Baranof Blog & Fishing News
2019 was a tremendous year for us as we hit new highs in customer satisfaction in the restaurant and on the water. Using this momentum, we’re making some improvements to our culinary offerings as well as the fishing fleet.
The most noticeable change any of our repeat customers will notice is that we’re upgrading our 5-passenger open-air skiffs to a completely new design better suited for light-tackle fishing. These new boats are a couple of feet longer, console driven rather than a tiller, will be equipped with a 115 h.p. motor, include an upgraded electronics package, can seat 6 passengers and feature a trolling motor that will “anchor” the boat anywhere through GPS integration. Construction has begun on seven of these new vessels for 2020, so we’ll be getting photos out as soon as we get a couple in the water this spring.
Cook Your Catch, whether in our private dining room or at our wilderness campsite, is our passion. Most of our guests that come up for more than a cruise ship calls have already had a taste of our multi-day fishing/dining options, but this year we’re taking it a step further. We’re telling the comprehensive story of Alaskan seafood over the course of five choreographed meals featuring twenty-five unique species. Check out our invitation here for dates as well as a complete description, it’s going to be quite the production.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a blessed New Year from the Alaska Fish House and Baranof Fishing crew. We look forward to seeing our friends, old and new, during the upcoming season.
The day this story takes place started out like many in southeast Alaska - rainy and windy. Even though it was mid-July, when the weather is generally more agreeable for fishing, this day was an exception. It was blowing hard enough that I didn't even venture past Bold island, which is generally only a mid-way point to our halibut and salmon grounds. This was especially frustrating because I was fishing with two gentlemen who have been guests on my boat for the past three years. I look forward to them coming up each year and enjoy their company when they are here.
I knew the halibut fishing options were limited, so after a talk with the guys, we opted to fish for salmon since the pinks and silvers were fairly thick and were making showings close to town. The salmon bite had been pretty vicious till about 8 A.M. in the days prior, so I had high hopes that we would whack a few before the bite slowed. On this particular morning, the bite was spotty at best. We would hit pockets of fish and land one or two, then double back only to not get a bite, let alone a takedown. On top of this, the driving rain and howling wind made it difficult for all parties involved to land the fish we were hooking (this wasn't looking good).
As the morning progressed, we spent more time catching up with each other than high-fiving and catching fish. All the while the wind was twisting our arm and driving us closer towards town looking for better protection from the weather. During the final hour of the trip, I made the call to make our last few passes at Mountain Point (a popular but productive spot about six miles from our dock). Almost as soon as we started our drag, the down rod blew out of the clip and started taking line - fish on!
I call for my friend to "grab the rod!" - he pulls it out of the holder and starts his fight. It fights like a nice silver and I cross my fingers we can land this one to end the day on a high note. The fish appears on the surface forty yards behind the boat, jumping and tail-walking like a tarpon you would see on T.V. We all have our eyes on the coho, but unbeknownst to me, we are not the only ones watching its big show. As we start gaining line on the fish I catch sight of what looks to be a brown and white tomahawk missile coming out of the sky. In about half a second we all put together what's happening; a bald eagle that had been perched off of the Point had targeted our fish. He hits the water fast and clips the fish, sending it into a frenzy straight toward the boat. It's all we can do to keep up on retrieving the line and putting tension back on the fish. In no time flat, the fish has reached the boat. I grab my net and get ready to attempt to scoop the very green silver when all of a sudden another missile screams by us! The bird is back and he means business - no more than six feet off the starboard side, swooping at the fish, gaining altitude and attempting again. All the while the fish is on the edge of spitting distance and out of net range. Now we make a decision - we need to "horse" this thing to the boat or we are going to have a serious mess on our hands. We leverage the rod and ski the fish within the net range. I dip my net in the water just as a simultaneous eagle attack occurs. The fish goes into another frenzy, this time wrapping itself around the downrigger cable several times. I take one more dip at him but I know what's about to happen… I can't get deep enough to reach the fish and he is wearing the mainline out on the wire cable! The line snaps and the fish rockets off, the bird flies away, and in the ensuing quiet all we can do is look at each other with expressions that say; "We just can't get a break, can we?”.
We end the wet and windy day without landing another keeper but return to the marina with one of the most eventful salmon fishing stories any of us have ever heard. Fishing is a game of anticipation, artistry, and passion. Catching an elusive species, landing a trophy-size monster, dropping a fly perfectly into a river’s eddy or competing with another apex predator for the same fish all amount to the same thing – living a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On the worst of days, we accomplished exactly that. After tying up and shedding our raingear, we went to the restaurant where chef Austin cooked up some of the fish we had caught earlier in the morning. My clients and I capped off their fishing vacation with a 5-star meal, while our conversation focused on the highlight of their vacation - we all agreed that the “mottled missile” made the day.
Until next year guys!
The doors have been closed for the last time in 2019, and everyone can breathe again. For the Alaska Fish House servers, cooks, managers and support staff, this was an incredible season. More people than ever before came off the cruise ships and dined at the Fish House, which is great, but what’s truly remarkable is that despite a marked increase in business, our TripAdvisor review rating increased dramatically. With no change to the infrastructure, the only possible explanation is the staff – thank you all for your attention to detail and hard work.
2019 was Baranof’s most successful season to date by most metrics, but most importantly when measured in terms of customer and employee satisfaction. Those of us working behind the scenes that don’t get a lot of time with the customers rely on the guides and tour ops to represent us - this year more than ever we’re proud to be part of a winning team.
