The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
TV filmmaker Graham Morton is reeling up something big from deep below the surface off Sitka. He and his guide, Capt. Klinton Chambers, share theories about what exactly is on the other end of the line.
“I think there’s a boot on the end.”
“A concrete block? Jimmy Hoffa?”
Nothing that dramatic – just another of these waters’ monster halibut that Morton and his Sport Fishing Television crew pulled up during a three-day trip to Sitka that’s airing this month on the Pursuit Channel and Destination America series.
This wasn’t Morton’s first trip to Alaska, and he’s also fished and hunted throughout the Rockies and Pacific Northwest, but there was something about documenting every step of this three-day trip to catch halibut, salmon, yelloweye and other bottomfish amid a spectacular backdrop.
“The conditions are finicky and unpredictable,” Morton narrates, with the notion that some rough seas and weather can’t deprive a Floridian of enjoying an Alaskan adventure. “Ear-to-ear grins when the drag screams and the fish come in. And the spectacular sights make you forget when they don’t. Maybe that’s why nature keeps the lights on all summer long in this part of the world.”
Morton had evolved into a respected filmmaker when last year he drew the attention of Bonnier Corporation, which publishesSport Fishing magazine and recruited Morton to reshape its television brand.
“It took four to five months of prep work, and our first show that we tried it on was our Alaska show,” Morton says. “So it was a pretty exciting time up there.”
Some of the early episodes for the show’s season included outings for snook and redfish off Florida’s Treasure Coast (on the Atlantic side around Port St. Lucie) and the Gulf of Mexico waters off Venice, La. But it was the Sitka trip last September that Morton says was the defining moment so far in this project.
We spent a little time chatting with Morton about his passion for saltwater fishing and some of the play-by-play of his Southeast Alaska adventure.
Chris Cocoles What was your introduction to fishing down in Florida?
Graham Morton My grandfather is probably the easiest answer. We primary did light-tackle inshore stuff, lots of speckled perch and bass and down here. That was mainly when I was a young kid. And then I started watching fishing TV shows and didn’t think they were very good, except for a handful, which were Flip Pallot’s show (outdoorchannel.com/flip-pallot-master-fishing-guide) and Jose Wejebe [a Florida legend who was a Cuban immigrant and hosted a show named Spanish Fly before he died in a plane crash in 2012]. I figured I wanted to do that – not so much to be a host, but more or less build a show of that caliber. And I just kind of taught myself that, and that correlated with me learning about fishing and traveling around when I was younger.
CC What part of Florida did you grow up? Gulf of Mexico side? Atlantic side?
GM Right smack in the middle of downtown Orlando [laughs].
CC Lots of great bass fishing in the lakes of interior Florida. But were you much more into saltwater fishing still?
GM I think (saltwater fishing) had more mystery and was more exotic. Bass fishing around Orlando is kind of the easiest thing in the world and it was just something I didn’t really consider was anything special. I definitely always liked saltwater, though I didn’t really get into the bigger waters and offshore stuff until later on. But the inshore fishing was something I had been doing since I was a kid. And pretty much all my friends weren’t people who I went to high school with, but people I met through fishing or through videoing fishing or something of that nature. It’s kind of what draws us. But it wasn’t something that I was raised into. It was just something that I happened to like and got into on my own. And once I got a car of my own, you turn 16 and it’s off the races.
CC Where were some of your earliest fishing memories?
GM A lot of it was in Mosquito Lagoon [east of Orlando], which is a big body of shallow water that you actually walk in and wade, so I did a lot of that. I also did some trips to the west coast of Florida to Boca Grande, and that was all in my teen years. When you’re young, you also don’t have any money, so it’s not like you can go out and charter a boat, and it’s not like you can pay for fuel for a boat. But [inshore fishing provided] an easy access point for me to enjoy it and be able to do it within a couple hours’ drive. As a young man you don’t get to access a lot of stuff, but you learn a lot and have some neat places that you can travel to by vehicle. But once you get older, the whole world opens up when it comes to why Florida is one of the few places in the states that has tropical-style fishing. That was definitely a location-based opportunity.
CC It does look like you’ve spent some time out here in the West, though. Did you do lots of fishing?
GM Believe it or not I mainly hunted. I fished a little bit up there [in Idaho and Colorado] with some trout stuff, but mostly in mountainous areas, really, all I did was hunting [mostly elk] until I was about 25 or 30. I started doing a lot of filming out there with random people. But for fishing, you kind of grow up in saltwater and don’t want to leave it.
CC So tell us about the Alaska trip and what is was like for you.
GM It was the best episode from a personal standpoint that we’ve had all year. Everything was provided for us in terms of the accommodation; all we had to do was provide the tackle. They had their 30-foot aluminum boat and we ended up with a young guide who’s been doing this for about eight years. Coincidentally enough, (Chambers of Kingfisher Charters and Lodge) lives in Idaho, and since I’ve hunted up there we got along really well.
CC How was Sitka?
GM Just the experience of being in town there is pretty unique. It’s the third time that I’ve been to Alaska, the first that I’ve been down to the Panhandle. I’m not saying it was better or worse than the mainland. I fished in the Kenai area before, but this was almost like being in something that (Lord of the Rings author J.R.R.) Tolkien would have written – just between the mountains and the dormant volcano (Mount Edgecumbe) there. It’s a pretty big industry town for the short time their season is open. Everybody there was just a nice human being and it seems like a happy place to live. It’s a big area, don’t get me wrong, but in a small, one-day trip in a boat you can see whales, sea lions and otters, bald eagles and bears. For us flat guys, it’s overwhelming almost. It’s just a really easy trip to enjoy.
