Report: North to Alaska

WE have just finished the famous Inside Passage cruise from Alaska down to Vancouver. This is the first cruise I have ever done. The ship is amazing, it’s like a high-class hotel on water. Too much good food though! The main attractions of this cruise are the famous glaciers of Alaska. I have to admit they are pretty impressive, even at the distance kept by the cruise ship (about 0.8 to 1 km). One thing I found interesting is the rate at which most have been receding. At one glacier if we had visited 100 years earlier we wouldn’t have even got into the bay some 15 kilometres away for the current day glacier face. Some, however, are still advancing and these are the ones where you are most likely to be able to see them calving, this is when huge chunks break off. We were lucky enough to see this happen on several occasions and it was pretty awesome.

One of the other things that cruises offer are shore days where the ship docks at several ports along the way. Passengers can participate in a myriad of cruise organised activities, stay on the ship and do a range of organised activities or visit the port at their own pace and do your own thing. The activities are as wide ranging as you could imagine. All the ports offered fishing packages and my son Patrick really wanted to do some more fishing, which I was really pleased about and so I needed no prompting. However, I tried to explain to him that these tours were not real fishing trips, just a few hours to spend fishing so not to get his hopes up too high.

The first stop was in the port town of Skagway. The package we booked offered freshwater fishing in Chillkoot Lake for salmon. With transfers and turnaround we would get about 3 hours of fishing. The day before had poured rain the whole day and been quite windy. We pulled into Skagway about 6,30am and thankfully the rain had stopped, but it was still overcast and quite windy. We had to meet the tour people at 7.30 so ate a quick breakfast and off we went. There were only four of us on this tour, which suited me nicely as I watched dozens of people boarding buses for the “Gold Panning” or Rock Climbing” tours. My son and I were to fish with a lovely couple from Pennsylvania.

Our trip started with a scenic ferry ride from Skagway to a town called Haines where we were met by a lovely young lass called Lizzy who worked for Chillkoot Lake Tours and drove us to the lake. As a bonus we even saw a bear as we drove along the river. Once we got there I was amazed at how beautiful the lake was. I was also encouraged as we watched some ladies fishing from the shore at the car park pull in a couple of small dolly varden as we walked past. The dolly was my son’s target species as he didn’t get one in the Brooks River.

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Lake Chillkoot.

When we got to the boats I realised that this lovely young lass would also be our guide for the morning. Lizzy had an interesting story. Apparently she was travelling through Haines and fell in love with place. She had been applying for jobs and told the people who owned the fishing business that she loved fishing and they gave her the job as the fishing guide.

We took off down the lake in a large pontoon style boat to where the sockeye and dolly varden had been congregating. As we pulled in towards the shore we could see them swimming along the shoreline and coming to the surface. Lizzy told us that we just needed to cast the spoon lures in towards the shore and wind them back in and we would catch fish. The boat was very roomy and had plenty of room for us all to cast.

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Sockeye salmon and the interestingly named dolly varden can be seen congregating here in the shallows. A solid sockeye (below).

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My son was first in with a small dolly varden in a matter of minutes, which started a flood of fish coming in. Most were small dollys but we got a few that were around a kilo and also caught a few sockeye, two of which were thumpers. My son caught one monster. I’m not used to guessing weights on fish with such unusual dimensions but I thought it was around 10lb. My son thought it was 12!

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Patrick jr. (top) and senior (above) with some nice sockeye salmon caught casting spooons.

After a while (and we left the fish biting) we left that spot to check out the sockeye spawning beds on the lake edge. Lizzy didn’t want us to fish around the spawners but we cruised past to check it out anyway. It still amazes me that their whole life culminates in this singular spawning event and is coupled by such a bizarre physical transformation. So many of them don’t make it and yet the species continues.

As we approached the dock Lizzy suggested we spend a few minutes casting at the river outflow as there should be some pink salmon running. We caught plenty more dollys and my son got a nice pink.

To top all that off, the sky cleared about an hour into the fishing and it got quite warm. It was a beautiful morning on a majestic lake with bald eagles all around and the amazing salmon doing their thing all throughout the lake. I have to say that I was very surprised at the quality of the fishing and how much I enjoyed the experience. My son said it was his best fishing day ever – although he tends to say that about any successful day’s fishing.