Halibut: Halibut fishing around Ketchikan has been consistent the past couple months with most of our halibut charters yielding limits or close to it - with the exception of large negative tide days the success rate has been high. The weather has been consistently nice with more days than not being sunny and warm. The water is sitting at its usual sixty-degree surface temperature, on par for this time of year. If the fishing continues on this trajectory we should see good halibut fishing sustained at least through mid-September.
Bottomfish: Lingcod is open, and for the educated angler they provide an excellent fight and a pile of good meals. Rockfish and pacific cod seem to be around in numbers and are a nice addition to a fish box.
Salmon: The pink and silver salmon have arrived in Ketchikan and have been accepted with open arms. The pinks especially have shown a strong return and the fishing has been as good as ever. Pinks are great fighters and excellent table fare when taken care of properly. Silvers have been a little more inconsistent but are being found, albeit usually farther out then the hordes of pinks. King salmon are closed for retention since August 1st, but we enjoyed some of the better King salmon fishing Baranof has seen in the past few years. Some Kings are still being caught but will have to be released for the remainder of the season.
We expect the good fishing to continue through the end of the season, and as long as the weather is kind to us we will be able to get our guests out to the most consistent and productive fishing grounds around Ketchikan. Midseason Captain's Report
Overall, it being May and still before the great migration started, Baranof Fishing got it done.
Sunny days and clear skies were great for getting a Southeast Alaskan tan, but for the guides it was a bit of a tough one; success rates were high, it just took some extra work. The water temperatures were a few degrees above normal, with readings being in the high 40s – mid 50s. With a little extra effort fueled by a winter of not fishing and some friendly competition amongst the guides, our clients enjoyed a higher success rate than we normally experience during the month which resulted in most of our clients hooking up to their once-in-a-lifetime halibut (we did have some king salmon success, but until June 1st it was catch and release). Since the weather was atypical in its sunny brilliance, we were able to run farther out when our normal fishing grounds didn’t prove successful. As the it got later in the month, more and more halibut started to show up as their migration brought them in from their winter spawning grounds to their summer feeding locales surrounding Ketchikan. Guests that did get a halibut on the boat may have noticed red marks on their fish’s belly; those “bruises” come from their being on the move as they travel in to start their feeding. They’re here and they’re getting fattened up for the season; we’re looking forward to continued success throughout the summer.
June 1st brought the anxiously awaited opening of king salmon fishing. Trolling around and hooking up to a king is the pinnacle of Ketchikan angling for some, and we’ve been doing great. Despite the concern for the salmon population, the fishing is good. In a few more weeks we will be seeing the first signs of coho and pink in the area to round out a full day of salmon fishing.
As we’ve navigated through the waters in the area we’ve noticed the “boiling” areas of water that indicate a disturbance on the surface caused by the feed-fish. With seagulls and eagles dive bombing the water, you know for sure that there is going to be herring or other small fish around. Herring means salmon, and salmon means whales! The herring have arrived and so have the humpbacks; we’ve seen the whales chasing herring to the surface and bubble feeding as close as Mountain Point, just on the edge of town. The king salmon moving through have the orcas hanging out as well.
The fish have arrived, and we expect the excellent fishing to continue as the season progresses. Tight lines and fish on!!!
- Captain Tony Moucha
DAY FOUR: A paddle through Rudyerd Bay
Rudyerd Bay is pretty well protected from the winds, making it an ideal body of water to kayak. Our fourth day is the day I remember the most. We left the cove and headed up Rudyerd Bay at low tide and found this amazing beach a mile or so up the bay. The group decided to stop for lunch and laying in the warm sun on the beach. After a few hours, the weather was starting to change and we knew rain was coming. We all decided to head back to camp. The group, for some reason, was in a rush to take-off (I found out later this was a planned departure). As I stood by our kayak watching our friends paddle off, wondering why the hell they were trying to ditch us, I see my partner walk across the beach towards the boats. I, of course (impatient as I am), started to get gruff and stated we need to get going to catch up with the group when I then noticed my partner on a knee with a ring. This was the day of my engagement, and now I forever have to tell that I was ornery and cranky yet still got proposed too.
That night sitting around the campfire reminiscing of the past few days it was the last night of our adventure in the Mistys. The next afternoon we would be picked up and head back to our working lives. This was the night, also, when we discovered why the Misty’s got its name. Once the clouds came in there was an only a slight sun ray beaming through the mist. It was a day, and an evening, to remember.
FINAL DAY: Goodbye, until next time
We were all up early, but I am not sure anyone can ever be completely ready for the rain that Southeast can dish out. Let’s just say it poured all night. We all had tarps over tarps over our tents and the water still got in. We all packed up and put our gear in a dry-ish location to await our pick-up before hiking to Punchbowl lake for the day. The trail was super rough going as there was a lot of blow-down on the trail from some strong winds a few weeks prior, so we did a lot of climbing over and crawling under downed trees. It just proved the point that you can never tell what you will experience on a trip into the wild. Once at the lake, we were sitting under the shelter eating lunch when the sun came out. With the rainfall what it is in Southeast, you appreciate every ray of sunlight you get. Seeing the sun come out for the first time in the Misty Fjords National monument on the first day of engagement to my wonderful partner, however, was something truly beautiful.
DAY TWO: Kayak to Checats Springs
Today we were going to kayak to Checats Springs for a hike, and, if the Behm canal was decent enough, possibly paddle over to New Eddystone rock. The paddle to Checats definitely broke our friends into how powerful the ocean and waves can be. With a headwind and 2-3 ft chop I wasn’t sure, even in double kayaks, if we would ever make it to our destination; for every paddle stroke forward it felt like we went back 3. Finally, we made it into the cove and out of the wind. It took us some time to find the trailhead. The area had been pounded by a storm a few months prior, so there were so many downed trees it made it impossible to know where the trail was at times - especially considering none of us had been here before and cellular devices don’t work in the Misty’s. Not wanting to spend our entire day hiking, we decided we had gone far enough and returned to the beach for lunch and Sun.
