Valdez Means Victory

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

BY CHRISTOPHER BATIN

When it’s 5 p.m. each Friday during the peak of halibut and salmon season in Alaska, I have good reason to lock the doors and stay home.

Like overstuffed Thanksgiving turkeys, families fill once-empty campers to the seams with fishing gear, groceries, sleeping bags and coolers. The long lines at the gas pumps become a test in patience that even Job couldn’t endure. The first anglers who do make it out of the city jockey around slow-moving motor homes along the no-pass lanes so they can be the first to wet a line. They will catch a limit as fast as they can, zipping back home just in time to attend Sunday church.

Such a condensed fishing experience is far too fast-paced for me. It reminds me of a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. In the movie, the wizard Gandalf asks Bilbo if he is up for an adventure, to which Bilbo replies he wants nothing to do with it. Afterwards, Bilbo apparently hurries down to the market to purchase a fish for supper.

The lesson learned here is a simple one: Don’t be a Bilbo. If you’re in a hurry to catch a fish and return home, you are not an enlightened adventurer and the insider information in this feature isn’t for you.

However, if you are willing to travel the extra mile to experience possibly the best big-water fishing of your life – with huge halibut, slab-sided lingcod, salmon and rockfish wrapped up in an all-encompassing adventure better than Gandalf could ever offer – then read on.

THE ROADS TO THE GATEWAY city of Valdez are neither quick nor easy: Choose either a 300-mile drive from Anchorage, or a 363-mile drive from Fairbanks.

 “Valdez takes a travel commitment to visit, but the extra effort is worth it,” says Laurine Regan, executive director of the Valdez Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Access is via ‘The Adventure Corridor,’ which consists of the Glenn and Richardson Scenic Highways that connect either Anchorage or Fairbanks to Valdez. Anglers need to invest a day to either fly or drive here, or take the marine ferry from Whittier, and plan a day for the return trip home.”

The adventure offers some of the best views along Alaska’s road system. Drive through the steep-walled Keystone Canyon, with its wispy, 300-foot cascading waterfalls. Wind your way atop the misty mountains of Thompson Pass, with its summer snowdrifts bordering cirques of wildflower meadows. Become mesmerized by the hypnotic countenance of Worthington Glacier looming up like an Ice Age fossil coming to life. After a quick climb on the ice, leave the alpine and take the long, winding road down to Valdez. Once there rest well, because the next day’s journey to what I refer to as “The Outer Rim” will be to the outer edge of Prince William Sound, a long, often bumpy ride with big-water rollers and gusty winds. It’s worth toughing it out because you’re going where few men or women sportfish each season.

The Outer Rim is no ordinary battleground, but rather one of legend that borders Alaska’s Continental Shelf. I define The Outer Rim by drawing a line from the eastern shore of Montague Island out to Middleton Island, then east to Kayak Island, and north to Hinchinbrook Island.

Expect to battle it out, muscle against muscle, wit against wit, against a variety of behemoth sportfish that thrive here – trophy lingcod from 30 to 50 pounds, 20-pound yelloweye and numerous pelagic rockfish, as well as exotic species such as wolf eels and ratfish. Leviathan-size fish prefer the shallower 400-foot holes that border the 16,000-foot chasms south of Middleton Island. One of those fish is the halibut, also called halleflundra, which means “fish found in deep holes.” Expect consistently more and larger halibut in the 70-pound-plus range throughout the year when fishing these waters.

Anticipation is electric when you drop the line. This is the reason you are here, why you traveled the distance. The strike of a 200-plus-pound halibut hits with such force it nearly yanks the rod out of your hands. The fish then fires its afterburners and dives for the bottom, unfazed by the tightened drag on that heavy-duty Shimano reel filled with 100-pound test and sitting atop a G.Loomis heavy-action halibut rod. During battle, you will sweat, cuss, strain and ache with every arch of your back, every turn of the reel handle and every arm-quivering power lift of the rod. 

