The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
STORY AND PHOTOS BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES
Sportfishing for Pacific halibut in the Last Frontier is always a popular activity for both Alaskans and visiting anglers. You only need to know two things to understand why.
First, halibut can get huge, and I mean huge. Iconic images and countless stories of lucky fishermen catching triple-digit flatfish serve to fan the flames of desire for others who want to hook up with their own saltwater trophy. Who doesn’t want to catch a big fish?
Second, halibut meat is delicious. The mild white-fleshed fillets need little to no seasoning and can be prepared using a variety of methods, including grilling, broiling, baking, and deep frying. I am certainly hoping to catch my limit on any saltwater trip I make. A big and tasty fish is a no-brainer goal.
My firsthand experiences chartering boats in Alaska for halibut over the past two decades has allowed me to gain perspective and insight for knowing when, where, and who to go out with to make the best of my entire trip.
Valdez, Homer, Whittier, and Seward are certainly not the only destinations available in Southcentral Alaska where anglers can hire a sportfishing vessel for halibut fishing, but they are certainly among the most popular as well as on the road system. (Kodiak, Cordova and Yakutat, venerable flattie ports in their own rights, require flights.) Each one of the quartet is unique and provides visitors a different local flavor, landscape, and in addition to great halibut action, various sportfishing opportunities.
The seaside city of Valdez sits at the very end of the Richardson Highway. The scenic drive sends travelers over the summit of Thompson Pass (elevation 2,805 feet) and down into the narrow pass called Keystone Canyon before finally reaching the small fishing community. The canyon features steep towering cliffs and splendid waterfalls. The Port of Valdez is also the final destination of the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
Something to consider about Valdez is the driving distance from Anchorage, about 300 miles one way. It’s the furthest port from the big city on our short list of four. Travel time is about six hours, so an overnight should be planned.
That variable aside, you can’t go wrong when you book a trip for halibut out of Valdez Harbor. I prefer to coordinate my chartered fishing in conjunction with the returning salmon; that way I can maximize my time on shore while still getting in some great fishing with each incoming high tide.
Abundant returns of pink salmon (July) and coho (August) made shoreline fishing a popular activity. Anglers can experience excellent fishing from the shore or by boat during peak months for each species every summer.
Sportfishing charter boats are normally filled during the season and openings for a walk-on angler are rare. The city hosts multiple annual fishing derbies for silvers, pinks and also halibut. Additional popular recreational activities in the area include trail hiking and mountain biking, wildlife and sea life viewing/photography, and ocean kayaking.
Fishermen taking the highway to the southernmost point of the Kenai Peninsula will find Homer, where plenty of flatfish opportunities exist at land’s end. The “Home of the Halibut” can be reached in less than five hours from Anchorage by car. But there is no sense in rushing the scenic 225-mile drive. Take time to view the rugged wilderness, its variety of wildlife and the emerald waters of the Kenai River while keeping an eye out for a volcano on the far side of Cook Inlet. Of course, there is some terrific freshwater fishing to be had for both resident species and migrating salmon, depending on trip timing.
Tent camping and RVs are both welcome right on Homer’s spit, which serves as access to the small boat harbor, commercial boats and several boardwalks of charter boat services.
A distinctive feature also found on the spit is the Homer fishing hole. The Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon provides shore anglers a chance at hatchery kings and coho.
I’ve taken many boats out of Homer between May and September, and I have yet to not catch a flatfish on a trip. My largest halibut, a 92-pounder, was caught in late May.
Whittier is a small seaside community less than 60 miles straight-line distance from Anchorage. Situated on the northwest shoreline of the Kenai Peninsula, the city and its unique deep-water port is known as the Gateway to Prince William Sound. Although there are less than 250 full-time residents, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit, most during the warmer months, arriving via cruise ship, train and automobile.
Surrounded by icy glaciers and steep mountains, the area is breathtaking to see and also requires a unique journey by land. Visitors coming by train or car take the 2.5-mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel is officially the longest rail-highway combination in North America, and a schedule of alternating train and one-way travel for passenger vehicles keeps the traffic flowing year-round.
The short travel distance from Anchorage makes it possible for fishermen to take a charter boat, catch a limit of halibut and return, all in one day. Although a day trip is nice if you’re limited for time, I suggest you stay overnight and take your time to enjoy the small port community.
I highly recommend visiting this terrific place after July 1, when lingcod season opens. There is some amazing saltwater fishing to be had on a multispecies excursion, with several species of rockfish, as well as lingcod and Pacific cod available. Make sure you research the boats and book early. As with any port discussed here, the better charter captains fill up well before the fishing season even begins.
Seward rests on the Kenai Peninsula’s southern shore, at the head of Resurrection Bay. Breathtaking views of steep snow-capped mountains and dense green alpine forest surround the small seaside community. Visitors can reach the destination by train, plane, automobile or cruise ship. Most travelers go by car via the Seward Highway, which is designated by the U.S. Forest Service as a scenic byway. The 125-mile roadway runs from Anchorage through Turnagain Arm, Chugach National Forest, the Kenai Peninsula and the Kenai Mountains before ending in Seward.
Although hiring a fishing boat for halibut is among the most popular attractions to the area, Seward provides a variety of things to see and experience. For instance, Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska’s only public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center, generates interest from thousands every month during the summer season. The institute was established to execute a mission of sea life research, oversee animal rehabilitation and promote Alaska’s marine ecosystem. Stopping there is a must for anyone visiting.
There is plenty of outdoor action after touring the ASLC, including ocean kayaking, bicycling the pathways or hiking the numerous wilderness trails around Seward, just to name a few.
I’ve found late May to early June to be almost ideal since it coincides with the timing of sockeye salmon arriving to Resurrection Bay. Saltwater salmon snagging is legal and popular with locals near Nash Road, normally providing a healthy bag limit of six fish.
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING
The one common denominator among these four ports is that each can offer great experiences fishing for halibut and outdoor activities that meet any agenda. I admit, it is difficult to find a bad location in Alaska for saltwater fishing, and I feel spoiled and very thankful that I live in such a wonderful place. With these four spots, I know I’m just a bait drop away from hooking a halibut.
Whether you’re looking for the glory of a trophy barndoor fish, just trying to fill the freezer with some of the state’s most delicious table fare, or simply seeking a unique opportunity for an adventure with family or friends, the more information you have about the port you’re going fishing out of, the better you’ll be able to better take advantage of everything that can be found on an Alaskan saltwater fishing trip. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Dennis Musgraves’ Last Frontier fishing adventures, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.