As we left the cove on our way back to the cabin we noticed a pod of Dall porpoises heading through the now-glassy waters making their way towards New Eddystone. We also figured this was the perfect opportunity for us to kayak across Behm Canal for a look at The Rock. These were definitely the best conditions I have ever experienced while in the canal; the sun was out, there was no wind, and the water was glass. As we headed for the island, one of the friends started freaking out. They were not a fan of kayaking across this much open water and they hated the fact that they couldn’t see under them. We found out later the reason they were a bit distraught because they thought the Dall porpoises were orcas (“killer” whales), they were sure they were going to tip us from our kayaks and eat us. As one kayak left and headed for the cabin, the rest of us headed across Behm canal towards Eddystone. The paddle across was effortless. The boat slid through the water so gracefully. This was the moment I fell in love with Alaska. Once reaching New Eddystone we took a few hours to enjoy our lunch and hike around until the tide turned and carried us down to the cabin.
DAY THREE: The 12-mile paddle to Punchbowl
We had a slight breeze, but for the most part, the waters were fairly mild. (There’s no better way to experience the waters of Alaska and the beauty they hold than the quiet solitude of a kayak, especially the Misty Fjords. Feet away from thousand-foot vertical granite walls, and inches from the sea’s surface you can’t help but soak in the grandeur; the Misty Fjords are a must see for anyone coming to Alaska. No matter how you get there, however, any Misty trip is worth the time. Each experience is different and something truly special.) By the time we made it to Punchbowl cove everyone was pretty tired from the long paddle that day, so we all set up our tents to prepare for the night. The one thing to keep in mind when doing anything in the backcountry is that we have bears. Although I have never had a bad experience with a bear, I do my best to make sure I don’t put myself in a position where I might. Once our tents were set-up we walked around the cove to prepare our cooking and eating area and find trees to hang our food and supplies in. After dinner, we headed to our sleeping area to start a fire. There is nothing that brings people together quite like a campfire, beers, and stories in the backwoods of Alaska. The beer taste better, the fire feels warmer and the venue for your stories puts any man-made theater to shame.
TO BE CONTINUED...
My partner and I had just recently moved to Ketchikan for an adventure of a lifetime. On our 2-day ferry ride to town, we worked on our Ketchikan/Southeast Alaska bucket list. One of the top items on that list was to visit the Misty Fjords National Monument. To this point all, the sum of our experience with the Mistys was a flightseeing tour out of Ketchikan that included a brief landing on an alpine lake - or information we had read online. The pictures and history of the Ketchikan area were exciting and intriguing to us, especially New Eddystone Rock which was formed at the end of a volcanic vent where magma repeatedly rose to the surface of the earth. How amazing! I knew once I read that I had to go and see Eddystone from a viewpoint most people never get to experience.
After a short time in Ketchikan, we had found the joy of exploring the area by kayak. That is where the idea of kayaking through the Misty Fjords was born. Anyone who has been to Ketchikan / Southeast Alaska knows the hardest thing with exploring is all the logistics and planning that is required. You can’t just plan a trip for 3-days. Storms and weather can come in fast around here and, the next thing you know, your 3-days trip has turned into a week. However, that is a different story. Being new to town and not owning our boat was one of the biggest obstacles we had in the beginning. We were lucky, however, that you can find private charter boats to take you to different locations throughout Southeast…
Because we felt this was going to be an adventure of a lifetime, we invited a group of friends and their partners from Idaho to join us. This proved to be an excellent idea, though stressful. Being the most experienced of the group (which meant having an entire year of experience of living in Alaska), we were deemed as the most knowledgeable and the experienced for leading the voyage. If they only knew our knowledge only consisted of how much it rained in Southeast, I wonder if they still would have trusted us as much as they did.
DAY ONE: The Adventure Begins
The route we had chosen included a stay for a few nights at Punchbowl cove, then kayaking to Winstanley Island Cabin for the remaining two nights. To give our friends a different perspective of the adventure we were about to head out on, we decided to send them by float plane for a bird’s eye view of the area while my partner and I boated out with all of our gear and kayaks in the water taxi/private charter. Just before we were about to depart we told our friends, “NO MATTER what, if you arrive at Punchbowl and we are not there, DO NOT GET OUT OF THE PLANE. We have all of your gear and supplies. We are your life-line in the Alaskan wilderness.” This was the first broken rule.
The boat ride to the Misty’s was breathtaking; the waters were somewhat calm and the sun was coming through the clouds. Our captain was amazing, giving us local advice of where he suggested we drop our crab pots while at the cabin. The captain also wanted to show us an old petroglyph in the area and to see the new Winstanley cabin himself, so we decided to go by the cabin on our way to Punchbowl cove - a choice that ended up changing the entire trip. As we were circling the cabin and going through an area that is covered in water at high tide but dry on a really low tide, we hit a sunken log. That log destroyed the prop of the boat. Our captain, being the experienced sailor that he was, started the kicker and headed to the cabin so he could call for help. When we arrived at Winstanley, the Forest Service maintenance crew was just putting the last touches on the cabin. Lucky for us, the cabin was available two-days ahead of schedule. “Perfect! We will do our trip backward,” we decided. Now to relay that information to the rest of the group…
Our friends departed Ketchikan by floatplane an hour later. Final destination; Punchbowl Cove. This was the group’s first time in Alaska, so they had no idea what was in store for their time in the Alaskan wilderness. The only regret we have is not seeing their faces when they flew through the Misty’s. What I do know is they saw a pod of Orcas by Eddystone, which caused someone later in the adventure a little bit of a panic situation. There was so much to take in they had forgotten the one rule we had told them before we parted ways. They were so excited to look around, not realizing at the time we were stranded at the cabin with all of the gear, food, and the kayaks, they left the plane and decided to wander around and wait for us because we should be there at any moment. Thankfully, the pilot of the floatplane decided to look for us on his way back to town. He came by the cabin and we were able to flag him down. Once he landed we explained the situation and how there was no way we could make it to the group by nightfall. So, the decision was made; he would go back and pick up the group and bring them to the cabin.
