Photos by Paul D. Atkins
The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
“Eli, are you going to be OK?”I asked my son for what seemed like the hundredth time.
Through tearful eyes, he replied with a simple “Yes.” I wondered if he really was, though, and it worried me.
The Dramamine had little effect and the patches seemed more like a gimmick than an actual seasickness preventive. I felt sorry for Eli, to say the least, and was wondering if it might have been a bad idea to drag him out onto the ocean for a trip like this.
Thankfully, one of the guys on the boat had been thoughtful enough to bring a bag of Jolly Ranchers, which in the end helped save the day and the entire trip.
Now, I know this isn’t how I usually start one of my stories, but when your fishing and hunting trip requires a boat in order to go a long distance in big water, then it usually always starts just like that. Five-day excursions into wide-open places, such as the southern end of Kamishak Bay (as we were in), or other places, like the Chukchi Sea where I live, are not for the faint-hearted anyway, but they are common practices come May through June here in Alaska. Getting sick from the ever-pounding waves and rocking of the boat are a given. Eventually someone, or all, will spill their beans.
This was not my first trip into the deep blue, but it had been many years since I’d flown to Homer and tested my nerve and skill on a trip such as this. “Cast and blast,” as it is often referred, are five- to six-day boat hunts and fishing tours provided by transporters in and out of the many bodies of water here in Alaska. They are fun, exciting and provide a lot of enjoyment for a true Alaskan adventure, something all should experience at least once in their lives – especially if their kids tag along.
MY FIRST HUNT/CHARTER fishing trip was 14 years ago, long before Eli was able to walk or even talk, for that matter. As a novice I booked the trip with a charter service. I wanted to experience something different and special, something I couldn’t get in the Arctic.
Staying close to home at the time, I hadn’t traveled to many places in Alaska, but compared to Kotzebue, Homer was like traveling to a different country, considering all its sights and sounds. I got what I was after, even the experience of big waves and an upset stomach.
It was an incredible trip, to say the least. Every day provided something different, from catching a variety of fish during the day to each evening being skiffed to shore in search of black bears. We’d then return to the boat with tales of hits, misses and “almosts.” It was an enjoyable time.
Our “floating camp” reminded me of past camps in the far north on dry land and surrounded by caribou and the occasional wandering moose or grizzly. We were successful too: Six guys took six bears and caught limits of fish, which made it an adventure for the memory book.
That was long ago, but I wanted it again and this time to share it with my 15-year-old son.
I HAVE MET MANY great people through my Cabela’s connections and many of those have become good friends, so about a year ago when I mentioned to one that I wanted to take my son and experience another trip like this, I got an invite. Mike Flores, a fellow Cabela’s pro-staffer and owner of Ninilchik Charters (907-260-7825; ninilchik.com) said, “Sure; when do you want to go?” I was all over it.
Mike has been an influential presence in the charter business for many years and is very respectable when it comes to providing great trips such as this and fishing excursions up and down the Kenai Peninsula.
A military veteran, Mike also has a big heart. Each year he and his crew provide hunts and fishing trips for disabled veterans and have been doing it for years with success. These trips focus not only on the hunt or fishing itself, but provide these courageous men and women with an adventure they wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else. It’s truly remarkable.
Chartered transported hunts usually start in May and run throughout the month of June. I booked early and got in on one of the earlier hunts this last May. School was out then, so Eli would be able to go and he was eager to do so.
I explained to him the best I could on what to expect, plus the joys and discomforts of being on a boat for six days. “It will be a lot of fun,” I told him, “but like all Alaska adventure, you need to be ready for the unexpected.”
WE ARRIVED IN HOMER after a short flight from Anchorage. We didn’t have much gear save for the usual: two rifles, rain gear and a supply of clothes and reading material to get us through the week.
Time away from cell phones and the PS4 was my primary goal. It was just getting Eli and I outdoors to experience something different other than the long winter we had just experienced in Kotzebue. This would be a true father-son adventure, in far different surroundings.
We met our captain, Garrett, the next morning in the boat harbor onboard the 50-foot vessel the Sundy, a spacious boat that slept six and was built for big-water adventures such as this. Other than our captain and crewmember Schuyler we found only one other boatmate, a disabled veteran, Mike, who had done two tours in Afghanistan.
Like most hunts when you are in camp with people you don’t know, Mike kept quiet and to himself in the beginning, but as the adventure progressed he opened up and the trip became one of camaraderie and excitement.
This first day was dedicated to getting from point A to point B, which meant in order to get started, a long boat ride was required. I can say one thing about charter captains and their boats – they amaze me. Their incredible skill at navigating the water and knowing what to do with different scenarios are required skills, with Garrett at the top of his game.
