“Light Tackle Anglers Tap a Wealth of Alaska’s Denizens”
Wandering the aisles of crowded fishing shows, one can’t help noticing the plethora of booths extolling the bounty of Alaska’s fisheries. From flyfishing pristine watersheds to slugging it out with deepwater denizens, there seems to be a style of fishing to suit most anglers. One recurring theme frequently heard is fishing for Pacific halibut with “marlin-size” tackle, big baits and big hooks. Thinking there must be a better way, I spoke with Seth Bone, owner of Kingfisher Lodge at Sitka, about bringing up an assortment of lighter tackle. “Sure, no problem”, he said after we discussed the virtues of spectra line, high speed reels and “iron” jigs that are more common on a Baja trip. “We often fish in water over 400-feet deep, but I think you can get down with the spectra. You might have to use heavier jigs than normal”, Bone added. “We get a lot of halibut over 100 pounds as well as big lingcod and yelloweye rockfish. Of course, with the king and silver salmon you can go about as light as you want”, he concluded. Now fully motivated, I was to find out just how effective “going light” could be. Anglers planning a trip to Alaska who want to have more fun and maybe catch more fish should consider the light tackle alternative.
It should be understood that “light tackle” is a relative term. A level-wind reel packing 50-pound spectra and 80-pound leader matched with a fast taper “jig stick” may be considered heavy tackle in many applications. In Alaska’s swirling currents and deep water it is definitely light tackle. Hauling up a 100-pound halibut in 400-feet of water on 30-pound spectra is a real light tackle challenge. Although virtually all Alaska charter operators provide quality tackle due to consumer demand focused on harvesting a good catch for the freezer, there is a tendency to error on the heavy tackle side for that purpose. Anglers desiring to add a greater element of skill, variety of lure presentation and challenge should bring their own tackle or make sure their favorite tackle is available onsite. Also, since many charters fish four or more anglers per boat, make sure that they can accommodate a variety of fishing methods. A cold-water, ocean fishery provides few surface opportunities so you can put away the poppers and the surface lures used in tropical conditions. Most of this fishery, including several types of salmon and a variety of demersal species, is based upon presenting bait or lures anywhere from 30-feet in depth to the bottom. Metal spoons, iron jigs and mega-size plastic lead heads work well under these conditions. The primary goal is to “put the lure where the fish are” which may sound elementary but in Alaska’s deep water currents can be a formidable challenge. Today’s new line technology and improved tackle help greatly in solving this problem.
GEAR UP FOR THE CHALLENGE
The use of Spectra, also called superbraid or superline, has revolutionized deep water fishing around the world and it works wonders in Alaska as well. Seth Bone acknowledges that with monofilament his crews had to use big 6/0 reels or larger and five-pound lead sinkers or heavier to stay in the strike zone. Today, his fleet can effectively use Shimano TLD 25 Two Speeds and half the weight to get down. This makes checking baits on a regular basis less of a chore and the medium-size tackle adds to the fishing experience. Anglers can utilize the Spectra technology to go even lighter. Here’s how the superbraids can allow you to use lighter tackle in former heavy tackle situations.
Spectra has big advantages over monofilament line. Spectra is up to four times smaller in diameter than mono of the same line strength. Spectra has little stretch, no memory, or “recoiling” effect and has excellent abrasion resistance. Since Spectra is a small diameter line, anglers can spool more line on their reels for added capacity, or drop down in reel size without losing capacity. Lots of anglers have chosen to use lighter tackle spooled with enough Spectra to equal or surpass what they would normally have with mono on a larger, heavier reel. For Alaska, I loaded a Shimano Trinidad 20 reel with 500 yards of Power Pro 65-Pound Spectra plus a copolymer topshot when this reel normally reaches capacity with 300 yards of 25-pound monofilament. I packed a Shimano CTE-700 level wind with 500 yards of Power Pro 50-Pound Spectra plus a mono topshot that far exceeds the reels normal capacity of 250 yards of 25-pound mono. Even a light-weight CTE-400 took over 400 yards of 30-pound Spectra when it is rated for 160 yards of 20-pound mono.
Thin line has many advantages. Spectra really “shows its stuff” when deepwater fishing. Spectra slices the water with little resistance and allows anglers to get deeper with less sinker weight. In Alaska, halibut anglers in search of “barndoor” trophies routinely combat severe fishing conditions. Fishing from an anchored boat in 200-to-400-feet of water or more with a six-knot current and a four-pound sinker made this style of fishing more work than pleasure. Not any more. Spectra has revolutionized this fishery by allowing for more drops, better hookups, lighter tackle and happier anglers.
