a couple of beers from the “community cooler” we turned in for our first experience of trying to sleep when it never gets really dark.
Monday: Since the Orca Lodge is owned by the same folks who own Fishology, they work in concert. Every day the folks at Orca leave a detail sheet in your cabin telling you where and when you need to meet your guide for the next day of fishing. We were set to launch out of Deep Creek for Halibut and our designated time was 10:30am. Last year I had to be 50 miles south of Soldotna to launch out of Anchor Point at 5:30am so the 10:30 meet time was a pleasant surprise. We showed up right on time and met up with the Garcias as well as our boat crew and were on our way. We got aboard the boat for the tractor launch (google it. It’s very cool) and were soon on our way to the middle of Cook Inlet for a day of Halibut fishing. The limit for Halibut is the same this year as last year. You are allowed to keep 2 fish: 1 must be 28″ or less and the other can be any size. Ideally you bring back one small fish and one huge fish. Last year I wasn’t able to bring in a small fish. Every one of the “little ones” I caught was between 28 1/4″ and 30″ so I wasn’t able to bring home a smallie. I did manage to bring in a 30 pound Halibut later in the day and came home with some fish last year. This year was different. My first fish was 27 3/4″. Got my little one. As the day progressed the fish got bigger and I was able to bring in another 30 pounder to fill my limit. The Garcias filled their limits also including the biggest fish of the trip, a 65 pound fish that Carlos landed. Poor Chris….he was the last one to bring in a big fish. There was a period where every thing we brought up was only about 15 pounds and Chris elected to release them all, holding out for a bigger fish. We had all 4 poles in the water and every time someone hooked a fish they would hand the rod to Chris to bring the fish in, hoping it would be big enough to be his “biggie.” I think he spent about 45 minutes reeling in one fish after another. Poor guy was exhausted when he finally came up with a 30 pound fish to fill his limit. Captain Chris and deck hand Scott were terrific and had us on fish all day. I don’t think there was a period of more than 10 minutes without a fish on all day. Great day and we were off the water by 3:00pm with 34 pounds of filets to deliver to the processor for vacuum packing and freezing. Back to the Orca Lodge where the meal of the day was Poor Man’s Lobster. A recipe that Jennifer uses to cook Halibut that tastes like Lobster. Delicious! More beers while sitting around the fire talking about our adventures of the day. Our meeting time for Tuesday was 9:00am so we hung out till about midnight…still light. Fortunately, I can sleep just about anywhere and Chris was pretty whipped from reeling in all the Halibut so we had no problems sleeping.
Tuesday: Floating the Kasilof for Kings. This would be the third time I have floated the Kasilof. First time was in 2005 when Judy and I cruised to Alaska and spent a week on the Kenai Peninsula after the cruise. On that trip I didn’t even get a bite. The second time was last year. I got bites and even brought a fish or two to the boat but they were all wild salmon and it was a day that only hatchery fish could be kept. On the Kasilof there are two kinds of King Salmon. The wild fish were born and grew naturally. Then there are the hatchery fish. Born and raised in a hatchery and released into the wild when they are about 2 inches long. On the Kasilof you can only keep wild fish on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. If you bring a wild salmon to the boat on any of the other days you must NOT bring it out of the water and must release the fish immediately. Anyway, we got to the launch point and met our guide, Matt Holley. I fished with Matt last year and was pleased and surprised when he recognized me. We were with the Garcias again and soon were loaded up and on our way. Now the 9:00am launch is quite a bit later than usual on the Kasilof. Most guides launch around 5:00am and it can get quite crowded. Last year we launched early and the first hole that everyone anchors in was occupied by about 50 boats. This year, launching at 9:00, we had the hole to ourselves except for one other boat. We had a great day on the river. Each of the Garcias caught a 35 pound King, both wild fish. (The wild fish tend to run larger than the hatchery kings) And since it’s Tuesday the were able to keep the fish. They each caught a hatchery fish to complete their limits for the season and I came up with 2 hatchery fish of about 20 pounds each to fill my tag. Chris had a couple of fish on but lost them but was finally able to bring a 20 pounder to the boat. The limit on King Salmon for non-residents is 2 per season. I was done and Chris needed 1 more but no problem, we’re scheduled to be on the river again on Friday. Matt is a great guide and works hard to get fish for everyone. And the Kasilof is a beautiful river. It was a great day. We returned to the Orca to clean and filet the fish and were greeted by Mooseburger sliders for supper. Great day. The only downside was that by launching late we got back late and had to put our filets on ice for the night since the processor was closed for the day. More beers around the fire with fish tales of the day before turning in early since we have an early day tomorrow.
