A Rockfish Bounty In Whittier

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

BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES 

Fishing for a potential world-record breaker in Prince William Sound Alaska requires some deep-water insanity. 

I found out firsthand last summer just how crazy fishing can get while pursuing a chance for a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. My odds seemed very favorable considering I had three distinct advantages: a dozen extraordinary custom fishing lures at my disposal, a skilled fishing boat captain and a reliable vessel named the Crazy Ray.

This saltwater fishing trinity of excellence is a proven combination for different monster-sized fish species, but you can only find them all together at one port in Alaska, and that place is Whittier, a place where getting there is a small part of the adventure.

Driving south from Anchorage along the scenic Seward Highway towards the Kenai Peninsula had me pumped with excitement. My journey down Alaska Route 1 was relatively short for going saltwater fishing, about 50 miles and taking a turn at Portage junction before finishing up the last few miles of asphalt, which ends at a vehicle staging area. Getting to Whittier by passenger car can only happen if you pay a fee, wait for the green light and roll under Maynard Mountain using the longest rail-vehicle tunnel in North America.

The 2.5-mile-long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel allows one-way traffic with automobiles on an alternating schedule to reach the tiny port city of Whittier by roadway. It was there that I met up with saltwater fishing fanatics Tony Davis – he’s known as “Famous Davis” – and Kristin Dunn of Kodiak Custom Fishing Tackle (kodiakcustom.com). Tony had invited me to Whittier for an epic two-day adventure with friends and family aboard the Crazy Ray and its infamous captain, “Crazy” Ray Nix. 

Other participants were Tony’s brother and sister-in-law, Bob and Twylah Davis, and Tim Delarm, executive producer of the Alaska Outdoors Television show. The agenda for the multispecies event with Capt. Ray would include fishing for tasty halibut and Pacific cod – with a special focus on large colorful shortraker rockfish the first day – gigantic lingcod on day two, and an overnight stay at Port Ashton Lodge. Tim was filming the outing for an episode of his homegrown Outdoor Channel television show that features hunting and fishing in the 49th State. We would provide plenty of good footage.

 

DAY 1  

A crisp morning breeze welcomed everyone to the boat slip, where Ray’s 36-foot-long custom North River Seahawk Offshore was docked. Introductions made and safety briefing noted, everyone got settled onboard and Ray navigated the boat out of the harbor towards the Passage Canal. Once past the no-wake zone he was quick to press the throttle and head for the fishing grounds.  

The ample 10-foot-by-10-foot fishing deck offered plenty of room for six anglers. However, the first part of our day would be spent fishing at deep depths and targeting shortraker rockfish. Even though we could all fit onto the deck, in order to keep lines from tangling only two anglers could fish at a time, with one on each side of the boat. I wasn’t shy and eagerly secured a rod from Tony when he gave me the opportunity to be one of the first up. Little did I realize what I was in for.

Ray gave the go-ahead to drop in, and Twyla, who was on the opposite side of the deck, and I took turns releasing line to somewhere close to Davy Jones’ locker. Out of respect for the captain, I was sworn to secrecy and won’t speak of exact specifics, but I can tell you we started out very deep and it took a good amount of jigging. All things considered, as it was the first time I’d fished such deep waters, it probably was not an unusual scenario.

As I let out line from the reel and felt my 2-pound custom-painted jig hit the ocean floor over 1,000 feet below, my senses were fully engaged. I kept a firm double-handed clutch on the rod for touch and a vigilant eye on the braided line that gave slack from bouncing the bottom. It helped to listen to the advice of a seasoned sportfishing captain as I jigged my lure. I was in the moment, the one where nothing else matters except anticipating the strike and readying to set the hook.

Fishing extreme deep depths was something I had never experienced on a saltwater trip in Alaska, but if you want to catch a potential world-record shortraker rockfish, you’ll probably be fishing where your anchor rope may not be long enough to reach bottom.

In order to get a positive hookset, you have to instantaneously react to a fish taking the lure at such a depth. The long distance from rod tip to lure means a greater risk of missing the bite or losing the fish halfway to the surface if any line slack occurs.

Each time my jig tapped the bottom I would raise it up, and by the time it lowered again I needed to let out more line to reach the bottom. I began to think I would never feel a strike at such distance – and then it happened. It was an unmistakable sudden thump felt ever so slightly, but I reacted quickly. The resistance and head shaking seemed a mile away, but I shouted out “Fish on!” and began cranking on the reel handle.

As I gained fishing line back onto the spool with each painful turn of the handle, my forearm began to feel the strain. Ray reminded me not to allow any slack, and with confidence let me know it probably was a shortraker. I dug in and reeled.