A fish from 150 to 400 pounds is usually released to fight another day. A keeper will need to be shot before bringing it onboard, and even then a big one can still demolish tackle or snap a leg with its crazed flopping. After the congrats are passed out, don’t get too comfortable. Expect another rod to be thrust into your hands to begin Round Two.

I’VE FISHED OUTER RIM waters for over 42 years and it’s been a love-hate relationship. I’ve been bruised from shin to head from being bashed against gunwales in 10-foot swells, and I have had fillings loosened and my back injured from being flung in rogue waves. I’ve also fished it countless times when the tempest becomes as smooth as plate glass, only to be shattered by schools of huge rockfish leaping out of the water after my 16-ounce jig before I even drop it down. During the late July salmon in-migration, expect to see thousands of pinks, cohos, chums, and a few kings zipping beneath the boat like porked-out piranhas, crazed at the sight of a fluttering B-2 jig. You’ll see huge orca killer whales boldly swim to within 12 feet of the boat, turn sideways and stare you in the eye before swimming on.

If your arm is twitching and your heart is racing a bit at these real-life scenarios I’ve described, you are a prime candidate for this adventure. But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer this admonition: If you choose the big-water journey to The Outer Rim, you will – like Bilbo after his trip – not be the same when you return. The reason is obvious.

This is the “Wild Frontier of Big Water Angling,” a thrilling, yet at times Jurassic Park-like fishery far different than the tamer but still good fishing grounds closer to shore. When I’m fishing the Rim in late July, I often feel like a solitary popcorn kernel in an ocean kettle filled with hundreds of bouncing, twisting and jumping salmon so plentiful, I feel as if I can just reach out and grab a handful.

These are some experiences you can enjoy when fishing The Outer Rim, and are the main reason I love it so. While a select few charters based in Seward, Whittier and Cordova fish various parts of The Outer Rim, Valdez is my preferred base-camp gateway to explore this region.

The late great Alaska tourism pioneer Stan Stephens first introduced me to the many treasures of Valdez and Prince William Sound back in the late 1970s. Stephens and his wife, Mary Helen, started a small charter and sightseeing business around that time, and the business eventually grew into one of the state’s largest sightseeing cruise tours, now run by their daughter Colleen. 

Over the years, Stan would skipper a group of sightseers, and as a tag-along, I’d absorb all the fishing and local knowledge he had to share. Through personal experiences and spectacular catches that defy words, The Outer Rim became one of my all-time, big-water fishing adventures.

The spectacular fishing is not the region’s only asset. Valdez is a holdback from pre-statehood days, a place where old-fashioned Alaska values and ideals are integrated into the lives of the 4,000 residents who live and work there. In this slower pace of life, a friendly chat on the street takes priority over a meeting, and eye-to-eye contact and discussions take preference over faces buried in cellphones. Valdez’s collective consciousness can be best compared to a proud, independent Alaskan who has survived several boom-and-bust cycles, but miraculously hasn’t sold his soul to the commercial development czars.

Even the distant Alyeska Pipeline terminal, which would stand out as an industrial blemish elsewhere, sits quietly in a semicamouflaged presence on the distant shoreline, the massive complex dwarfed into seeming insignificance by snow-capped mountains towering above it.

 In Valdez, take time away from fishing to walk and explore the few streets along the waterfront, where you’ll discover the elusive fruits found in only the best adventures. I’ve had a general store clerk take time to educate me on the history behind select souvenirs.

Of course, I always enjoy talking to the Fish Derby Lady, the go-to oracle for all things Valdez, including local town gossip, the best places to eat or tips to increase the chances of winning a prize in the salmon derby. Old timers are everywhere and will give you advice on most anything Alaskan. I can strike a deal with a handshake that is as good as any paper document, or hang waders out to dry on the porch of my rental cabin in town and not worry if they’ll get stolen before midnight. And at day’s end, restaurants and accommodations for most any budget will help you to re-energize properly.