Wow!! The cabin was awesome, and we were its first occupants. We moved in quickly, ready to get in our gear and head out on the water in our kayaks to drop the crab pots and show the group the petroglyphs on the wall the captain of our boat had pointed out earlier. That night the excitement of the week to come was high. The fire was perfect, the crab pots empty, but the moods were high.
TO BE CONTINUED….
Planning on fishing out of Ketchikan this year? Better know the regulations… We have our top species listed with some insight from captain Tony Moucha to give you a guide’s perspective on the coming season, along with a link to the full ADF&G regulations book. Take a minute to check it out here as you plan your Ketchikan sport fishing adventure with Baranof.
When Baranof first started, we were outfitting our guests out of the back of a canopied truck. I spent a half-hour each departure rummaging through stacks of boots, raingear, gloves, etc. as we decked out our guests. That first year I was making multiple trips each morning to Tongass to buy extra gear as we ran out of the appropriate sizes. (Our initial offering of Wilderness Dining attracted a lot of families, which it still does, so when we needed an extra-large or extra-small set of gear, it typically meant we’d need 4-5 for the whole family.) Fast forward 15 years, and my father’s love for beating any problem into submission is evident by the fact that we have indoor dining at our restaurant… The seating area at the Alaska Fish House was originally built to turn our outfitting process from a necessity into an experience. As the popularity for the Fish House grew, however, we constructed an 80-foot outfitting room at our marina, which is still in use. Necessity being the mother of invention, however, we’re not done yet – this winter we’re building another outfitting room to be used in conjunction with our current building.
Enter William Hink, the master carpenter and night squid-fishing enthusiast. He has been working with Chuck for the last few years on all our building projects and his pride is evident in his work. This winter dad’s turning Will loose on a new outfitting room that will serve not only as a place for our guests to get garbed for Southeast weather, but will play a critical role in the Baranof experience. William enjoys working with Chuck because his creative side is encouraged; dad wants Will to spend a little extra on fancy nails, for example, if they’re to be used where guests can see them. (That may sound silly to mention, but my point is that the finest details are not overlooked when William puts together a blueprint.) Outfitting guests for a day on the water are sort of like the opening act at a concert; the customer often views every minute spent as wasted, and keeping them from what they paid to see. It’s William and Chuck’s mission to provide a venue that allows our opening act to be an authentic, memorable Alaskan experience.
We’ll be posting photos of our progress in the months leading up to the season. Check back here or on any of our social media outlets for updates and discussion; first-time guests will garner a little peace of mind knowing they don’t have to dress for an arctic expedition for a day of fishing in Ketchikan.
For the last 30+ years, my father’s companies have been involved in the cruise ship tourism industry. During that time, he’s gained a fair amount of insight into what makes them tick. He’s developed and maintained professional relationships and personal friendships with many cruise line employees, and he’s seen assistant shore excursion managers work their way up the ladder to senior management. He’s maintained these relationships and addressed his business concerns through one-on-one interaction by traveling during the offseason to get in front of the cruise line decision makers. Only so much can be done over the phone or via email, neither of which plays to his strengths of identifying an opportunity and addressing it swiftly. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on many of my father’s meetings, dinners and dockside interactions ever since I was a child in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., and this year the training wheels came off as he sent a team, rather than himself, to meet with some of the cruise lines based in Miami.
My wife and I, along with Bonnie Steinberg (you can get to know her here) and her husband arrived at Miami International the weekend prior to our Monday and Tuesday meetings to get over the jet lag of traveling from Alaska and Missouri, pad around Bayside Market for a day, and meet with each other to go over our information and game plan. We knew what we wanted to present to each cruise line, but even though I’d come up with an agenda and set of goals to accomplish with each group, the entire point of the trip seemed very nebulous to me.
“What are we trying to do down there?”, I asked my dad.
“I don’t know – whatever. We’re not really offering anything new, but every time I’ve made a trip to sit down with these folks, something has happened that made me glad I did. Get to know them, let them get to know you, and good things will happen.”, was his response.
I’m glad I made the trip. While I’ve been excited to work for my father and be a part of the team that he’s created, getting in front of our business partners has changed things for me indefinitely. I thought I had a clear idea, but never understood the passion that the people that are successful in this industry have for providing memorable experiences to their guests. I’m not talking just about Baranof; this website is replete with me expounding on the authentic, family, exclusive, etc. experiences we provide. I’m talking about the cruise lines. It blew my mind that out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of excursions that each one of these lines offer, the managers we met with knew in intimate detail every aspect of our little operation in Ketchikan, Alaska. I can’t overstate their commitment. Bonnie and I, along with our spouses and a cameo by guide Jeff Kraynik, spent an hour or more with each cruise line over the two days we were down there identifying what we do well and areas for improvement. These are busy people, and I was prepared to be ushered out after a courtesy meet and greet, but to a business, they were bringing in customer service specialists, shore excursion managers, inventory control directors – you name it. My point is this; while any business will tell you they work hard to provide a great customer experience, I can promise that every cruise line I’ve met with to date will offer only a great customer experience. They are large companies, which in my small-town mind would intuitively preclude them from offering the attention to detail that a mom-and-pop operation can. The converse is true here – with the backing only a multi-national business can provide, these groups have provided the resources and qualified personnel to ensure that each one of their thousands of guests is treated personably, respectfully, and as a valued customer.