The rage in my muscles with each crank felt as if I was only gaining inches as I raised my fish. The anticipation of something really big on the opposite end of the line kept me in the battle. Slow and steady I went as I kept the line taut. Any slack could let the fish slip the J-shaped hook and leave me dejected. 

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a bright orange fish broke the surface and was netted by Ray, then quickly dispatched. The average-sized shortraker wasn’t the 35-pounder we were after, but I was elated to add another newcomer to my species list.

Everyone on the boat ended up jigging up a shortraker on the day. Although none of the deep dwellers were world records, a couple of the fish pushed close to 20 pounds. Ray certainly knew where to find the fish, and I believe everyone got a good workout. Our day concluded with a change of locations to fish up a few cod and halibut, which we enjoyed for dinner when we pulled into Port Ashton Lodge for our overnight.  

Our lodge stay allowed us to steady our sea legs and enjoy a comfortable rest after a long day of fishing. The community cook cabin at Port Ashton provided a place for us to gather and get some nourishment from a self-prepared fish fry. Tony created a meal fit for royalty from our catch.

With an early wake-up looming and another full day of fishing on the docket, no one needed encouragement to turn in for a restful night of sleep.

DAY 2

Refreshed from a Port Ashton good night’s sleep, everyone seemed eager for the second day of fishing. Capt. Ray loaded us up and promptly zoomed out of Sawmill Bay towards the Gulf of Alaska. Lingcod were going to be the headliner species this day, and Ray’s knowledge would put us on top of Moby Dick-sized fish.

Thankfully, water depths for targeting the big and toothy beasts would keep us in the triple-digit range. The GPS got us to pinpoint locations where the skipper knows fish congregate. Once again we would be using Tony’s Kodiak Custom bottom jigs to entice the bite.

Upon nearing the honey hole, Ray checked the current direction and positioned the boat for a good drift. This time four anglers would be fishing simultaneously, dropping down quickly and bouncing near the bottom as the boat moved with the current. A small window of fast action was anticipated. I took up a corner on the fishing deck and waited for Ray’s command.

“Drop ’em!” he shouted.

Instantly, I released my spool and controlled the descent of the jig by using my thumb, avoiding backlash in the line or getting tangled with another angler. Once my lure reached the bottom, I reapplied the spool lock and gave the handle a quick turn to tighten up the line. With two hands on the rod, I began lifting and lowering to give the jig life, and almost instantaneously I received a big bite. I pulled up to set the hook and felt the beast below try and shake the hook. 

At virtually the same time, Kristin, Bob and Tony all had their rods double over for a four-way hook-up. Pandemonium – in the best of ways – unfolded. Everyone with a fishing rod was battling a fish, and from the looks of it there were four big ones below.

Orchestrating the angling chaos required teamwork and good communication. Somehow all of the lines remained untangled, and as I made the last cranks on the reel I finally got the first glimpse of my fish just under the surface. I was stunned by its size, and without a doubt I could tell it was probably the biggest lingcod I ever hooked into. 

As I turned around to let someone know I needed a gaff, Ray was hoisting a huge fish over the rail for Kristin. The lingcod was a giant, flopping on the deck with a boom. Ray immediately responded to securing Tony’s fish since he was next to her, and once again another hefty one was in the boat. Ray followed up like a professional rodeo wrangler, gaffing my large lingcod, and finally Bob’s fish was also on the deck before the bell. It looked to be about 200 pounds among the four lingcod topside, and that was only the first pass.

I couldn’t believe how quickly the four of us had hooked lings, and the size of the fish was straight insanity. The “Crazy Ray” moniker was beginning to make sense as our day-two fishing unfolded.

After cleaning off the deck and repositioning the boat for a second run, everyone was back in place ready for round two. Touching the ocean floor with my jig, the first couple up-and-down motions prompted another fish to smash my lure. It was a lingcod feeding frenzy on Kodiak Customs baits. Once again rod-bending action filled the boat deck, and four more above-average fish were raised to the surface. Everyone was ecstatic.

All anglers aboard got into the fast and furious action with some great fish and lots of smiles as we headed back for Prince William Sound and Whittier.  The two-day saltwater adventure made for an over-the-top, memorable experience. Catching huge lingcod and adding a new type of rockfish, a shortraker, to my species-caught list was indeed rewarding for me. I also managed to catch a big, beautiful yelloweye rockfish, a great bonus.

When you’re fishing with perhaps the best captain in the port and friends both new and old, it’s hard not to have a great time. Although the drive from my home near Fairbanks meant a roundtrip of about 1,000 miles, I certainly don’t see myself as being foolish for making the time.

Driving back through the Whittier tunnel with a cooler full of goodness, as well as sore forearms, meant that I had gone fishing on the Crazy Ray, and there is simply nothing crazy about that, especially if you’re as crazy about fishing as I am. ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on the fishing adventures of Dennis Musgraves, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com.

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