Wednesday: The first fly out. Today we are flying out across Cook Inlet to Big River Lake to fish for Sockeyes. I really like any kind of salmon but IMO Sockeye is the best to eat. Firm, red, and tasty. I would never toss out a plate of grilled King or Silver salmon but given a choice I’ll take Sockeye every time. This is the day I was most excited for because of the Sockeye but also because this is where you find Wolverine Creek which is one of the more famous bear viewing sites. I was looking forward to seeing some bears. I even bought a new telephoto lens for this trip so I was geared up for this day. It was our first early day and we arrived at Talon Air Services a little before 6:30am for our trip. At 6:30 sharp we climbed aboard a Super Otter for the trip across the Inlet. First time on a float plane for both of us and it was awesome. We landed on Big River Lake and transferred to our guide’s boat. Today we were fishing with another Matt. Matt P. Another young guy but really talented and definitely a people person. He had us on fish all day and we had our 3 fish limits in about 2 hours. We pulled up on a beach to clean fish and then cruised over to Wolverine Creek to look for bears. No luck. I was a little disappointed but Matt cured my disappointment by pulling out a little propane grill and cooking us a fresh caught Sockeye salmon for lunch. Awesome. But the best was yet to come. Since they have two fly out groups every day we boarded the plane at 12:20 to head back to Talon. On the trip over to Big River in the morning there was one of the guides sitting in the co-pilot’s seat but on the trip back there wasn’t since the guides were staying for the second group of fishermen. Chris noticed this and immediately accosted the pilot to ask if he could sit there on the flight out. He did. To quote him, it was “badass.” But the flight back to Talon was incredible. On the trip out in the morning we pretty much flew straight to the lake and landed. The only sightseeing was the usual views of the spectacular mountains. On the way home, though, we got the tour. Weaving between peaks, flying up valleys, flying over a glacier…it was amazing. If you’ve never seen a glacier and think of it as just white ice with black shadows you need to rethink it. This is where the term “blue ice” had it’s origins. Anyway, back to the Orca but no meal today. On every Wednesday in Soldotna there is a Flea Market at the city park with some food trucks and stuff so Jennifer doesn’t cook. Chris and I went to one of the local brew pubs and had a brick oven pizza for supper. Good stuff then back to the Orca for, you guessed it, more beers around the fire while sharing our adventures of the day. It was easy since this was clearly our most spectacular day. We stayed up a little later than usual since Thursday was our “off” day and we could sleep in. After a little time spent at the Lodge’s access to the Kenai River where John, the caretaker of Orca Lodge and Jennifer’s husband, showed us the technique of “flossing” for Sockeye salmon. The fish haven’t started running up the Kenai yet but John assured us it would be “any day now.”