CC Can you compare and contrast fishing in Alaska to your home base in Florida?
GM The kind of biomass (in Alaska), it’s almost like you’re guaranteed to catch something for the amount of fish and everything that’s going on. Something’s going to happen. In places like Venice (La.) that really don’t do proper offshore fishing, it’s a pretty big run to get out into the deep water – about 70 miles. The grind out is part of the adventure there. In Alaska, it was more along the lines of me being almost allergic to cold weather. As long as I was warm, I was happy. The stuff that we do in Florida is not so much easier or harder in any way, shape or form; it’s more intimate, and maybe that’s the way to think about it. You’re more focused on what’s in front of you and what’s going on with your line than being distracted by the amazing beauty around you in Alaska or by this structured monolith oil rig that’s off Venice.
CC How was being in front of the camera and not behind? That had to be a treat to be actually fishing.
GM It’s hard for me personally – which is different than most anglers – because I spent the past 10 years without a rod in my hand. I spent more time on the water than most people because I was doing nothing but filming. So to make that transition was a little difficult. Not that I hadn’t done that stuff before, but if you have to relearn everything you had spent years of fishing, I’m just trying to translate that back onto film.
All my friends who I’ve known for all these years, they laugh, because they know that I have the knowledge to do this stuff. It’s just that I’ve turned down opportunities to go fishing so much just so I can get that one last spot. It’s not an ego-based thing to have a checklist of catching this species or this big of a fish. It’s more about translating this for the younger generation and showing what’s possible out there. The normal fishing shows just don’t do it for me. They never have. I’m trying to show the reality and share the story of why you should love this stuff. I feel like fishing has gotten a bum rap lately and I want to show the truth of it.
CC What was the fishing like? Lots of salmon?
GM We caught kings and silvers, though we didn’t catch any monster kings that you guys are probably familiar with. But we got maybe one 30-pound fish, and there was the transition from that to bottom-dropping on some shallow-water stuff to like 50 feet. It was one after another on black rockfish and the yelloweyes and lingcod. We did a little bit of flyfishing in the creeks because the pinks were running and we could have something tugging on the lines. My wife loves salmon. But I love really fresh halibut and it’s really hard to get that.
CC You had plenty of those to catch as well. What was it like pulling in a big halibut?
GM We didn’t catch any of the giant ones, but we caught one over 100 pounds, and (to hook one) is really fun … for about 30 seconds [laughs]. Then you start appreciating how to work it and everything that goes into it. It was a big thing for me to see the rigs that they’re using to catch them, because they’re almost like giant gut piles.
CC Is fighting an Alaskan halibut comparable to fighting something like a tarpon in Florida waters?
GM I’m trying to think of the best way to say it with the halibut versus the tarpon: The tarpon is aerial and you see it from start to finish right in front of you. It’s not a big muscle exertion and not something that will wear you out, but it’s extremely tricky, especially on a fly because you have to watch your fingers so you don’t get line wrapped. Plus, once you get the fish up there, they’re super green when they get to the boat.
To me, with halibut the hardest thing is in the beginning, trying to get them off the bottom and out of the rocks. You’re trying to get that fish up, and then once you get them boat-side, they came alive again and went back down [laughs]. It was like a bottle rocket versus a diesel motor. For a tarpon fight (compared to a halibut), the only way I can equate it is one is really fast, strong and violent. And the other one you really have to put the work in even to get (a halibut) up, and then you have to do it all over again.
CC Was there an excitement factor in fishing water that deep with the anticipation of not knowing what was coming up?
GM That was probably the best part of not knowing what you have. Down here we can guess what we have when bottom fishing, for the most part. But over in Alaska, it could have been a giant lingcod for all we knew. When you’re 400 to 600 feet (down), that’s a lot of line to pick up when it’s straight down on a giant fish. You’re exhausted by the time you bring it back up top and you don’t know if it ends up being a chicken or barndoor (halibut). That level of excitement right there is probably equal to when a tarpon is coming and charging on a fly.
CC What kind of film crew did you bring for this episode?
GM I had the opposite of what you might think, where you’d have a professional video team. I wanted people who have fished their entire lives and know what to look for, know the excitement of it and know the terminology. And I trained them how to run cameras; our entire crew has more experience fishing than I ever will have. These guys want to help fishing grow … And it’s not really work when you have the passion for it.
CC Do you find when you go Alaska it feels like the trip of a lifetime?
GM It really is, and I can’t think of a bad memory or a bad time that we had. You go out to some places and get bad weather; it kind of ruins the trip. The weather varies so often (in Alaska), but that’s just part of a great experience.
CC Can you share one last memory from the trip?
GM My favorite thing was catching a yelloweye rockfish. Just to find out how old they are and what their range is, and also their color. It’s a fish that you would think you’d see in the tropics somewhere on a reef. And seeing the whales and sea otters (was memorable), how close they would get within the boat. They were all around you constantly. ASJ
Editor’s note: Check your local listings for air times of Sport Fishing Television. Go to sportfishingmag.com/sport–fishing-television for more information.