Alaska Fishing August 25-29, 1999

David Patterson, his sons Dave and Don, and their sons David, Mike, and Brian went to Alaska in search of  big fish and companionship. Our trip to Seward was full of surprises.

The first suprrise was that Dave Sr.'s car broken into the night before the trip, so all his luggage was stolen. Thus the first stop of our trip was to the Anckorage Walmart to get rain gear for Dave Sr., as it had been raining about every other day for the last few weeks.

Our second surprise was that Dave Jr. couldn't find the car that he thought he reserved. We were fortunate to find a minivan to hold 6 of us on the spur of the moment.

The third surprise was seeing Red Salmon spawning in a creek along the roadside. Procreation is the salmon's last act, and it occurs where the fish was born, making the salmon noble.

Our fourth surprise was upon arrival at Seward was that, although our Windsong Lodge master suite sleeps 6, it was set up for 2 queens and 2 twins, and there were neither more beds nor more rooms. Fortunately, Brian and Don volunteered to share one and Mike and David Sr. the other. (As the father of young children, Mike was used to unusual sleeping conditions, so he slept like a rock.)

We then went to the a Fish House to pay the rest of the fees, get fishing licenses, and to see our boat and crew. Our charter boat was the Alaska Summer, with Jon Tippit as captain and Skip from Fresno as the deckhand. (Skip wasn't hiding from anyone, we just never got his last name). David Sr. found Jon by exhanging email with the editor of the Alaskan Outdoors magazine, who said would hire Jon for his family. Jon told us to be at the boat at 7:30 AM Thursday and be ready to fish for halibut (AKA "'but", using local slang.)

We then had a halibut and chips dinner, to see what halibut tasted liked. We also stopped to buy ingredients for sandwiches on the boat, along with water and beer. We stayed up late playing poker for pretzels, with Dave Sr. being the big winner.  It rained the whole night, so we prepared for the worst. After a pretty noisy night--just how many Pattersons can snore in one room and remain asleep?--we were ready for our first day on the water.

The First Day

We got up at 6 AM, made lunches, and headed for breakfast at a local greasy spoon.

Given that every other Patterson generation has motion sickness, we may not have planned our meals well: greasy dinner, interrupted sleep, greasy breakfast, and then a 1.5 hour boat trip to get to the halibut hole. Sure enough, despite taking perscription medicine to prevent motion sickness, Dave Sr. became ill enough that he could only watch and sleep.

The rest of the Pattersons fished using 2-pound sinkers and foot-long herring as bait. Since halibut are a bottom fish, the goal was to get your sinker on the bottom, and then raise and lower your pole to move the herring so as to entice the halibut. Unlike almost all other fish, the halibut do not strike the bait to kill it, but they mouth it a while to soften it up before they try to eat it. If you yank immediately upon a hit on your line, you just pull the bait out of the halibut's mouth. Thus the challenge is to watch your poll tip go up and down for up to a minute and then, only when you think the halibut is ready to eat, yank to set the hook.

After about 30 minutes of bobbing the sinker, Don got the first strike. The good news was that he was likely to win one of our day's bets: the first person to land a fish. The bad news was that we were in 400 feet of water. Thus he had to crank the reel for about 5 minutes, while holding the pole against his body, to haul up a 30 pound halibut  before Skip could gaff our first fish, a Pacific Halibut. Mike got the second strike before Don got his to the surface.

For the next hour, it seemed like every minute or so someone would yell "Fish On" and then start  cranking. We eventually got the technique of having the pole tipped down when you hit bottom, so that you could wiggle the bait more easily. We didn't try to set the hook until the pole stayed bent when you pulled up a bit, then you yanked and cranked.

In the middle of this frenzy, a mass of kelp hit floated into our boat to both knock the anchor off its spot and foul several of the fishing lines. The kelp reset took almost an hour. As we started winding things up, both Don and the team of Brian and Mike both hooked big fish. It took a while, but Don finally landed the biggest halibut of the day, probably about 40 to 45 pounds.

