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Southcentral Saltwater Chinook

by: theangler
There are a few of us die-hard king captains still left in Seward. These are the ones who live for May and June each year and count those first forty or fifty days as not only the kick-off of the Alaska offshore season but also regard them as the hallowed days when we fish for royalty.
Years ago my circle of friends consisted of those I worked with in the North Slope oil industry and those which I considered “close” friends were those who also fished and hunted around the state on their “R&R’s”. In the 80’s I had the opportunity to explore and discover lots of what the state of Alaska had to offer.
Many of my close friends had grown up in the state and knew practically all of the rivers which you could get to by road and many of the fly-in fresh waters of Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Early on we hit ‘em hard, with Slope wages we could afford to charter planes and be like Capt. Kirk on the Enterprise and feel like we were “going where no man had gone before.”
We lit on dirt and gravel airstrips and beaches that we exactly long enough for the tundra tires to grab hold before slipping off into the muskeg. Patches of water, where with the right wind, which sometimes took a day or two to find, we could land, power down and stop, all before entering the woods on floats which was not recommended. However, this only added to the adventure.
But, for me, something was missing. I had grown up an ocean boy and while thoroughly enjoying and appreciating each trip and adventure, there was always a part of me longing for the sights and smells of a marine environment. That yearning was about to be conquered.
After a couple of seasons of touching down in some of the most remote and un-scathed parts of Alaska, I caught wind of something fishy, ocean fishy that is. Another “Sloper” (as we liked to call ourselves) who I didn’t really realize the mistake he had made of talking a little too loud a chow one night and I heard the words “trolling” and “kings” mentioned in the same sentence. Hey, all is fair in love, war and fishing.
The next night I “just happened” to sit next to him in the cafeteria, and thus was the start of a mutually beneficial relationship for the both of us. I described to him some of our most outstanding trips to the bush river and lakes while he went on to enlighten me on a campsite at what is now called Whiskey Gulch on the beaches of Cook Inlet, near Anchor Point on the Kenai Peninsula.
It seems that Whiskey Gulch (and the almost entire eastern shore of Cook Inlet) was one of nature’s interception points for north and east bound salmon heading to the Kenai River, Mat-Su drainages and many other natal streams. It seemed a little strange to be trolling in twenty feet of water for giant Kings in the saltwater, but I quickly got used to it.
Before Deep Creek made the charts as one of Alaska’s premier destinations for halibut and saltwater kings, there was Whiskey Gulch. As stated earlier, I was raised an ocean boy. I already knew how to connect with ocean run salmon; I just needed to know when and where… and now I knew. Poor salmon.
From this moment on I began my “schooling” in Alaska’s ocean-run king salmon. Since that day I have traveled throughout Southeast and Southcentral Alaska in search of our state’s most sought after andromonous species, the King Salmon.
Eventually this quest led me to give up a serious “corporate” job and enlist in the ranks of Alaska’s charter boat fleet and become a professional captain. After serving time as captain at a remote southeast lodge and even more time as a Kenai River lodge’s “halibut” boat based out of Seward, I stepped up to the plate and started my own charter company.
The strongest motive of all I had for becoming my own boss was the fact that I could choose my targets and develop my own clientele that held similar interests. As much as I love bottom fishing, the salmon (especially the Kings) had always lingered at the top of my list of worthy opponents.
When I had accepted the job in Seward (Kenai) I had a lingering dread that my days of king salmon fishing had been numbered. As most anyone who reads this magazine will know, Seward if one of the top spots on the planet for saltwater Coho fishing. I figure that perhaps sheer numbers of Coho would offset the king withdrawals. Imagine how happy I was when I learned of Montague’s Kings.
Montague Island is one of the long, skinny islands responsible for Prince William Sound being a sound. Montague horizontally shelters the inside waters of western Prince William Sound from the open Gulf of Alaska or Pacific Ocean. It is also said to be the largest uninhabited island in North America.
With the natural counterclockwise spin of the offshore Gulf of Alaska waters and the immense plateau off of its southwest corner known so well by halibut fishermen, Montague entices Chinook salmon to make a stopover here on their inbound migration. These natural factors also draw immense schools of baitfish drawn by the plankton rich waters flushed in and out of Prince William Sound twice a day, thus completing the circle of life.
In these waters we’ve landed the copper tinted giants that make the Kenai River famous as well as the white-fleshed kings popular in Canadian streams. Many, many strains of Chinook pass through this region including the Copper River King which has enjoyed the limelight in recent years in the wake of one of Alaska’s most successful marketing programs.
