Alaska Trip July 1-6, 1998

My bother Don, my dad and I went on a trip to Alaska, to fish the Kenai ("KEEN-eye") Peninsula.

The first step was a 3-hour drive from Anchorage south along Highway 1. The view from the car was magnificent. The tidelands of the Turnaround Bay were surrounded by snow covered mountains, even in July.

We stopped when Don saw a moose and her calf munching their way through a marsh. Another moose joined them while we watched. Moose are so common the highway had "Moose Crossing" traffic signs. Moreover, other signs warn of moose as road kill. Each major stretch of highway listed the number of Moose killed in the last year--294 on one stretch, 307 on another--to try to get drivers to be careful, for hitting a 1000-pound moose always totals the car and often its occupants.

I had just mentioned that I hoped to see a bald eagle on this trip, when we drove over the next hill and saw two bald eagles in some kind of mating ritual. One eagle rested in a tree, and then flew away once he got tired of having his picture taken. Bald eagles appear to be about as common in Alaska as red-tailed hawks are in the Bay Area. We saw eagles nests and eagles every day of our trip.

We took a detour on the way to Kenai to stop at the Kenai Fjords National Park. We went to the closest glacier to us, which was the Exit Glacier. It was given its name as explorers of the Harding Ice Field found their way out via this glacier. The Harding Ice Field is 300 square miles, and is left over from the last ice age. Don and I had our picture taken by Dad, and we got a closer look at the glacier. The eerie blue color is due to the ice absorbing the blue part of the color spectrum.

Thus in our first 3 hours in Alaska we saw moose, eagles, and glaciers. Although this might have been a full trip for some, we continued on to Kenai to fish.

We stayed at Drifter's Landing, which supplied food, lodging, fishing guides, boats, and everything else you need to catch a fish, except skill and luck. They woke us up at 4:50AM, we ate a hearty hot breakfast at 5:15AM, drove upstream to a Kenai River boat ramp about 6AM, and were usually in the water by 6:30AM. Elizabeth Smith prepared all the meals, and was remarkably cheerful for a person who worked baker's hours.

We were doing drift boat fishing, which means the boat drifts down river with the guide slowing our decent by rowing against the current, and occasionally going back upstream to pass over a good fishing hole a few times if the current is not too fast. There is a strong rivalry between the drift boaters and the motor boaters, which is fueled by wakes of the motor boats passing too close to the drift boats.

I now know where I get my optimism from. As the limit is one King Salmon per day, Dad figured each of us would catch our limit and we'd be back at the lodge by 10AM. He was planning what to do with the rest of the day!

Our guide was the proprietor Ken Smith, who named his boat Lucky Lizzy, after his wife. Ken must be the Davy Crockett of the Kenai, for every guide on every boat and said "Hi" to Ken when we passed. I also noticed that wherever Ken went, the rest of the boats followed.

This was serious fishing: we ate lunch on boat, and didn't stop until about 5PM when we got to the dock of Drifter' Landing. Those of us who drank a few cups of coffee and a glass of orange juice for breakfast sprinted to the facilities as soon as we our feet touched dry land. (Once we were veterans, we drank nothing at breakfast.)

We had no luck on the first day.

On the second day, Dad revised his optimism so that if he caught only a 20 pound salmon in the morning he'd let it go, so that we could catch a big one later.

No luck in the morning, except for 7 trout which we tossed back in, but in the afternoon at the Big Eddy, we got more action. Don got several hits, but couldn't set the hook. Dad hooked a 23-pound King Salmon, fought it for 10 minutes or so, and landed it. The Patterson Family would not be skunked! It was 1 of only 2 salmon caught by the 14 people in the lodge that day, as the river had become murky that day and it was hard for the fish to see the bait.

The next morning Dad revealed his third plan: when he hooked a fish, he would hand it to me or Don to land it. We told him we weren't interested in "Mercy Salmon", and would catch our own fish, thank you.

This time we headed straight for the Big Eddy. I got a hit at 9:30AM, set the hook, and then fought to keep the fish from going near the shore to snag the line or going under the boat to cut the line on the edge of the boat. I'd reel in, and then the fish would take off, stripping line off the reel. It jumped out of the water a few times to try to free itself, but finally I got it to the boat and into the net. Another boat from our lodge landed a 58-pound King Salmon 5 minutes later.

I had my fish, so the rest of the day I could help my brother and father by giving them pointers on how to fish.

During the lunch break at noon Don and Dad kept their lines in the water, basically holding the fishing poles between their legs. Half-way through his sandwich Don's pole bent down to the water, so he grabbed the pole with both hands, jerked to set the hook, and the fight was on. He landed it 10 minutes later, and Ken said it looked like the twin of my fish.

We still had 5 more hours of fishing, so Don and I could both give Dad pointers to improve his fishing the rest of the day.

When we got back, we had our pictures taken with our two fish. The scale showed that they both weighed exactly 23 pounds, which was a Solomonic ending to the bragging rights of our salmon fishing.

The fourth day we went halibut fishing in Cook's Inlet. We first did site-seeing as the boats can't leave until the tide let's them, which was about 11:30AM. We visited the city of Homer, which is on the far end of the pennisula at the end of long spit of land. The dirt roads and wooden sidewalks gave it a old west feeling, in addition to beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains across the water. We then started fishing back at Deep Creek in Ninilchik, 35 miles closer to Kenai. Our 24-foot aluminum boat had two 90 horse power motors (redundancy in case of a single failure). The seas looked a little rough, but after checking things out our captain Chris decided we could fish. We started with a farm tractor backing the trailer into the water, and then headed out for Robbie's Hole.

It was interesting to see the role of technology in fishing. The only technology in the drift boats was a cell phone, which which was used to call the lodge to find out how the guides were doing at each of the popular spots. In contrast,the halibut boat had everything: radio, GPS, depth finder, and cell phone as emergency backup. While the river guides could easily find the location of the good spots, the ocean fishing had no such simple visual clues. GPS to the rescue: punch in a good spot, and then the next time the GPS would lead you right back. And although captains of ocean boats needed to be checked out on the various radio bands to talk to the Coast Guard or to other boats in their group, it was clear than cell phones were more reliable. When we couldn't get them on the radio, our captain would just call. There was continuous communication about upcoming rain squalls, how the fishing was doing at each spot, and so on.

It took us one-hour to get to Robbie's Hole, and Dad soon started landing halibut. Don and I were getting hits, but not hooking them. Eventually we started to get better technique: we were fishing in 140-foot deep water and needed to bounce the 3-pound sinker off the bottom to attract halibut to our bait. We were about to leave, as the seas we getting rough, when the tide changed along with our luck. Suddenly, all of us were getting hits, and we would bring them to the surface to see if they were bigger than the ones we already had landed. We had an 8-fish limit for the boat, with the captain keeping the two smaller halibuts. Dad had brought many in, and my brother and I scrambled to make sure we got some too.

In the end we probably hooked 16 fish, with Dad probably responsible for 4 that we kept and Don and I for 2 each. On the way back, Dad explained his technique. Don and I noted that he didn't tell us while we were fishing, but we'll use it next time!

We each returned home with probably 30 pounds of frozen salmon and halibut, and will spend the rest of the summer feeding our families fish meals and fish stories.