A Hoosier writer’s big Alaska adventure

Veteran writer makes a big check mark on his bucket list

alaska
The author (left) and daughter Jourdan (right) with the haul from their Alaska deep-sea fishing trip
Author's daughter with a sockeye salmon on the Kenai river
Author’s daughter with a sockeye salmon on the Kenai river

Most folks have a bucket list and I recently checked off number one on mine. When my daughter Jourdan asked, “If you could go anywhere and do anything what would the answer be?”

“Travel Alaska to fly fish the Kenai River for salmon and pursue a giant halibut off the Seward Peninsula” I replied.

Two months later Jourdan and I flew to Anchorage Alaska, picked up an RV at ABC Rentals and headed north.

We drove through Wasilla and on to an old Indian town called Talkeetna. It was a throwback to the 1940s with no paved sidewalks and unique old storefronts. We especially like Nagley’s General Store where caribou sausage and chili were proudly served.

A new treat was discovered when a vender asked if we wanted to try some fireweed ice cream. We did and ordered more along with some fireweed jelly. It is a flowered weed that grows along roadways and railroads. The pink flowers are used to make the pulp and the green leaves turn fire red in the fall. Shortly after the top bud blooms it will frost.

The next morning we rode a dog sled (with wheels) at Sun Dog Kennels. The best 16 of their 60 dogs are used to race the Iditarod. These dogs were surprisingly small and lean weighing about 40 lbs. each. The breed: a cross between a husky and a German short-hair pointer. Some 60 teams compete in the 1100 mile race each winter.

About noon we headed well south of Anchorage to the Kenai Riverside Campground and on the way stopped to have a big cinnamon roll at the Alyeska Bake Shop. One of the secret ingredients was anise seeds. The shop front was adorned with beautiful flowers and the treat was delicious.

Seeing bears catching salmon was what we hoped for after a 3.5 mile hike to the Russian River falls. There were plenty of Salmon struggling to jump the turbulent rapids, but no bears.

We met many people from Indiana, including a Wasilla CVS pharmacist from Fishers, a booking agent from Ft. Wayne and a guide from Evansville.

James Walker of Alaska Kenai Fishing for Fun (akkenaifishingforfun@gmail.com) picked up Jourdan and me at 5:00 am Tuesday for a full day of fishing for salmon and trout. Alaska is four hours behind EST and had 18 hours of daylight the first week in August.

Walker provided waders, boots, rain suits and tackle. We began fishing by “Flossing” with a fly rod. This involves lobbing a fly tied about three feet below a sinker out into the current about 30 feet. The technique, called “The Kenai lob” involves letting the current carry the hackled #6 hook downstream in hopes of running the line through the mouth of a salmon and letting the hook catch (spawning salmon do not feed). You make one short cast after another while wading a swift current in 45 degrees water.

We soon got the hang of this unusual method and began catching four to eight pound sockeye salmon and two Dolly Varden trout. My bonus fish was a nine pound pink salmon. This species only lives two years and one year class never spawns with the other.

Bramwell and guide with a pink salmon on the Kenai river
Bramwell and guide James Walker with a pink salmon on the Kenai river

Our guide was a fountain of information and someone who has traveled and guided extensively. I would enjoy fishing with him again.

Several species of salmon, including sockeye, pink, coho and king are found in the Kenai along with several species of trout including rainbow. They spawn at different times beginning with the kings about the middle of May. Check the Alaskan Department of Fish & Game website for spawning times and fishing reports. This is valuable information in helping plan your trip: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fishingsportfishinginforuntiming.main. Eight of the largest king (chinook) salmon ever caught came from the Kenai River, all over 90 pounds including the 97.25 lb. world record.

The only problem in fishing Alaska is different rivers, streams, lakes and zones of salt water have varying limits and types of hooks and baits that can be used; this is only a problem if you fish without a guide. Ask a local guide when in doubt.

Jourdan and I went from fishing the Kenai River for salmon to Miller’s Landing, at Seward, angling for my dream fish, a big halibut. We fished with Miller’s Charters.

The charter takes six anglers out 40 miles or further to fish in 200 feet of water. Our captain was Chance and the first mate Dillon.

On the two hour plus excursion Chance said, “If you choose to fish for big halibut, you will not catch small fish. When you put a 50 pound toy on the playground only the big kids can play with it.” My determination to catch a huge halibut was not deterred.