A major difference between Spectra and monofilament line is the stretch factor. Mono will stretch up to 33-percent of its length before breaking. Spectra has little or no stretch. That means feeling when a bait is being taken and setting the hook is more direct and positive with Spectra regardless of water depth. For lure anglers, working the “iron” or plastic leadhead can be more effective. Just a short move of the rod tip is enough to activate the lure properly because you’re not combating the “bungee cord” effect of mono.
If you are considering using Spectra, there are some things you should know to avoid rigging problems. The lack of line stretch means it won’t grip a reel spool as well as mono and the entire bulk of line can slip on the spool if not “anchored” well. Power Pro recommends using at least five to 10 yards of mono on the bottom of your reel before spooling with Spectra to make the line grip, or wrap the Spectra through the hole in the barrel of the spool if it has one. Use no more than 30-pound mono for anchoring Spectra because light line stretches and grips better than heavy line. It is most important to use mono with a spool that is smooth and does not have a protruding pin on the arbor.
With reel spools that have pins a direct tie can be made with Spectra. The San Diego knot is a good choice. Since Spectra can cut into itself, use a fairly tight wrap with a moderate crisscross pattern to avoid this possibility.
Since heavier-test Spectra can be used on reels without losing line capacity, there’s a temptation to increase drag settings higher than a reel, or rod is designed for. Although a good rule of thumb is to set drags at no more than 30-percent of the breaking strength of the line, that rule was meant to be used with comparably sized tackle. Using 50-pound Spectra and 17 pounds of drag pressure on a small reel can burn out drags, wear out bearings and bend handles. Spectra manufacturers recommend setting your drag to match the rating of the weakest component in your tackle system. Check your drag settings with a scale.
Spectra is slippery. That means tying your favorite knot used on mono may slip right out on Spectra. Simply doubling the line before tying a uni, palomar, San Diego, or “’turnaround clinch knot” will provide good knot strength. Power Pro advises not to use the common clinch knot. When connecting Spectra to mono, copolymer, or similar “soft” lines a uni to uni splice, double surgeons loop, Albright, Stren, Stren “J”, or Tony Peña knot can be used. Make sure all tag ends are trimmed close to the knot of choice to avoid hang-ups on guides. Adding Pliobond®, or similar liquid adhesive to line connections adds smoothness and durability. Since Spectra is slippery it is difficult to cut with standard nail clippers. Instead, use sharp scissors such as inexpensive Metal Bladed Fiskars® found in most general merchandise stores. This thin, strong line can also cut skin easily so wearing gloves or finger tape is advised when pulling line to check drag pressure, guiding line on the spool and so on.
Reels have also undergone technical upgrades. Most major reel manufacturers such as Shimano, Penn and Daiwa offer better gearing, rugged frames, smoother drags and reels with overall more durable, high quality components than were available just a few years ago. These reels are well adapted to the extra stress that can be added by fishing deep with Spectra lines. All of the new Trinidad and Calcutta Shimanos performed well. It is important to select a reel with a high gear ratio in order to save time and effort in retrieving a lure from deep water. In Alaska, however, working a lure at high speeds is unnecessary and would be counterproductive. A slow presentation works better on everything from halibut to salmon. These fish won’t chase a lure like a yellowtail so it pays to think slow. For salmon, the Shimano Charter Special is a standard found on the Kingfisher boats which slow troll “hoochie” or skirted lures behind big flashers in conjunction with downriggers. Monitoring the fish finder pinpoints the depth the salmon are holding at. Spinning reels can also be used effectively, especially for salmon trolling or mooching and shallow water bottomfishing.
Rods can vary quite a bit in style. Salmon are active jumpers and have relatively soft mouths. A parabolic or slow taper rod helps cushion the movement and avoids tearing the hook free, such as a Shimano TDR-1802 rod that is eight-feet in length. For deep water applications, a heavier action, fast taper rod is called for. The Shimano TLC 66 MH (15-30 lb. line), TLC 70 H (25-40 lb.), PCFC 70 MH (25-50 lb.) are a good match for the Shimano CTE 400, CTE 700 and Trinidad 20 reels respectively.
Steve Carson, a fishing tackle guru who regularly conducts seminars and tournaments in Alaska, also finds that anglers can enhance their experience by scaling down with tackle choices. “There are so many fish in these waters it can be tempting to just stick with the standard program because you’ll catch lots of fish. Take your favorite light tackle and lures and you’ll still get a lot of fish but have more fun”, he says. For halibut, Carson likes the Penn 975 reel spooled with 50-pound Berkley “Big Water Braid” Spectra matched with a Sabre 870 rod. The Penn 975 CS with 20-pound mono and Sabre 270 featuring a light tip is balanced for salmon. You can go a little lighter with the Penn 965 and use 15-pound mono as well.