I’ve been proud to find work at my father’s company and be a part of what he’s built. Since our trip to Miami, that pride now extends to this entire industry. While the goal of any company is to make money, I know that we’re blessed to be working with companies and individuals that enjoy their work for the service they provide. The successful people in this marketplace, as with any, are those passionate about what they do. In this industry, that translates to directors and managers as concerned about you checking bucket-list items off as you are, with a commitment you can’t demand with salary alone.
Now, if they could turn their attention to detail to the traffic situation in Miami, the world would be a truly remarkable place
The next morning we awoke to some fairly decent weather by Southeast Alaska standards; high cloud layer around 2,000’, 5-10 knots of wind, a drizzling rain, and visibility of about 10 miles. Dad decided it was worth a look, so we packed up, bid our farewells, and taxied out to continue our journey.
With nothing to do as dad got us airborne and out over the waters surrounding Cordova, I remember marveling at how big Alaska really is. I’d grown up “in” Alaska, but had never spent an appreciable amount of time outside of Southeast. The night before we’d borrowed a truck from the local air-taxi operator (might seem weird loaning a car to a complete stranger, but he had our airplane… Again, welcome to Alaska!) and drove out to the Copper river for some sightseeing. On the road we were stopped by some oncoming traffic as a moose, towering over the cab of our Chevy Silverado, decided he had the right of way as he ambled past us without so much as a “thank-you” bob of his head. After this short delay we made our way to the river, completed our sightseeing trip, then headed back to town without further deer-delay to bed down for the evening.
My reminiscing was interrupted by a few curt words from my father. “Get the chart”, he said. (This was alarming to me in a way as, even though I was too old and experienced to admit it out loud, I was still young enough to be surprised that my father needed assistance from something so rudimentary as a map. (Next, he’d be consulting instructions to put together a Lego castle…). Peering about as I pulled out our sectional chart, I began to understand the situation. Like the children in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang realizing the tide had come in around their magical car as they were lost in their father’s story, the weather had deteriorated at an alarming rate around the plane I was riding in while I was lost in thought. There had been a storm in the area the last few days, and the stubborn thing was still there – visibility was down to a couple miles, the rain was driving in winds of at least 30 knots, and the seas below us were 40’ swells. Save for the swells, the conditions would not have been out of the ordinary in Ketchikan; I believe the old timers would have termed these conditions “pretty crumby”, compared to the “pretty good” conditions we’d departed in (during my day-dreaming session we’d blown right through “kinda scuzzy” and “a bit bumpy”). However, over the open ocean, with no other point of reference now that our visibility was gone and we’d since left Henderson Island behind us, my dad wanted me to find a heading from Seal Rocks to Montague island. We estimated the strength and direction of the wind by looking at the seas below us, came up with a crab angle, and continued on to Montague. Once we got there, with the conditions getting worse, dad told me to find a place to land. On our map was a small lake situated just inland from the south shore of the island. We buzzed around over the lake for a minute as dad contacted an airliner overhead on the emergency channel of 121.5. He asked them to call his wife and let her know we were going to camp for a night or two and we’d call when we got to Seward. I don’t remember the name of this lake, but I do remember, much to my indoorsman delight, that it had a Forest Service cabin. We touched down, taxied to shore, tied off the plane with every rope we had, and schlepped our gear through the trail to the cabin.
This Forest Service cabin was the same design as I was used to seeing in Southeast at places like Ella lake and Manzanita, but it was fortified like Bert from Tremors had prepped it for the apocalypse. My ignorance of moose driving habits serves as a good example as to why I hadn’t even considered the idea that the area would have brown bear wandering around… One bear in particular seemed to have the cabin lands designated as his territory; Hercules was his name, and the cabin logbook was full of accounts of him hurrying to the sound of gunshots to feed on what deer remains hunters had left behind after making their kill. We never met or saw any sign of Hercules, but my father did scare the life out of me during our second night at the cabin when he woke up and knocked over some gear on his way to the door while I was still sleeping. Bears aside, this cabin was a God-send. Some canned goods had been left behind by previous occupants. Though someone had erroneously believed mayonnaise had any kind of shelf life, the rest of the food, along with the tuna packets we had with us on the plane, served to provide us with some delicious fare. Our 3-day, 2-night, all-inclusive resort stay at the Chalet de Montague resort was an incredible bargain at $0.00 U.S. We were responsible for our own 2:00 a.m. tree-clearing, as the lake level rising a couple feet during the storm necessitated chopping down a parking space to keep our airplane from bobbing its way to a new location, but this was a minor inconvenience compared to any and all accommodation alternatives.
Once the storm passed, we loaded our gear on the plane, filled out the logbook at the cabin with tales of our travails, and took off from the by-now much larger lake. We headed to Seward, but it was socked in, so we landed in Homer. From Homer we made our way to Anchorage after fueling up, gave the plane back to the owner, and hopped on an Alaska Airlines jet back to Ketchikan – all according to plan. Compared to the rafting adventure he’d taken my brother and I on from Upper Mirror to Lower Mirror lake, things had gone surprisingly incident free by my father’s standards on this trip. But that’s a story for another time.
600-odd miles northwest of Ketchikan, Montague island rests at the northern reaches of the Gulf of Alaska. The island is a long and comparatively thin stretch of land with low hills, several lakes, and the rocky shores and forests common in coastal Alaska. At the end of the summer in 2002, my father and I found ourselves unplanned beneficiaries of the Forest Service as we made one of their cabins our home for three stormy days and nights. Here’s the story, as best as I can remember it, with only as much exaggeration as I think I can get away with (you are reading this on a sportfishing-centric website…).