Brian and Mike then landed a fish that looked like it came out of a Star Wars movie, offically named a "ling cod," but what Caption Jon calls a "bucket mouth." Not the best looking fish you've ever seen, but according to Skip, some prefer its taste to halibut.

By the end of the day Pattersons had landed 1 ling cod and 18 halibut, but we threw back 6 smaller halibut to stay within the Alaska Fish and Games limits.

Since we were done early, on the way back we stopped to catch  "black rockfish". They are plentiful, and not all that hard to catch. But they were a good transistion from halibut in that you needed to set the hook as soon as you get the nibble, like most fish. Don proceeded to catch 15 rockfish and Brian caught 14, while the rest of us caught a few each. We kept  a few of the big ones, and sent more than 30 back to the sea.

We then had a long ride back to Seward. The weather cleared up, and we saw beautiful scenery: mountains, sheer 1000-foot cliffs, many rocky islands, big skies, puffins, ... . As Don said, he would have been happy just going for the views, even if he didn't catch any fish.

One we got to the dock we followed tradition and posed for a group pitcture with our fish and crew (Skip is on the far left, Jon is on the far right.) Seeing all the tourists admire our fish and take pictures of them added to our pride. Skip then proceeded to fillet all the fish, which took about an hour. We end up with 150 pounds of fillet, which probably meant we caught more than 300 pounds of fish.

Thus we "limited out" on halibut on our first day, which is a great start for a fishing trip. Don won the first fish and most fish bets, but we decided that Brian and Mike's Ling Cod was biggest, in part to prevent Don from a sweep.

We went to dinner at the Ressurection Roadhouse attached to our hotel. Some of us were so exhausted from the reeling  and lack of sleep that we feel asleep before we hit the bed, without little necessities like pajamas or blankets.

The Second Day

We awoke to a clear, warm day. This time we made a oatmeal breakfast as well as sandwiches, which meant we could sleep in another 30 minutes. We were on the boat at 7:30AM, and ready to go.

Skip's view on sea sickness was at worst you would only throw up, and afterwards you would feel fine and not have further trouble. Hence on the second Dave Sr. made sure his dinner and breakfast were had a low grease quotient, and following Skip's philosophy, faced the sea without medication. In our years of occasional boat trips with Dave Sr., we had never failed to see him get seasick, so we all thought this took great courage.

We headed east in search of "coho salmon," which everyone calls "silver salmon." Mike, Brian, and Dave Jr. conspired ahead of time to try to prevent Don from catching the first fish, as we thought it would be our best chance of winning one of the bets from our most experienced fisherman. We noticed that the day before somehow Don was handed the first line to put into the water.  We were determined not to let this happen. Thus Brian got the first line into the water, but then Don somehow got the second line in! But this time Dave III, Mike, and Dave Jr. hussled to get their lines into the water to not give Don too much of a head start.

We started fishing for silvers by "mooching," which meant dropping a line with a light sinker and a lure with bait to a depth of 10 to 40 feet and then just bob the pole up and down trying to attract the fish to the lure, and then setting the hook immediately. Skip's general advice was to drop the lure just below where you could see it, and then "jig" it up and down so that you could see the lure at the top of its arc. But we also listened to Jon yell out what he saw on the Fish Finder to see at what depth he "saw" fish passing under the boat.

John yelled out "40 feet", and to the amazement of your reporter, I tried to drop the lure to that level and hooked the first fish. Since there were a few competing charter boats in the area, Skip told us earlier that for bragging rights it was important to yell "Fish On" loud enough that the nearby boat could hear.  As I was on the upper deck of our boat, as well as a trained public speaker, my shout was pretty hard to miss. In my mind's eye I saw the all fishermen on the water turn to look.  I landed the first silver, about 8 pounds, which is a nice way to start. We had been fishing only 5 minutes when we got the first one.

