Back To Port Ashton

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The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY DAVID ZOBY

Montague Island appeared in glimpses, broken by rough surf and headlands, scoured by waves and wind.

We trolled long wavering lines a half-mile out from the kelp beds. No other boats were in sight. Capt. Gregg Tanji flipped on the Furuno and it immediately began its weird sound – spup-spup-spup – like a card dealer flipping out the deck. The sonar found stacks of baitfish.

Within moments of setting out downriggers, one of my fellow boatmates was into his first king. When the line popped out of the clip and went slack, he froze. But the deckhands directed him to the right rod and the fight was on.

He had never caught a salmon in his life, and now he was slowly working a wild king to the boat in one of the most pristine fisheries in the world. The fish made a second run, as kings do, but this time it came to the surface and wagged its head back and forth, desperate to throw the hook. When the big fish hit the net, a cascade of silver scales burst loose like confetti.

This was my second time trolling for kings off Montague. I had been lucky enough to do an overnight trip to nearby Port Ashton some years before, and I was eager to get back. The coastline was as indifferent as I remembered it, foreboding and enigmatic. The Gulf of Alaska seemed so immense, so daunting, I tried to think of other things: king salmon on the grill; taking some nice photos; the sushi restaurant in Seward where I had had a great meal the night before. I tried to ignore the fact that we were the only boat within sight. On this type of long-range trip, you are essentially, profoundly alone at sea. Someone asked about facilities on Montague Island.

“Nobody lives there,” said one of the deckhands, Chase, a likable Baylor University grad student who fishes Alaska in the summer to cover his tuition payments. “There’s a few hunters’ cabins there for deer and bear hunters. But it’s uninhabited. Ninety miles long.”

“Are there roads?” asked one of the clients.

“No roads. The closest towns are Whittier and Seward,” on the mainland, said Chase as he busily reset the gold spoon and the sonar continued marking bait – spup-spup-spup-spup – in crescendo. The king went in the fish box and I heard him in there, thrashing.

The salmon bite fizzled after just three kings, possibly because the tide swung and the gear wasn’t working quite right, or possibly because a solitary bull orca cruised right through our best spots. Capt. Gregg told us to reel up the lines. We were going for halibut.

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OUR VESSEL, THE TAIL WATCHER, was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s a 40-foot Armstrong Marina Catamaran with twin Volvo Penta inboard diesel engines. It can break 30 knots, even in chop. On this trip, there were eight clients, though the deck space on the Tail Watcher gave us plenty of room to fish and keep our lines from tangling.

The equipment on board was top of the line: Avet reels and Loomis rods, all kinds of bright jigs and spoons, fresh bait and a mesh chum bag the size of a bean bag chair. Moreover, the Tail Watcher has attitude. It seems like a hybrid – a cross between a military amphibious lander, and a souped-up Humvee. The welds are as thick as my pinky. Inside the wheelhouse, there’s enough electronics to make you dizzy.

We all sat in the galley exchanging fish stories while Capt. Gregg positioned the boat on a pinnacle. There was a science to it, and he wasn’t satisfied until he pegged the boat right atop a shelf where the structure fell away to deeper water.

The skipper said he hadn’t tried this particular spot in years but felt good about it. A bulging chum bag of chopped herring and various fishy morsels was lowered to soak. The two deckhands, both Texans themselves, scrambled to set the anchor and replace the salmon gear with stout halibut rods. I asked if I could jig, rather than soak herring and salmon carcasses.

“We always keep at least one jig in the water,” said Matt, the deckhand and a Texas A&M graduate. He explained that we were targeting large halibut – 40 to 100 pounds or more. “It makes no sense to go running around the ocean looking for ‘chickens.’ We’re after quality fish here, so be patient.”

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WE HAD MOVED OFFSHORE enough to where you could just barely see Montague and its sea-battered headlands. I used a somewhat lighter rod than the others who dropped circle hooks baited with herring, sockeye carcasses and octopus. I lowered a 16-ounce jig with a white twister tail until I felt the obvious thud of the bottom. I pumped the rod only six or seven times before I felt a jolt. The fish held tight to the bottom. I strained to move it. Finally, the fish began to come up. Halfway through the fight, the fish sort of stopped struggling.

“It’s a big yelloweye,” said Capt. Gregg, who had appeared over my shoulder with a bamboo-handled gaff in hand. He was right; it was a yelloweye and the biggest I had ever seen.

Jigging seemed to be the ticket that day. We took turns until we had limited out on the rockfish. They were huge, with one topping 20 pounds. A few small halibut also fell to herring, but mostly it was a yelloweye bite.

