Baranof Blog & Fishing News

Catching Rockfish with Chris Baldwin

The winter of 2017 was the first winter I lived in Alaska. A California transplant, I’d been fishing in Ketchikan for the last 6 years, but I always drove up in the spring and drove down south in the fall. 2017 was our first winter away from California, and I dragged my wife up not really knowing what to expect in this place. A few weeks after the cruise ships stopped coming, and the downtown hustle and bustle slowed down to a crawl, I was amazed at how quickly and by how much this place grew on us. The warm people, the wonderfully beautiful days mixed with the violent storms, the crisp clarity after a snowstorm, and the way the community comes together in winter was like nothing we’ve ever experienced in the lower 48.    

Even though my wife and I had a special winter together, springtime felt like a bit of an accomplishment. Before we stayed our first winter, my wife and I often heard “good luck surviving the winters...” but after a while, we realized that most of the people saying this have never stayed a winter in Ketchikan; and while many Ketchikan residents do complain about the weather from time to time, from my experience most wouldn’t have it any other way. This place is truly special and seeing the seasons' full circle made me love it more. We are in the middle of our second winter, and it still seems that the longer we live here, the more we love this place.

Needless to say, I am a fisherman, so when spring came around that first year I was chomping at the bit to get back on the water. Our first boat got put in towards the end of April, and that same day I grabbed my friend Tony and my ultra-light rods and went out. We were targeting rockfish so we didn’t have to go far. About half a mile from our dock, we started catching fish pretty quickly. Tony caught a copper almost immediately, and I pulled up a nice little quillback a few minutes later, completing our limit of non-pelagic rockfish. It was fun nailing a couple rockfish that quickly, but we were a little bummed it happened so fast. Non-pelagic rockfish live their entire lives down at the bottom and pulling them up to the surface rapidly cannot be a pleasant experience for them. Because of this, we didn’t want to keep catching non-pelagic rockfish if we were going to release them, so we went looking for pelagic. Pelagic rockfish are migratory in nature, and they can be found anywhere from the top of the water column down to the bottom. In fact, many times part of the school will follow the hooked fish right up to the surface, and you can see them swimming right under the boat. Sometimes leaving a hooked fish down 10-15 feet under the surface will keep the school close to the surface as they school with the hooked fish. 

Tony and I didn’t have to go far to find pelagics. About a quarter mile away, we parked the boat over a large school of duskies. We were dropping 1oz. metal jigs sometimes called jigging spoons, or flutter jigs, where you use the tip of the rod to flip the lure up and down sporadically imitating a wounded baitfish. These metal jigs can be like candy for the little buggers! Fish bite the lure as it flutters down. The next time you raise the tip, the hook gets buried, and you’ve got a little fight on your hands. The pelagic duskies were hungry that evening, we caught 10, limiting out in around 20 minutes. I would chuckle, and Tony would have a big grin on his face every time we hooked up; we were having fun.

A day or two later, Chuck, Baranof’s owner, wanted to impress some friends with a meal in the Fish House. When it comes to impressing people, it’s hard to beat fresh rockfish, so I took him and his wife to my secret rockfish spot (It’s under a mile from the dock; everybody in the company knows about it at this point.). That school of duskies was still sitting on that same ledge; and using my ultra-light setups, we soon had enough to make some of the best ceviche I’ve ever had. Now, of course, saltwater fishing in Alaska is not always this successful, but the great thing about rockfish is that it often is. Chuck was so impressed by ultra-light fishing, it was easy for me to convince him that it’s a skill set we should have on our dock. I am happy to say that this winter I am working on incorporating ultra-light fishing into our fishing program. If you have any interest in giving ultra-light fishing in Ketchikan a try, please contact us ahead of time, and we can match you with a guide passionate about ultra-light fishing.  

Rockfish are certainly not the biggest or the hardest fighting fish in Alaska, and they actually have somewhat of a bad reputation among local fishermen, but that’s ok with me. I feel that catching them on an ultra-light set up is one of the best-kept secrets of fishing in Alaska. Much of the bad rep comes from the fact that most fishermen in Alaska catch rockfish incidentally when targeting halibut, and they do so from 300 feet on stout halibut rods designed to lift lots of weight off the bottom. Where’s the fun in that?

What made these fishing trips so much fun was the ultra-light rods. Rockfish are similar in size to largemouth bass, and while people are fanatic about bass fishing, part of the reason is because 8 lb. test line and light duty rods are common. This enables them to feel the strength of the fish. I don’t think they’d enjoy catching bass that much if all they had was a halibut “broomstick” fishing rod, 100 lb. test line, and 32 oz. of weight.

I have found that targeting rockfish using small 1-3oz. metal jigs and sizing down the rod and fishing line, make catching rockfish a kick in the pants. Metal jigs are also fun to use because most predators in the ocean love them, and you never know what you’re going to catch. If you want a real challenge, try catching a halibut with an ultra-light setup. The little rod makes an average 20 lb. halibut seem like a beast, and they make long screaming runs with the comparatively light drag.

I have caught and I have had clients catch trophy size lingcod, halibut, and kings on an ultra-light. Chasing these serious fish on a light setup really requires the guide and the fisherman to be on the top of their game. If the drag is too tight, if there is a nick in the line, or if the fisherman tries to horse the fish in by rushing it, bad things are likely to happen. But at the same time, there really is no excuse for losing a large fish with an ultra-light setup, and I have caught halibut in the 100lbs. class with an ultra-light rod. You do need to slow down and play a fish this powerful though. You can’t just reel and reel and reel.  

This year, when the winter is over, and the first boat is back in the water, I’m sure I will again feel the call of the ocean and especially the fish in it.  I can already feel the joy of wrestling with that first rockfish on my ultra-light and tasting it after it’s been filleted and freshly cooked, and I’m excited that I can now share this passion with our guests.  I can’t wait for the season to begin.

Tags: fishingreport lighttackle baranoffishing alaskafishhouse ketchikan alaska fishin
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