Kachemak Bay’s Feeder Salmon Frenzy

 

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Photos by Steve Meyer 

The following story appears in the June issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

By Steve Meyer 

Four minutes into the troll, my rod slammed down, releasing the 14-pound downrigger ball and signifying that the fight was on.

The fish made one decent run and came to hand in the bobbing seas typical of lower Cook Inlet. Shane Blakely, of Driftwood Charters and the captain of the day, looked at my fish with a bit of a jaundiced eye and asked, “Do you want to keep it?”

By king salmon standards the fish would impress no one, and clearly there were much bigger fish to be caught. “Hell, yeah, I want to keep it” was my not so subtle response.

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AT HOME IN HOMER

Months before, my partner, Christine Cunningham, had told me that Ruth and Louis Cusack and Emily and Matt Shock wanted to book a trip to fish for feeder kings out of Homer. Groaning to myself I thought, “Great, another day of mindless trolling for fish with someone who doesn’t know how to catch them.” So I replied, “I’ll go only if we book with Shane.”

You see, we had been feeder king fishing on numerous occasions with several different boats and captains and, frankly, it sucked. True, the scenery in lower Cook Inlet is magnificent and, depending on weather, always a bit different. But after about four hours of listening to the throb of the engines cruising at 2½ mph, the scenery ceases to be all that interesting, and could we please catch a damn fish now?

We had come to know Shane by way of a duck hunting buddy when Shane towed our boat across Kachemak Bay for sea duck hunting in December a couple years ago. Shane hunted with us for a while and then said he probably should go catch a couple kings and would be back for the return across the bay. Yeah, sure, whatever, we thought – until he came back an hour later with two very nice feeder kings.

The next week, the process was repeated, eliminating the chances it was a fluke. Since then, we have sort of kept track of Shane; inevitably, no matter the time of year, he was knocking them out.

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WATER FIT FOR KINGS

The feeder king fishery in Kachemak Bay (often referred to as winter kings, or blackmouth in the Pacific Northwest) was at one time primarily a winter event, with the Homer Winter King derby in March being the highlight. But the kings that come from California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia are there year-round.

They feed and then leave when they are ready to make their spawning run.

Some of the kings caught in Kachemak are hatchery fish, as evidenced by their lack of an adipose fin. Some have tags (Shane caught some hundred or so of these last year) that can be sent in to various government agencies, which will return information about the fish. On our trip we caught several hatchery fish and two with tags.

A question that comes to mind is what effect our targeting these fish has on the other end where they spawn; it seems like none. The runs these fish come from continue to increase, as do the numbers of feeder kings in Kachemak Bay. Of course, there are no hard and fast scientific numbers to support that, as no studies of the population in Kachemak Bay have been done. That is simply from observations of anglers who have fished them for a long time, and if anyone knows, it is them.

So with that in mind, we had no qualms about keeping them. One thing that has kept these kings targeted primarily in late winter and early spring is that anglers are not required to record them on the license until April 1. In years past, when kings were rather prolific and fishermen didn’t want to waste the precious slots available on a small king, it was understandable. Now that one is lucky to catch any returning king of any size, these smaller fish are gaining attention throughout the season.

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SALMON FOR ALL

With the first fish barely in the fish box, it was Ruth’s turn, as her rod slammed down and she quickly had it to hand. “Throw that little guy back,” Ruth said. Ruth and Louis are consummate game and fish cooks and generously share with others, including the local homeless shelter in Anchorage, and they look for fish that will feed a family, not just themselves. “When the tide turns, the fish will get bigger,” said Shane, who is the most unobtrusive captain one could imagine.

They did. Looking for the secret formula for catching these kings, it quickly became evident there was no “secret.” Using the standard set-up for trolling – a small bait herring that had been toughened with salt brine – there seemed to be no magic involved. During the course of the day there were other boats near our boat, and each time a fish would come to hand the radio would announce some good-natured ribbing about catching all the fish.

As the sun rose over the Southeastern peaks, the fish continued to snatch the preferred herring presented, and all on board had fought at least one of these dime-bright spirited kings back to the boat.

Even the best of times on the water have lulls in the action. Being prepared to enjoy yourself during the breaks in action is critical to having a good day that will include around 12 hours on the water. There were no worries when you were with this group.

The midmorning entrée included Ruth’s delicious salmon dip, mountain goat summer sausage, waterfowl pepperoni and various Cajun concoctions that Louis dreams up, which never disappoint. Well-fed anglers are happy anglers.

PROS OUTWEIGH CONS

Saltwater fishing always comes accompanied with weather – good, bad, and sometimes ugly. No matter how good the weather is, there are always ground swells that may get to those who are prone to succumb to seasickness. Preparing for the worst is a constant in Alaska. Raingear, warm layers of clothing, rubber boots, a knit cap of some sort and wool gloves or ones that equally stay warm when wet should be the bare minimum. Typically, charter boats have some sort of heated cabin, but if you are going to catch a fish sooner or later, you have to get out in the elements.

There are never any guarantees in fishing, but it is a near mortal certainty that you’ll be coming home with fish, assuming you keep them with the intent to eat. The fish will be filleted and placed in plastic bags for you.

To preserve the fish in the best possible way until they are processed, you’ll want to have a decent-sized cooler for the trip from the dock to where will be processed.

You don’t want to have the good fortune of a really nice summer day and have to throw your fish in the back of a hot vehicle. Your charter operator can direct you to local fish processors who will often accommodate vacationers and those in a time crunch.

Nearing the end of the day, we had a boatload of kings, small halibut and some other odds and ends in the fish box. I still hadn’t figured out what Shane does that makes him so successful, but we had brought some 20-odd kings to hand during the course of the day, a remarkable achievement by anyone’s measure in the feeder king arena.

Matt was the holdout of the group; he had one king and was saving his remaining tag for a chance at a bigger fish. Shane took us to a spot just off the Homer Spit, where our lovely deckhand would fillet the fish while Matt continued to troll for his big kings.

Patience rewards, it seems, as Matt finally hooked the king he was hoping for and finished off the day in the best possible way. ASJ

 

Editor’s note: For more information on Shane Blakely’s Driftwood Charters, call (907) 235-8019 or go to driftwoodcharters.com.

 

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