“We’ve found the pumpkin patch,” said Matt, as he gaffed another trophy yelloweye.

John, an angler from California who was fishing with his nephew, suddenly groaned as his rod doubled over, the last eyelets of his rod touching the sea’s surface. Others had halibut on at the same moment, but none seemed to be dragging them around the deck of the Tail Watcher like the beast John had hooked. It took him over 30 minutes to raise the fish, a beautiful 100-plus-pound halibut with astonishing markings on its back. The boat’s crew, all three of them, handled the fish in a scrum of gaffs and clubs. We all stood back out of the way of the huge tail that was thumping the deck of the boat, and I could feel the raw power through the steel as the fish made its last struggles. John seemed dazed and awed by what had just happened. He told me later he had never caught a fish like this one.

“That flounder did not want to come on board,” said Matt.

My halibut, a 50-pound fish with a greenish hue, bit a jig. I ‘d been talking about elk hunting with one of my boatmates when I felt a solid hit. The drag ran for 30 seconds and the jigging gear is so much lighter than bottomfishing gear that you get to feel it all. You are in the fight in a way that you can hardly imagine.

When the fish finally came alongside the boat, Capt. Gregg, gaff in hand, asked if I wanted to keep it. I peered over the gunnels to see a fine manhole cover of a halibut in the clear water. I hadn’t caught a nice halibut like this one in years.

“Absolutely,” I said.

The author celebrates a nice salmon catch.

The author celebrates a nice salmon catch.

AFTER WE’D ALL CAUGHT a halibut, we stopped at a rocky pinnacle for black rockfish. I tangled with a 30-pound lingcod that had to go back into the sea because season wasn’t open yet. The others quickly limited on “black beauties” before we returned to the stoic kelp beds to look for a few kings and called it a day. Our pal, the orca, was nowhere around. The Tail Watcher’s sister boat, the Predator, was there, though. The captain, a Wyoming native turned Alaska charter captain, was on the radio.

“We just hooked one – one seagull,” he said. “They’re aggressive today.”

I noticed the same thing. The glaucous gulls off Montague are a wild-eyed, mean strain of birds. They have to be to live out here where everything eats everything else. Gulls plagued us all day, dodging in to grab a bite of herring, quarreling among themselves, dive-bombing the bait table.

While the deckhands set the gear, gulls dove at the battered gold spoons. Matt explained to us that the king bite was not a guarantee, that many boats out of Seward were not catching any this year. But even with these daunting words, I was all for trolling. I love trolling for king salmon, even on a full charter where you have to wait your turn as others fight and lose fish. I just wanted a shot at one king.

One by one, the kings began to come to the net and my turn was approaching. These are not the same fish that run up Alaska streams, rather “feeder” kings that gather off Montague to fatten up before returning to British Columbia waters to spawn. The limit is two per day, but with the slow bite, it would be a feat for each of us to get a chance at a single king.

Most of these anglers had never caught a king, and it was fun to watch them grab the correct rod out of the holders (the crew ran three rods on each side of the boat) and fight these wild fish.

When my time came, Matt was just setting the spoon back in the water. He had yet to drop the downrigger when the king slashed across the surface and grabbed the spoon. We all saw it. I slowly worked the fish back to the boat, letting it run when it needed to and taking what it gave me.

A Chinook is my favorite thing in the world to eat, so I was particularly careful not to make any mistakes, considering that I have lost quite a few of them at the boat. But Capt. Gregg appeared again (he seemed to have the unique ability to be where he needed to be at the right time) and deftly netted my fish.

All eight of us now had a king, and it was time to head to the lodge at Port Ashton, which is two islands away from Montague, on Evans Island’s Sawmill Bay, for dinner and a good night’s sleep. We would do it all again the next day.

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OUR SHORT RUN INTO Port Ashton was a photographer’s dream. The fjords were veiled in misty shrouds. Seiners were busy working their nets. I saw a young girl “plunging” the water’s surface, striking it with a paddle to scare the salmon back into the net. You could smell the scent of fresh salmon, and wet acres of rainforest.

We were met at the dock by Port Ashton’s owner, Lia Talvi. She brought a wheelbarrow for our gear. Our fish box was gaudy – an embarrassment of riches. Lia, who has seen her share of catches, told us we had done extremely well. And you could tell she was being honest. She hopped on a four-wheeler and drove our gear to cabins where we would spend the night.