Our next day was in the Capital of Alaska, Juneau. My wife and son booked in to take a helicopter ride to the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier and do some dog sledding at the top. That was not my scene so I elected to stay on board and entertain myself. We woke the next morning in Juneau to find that the trip had been cancelled. My son was pretty upset as he really wanted to do an activity. We enquired at the tours desk as to what was still available. Unfortunately most other tours had already departed or been cancelled. However, there was a mid-morning saltwater salmon fishing trip available. We needed no prompting.

At the due time we met at the wharf along with another 16 or so others and were shuffled onto a bus. We were given a briefing as to how the fishing had been, which boats we would be on, how everything would work and to hand over any bananas as no bananas would be permitted on any of the charter boats! It was very efficient.

After a noisy bus ride (mainly coming from a group of Texans) we arrived at the dock, split into our groups and headed to our boats. The other three in our party were a lovely bunch. The deckhand and skipper were very young and enthusiastic. As we took the run out to sea (some 25 minute drive) they explained that the season had been pretty poor this year. The chinook had basically not shown up at all in numbers and the coho, which are so reliable in August had hardly shown up at all. However, in the last few days they had been getting some and were confident we would get some fish at least.

Once we hit the fishing ground the deckie set the lines up on the downriggers and gave everyone a demonstration on what a “bite” looks like and what to do next. As he was explaining it, he had a hit and hooked up and passed the rod straight to my son. He was solid into his first coho salmon. As he was fighting it a second rod went of and one of the other guys was on. The two fought their fish out and landed a pigeon pair of coho salmon around 5kg each and in perfect condition. For the next hour we had pretty consistent action with single rods going off until we had all caught one.

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Then the fishing slowed for an hour or so until it was time to head for home. The deckie began bringing in the lines one by one He got to the last rod, popped it out of the downrigger and hooked up. It was back to my sons turn again and he brought in another feisty coho that gave him a great fight He then pointed out that he had caught a fish in the first and last minute of fishing! We capped off the day with a whale sighting on the way home.

Our final stop over was in a very pretty town called Ketchican. This is one of the southern most Alaskan towns before the Canadian border and our final stop before sailing direct to Vancouver. We had already decided early in the trip that we would all go saltwater salmon fishing as our day activity.

We were met at the wharf by the tour rep who ushered the 28 of us along the wharf to where the charter boats were docked. We were then divided into our groups, jumped on board and off we went. The three other guys we shared the boat with ended up being our cabin neighbours. They were nice guys from the States. Our skipper was Dewy (presumably brother of Huey and Louie) and his dog Sherman. He was pretty quiet and went about his business making sure everyone had their licences filled in and angler details logged. We got to the fishing grounds (only about three miles form dock) and he set the lines up.

As we started trolling I got the sense that the fishing might not be as good as we had become used to. There just didn’t seem to be any confidence or enthusiasm in the skipper. However, Ketchican is the salmon capital of Alaska. It was written on all the signs around town. However, the hours went by without event. At about 1 ½ hours into our four hour trip we started trolling in very close to shore. I didn’t ask or say anything but I didn’t think that in close was good salmon water. Then as Dewy was talking to my son about coho salmon, my son told him that he had already caught one the day before. Dewy worked out that we had been fishing in Juneau and asked how we had done. I told him we caught six and a few small ones. He said that that was a pretty good days fishing and they hadn’t had anything like that so far. It didn’t take much to realise that with 6 anglers onboard and a catch rate of less than that, we were going to do it tough. Then about 3 hours into the trip he revealed that the salmon fishing had been so poor lately that he had been trolling close to shore with the downriggers running along the bottom to try and catch a rock cod. Eventually we did get a 25cm rock cod but not even a sniff from a salmon. The other guys on the boat were pretty disappointed but for my son and I, I guess 2 good trips out of 3 ain’t bad. However, the coho were running down the coast and would eventually come into Ketchican. But as Dewy said, I hope that happens before the cruise ships stop for the winter.

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No salmon, but a rock cod instead for young Patrick.

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