Fishing the Gulf

Author’s note: The following story first appeared in the April 1997 issue of Alaska magazine. It’s been edited for brevity, but the best stuff is here.


Alaska’s outer coast can be a violent place. Winter gales pound forbidding cliffs. When the weather threatens and the surf booms, this place can give you the willies. On the right day, however, it can give you the time of your life.

On a perfect mid-August morning, I stow the anchor line while my friend Doug Green steers the 34-foot Suq’a toward the open water of the Gulf of Alaska. The engines purr contentedly. The glassy sea reflects a blue sky and billowy white clouds. I take my coffee up to the fly bridge, where Doug is enjoying the early-morning sun and watching the magnificient scenery slide by.

Aboard are Al and Erik Sjodin, of Anchorage, and their friend Nathan Schild, from Minnesota. Doug and I introduced them to jigging, yesterday, and we caught a fair-sized lingcod, a 30-pound halibut and several rockfish.

Now, on the fishing grounds again, Doug zig-zags the Suq’a slowly through a gentle swell, watching the depth sounder. The rest of us stand ready to fish. Two of us have 5-ounce jigs on 20-pound tackle. The others have 10-ounce jigs on 50-pound tackle. This place looks fishy. Diving seabirds are all around us, a sign of abundant baitfish. On the chart, the bottom shows good structure for both lingcod and halibut.

This is no place to have engine trouble. To the north, the nearest land is a craggy headland, so close we can hear surf crashing on its rocky face. To the south, the nearest solid ground is Hawaii. There’s not another boat in sight.

“Here we go!” Doug yells. “Structure!”

He pulls back the throttles, and maneuvers the boat slowly “upstream,” so the tidal current will carry it back over the structure we’ve just crossed.

“Get ‘em in!” Doug shouts. “We’ve got fish all over the screen!”

I feel my jig hit bottom, crank in a little line, then, raise my rod tip and drop it, letting the Crippled Herring jig flutter downward. I try to raise my rod again, but something pulls it down hard, yanking line from my reel. I yell, “Fish on!” but no one responds. I look around. No wonder. We all have fish on!

What a mix it turns out to be. Two fat rockfish, a 50-pound halibut, and two lingcod, just under the 35-inch “keeper” size. We release the lings, and the others go in the fish box.

As good as the first drift was, the next is better. Three 40-pound-plus lingcod on at once. We lose one, but manage to get two in the boat, great mottled-brown, bull-headed beasts that writhe like snakes on the deck and glare up at us with baleful eyes.

We’re already feeling like kids in a candy store, but the fishing gets even better. The action is constant. Rods bend. Reels protest. Lines break. It’s hard to get a jig down through the small fish to the big ones below. While I net a big ling on one side of the boat, Doug shoots and gaffs a 50-pound halibut on the other. In all this chaos and carnage, we boat two salmon, a 20-pound king and a 12-pound silver that grabbed jigs as we reeled in. What next?

We feel under-gunned. We hook several fish that wear us down and break us off like they’re playing with us. Erik, with shoulders like a weight-lifter, hooks a denizen of the deep that he winches on and pulls against for 45 minutes before his 50-pound line breaks. There be monsters here.

The totally inadequate fish box overflows. Gulls scream. Fish flop. Each time the boat rocks, big lingcod and halibut slide across the deck and bump against our legs. We shout. We curse. We laugh. We groan. We’ve died and gone to fishermen’s heaven.

Suddenly it’s over. With little said, with the fish still biting, the weather still perfect, and all of us on a fishing “high,” we lay aside our rods. The fishing on this glorious day in this spectacular setting has been the best any of us has ever known — and may ever know. We end it on a high note, a fitting finale.

Les Palmer can be reached at