In 2001 I graduated high school, and after a summer of working for my father as he and his brother launched Baranof Fishing Excursions, I headed off to flight school. I spent six months down in California over the next year with the family of my parents’ college friends (hands down the most wonderful group of people I know), after which I returned home. With only about 250 flight hours in my logbook, and needing a minimum of 500 to be anything close to marketable to even the smallest of airlines, I took a job as a floor-sweeper, coffee maker and general nuisance at Promech’s maintenance facility. Promech was, at the time, the largest air taxi in Ketchikan, owned by a man my father had been associates with since he was my age (17 – young, not the 35 graying years I have on me now…). The idea was I would hop on any flight I could and build time during empty legs of the company’s commuter flights, then work my way into the right-seat (co-pilot) of one of Promech’s DeHavilland Twin-Otters. The Twin-Otters were sold due to regulations that made their operation impractical following 9/11, restrictions since lifted, but the plan ultimately worked out as I was able to use the time I built and get a position in the Caribbean flying Twin-Otters on floats for Seaborne Airline. (I’m getting to the point, I promise.). During the tourist season, Promech would lease extra aircraft for Misty Fjords flightseeing tours. At the end of the season, the planes were either stored for the winter at the maintenance facility or returned to the owners. One such aircraft, an iconic DeHavilland Beaver, was leased from Ketchum Air out of Anchorage, Alaska. At the end of the season, my father offered to fly the aircraft back to Anchorage for free, as long as I was allowed to accompany him. Being an accomplished pilot and friends with the owner, Promech agreed readily. In late September, our journey began.
If you ask my father why he’s been successful, one humble brag he’ll allow is that he’s always tried to identify what might go wrong and be prepared for it. That sounds simple enough - many of us believe we have a back-up plan and don’t leave a lot to chance - but the quickest and easiest evidence I can provide of this is that he plans on two tires going flat at once during a road trip, not one. So when I say that we loaded the plane with everything we’d need for the trip, I mean we loaded the plane with everything we needed for the trip in about 5 minutes – then we spent the next 25 minutes loading it with everything we might need, things it was unlikely we’d need and items and gear we’d only need if everything went to hell. We used it all.
The plan was simple. We’d leave Ketchikan, overnight in Juneau, swing by Cordova for fuel, then shoot across the northern tip of the Gulf of Alaska (just off the coast, we weren’t planning on being out of sight of land) on our way to Lake Hood in Anchorage. From there we’d hop on an Alaska Airlines jet and be home the day after we left. The flight to Juneau was unremarkable by Southeast standards, but the next day as we headed farther north I was treated to scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities I’d never experienced before. Southeast isn’t known for sandy beaches, but for a seemingly endless stretch we were over boulder-free coastline as far as the eye could see. The weather was incredible up to this point of our adventure, which allowed us to get low over the beach for some up-close encounters with brown bear, a group of about 8 million seals that all flopped off into the water when we surprised them, and not a single human for hundreds of miles. We passed by Lituya Bay, famous for an enormous wave generated when half a mountain slide into the water and took several commercial fishing boats for a ride. As we neared Cordova, however, the weather began to deteriorate.
There is a lake near/in Cordova, the name I don’t recall, that has a seaplane dock on the western edge. My father and I landed there to stretch our legs and take a close look at the weather. The forecast was calling for a storm that was already underway in the Gulf to make its way a bit north, so we (my father really, he’s forgotten more about Alaskan bush flying than I’ll ever learn) decided to stay the night and take a look at things the next day. While dad was doing his thing and talking with a local pilot by the last name of Purvis, who ran a single-plane air service off that dock, he also got to chatting with another local pilot. This fella was in his mid-thirties maybe, older than me by a bit at any rate, and he was about to head out to check a landing strip. Bush flying in mainland Alaska is way different than in Southeast; they use balloon tires rather than floats to reach the remote locations. I’d grown up on floats, and my father knew I’d never done any of that kind of flying. He talked this dude into letting me hop in the backseat of his Piper Super Cub and go for a ride. Something like 1 in 12 of Alaskan citizens are pilots, with a great many of them cut from the same cloth as the gentleman I found myself strapped in behind (we’ll call him Captain Ahab because I don’t remember his name and it will make sense in a minute). Ahab and I taxied down the road (yes, the same road any car in town would use – welcome to Alaska) and took off in about 3 feet, as a light Super Cub doesn’t need much more room than a helicopter, and headed off… somewhere. We buzzed our way out over the town and headed over the islands to a single one in particular that Ahab had been wanting to take a look at. Again, I’d never done any of this kind of bush flying, so when he started circling I realized he was preparing to land and started looking for where I thought he’d touch down. I honestly could not see a single stretch of ground I’d have been comfortable gliding into as a last resort had my engine quit. Have you ever seen a trucker take a sharp turn, back into a loading dock or merge their way into a tight spot on the highway and marvel at how the vehicle seems to be an extension of their own body? Ahab was one with his plane; chopping the power after clearing the last few treetops, he deftly kept the right wing up over one small spruce as he touched the left wheel down, followed by the right. He paced the distance of our short landing area, made sure the ground was firm and level enough for take-off should the plane be heavier if he returned later and took a deer and, mission complete, we loaded back up for our return flight home. We started up, taxied back to the tree line, dropped all the flaps, and blasted out of there. He could tell by the smile on my face that I was having an awesome time, so we took a circuitous route home to do some beach combing; he said his wife collected the glass floats that Japanese fishermen used in their nets. Flying low, we skimmed over the beaches in a roundabout route back towards Cordova. With eyes peeled, I suddenly realized that Ahab had eaten something the night before that didn’t agree with him. He realized the same thing about me, but rounding a point of the beach we were air-combing we saw that neither of us was stuck in a plane with someone suffering gastronomical distress – it was Moby Dick. Not really - it was a humpback whale, not a sperm whale. Washed ashore, deader than disco, and reeking to high heaven was a great big sea mammal working on its tan. Ahab (see, makes sense – sort of), having already outgrown the boyish desire to poke dead animals with a stick, circled once but didn’t land. We continued on a bit, touched down on the beach (again, landing on completely undeveloped land seemed amazing to me), checked a knot of debris for glass floats but came up empty, then headed back to Cordova. I thanked Captain Ahab profusely for taking some punk kid flying with him and hurried out of the middle of the road so he could stop blocking traffic with his airplane. Dad and I spent the night in town, having decided during my side-adventure that the forecast precluded us from continuing on that day. The plan was we’d wake up early, head to Anchorage, and be home eating dinner in Ketchikan the next night. Things don’t always go as planned, however, and dinner was rice and canned tuna in a Forest Service cabin on Montague.