I could see why my good friend Mike Flores had had so much faith in him, which he has expressed to me a lot over the years. It’s also important to note that when it comes to bear hunting and fishing on open water in Alaska, it really comes down to one thing: weather. The conversation between captain and fellow skippers is nonstop. The reports coming over the radio from the National Weather Service are endless. The chatter of wind direction, wind speed, tides, and currents are never ending, and a must to know on a trip such as this.
Another requirement is the ability to read the water and know where the fish are and get clients on those fish. Garrett had that down, and then some.
After arriving at our first destination, we anchored and dropped our lines. My primary goal was to catch halibut and I wanted Eli to experience the feel of pulling up one of these behemoths of the deep.
He loves to fish, but he had never caught a halibut, only eaten them from trades I had made for moose or caribou. It was exciting!
He didn’t catch any that day, as only Mike and I were able to pull up a couple of nice ones. Eli was still a little woozy from the ride and still had a bad taste in his mouth, so his time on deck was limited until he could get his sea legs. I did tell him that as the trip continued it would get better, which it did.
THE NEXT DAY BROUGHT more fishing, with Eli feeling better. We tried our hand at rockfish, and even though it was raining and blowing we made our way to the bow of the boat. The railing provided security but life jackets were still issued. The bouncing and churning had little effect on the fish. In no time we each had our limit for the day. Eli even was able to land a black rockfish that measured 26 inches, surely a record somewhere.
That evening we had a good meal provided by Schuyler and loaded our packs for the first trip to shore. Black bears were our second goal and I wanted Eli to have the experience of an up-close-and-personal experience with a bruin.
Eli is not a stranger to bears, though; he has lived in the Arctic his entire life. Even though we don’t have black bears, we do have grizzly, which he has seen me bring home many times. This would be a new experience he was excited for.
We made it to shore and found a place to sit and wait. It has been my experience that when hunting black bears from a boat, once you’re ashore patience is the key to success. We just needed to wait it out until that magical hour when they appear from nowhere, either along the bank or in one of the many grassy flats at low tide.
We didn’t have to wait long. A small bear appeared ahead, and we watched him for a long time. He was small and probably would have been all right for Eli’s first black bear, but he would not give us the shot we needed. Finally, he disappeared into the thick bush.
As evening lingered on, we decided to take advantage of the low tide and move into one of the salmon streams that lay in the bay. Slowly we rounded a bend in the creek and saw a big black spot in the distance. It was a good bear but still 500 yards out into the grass. We found a spot and decided to wait him out.
Back and forth he went, finally closing the gap at 200 yards. I knew it would be an iffy shot, as the tree line was close, and Eli had never shot anything that far. The 7mm was sighted in at 3 inches high at 100, so I knew the gun was on. However, black bears are notorious for taking punishment and then leaving the scene.
When you shoot a black bear in unfamiliar forest/surroundings, you need to kill them dead where they stand, or in most cases they get away. The last thing I wanted was a wounded bear, plus I didn’t want Eli upset, disappointed and then having to go on a chase that might never end. I’ve seen it happen many times before.
The other problem was that even at low tide the creek was still in front of us. It was also deeper than the tops of our muck boots, and darkness and the incoming tide would soon be approaching. We decided to pass.
Not getting or taking the shot at the bear was disappointing, but it was a great learning experience for Eli and something that I actually cherish even more now after we came home. Sitting there, we had time to discuss bear size, shot placement, the “what ifs” and the “what would you do” scenarios. It was all good and in hindsight, something that created motivation for next time.
Yes, we did see a lot of bears afterwards, but nothing of the size and stature of that one. I did get to make a couple of stalks on unexpecting bears, only to have them slip by me or catch my wind. Man, that area has a lot of bears! I can see now why they allow three per person.
THE NEXT DAY AND the remainder of the trip was primarily devoted to fishing and looking for that one big bruin. Eli did well, catching his limit of rockfish each day and then finally his halibut. His first flattie was in the 35-pound range, and to watch him crank on that reel over 300 feet of water was special. He held his ground and I was proud of him when Garrett gaffed the big boy and pulled him into the boat.
At the end of the trip, Eli landed a 100-plus-pound halibut and I missed it, but luckily they videoed the whole thing. It was quite the sight and again, I was proud of the stamina and willpower Eli demonstrated in order to get that fish up. Sadly, he had to release it due to catching one earlier in the day with a one-fish-per-day limit.
It was a great trip overall and something that I will cherish forever. We landed safely back in Homer with a boatload of fish and memories, plus met a few people we can now call good friends. You can’t ask for much better.
Getting your kids outside and experiencing the great outdoors with what Alaska has to offer, no matter where you live in the state, is priceless. Time flies, so do it now and as much as possible, because before you know it they’ll be out the door to college or a career and doing their own thing. Seize the day! ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting, and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.