Brian proceeded that day to set what must be a world record for Black Rockfish caught by a 12-year-old. At one point he caught 5 back-to-back in 5 minutes, and must have caught more than 30 that day.  Since we were trying for silvers, we threw them all back, but it was such an impressive achievement that we gave Brian a new nickname: "Rocky."

I caught one more silver, and Don almost fulfilled his observation that he would have enjoyed the day even if he didn't catch any fish, by catching just one. Brian also caught a silver.

Dave Sr. was the "most improved fisherman," going from sleeping in the boat the first day to fishing all day, and without a touch of illness!

However, David III  put on a fishing show, catching salmon after salmon. The last one tried to break away by wrapping the line around the propreller, but Dave Sr. snagged the line heading from the propeller to the fish and handed it to David III, who then proceeded to haul the fish in hand over hand, until Skip gaffed it! He caught five silvers before he gave up his lucky spot to give Brian get a shot.

Despite all these accomplishments, Mike had the best single catch of the day. He hooked a fish that made line scream off the reel, despite Mike trying to real him in. The salmon took off around the boat, jumping in the air to throw the hook, and all the tricks he could think of. After several runs, Mike brought him in close enough for us to see under water. Captain Jon thought it was so big it might be a King Salmon, but it turned out to be a very large silver: 14.9 pounds according to the on-board scale, and 14.0 according to the one on shore.

The prior week there was a silver salmon fishing derby, with the winner receiving $10,000. It weighed in at 16.02 pounds. As you can see from the winner's list, Mike's would have placed well had it been the prior week. Notice that all the rest of the fishermen were from Alaska.

By the end of the day we had nine beautiful silvers, with Dave Jr. catching the first fish, Mike catching the biggest fish, and Dave "FiveKiller" III catching the most.

The evening we felt like celebrating our haul, so we had pizza and beer. We then went for a hike to Exit Glacier, near our hotel. It is one of the glaciers leaving the 50-mile by 30-mile Harding Ice Field, a leftover from the last ice age. The beautiful blue color comes from the ice aborbing the rest of the light spectrum, but it's hard to beleive its natural.  (Last shot is 3 guys and a glacier.)

That night was another good night of sleep, thanks in part to the hike.

The Third Day

After home cooked oatmeal and more homemade sandwiches, we hit the dock for our last day. A north wind picked up that night, forcing big waves, even in the bay. Jon got reports of 14-foot swells outside the bay, so he decided to run west looking for shelter from the islands as well as catching more ling cod.

Dave Sr and Dave III decided to stay on the top deck for fresh air, as Dave Sr. tried a second day without medicine. Things were a bit bumpy, but when we got outside the bay, it became exciting.

It turns out that the Alaska Summer is a great boat for going through swells, but it tends to "broach" if is caught by a large following swell, which was the ocean conditions that day. (For you landlubbers, broaching is when the stearn or rear of the boat starts heading for the bow or front of the boat, like a car going into a spin.) Thus the boat turns sideways in the swells, meaning it first leans heavily to the left and then heavily to the right, and so on until it settles down. It was enough for those of us on benches inside the cabin to slide a few feet in each direction, in one case dropping Brian and a few cushions onto the floor. It was like our last day of fishing included a few roller coaster rides as a bonus.

If it was exciting inside the boat, imagine what it was like on the second story! Each time she broached Skip would run out the door to count Daves on the roof. There always were two. I couldn't imagine how the Daves would survive without motion sickness, but the combination of eating right, fresh air, and holding on for dear life did the trick.

After clearing some points of land, the seas became smother, so we tried two spots about two hours away, without much luck. The a third spot was the jackpot. Because of the strong current we needed heavy sinkers on the lines, and only wanted to have two lines in at a time because since the boat was drfiting. The big danger was getting your line stuck on the floor with this rig, so we needed to make sure we bounced on the floor to catch the ling cod but not let it sit too long and get snagged.