I wish I could say that I celebrated with my fellow fishermen into the wee hours of the night. I wish I could say I took a dip in the hot tub. But the truth was, after a satisfying meal of chili, salad and cornbread – and a long conversation with Lia, who dropped by the cook shack with freshly baked “Mug-up” cookies – I was beat. We talked for a while about the king fishing and how lucky our crew was to each get a king.

“That doesn’t happen all of the time,” said Lia. “With kings you never know.”

The Talvis live a life on the edge of the wilderness. They literally carved their lodge out of untouched landscape and brought everything in by boat. Lia joked that they still call the trail up to the main cabin “The Trail of Tears.”

Thank god no television producer has discovered them and tried to turn their authentic lives into a reality show. People come to here relax, kayak the calm waters of Sawmill Bay, photograph the wildlife, or, as in my case, enjoy a respite from a day of charter fishing.

It’s a unique place that you’ll never forget. Being at Port Ashton is the extra special treat you get when you book an overnight trip out of Seward. It might be the reason I continue to dream of Alaska.

I went back to my room and read an article about Mardy Murie’s days in Port Ashton. The father of the woman sometimes called “the grandmother of the conservation movement” once owned the cannery here. Who knew? As a girl learning to maneuver skiffs and clean salmon, Murie felt a profound connection to the wilderness at Port Ashton. Perhaps learning to work a tiller and pick salmon from nets is what inspired her to go on to become a literary treasure. The writing was so vivid, so clear, that I drifted off to sleep dreaming of seine haulers and fish tenders of a bygone era.

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THE NEXT MORNING FOUND US in chop just off on Montague. The Tail Watcher shed the confused seas with no difficulty whatsoever. We were so close to the headlands that I could see the shapes of sea lions on the rocks. I could hear the surf crushing miles of shoreline. We were bottomfishing in just 70 feet of water. Still, large halibut came thrashing over the rail.

Jigging again, I caught several hoss black beauties. I was reeling up to check my jig when a halibut slammed it and ran back to the bottom. It fought unlike the fish I took the day before. This flatfish ran like a king salmon, peeling off line, sulking off the stern of the boat until I was able to coax it back.

It was a carbon copy of the fish I had caught the previous day, a solid 40-plus-pound keeper. I nodded to the captain, who gaffed it and hurled it into the box, which was already brimming with black rockfish and halibut worth bragging about. The gulls were back to harassing us, crying and squabbling over lost bits of bait.

We trolled for kings before heading back to Seward. When they came, they came in twos and threes – wreaking havoc with our gear and causing us to laugh and shout with excitement. During lulls in the action, I kept looking at Montague Island and wondered how long it would be until I saw its mysterious bights and peaks again.

It’s not that easy getting back. For one, many outfitters don’t let a party of one such as myself add on to their overnight trips. Grande Alaska Lodge, who runs the Predator and the Tail Watcher (as well as some other impressive boats), was the only company in Seward willing to book me on an overnight trip. Most outfits require you to book the whole boat. Also, when fishing in Alaska, your plans can change at any moment. There are some days where the charter fleet just can’t go out as far as Montague. A Coast Guard chopper prowled the skies one morning to illustrate this point. A private vessel was overdue at Seward and an alarm had gone out. Luckily, it all turned out OK for the fishing party. But it goes to show that fishing these waters is serious business, and you need a knowledgeable, well-seasoned captain and crew to make sure your trip is safe and enjoyable. On the Tail Watcher, we were in good hands.

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BACK IN SEWARD, it was all smiles and backslaps as we posed by the fish boards with our incredible haul. Kamell Allaway, owner of Grande Alaska Lodge and J-Dock Sport Fishing, was cruising the wet boards in his rubber boots, checking with his clients and making sure they had enjoyed their trips. He carried a cup of coffee, his telltale laughter booming as he shook hands and visited with folks. He popped into photos and took charge of cameras and cellphones while fishermen scrambled to have their photos taken with the day’s catch. How often do you see the owner of a business involved in every aspect of his operation?

Kamell was helping hang fish on the fish boards, directing people to the free coffee in the seafood shop and making sure everyone knew how to get their fish home (J-Dock does it all, from filleting and freezing your fish, to getting it to your doorstep in pristine condition).

The whole wharf was buzzing with activity: fishermen hugging their families, tourists taking photos, legions of taciturn men filleting fish. But I kept thinking about Port Ashton, where the silence was interrupted only by the distant sounds of seiners plunging the water, or eagles twaddling in the high branches of trees that overlook the green waters of Sawmill Bay. I was already dreaming of going back.

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