Check back next week for the rest of the story and how a Forest Service cabin saves a misadventure from becoming a complete disaster.
Ella lake, located in the Misty Fjords National Monument, will always be dear to me – specifically the Ella Narrows Forest Service cabin. For my 10th and 12th birthday, my mother rented the cabin for me and some friends for a few days, and my father or one of his pilots flew us out. My 12th birthday was especially memorable because my father, operating Twin-Otter seaplanes at the time, was able to pack me, my brother, our labrador Gunner, six friends and a chaperone into one plane for the 20-minute flight to the lake. The cabin is designed to hold six guests on the two single and two double bunks, but we made it work. Upon arrival, we hit the beach like we were storming Omaha and raised general hell for four days; 8 kids, a cool chaperone, bags of fireworks, and plenty of axes to go around.
All USFS cabins, at least the four or five that I’ve been to, follow the same 12 X 14’ design. Half the room is occupied by two bunks with a table in between. There is a window/refrigerator (shelves built outside the window, surrounded by a cage, allow you to keep the food you don’t want at room temperature protected from varmints but at hands-reach). One wall has shelves built along it with cupboards overhead, and there is a wood burning stove taking up the remaining space. The bunk/table situation is pretty cool as the bottom bunks are extended to provide sleeping room for two (top bunks are singles unless you’re very friendly or kind of tiny), but also double as seating for the table located between. A lot gets done in a very small space with these cabins, and if you’re willing to cram a couple people under bunks on the floor they can accommodate more than just the six sleepers they’re designed for.
To either side of the Ella Narrows cabin you’ll find, in my opinion, one of the two best sections of beach in all the world. To the East is a roughly 200’ long stretch of what Alaskans call sand, something in short supply in our area, but the beach to the West is my favorite. Although the beach is made of rocks ranging from D1 to basketball-sized, by and large, they’re weather-worn smooth, so you can navigate without shoes on and not lose any blood. Extending into the icy waters off this beach, however, is a good basketball court-sized area of shallow water. Sediment deposited from the mountain run-off has created a 2-4 foot deep area of water that warms a bit during the day. By no means “comfortable” by bathing standards, it does maintain a temperature high enough that you can play a few downs of tackle football before catching hypothermia. (Side note: there is an even larger flat like this at the inlet of Lower Mirror lake, but if you want to spend a weekend camping there you’ll need a tent.) During my 12th birthday camping trip, we spent a lot of time at this beach. There are some large dead Alder trees near the beach, so we axed a couple down and had a roaring fire going for most of our stay. This allowed us the uncommon opportunity to spend the days soaked to the bone without turning mostly blue.
Besides swimming and hewing our way through the dead Alders, we spent a lot of time playing with fire. My birthday is in June, so our trips to Ella were punctuated by the whistling of bottle rockets, the boom of artillery shells, and the frantic screams of pre-teens noticing a lit 50-pack of Blackcats arriving near their location. When we weren’t trying to blow ourselves up, we spent a lot of time seeing how large we could make our beach fires. My brother, ever the arsonist and envelope-pusher, even tried to burn down our cabin at one point. With most of us out in the boat putting around trying to catch cutthroat on the lake, I noticed a flashback toward the cabin. Once we arrived back, we noticed that Jack had decided to… mop the outside deck? Apparently, he’d been playing with some lighter fluid, scorched some supplies on the porch, and covered it up by dumping a bunch of soap and our drinking water all over the place. Compared to jumping out of a tree and puncturing an artery in his thigh with a stick, years prior, or rolling our Dad’s Land Cruiser on a pre-licensed joyride, this didn’t really even make the top-ten list of “What was he thinking?”
Forest Service cabins provide a modicum of civility to even the uncivilized. Anyone planning a trip to Alaska would be wise to consider spending a night or two in one of these rustic but comfortable chalets. They come stocked with firewood, they have a boat with oars, and they’re serviced every year by crews that ensure a safe, clean environment for you and your family to enjoy a few nights in the Alaskan wilderness. Guests can visit Tongass Trading Company for any camping gear they don’t bring with them. Many of the cabins are located on alpine lakes in the Misty Fjords National Monument, so chartering a seaplane flight from any of our air-taxi’s is recommended. Others, such as Winstanley or Alava Bay cabins can be reached via boat. Whatever your desires for a rustic getaway, the United States Forest Service has a location and cabin built just for you.