The first ling cod was a like a scene from Star Wars Episode I (one of the few good scenes). Don put is rig in 150 feet of water and soon got a hit. As he was bringing it up, it seemed to become heavier, which seems unlikely. As the catch neared the surface, we could see what happened. Don had first caught a black rockfish, weighing maybe 4 pounds. As he realed it in, a large ling cod tried to swallow the rockfish whole, as just a very large biat! As they neared the surface, Skip gaffed the cod and jerked it on board, fulfilling the proverbial killing two birds with one stone.

For the next hour each of the Patterson men took turns on the two lines, and in almost every time one would snag the bottom and the other would snag a ling cod.  Here is a picture of Dave Sr. hooking his big fish, with Don holding on to his father to prevent an unplanned aquatic spectacle.

To give you an idea of the size of fish in Alaska, "small" ling cod that were less than 36 inches long, which had to be tossed back. Thus Mike caught four ling cod, throwing back the first three since they were "only" about 33" in length. Any of these would have been the catch of the day in California.

Brian almost duplicated his father's trick, as Brian caught one rockfish on one hook and a ling cod on another  hook, as his rig had two hooks on a single line.

David III "let" everyone catch their fish, just to see how big the others were, and then went to get his. He brought up the big one, a 50 pound ling cod!

At that point everyone had a keeper, which met our limit of one ling cod per person.

We then went to try to catch a beautiful fish called a "yellow-eye rockfish," which looks like a gold fish on steriods. This time we moved to a spot that was 250 feet deep and again in a strong current, so we used a heavy rig and only a few could fish at a time. Our hope was to catch a small one so that Captain Jon could ship it to a artist friend who paints fish.

Practically as soon as my line hit the bottom I snagged a fish. When we got it to the surface, we could see it was a yellow-eye, but it was huge, almost 15 pounds; too big to mail, so we kept it.

Since only two could fish deep at a time, Mike and Dave III went top-side with a lighter rigs to see what they could catch.
We spent the next hour catching many more black rockfish, but no yellow eye. We kept a few of the biggest ones.

As the north wind blew away all clouds, the views were the most beautiful of the trip on the way home.

We reckoned we had caught 15 ling cod of various sizes, one yellow-eye rockfish, and then several dozen black rockfish, and once again the Patterson men limited out on our target fish of the day. We arrived on shore and posed with the 15 fish we kept, which Skip then turned into another 90 pounds of fillets.

Homeward Bound

At 7 AM the next morning we picked up our catch from Captain Jack's freezing service: we ended up with seven 5-foot long boxes, each weighing almost 50 pounds. Getting these boxes, our luggage, and six Pattersons into one minivan was quite a feat, but we did it. I felt like we should parade our haul through the middle of downtown Seward to receive the appropriate stares of envy from other fishermen, but we took the high road, and headed directly to Anchorage.

Along the way we dropped off the box with the salmon to have it smoked at Alaska Sausage Factory in Anchorage. We then had 45 minutes for breakfast at Gwennie's Old Alaska Restaurant,  which is an Anchorage landmark; think of it as an Alaska-sized version of Berkeley's Fat Apple's.

Things went smoothly on the way home for everyone but Don and Brian. They arrived in Spokane, but their fish decided to see the world. Alaskan Airlines didn't deliver their two boxes for 24 hours. Yet their 100 pounds of  fish were still frozen,  which serves as a testimonial to the clever packaging by Captian Jack's. (Don and Brian volunteered to be flown back to Seward to appear in commercials for Captian Jack's, but their agent hasn't closed the deal.)

In summary, it was a wonderful trip. We had a boat crew that not only knew their fishing, they never made beginning fishermen feel bad when they screwed up. (Nor if the crew screwed up; we wish we could say that about all our fishing trips.) Plus we caught a lot of fish: 37 fish we kept, which turned into almost 300 pounds of fillet, and we probably threw back another 100 fish. Put another way, each of us caught the biggest fish of our lives.

I think the highest praise came from our most experienced fisherman, Don, who said it was the best fishing trip of his life! As it was for the rest of us.