The runs generally start to assemble in mid to late May and can be there up to two months. Last season (2009) we were blessed to be still adding several nice fish a day to our box full of white fish in early and mid July. Of course the timing and numbers vary from year to year but it is safe to day the mid-June is peak.
There are general areas out here to fish but no real “pinpoint” locations which are so important when bottom fishing. Usually within a mile or two of shore on the southwestern corner of the Island you can find the fish. It may take a little lookin’ around but they’re there. Each day as we land our first fish, I’ll make a mark of it on my GPS and continue doing figure 8’s trolling across the mark.
After a few days these marks then collectively become my “general” area. The marks can then also be looked at on a time scale to give an indication of the direction they are heading, if any. We’ve found in the past that there can also be several pockets of kings out there at the same time so if we don’t find ‘em where they were yesterday or the day before, there are additional areas to investigate as well.
I wish I could tell you to look for traditional ocean-going Chinook holding sign like points on the land, sharp drop off’s, pinnacles, gravel beds, etc., but the truth is that there is no real geographic or bathymetric clue to look for here. These Chinook are just roving packs of hungry fish looking to put on a few pounds and remain at the top of their food chain (i.e. die in a river) rather than fall one step short and end up in the belly of an Orca, sea lion or salmon shark.
However, the techniques do run with the familiar. My personal favorite is to troll with downriggers on four lines and use the last two lines as flat lines off the stern with three or four ounces of banana weight. Being a 6-pack boat I can get away with this. Larger charter boats are pretty much restricted to mooching (drifting) or motor-mooching (power drifting) so that all clients can fish at the same time.
Our hardware consists of the forward rod running a herring dodger attached to 30 pound mainline, followed by about four or five feet of 25 pound leader material and plug-cut herring run through with a set of 4/0-5/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks. This rod is downrigged down to about 40 feet, which again might not seem deep enough to the traditional king fisher but we’re generally fishing water between only sixty and eighty feet deep. The next rod back is the same except sans dodger, the leader being tie via barrel swivel directly to the mainline.
The other side of the boat sees the same set-up except we’ll normally switch the dodger to the rear (middle) line so as to be flashing in a slightly different section of water than the other side. Additionally, we’ll stagger the downrigger depths anywhere between twenty five and sixty feet, depending on the depth of the water we’re in. Just remember, fish can’t see down, so it’s always better to err on the side above them rather than below them.
Our flat lines in back are straight cut herring with again just a banana weight of three or four ounces between the mainline and leader and back behind the boat anywhere between 100 and 150 feet. While on a hookup we need to clear the other downrigged lines quickly, these long (flat) lines can be left alone and many times they will entice a strike on their slow, spiraling decent as the boat slows.
Times can be fast and furious out here at Montague, last year I had just set the fourth line in the rod holder and was turning to prepare a flat line when… 1, 2, 3, 4, just like that, all four lines tripped and began screaming drag. I was sure we had hit a school of exceptionally large and mad rockfish. However, as line kept peeling from the reels I became increasingly sure I was wrong.
We ended up with four incredibly bright kings that looked like they had all come from the same factory, from 28 to 32 pounds each. This happened to be an early June “Pure-King” charter and it didn’t slow down from there. We were on our way back with twelve beautiful specimens before noon.
Times can also be a little tougher out there as well. After scoring good on fish for several weeks running, we returned to our usual haunt on day and trolled through sterile water for about two hours without a strike. Then, just as we were about to give up and head for the halibut hole, a pod of nearly two dozen Orca surfaced just off our port side.
After thoroughly enjoying the close up acrobatic and aerial show of twenty Orcas within a football field of us, we collected the lines and ran about four miles to the inside corner of the Island. Here we had done well in previous years but had not yet had time (nor needed) to check out this alternative. Within minutes we had our first King on and proceed to boat several more before it really was time to head for the halibut hole.
So, the moral of the story, like in most fishing stories, is don’t give up. There are surely dozens of other “general” areas in the vicinity that have yet to be found. That’s the beauty of King fishing, you never know what you’ll find next and in this great state of ours, the list is endless.
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Captain T.A. “Tat” Tatterson has over twenty five years experience fishing the salt and fresh waters of Alaska. He operates charter boats in Seward, Alaska; San Jose del Cabo, Mexico; and Panama. He can be reached via email at pfishnet2000@yahoo.com or on his websites at: www.pacificfishing.us; www.pfishmexico.com or www.pescapanama.com

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Added: Wed Apr 18 2012
Last Modified: Mon Apr 23 2012

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