WHILE YOU CAN OCCASIONALLY find big fish inside the Sound’s protected waters, accessing The Outer Rim’s best fishing requires local expertise. Few skippers know these waters better than Tim Bouchard of Valdez Outfitters, so I scheduled a day fishing charter to get reacquainted.

I first met Bouchard years ago when he attended one of my advanced fishing seminars. His longtime experience fishing Valdez waters – and his degrees in biology and geology – provide the ability to understand fish migrations and underwater geological formations along the outer islands that attract fish and create the “hydraulics” big fish prefer.

“The ocean currents at Montague Island are different than the shoreline currents inside Valdez Arm,” he says. “Catching trophy fish out on the Gulf depends on many factors, including weather, temperature, tides, seasons, glacier melt, and migration patterns. It’s important to know when to target major fish movements along an entire length of gravel shoreline, or when to go fish a rocky pinnacle, or go shallow inside the Sound. On the graph, I’ve seen lingcod cruise pinnacles like wolves ready to ambush hundreds of rockfish suspended above them.”

Accessing distant waters requires fast and sturdy boats. Bouchard’s fleet includes boats powered by twin Yamaha 225-horsepower engines and which cruise at 32 mph. The typical 12-hour fishing day starts at 6 a.m. and covers 75 to 100 miles round trip. Bouchard’s philosophy is “run fast so we can fish longer.”

He prefers to fish the graveled, forage-rich shorelines of Montague Island, where competition is scarce and big halibut migrate from the depths of the Continental Shelf to feed in shoreline waters. Here, 40- to 100-pounders are common, and during the day we had a couple of barndoors shake off. In the Valdez Halibut Derby, winning fish typically range from 250 to 300 pounds.

This is big lure and bait territory. When mooching for salmon or shallow-water halibut, B-2 squid jigs in pink, white and fluorescent orange produce the most strikes. When jigging or mooching for suspended salmon in open water, I prefer Northland bucktail leadheads and Crippled Herrings. For halibut down to 120 feet, I fish a large white or black Powerbait or a scented Alaska Angler 10-inch Trophy Tail on a 16-ounce jighead.

For fish 300 feet down, I prefer herring, octopus or salmon belly on a circle hook, with a Trophy Torch attractor 40 inches up the line. Don’t leave home without Berkley Gulp! Alive! herring spray. I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent watching slab-sided salmon act like frenzied sharks, attacking my scented lure as if it were the only piece of bait in the ocean.

Bouchard made it easy for us to load up on rockfish, lingcod and halibut before returning to Valdez. Once in port, we hauled the fish to the public fish-cleaning tables, where we boxed about 150 pounds of fish fillets.

Our first day of Valdez-based fishing was but a primer. The next day we planned to fish exclusively for halibut, with salmon mooching or saltwater kayaking among the icebergs pencilledin for the third day. I strongly recommend scheduling two to three days for fishing The Outer Rim, as bad weather or boat breakdowns do occur.

If weather allows, try fishing Middleton Island or consider a long-range trip on a large boat with three private staterooms and kitchen. I still recall an overnight, long-range trip to Middleton Island on a charter out of Seward, on which we hooked into many halibut over 100 pounds.

This season, leave the established trails to those who want to catch small fish in a hurry and take time to discover Valdez and The Outer Rim experience. I probably won’t see you out on the Rim, so remember what I wrote earlier: Big water fishing elsewhere – in addition to you as an angler – will never be the same again. ASJ

Editor’s note: Chris Batin is editor of The Alaska Angler, and with partner John Beath, spent years of underwater filming to produce Underwater Secrets of Catching Halibut, Rockfish and Lingcod, an instructional DVD with amazing underwater footage on how these species swim, hide, strike and follow lures, with views of baits and presentations they like most. The DVD offers specific tips and tactics you need to know for big-water success. Alaska Sporting Journal readers can receive free shipping when ordering this DVD or other books by using promo code ASJ57 when buying at AlaskaAngler.com.

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