Something exciting happens when large fish come to the surface, where you can see them considering what you have to offer. I’m invariably astonished when one swims into sight.
Until a few years ago, I’d always thought of halibut as bottomfish. I assumed that all flatfish lived on the bottom, and that you had to fish on the bottom to catch them. Other than halibut on the end of a line, I’d never seen one on the surface. But then I went fishing with Emerald Pines Lodge, out of Homer.
Lodge-owner Steve Novakovitch had told me he often saw halibut on the surface. When he e-mailed a photo of a boy leaning over the rail of his boat, feeding herring to a halibut, he got my attention. Sure enough, the first time I fished with him, we had halibut swimming all around his boat. I was so entranced, I forgot to take photos. On subsequent trips with him, I’ve seen halibut on the surface several times, and I’m always amazed.
I vividly recall several times when king salmon came right up behind a boat to grab a lure or herring. The first time it happened to me, a friend and I were trolling in about 10 feet of water, just off the beach south of Ninilchik. The water was so shallow and clear, we could see our herring flashing just below the surface, maybe 15 feet behind the boat. We’d trolled for an hour or so without any action. I was reeling in to check my bait, when a good-sized king swam up to within five or six feet of the boat and made a pass at my herring. I instinctively pulled back to set the hook. My herring ended up in my buddy’s lap.
Other times, fishing in that same shallow spot, the fish didn’t fare so well. I recall watching one that swam up behind my slowly rolling herring and made three grabs at it before being hooked. By then, I’d learned to control myself and wait for the rod to bend before setting the hook.
Another time, I was fishing with friends in Kachemak Bay, trolling fruitlessly for kings. We fished as long as we could, but the time came to reel in and head for Homer, skunked. Mine was the last line in. While morosely watching my spoon approach the surface behind the boat, a king swam up and grabbed it. That “hail Mary” fish, a sleek 30 pounder, saved our day. The image of its silver flank flashing just below the surface as it turned and ran is among my favorites.
My introduction to “top-water” cohos came while fishing one of the many small, tannin-colored streams in the Cordova area. Catching them on a sinking fly was fairly easy there. I’d heard they could be caught on surface flies, and I’d brought some along, just in case. I cast a chartreuse Techno-Wog downstream from where some cohos were holding, and began retrieving it in short jerks. The foam “fly” riled the surface, leaving bubbles and ripples in its wake. I was thinking that a salmon would be stupid to come anywhere near this weird thing, when a stupid salmon came up right behind it.
The sight of those jaws rising from the water behind my fly was too much for me. What’s a fisherman to do? I hauled back on my 8-weight to set the hook. The fly rocketed past me and irretrievably wrapped itself around the top of an alder behind me. Strangely, I wasn’t irked, but found myself laughing out loud. The same thing happened the next two casts. I finally settled down and learned to wait, but only because I thought I’d run out of flies. While staying at the Orca Lodge in Cordova, I talked to people who fished only with surface flies. It’s that much fun.
It’s not always possible to lure big fish to the surface. When it happens, you’ll never forget it. You just might become addicted. There are places on this planet where top-water fishing is pretty much the only kind.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.