Thursday: The day off. We were scheduled to have a day off from fishing today and after much discussion we decided we would sleep in and then drive to Seward to play tourist. I woke up around 8:00am, got dressed, and drove down to the nearest coffee shop for coffee. On my way back to our cabin Jennifer invited me into the office to tell another guest about our fly out trip. I spent a few minutes gushing about how great it was and the other guest decided to try and book a last minute fly out trip. I mentioned in passing that I would much rather have another fly out than drive to Seward for the day if it could be arranged and Boom! Jennifer got on the phone to Talon Air and made it so. This time we were on the afternoon crew that left Talon at 1:30pm. We thought at first we would be fishing with Matt P again and that was great since he is such an accomplished guide and all around great guy. When we landed, though, the other guest, his son, and his dad got in the boat with Matt and Chris and I were assigned to a guide who shall remain nameless due to the fact that he was quite possibly the biggest disappointment of the trip. We started out trying to catch fish from a group that the guide saw while flying in and we caught a couple of fish before they scattered. Then we went on the hunt. Mostly, the nameless guide followed Matt P around and fished where he fished so we were on fish most of the day. If you’ve never fished for Sockeye, it’s a completely different technique. Once they get into fresh water from the sea, all salmon stop eating. Kings are caught because of their territorial instincts to defend their young against any threats. They attack lures and bait not because they are hungry but because they view those things as a threat. Sockeyes are different. Not nearly so aggressive so you have to snag them. In areas like Big River Lake, you toss an empty hook into the water and start “ripping” the hook through the water. If there are fish in the area and you have the right depth you “hook” a fish and the fight is on. Sometimes if the sun is in the right position you can see groups of fish then cast to them and rip your line through the group. For some reason, Chris and the other client’s son Max were much more accomplished at this technique than us older guys. Anyway, we limited out in about an hour and went in search of bears. Score one black bear that we saw but he got into the brush when we approached close enough for photos. Then we went back to Wolverine Creek and came across a Brown bear with 2 cubs from last year. We spent a wonderful half hour watching and photographing them both in and out of the water. I got to put my new lens through it’s paces and it was a fabulous time. And that’s where the nameless guide showed himself to be the worst guide I’ve ever fished with. On this entire trip every guide or captain we fished with cleaned and filleted our fish as a matter of course and bagged the filets for us to deliver to the processor. Both the Halibut crew, Matt Holley on the Kasilof, and Matt P on Big River Lake immediately bled the fish by cutting their gills. The nameless guide didn’t bleed any of the fish we caught and imagine my surprise when I saw him taking our fish out of the cooler and putting them in a bag without even gutting them. “Your fish are in the bag with the rainbow colored yarn around the top” he said. Well, me being me, I couldn’t let it go at that. After I had about 300 images of bears in the camera I turned to Mr. Nameless and said “You know, if you need extra time to clean and filet those fish, I’ve got the images I wanted and we can go clean the fish now.” He responded “you want them cleaned and filleted?” in a surprised voice as if nobody had ever asked him to do that. I responded “Well yeah. All the other guides we have fished with have done that without asking. It’s part of the big fee we pay to fish with you. We need to have them filleted.” Long story short, Mr. Nameless got really surly but he did drive the boat out to a floating island where Matt P was filleting his clients’ fish and cooking shore lunch for them. Mr. N proceeded to do a really sloppy job of cleaning and filleting our fish and his body language displayed his attitude that we were being totally unreasonable. He barely spoke 2 words to us the rest of the day and gave me a limp handshake when I handed him a minimal tip. Not a good career choice for this guy and our only bad guide of the trip. Back to the Orca for another great supper and beers around the fire.
Friday: Back to the Kasilof. When we added the second fly out trip I thought about having Friday as our off day but we were scheduled to be with Matt Holley again and since Chris needed another King to fill his limit for the season we went ahead and floated the Kasilof again. 9:30 start again and again we were almost alone on the river. This being Friday we could only keep hatchery fish so naturally, the first few fish we brought to boat were wild kings. We were fishing with Lori and Ken and as before, the first and biggest fish of the day that we could keep was caught by Lori. A 35 pound hatchery fish. Matt said it was the largest hatchery fish he had ever seen. We continued fishing and I was not getting many bites but since I already had my season limit I was content to be “back of the boat, feet propped up, enjoying the scenery” guy. Lori and Ken got their limits around noon so we were back to the same strategy as the Halibut trip. When someone else hooked a fish they handed the rod to Chris to fight the fish and bring it to net. It wasn’t long before he got another hatchery fish and filled his tag, completing our limits for all the days we fished. Back to the lodge to clean fish, eat grilled beef steaks and salad, and sit around the fire talking about our week. And what a grand week it was. All in all we came home with nearly 100 pounds of salmon and halibut fillets. Chris and I both now have freezers full of fish and will be loading up on salmon and halibut this summer. We were blessed with fantastic weather for the whole week. Monday on the Halibut boat it was overcast and a little chilly but no rain. Every other day was 60 degrees and at least partly sunny despite the weather man predicting 40 and rain just about every day. I managed to sunburn my nose and it is now peeling. That’s how great the weather was.
If you have never been to Alaska, you owe it to yourself to visit. The fishing is fabulous, the scenery is unmatched, and you can see lots of wildlife. And definitely think about booking with Fishology to include a stay at the Orca Lodge in Soldotna. You won’t regret it.