Deep jigging “West Coast style” has found its way to Alaska. Generically referred to as “yo-yoing” due to one variation of jigging by raising the rod tip up and down, this method involves free spooling the lure from an anchored or drifting boat until it hits bottom. Quickly reel in a few feet to clear any rock snags. Since a slow presentation works best, with the reel in gear, simply work the lure up and down by raising and dropping the rod tip. This makes the jig “swim” up and flutter down which is irresistible to halibut, lingcod and rockfish. Salmon are also attracted by this method if you work the jig in their strike zone, often 30- to 60- feet in depth. A good technique is to drop the jig back after a trolling hookup to contact the school of salmon that have been encountered. This beats “blind fishing” any day and improves your hookup ratio.
Remember, with today’s high speed, high gear ratio reels, it is possible to reel too fast for Alaska’s gamefish. When you’re in the strike zone a slow retrieve for salmon or modified yo-yo- action is all that is necessary for good results.
Yo-yo type jigs usually weigh between four to eight ounces and are four to six inches in length. For bottom fishing in very deep water over 400-feet jigs can exceed a pound or more. Metal surface jigs and spoons are light-weights in comparison and are not considered in the “deep-jig” category, but will readily take salmon near the surface.
Many Alaskan skippers prefer to anchor even in depths exceeding 400-feet. A float-pulley system using the boat as a power winch makes retrieving the anchor a simple process. Captain Paul Ipock likes to bait-up with salmon parts threaded on 16/0 circle hooks. “Anchoring allows the scent to spread and attract the big halibut. I’ll give’em about an hour to start taking the baits before I move on. Once they find the boat it can be non-stop action. If you drift it’s more hit or miss”, says Ipock. Of course, one mans’ bait can be another’s’ chum and jig fishermen can also experience some wild action when the denizens arrive.
When yo-yoing, some anglers prefer short, abrupt and erratic jig motions produced by using short, heavy-action rods and quick arm motion. Others find that long, smooth, upward sweeps followed by a prolonged, fluttering descent produces more strikes on the drop. In Alaska’s productive bottom habitat, just about any slow jigging method will work. In fact, we got several jig strikes by leaving the rod in a holder with a light drag while tending to tackle and boat chores.
Deep jigging in Alaska isn’t rocket science so the emphasis should be placed on fishing with comfortable tackle that you can have some challenge and fun with. Some fishermen put small pieces of bait on their jigs. That added attractant can increase hookups when the fishing slows but is usually unnecessary.
Popular bottom jigs in Baja and Southern California that work well in Alaska include the Iron Man 3 and 5, Tady 4/0, A-1, A-2, or 9, Braid Slammers, Kicker 25, Action Lures, Sumo Jigs, Salas 6X and 6X Junior and Yo-Zuri Hydro Metals. Most Alaskan boat crews keep heavier jigs exceeding one pound onboard to reach bottom in deep water with a current running, however, using the thinner Spectra means lighter jigs can be effective. In shallower water 5-inch leadhead plastic tails are a good choice. Large 9-inch white scampy tails threaded on 12- to 16-ounce leadheads are widely used in deep water. Carsons favorites include the 7½ ounce Crippled Herring combined with a 6-inch Berkley Power Grub. Glow-in-the-Dark (milky white) is preferred for halibut while the yelloweye rockfish respond well to the chartreuse. The Luhr Jensen B-2 Squid in the 9-inch or 12-ounce size and the 14-inch, 24-ouncer are great for big halibut. Heavy Krocodile spoons, such as the 4-inch, 2½-ounce size, work well for the “cast and drop” method for salmon.
SIMPLE TECHNIQUE – BIG RESULTS
King salmon, silver salmon, Pacific halibut, lingcod and yelloweye rockfish. These are the “big five” of Alaska ocean sportfishing and all respond well to artificial lures. The habitat is so productive it’s not unusual to catch all five species in the same day, especially during the peak summer months. Captain Paul Ipock suggested fishing for salmon in the morning and then switching over to halibut and other bottomfish in the afternoon. “You can catch halibut anytime”, said Ipock.
Slow trolling for salmon near rocky headlands 25 miles north of Sitka produced limits of 12- to 20-pound kings and flurries of the smaller silvers. A good technique was to cast spoons and jigs when a troll hookup stopped the boat or casting slightly ahead of the slow-moving boat and letting the lure sink to the strike zone. Working these lures slowly on a straight retrieve or jigging after letting them settle as deep as 60-feet elicited many strikes. Oftentimes Ipock could give the water depth the fish were striking in by checking the downrigger count and fishfinder. This is a more active style of salmon fishing than simply reeling in a fish after a troll hookup. When “mooching” from a drifting boat lure anglers can use a variety of jigging techniques until a productive method is found. Spinning or light conventional reels in the 12- to 20-pound class combined with parabolic rods are a good choice for both king and silver salmon.