Nobody would ever describe me as passionate about cooking. Whether it’s due to my being colorblind and having a tendency to overcook things – “It LOOKS done, but better give these burgers another 20 minutes, because E.coli…”, my lack of planning – “Cordon Bleu sounds good, I bet I have everything at home, just need these breadcrumbs…”, or my predisposition towards complete laziness, I don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Since my kids started growing teeth, however, necessity has truly been the mother of invention, and my forays to the grocery store have widened in scope to include more than just the freezer aisle. Mine is a culinary story of many defeats, some draws, and the occasional act of God. When I pull things out of the fridge, develop grudges against innocent ingredients, but somehow put something on the table that the kids don’t “accidentally” drop on the floor or leave my wife with a look on her face usually reserved for a Lifetime Original movie, I know my acceptance in our home is secured for at least one more day. This is the story of last night - when the light of providence bathed me and my halibut tacos in its radiant glow.
Last winter my brother took his wife and two kids camping out on some island he doesn’t remember. Before setting up on the beach for the night, they dropped a longline out in the bay. The next morning, they headed home after pulling up a couple hundred pounds of halibut from their set. (There’s a lot more to this story, but I wasn’t there and Jack (my aforementioned brother) is at work, so that’s all you get). As any good son would do, he gave our mother and her husband all the fish that wouldn’t fit in his freezer. Jump ahead a few months, and my momma is visiting me and the kids here in Missouri. For this trip, Mom and Dan (my aforementioned step-father) bought a van, loaded in a chest freezer, and ferried it to the mainland for a month of visiting grandkids. Luckily, they stopped in Missouri before heading to see Michael (my not aforementioned step-brother) and his new little girl in Colorado. Out of the chest freezer and into mine were some spot shrimp our friend Aussie Rob caught, some salmon Mom and Dan pulled out of the water, and a bunch of halibut slabs my brother and his family took from the bay of an unnamed island in Southeast Alaska. The food grown in Missouri is amazing compared to what I grew up within Ketchikan, but there is no replacement for excellent fish and the taste of home, which I’m eternally grateful my family is willing to provide. Long story short, my brother killed some fish in Alaska, my mom drove it to me in Missouri, and I fried it in a cheap pan on a dirty stovetop.
Halibut tacos are actually easier than regular tacos. When you make tacos with ground beef there is a ton of work that goes into the prep; finding a cow and turning it into ground beef, chopping onions, and finding a cooking spoon that doesn’t have holes in it can take an eternity. With halibut, you just pull it out of the freezer the morning of, slice it into portable-phone-charger sized portions, season and fry for five minutes (flipping once). Heat up some corn tortillas, layer sliced cabbage for texture (and to prevent the halibut from breaking out and escaping through the bottom of the food frisbee), grated cheese, cilantro, and lime juice, and *BOOM*, your progeny are eating food they can’t come close to appreciating. While loading up with tomatoes, onions, and other common taco complements/ingredients can be tempting and aren’t discouraged, I prefer to keep things simple when I’m dealing with my scarce supply of fish.
Yesterday, everything went according to plan. In the morning I pulled a vacuum-sealed 2 lb. filet of halibut out of the freezer and tossed it in the sink. After picking the kids up from school we headed to the local grocer for “taco stuff”. Once at the store, and with the children sent on missions of obscure product procurement, I was able to swiftly and efficiently locate pre-shredded green cabbage, paprika (I didn’t end up using it for the tacos because I forgot, but I bet it would have been awesome), chili powder, salt, little corn tortillas, peanut oil, lime juice, salsa and a brick of mozzarella. A lot of this stuff you may already have in your home, but that’s a level of adulting I haven’t reached yet. I also grabbed a sweet potato for sweet potato fries as a side. Once the kids came back from their respective missions empty-handed (“Real Mayo” is a thing, but they never find the jar of “Fake Mayo”, and 3% milk doesn’t exist) we headed home for some anxiety fueled cheffing. Everything went better than expected; I didn’t have any flour, which should have been included with the seasoning to prevent the halibut from breaking up, but the size of the fish was good enough that it didn’t segment when I fried it. The fries weren’t cooked nearly long enough, but the children probably wouldn’t have eaten them even if they had been, picky as I allow them to be… All in all, though, it was a good meal. The kids were full, the wife wasn’t fiddling idly with her ring, and I had enjoyed a dinner that reminded me of why growing up in Southeast Alaska was such a privilege.
The adventurer’s spirit is different in all of us, but at its core, it means doing something that no one, or few, have ever done before. Pulling as many strange fish out of as many different waters as possible certainly fits the bill. This article includes a bit on catching ratfish out of Ketchikan; not the main draw of the area.
Baranof Fishing Excursions is offering an Early Booking Discount for 2019 Fishing Excursions. Are you planning on Stalking Salmon while in Ketchikan? Or are you more interested in Hunting for Halibut? Have you experienced our popular Cook your Catch program? No matter what your interest is, Baranof Fishing Excursions is in the business of creating authentic Alaskan experiences for you and your family. Our fishing rates.
Vote now on your favorite salmon restaurant! USA Today is asking those that know to decide which Alaskan joint puts out the best fish, and the Alaskan Fish House is on the ballot! Check it out below and let your voice be heard.
Voting ends Monday, October 15th, 2018 at 11:59 am EDT and the winners will be announced on 10Best on Friday, October 26th, 2018 at 12:00 pm EDT, then later on USA TODAY. You can read the official rules here
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Nothing breaks you into the beauties of the Misty's like a week paddling through her splendor.
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Fishing limits and the Fish & Game’s reasoning, and what it means for Baranof’s guests.
- Adventure around Revillagigedo Island
Misty's, Hot Springs, Fishing, Crabbing, and wildlife; the experience of a lifetime.
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