The day was cold and miserable with wind and a steady rain. I braced myself along the boat rail as did the other hopefuls. My exact location was the back corner of the boat where I could, at times, almost sit if I didn’t mind the stream of water pouring off the corner of the cabin roof. Jourdan was on the other side towards the back.

The skipper rigged me with a stiff, five foot casting rod and the largest casting reel I have ever used. On the business end was a 24 ounce lead-head jig with a black/pink tube about a foot long. My added bait made the meal look like a double deck bun. It consisted of a salmon head and two salmon bellies; fishing for a monster, indeed.

Two hours went by with folks in the front of the boat catching silver (coho) salmon while Jourdan and I went fishless. My lovely girl was cold and wet, but gave no quarter.

When Dillon figured I had had enough he came back and said, “Rick, I can set you up for salmon so you can catch some fish.” I assured him I was fine.

Chance directed me to keep the bait just off the bottom and keep it jigging. The wind and waves helped with that; still jigging almost three pounds of bait off the bottom was a chore. As the depth changed I had to adjust my offering up or down.

Finally, I popped that jig and had a thunderous response; nothing I have ever set the hook in felt like this. Chance had told me ahead of time “If you get a big one on do not give it slack line. When you pump the rod do so with a tight line.

The author and his 100-pound halibut
The author and his 100-pound halibut

This fish fought all 200 feet to the boat, it took line and I gained some back. It was finally just below the boat so near, but with the best change of stealing a little slack or twisting the hook out and swimming away.

My body and especially my left arm were spent, but adrenaline flooded in with my first glimpse of this mighty fish. At the opportune time Dillon gaffed the big halibut; he and the skipper pulled my fish over the rail. The measured length indicated it would weigh 100 pounds.

After a long break Jourdan and I went to work on the silvers and quickly caught our limit of three each weighing from six to 14 pounds. One halibut over 27 inches is the limit in this area. This left me waiting on the others to catch up. A 35 and 25 lb. halibut also came to the boat. On the way in we stopped and caught 27 black rock fish and one yellow eye.

When you book a halibut trip ask what kind of boat they use. The most common is a 28 ft. “six pack” (holds six anglers). Most of these have small, unheated cabins and an open air toilet on the back of the boat. On our trip, all but two people held themselves for nine hours.

I would also ask if they use graphite rods for the black rock (grouper) fish. These fish hit light on a bass size tube jig.

The same week we were in Alaska angler Jack McGuire of Anaheim, CA landed what could have been a new world record halibut weighing 482 lbs. It was not eligible because the 77 year-old man had help landing the fish and the boat Captain Rye Phillips, Deep Blue Charters out of Alaskan Anglers Inn, first shot the monster fish in the head, with a .410 shotgun and then harpooned it. All three actions disqualified the fish.

This Glacier Bay area near Gustavus, AK is only accessible by plane or ferry and is too remote for commercial fishermen. Juneau is 45 miles to the east. This charter has boated three halibut, this season in excess of 76 inches (250 lbs.) This is a more expensive trip, but worth checking out at www.alaskananglersinn.com.

The largest halibut ever caught was taken by a commercial fisherman from the Bering Sea and weighed 533 lbs.

Bramwell rappelling 80 feet down a mountain hemlock
Bramwell rappelling 80 feet down a mountain hemlock

The last leg of our trip found us at Stoney Creek Canopy Adventures zip lining high above the Northern Pacific Temperate Rain Forest above a glacial valley floor. The longest line was 1100 feet 120 feet high in a Sitka spruce.

We also kayaked 10 miles and hiked 11 miles. One trek was to the Russian River falls where salmon were migrating upstream.

Had I made this trip, as a young man, I would have stayed in the north.

My daughter Jourdan will gladly be your kayak guide, next summer, somewhere in Alaska. She graduates from grad school next spring and it will be her last chance to be a free bird before beginning her career. Of course, I will have to visit.

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Rick Bramwell

Rick L. Bramwell is 72 years old and began writing for the Anderson Herald Bulletin in 1972. He likes to hunt small game, deer, turkey and morel mushrooms. Bramwell’s 174-7/8 typical whitetail is the largest ever taken in Madison County. He used to compete in Red Man and BASS Federation tournaments, but is now content to fish ponds and small lakes for bass and panfish. For most of 43 years Bramwell has coached Baseball and softball. He has three grown children and resides in Madison County, near Pendleton.

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