Halibut are a different story. This is not a finesse fishery. Just get a lure near the bottom and you’ll have bent rods. Some areas of Alaska feature quality halibut fishing in shallow, protected waters where truly light tackle can be used. It is more common, however, to locate the bigger barndoor beds in depths grater than 100-feet. Out of Sitka, we routinely fished in 283- to 440-feet of water for the best action. Deep jigging proved to be more effective than fishing with natural bait by a three to one margin. Two bait and two lure anglers worked the stern. You know jig fishing is fun when your captain and mate eagerly take turns using your spare outfit. Even in the 400-foot depths, the fast retrieve reels reduced the workload of hauling in fish and the lighter, stand-up tackle was easy to use.
On July 10, 2003, a total of 52 halibut from 25- to 108-pounds were landed with most released. Of these, 38 were taken on jigs. The technique was simple. Freespool the jig down with light thumb pressure until it hits bottom. Reel in a few turns and start yo-yoing by lifting the rod tip and then dropping it while the reel is in gear. Be prepared for a jolting a hit on either up or down stroke and reel fast to set the hook. When the rod is fully “loaded” or bent just settle in to a fighting position and short-stroke the fish to the boat. Pacific halibut are not whimps on light gear and remind me of fighting the notoriously strong cubera snapper found in the tropical Eastern Pacific. Halibut fight all the way to the boat and will make several short power runs that will test an anglers endurance.
Where there is halibut there is often other desirable bottomfish such as lingcod and yelloweye rockfish. On this particular day we scored on six lingcod to 32 pounds (released due to a short seasonal closure) and ten yelloweye to 18 pounds that interrupted the halibut action using the same yo-yo technique. Lures accounted for all of the lingcod and most of the yelloweye. An impressive fact is that all of these fish were taken from an anchored boat in just a few hours attesting to the fertile habitat that Alaska still has to offer. If you want the most excitement out of your trip to Alaska bring your own scaled-down tackle and your favorite “Baja” jigs then brace yourself for some “jolting” hits.
“Kingfisher Charters & Lodge” SIDEBAR
The Kingfisher Lodge is located in scenic Sitka on the southeast Alaska panhandle. Owner Seth Bone has put together one of the most experienced crews in Alaska and the fleet of 26-foot Parkers are well-suited to this fishery. The boats are great for the light tackle enthusiast and feature a large 100 square foot cockpit, mid-rise gunwales, fast 250 horsepower Yamaha outboards and the latest in electronics. Creature comfort is important. Even in July the weather varied from bright, calm days to fog, wind and rain that would make the temperature plummet from T-shirt to full jacket conditions. The enclosed, heated cabins, private head and comfortable seating for four anglers were an asset. Captain Paul Ipock and his 13-year old son Justin, are hard working and enthusiastic about trying new tackle and techniques. That is a key ingredient to enjoying your own tackle and is one of many reasons why Kingfisher has been praised by many top anglers. Big fish is another. Bill Poole, a legendary long range operator in San Diego, caught a 341-pound halibut on his first trip. An Alaska state record lingcod weighed 69 pounds and jumbo yelloweye rockfish (similar in appearance to the cowcod) to 20 pounds round out this quality fishery.
The Lodge prides itself on outstanding food service and plenty of it. It’s a great opportunity to sample the local seafood such as fresh Dungeness crab, Sitka spot prawns and a variety of fish in addition to the prime meat dishes. Built on a hillside overlooking Sitka sound, the lodge features large living rooms, big screen televisions, hot tub, telephones, refrigerators and comfortable Serta beds. The friendly staff adds greatly to the sense of relaxation that permeates the informal atmosphere.
The fishing season begins in May with big king salmon being most abundant which gravitates towards the smaller silver or coho salmon by August and September. Halibut, lingcod and rockfish are excellent from May to September. Alaska is known as being “freezer friendly” and most anglers return with a supply of their own fresh-caught fish. Kingfisher Lodge makes sure that your fish is cut to your specifications, vacuum sealed and flash-frozen for transport in wet lock boxes.
For more information or to book a trip, call Kingfisher Charters at (800) 727-6136. View their website at: www.kingfishercharters.com. Three to five-day fishing packages are offered which includes fully guided ten hour fishing days, lodging, all meals and snacks, fish processing, fishing licenses, fishing gear, tackle, bait and rain gear as well as ground transfers from the airport.
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The Roving Angler