(Author’s note: This column, about springtime fishing for king salmon and halibut in Cook Inlet, first appeared in the Clarion on May 17, 2002. Dennis Randa is still a local fishing guide. Dillon Kimple now lives in Vancouver, Wash.. Walt Hart’s whereabouts is unknown. LP)
When I went fishing off Deep Creek Tuesday, it was in far greater comfort than in those years of yore when I launched a 14-foot Starcraft in the surf. This time, I was aboard a safe and comfortable 24-footer, with an experienced captain at the controls. Instead of waiting for just the right set of waves to come before shoving off, we were launched by a honking big tractor.
I can honestly state that I didn’t feel so much as a pang of nostalgia for the old days, when a successful launch brought a feeling of having survived a near-death experience. I can’t say I missed setting out to sea on an adrenaline high.
This was a “fun” trip — as opposed to a paying trip — for my friend Dennis Randa, a longtime guide on the saltwater and the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Besides me, he had invited old friends Dillon Kimple and Walt Hart, both of Sterling, guys I’d fished with in past years. For everyone but Dennis, who had fished a couple of times this year, it was the first trip of the season.
Our expectations weren’t high, but we were optimistic. Dennis had fished off Deep Creek the previous day, and one of his clients had caught a king. As usual for early May, the fishing had been “spotty.” If you were in the right place at the right time, you had a chance or two. The plan was to fish through the 5:44 p.m. high tide. The water was as close to flat as Cook Inlet gets. A cloud layer hid the sun, but the air felt more like spring than winter.
In minutes, running fast on the calm water, we were on the fishing grounds, idling along into the incoming tide. Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna, the snow-covered volcanoes on the inlet’s west side, looked as if they were within easy walking distance, not 50 miles away.
“This is my day to play,” Dennis said, taking a rod down from the rack. “You guys are going to have to bait your own hooks. In fact, you might even have to net your own fish. I don’t get many chances to do this.”
He wasn’t joking. Guides in this fishery can’t fish when they have paying clients aboard, he reminded us. He pointed us toward the bait box and the bait knife, and started rigging his own rod.
We soon had our lines in the water. We were trolling herring in between 8 and 10 feet of water, barely making headway into the incoming tide. The beach was a stone’s throw away. Only one other boat was fishing within a quarter-mile of us.
We’d been fishing for no more than five minutes when Dillon hooked the first king. Dennis netted it, an 18-pounder that gleamed blue, black and silver. During the next hour, we had four more kings on for varying periods of time. Then, Dennis hooked one that ran out 150 yards of his line before he could turn it. Fifteen minutes later, a sleek and shiny 26-pounder came aboard.
“If you guys want to fish for halibut, we should probably go now,” Dennis said.
We said we didn’t care one way or the other. It was still pretty early for halibut. We hadn’t heard of anyone catching anything but small ones. But we all agreed it would be nice to have a couple of fresh halibut, even if they were only “chickens.”
Dennis lowered the anchor about five miles from the beach, and we soon had our baits on the bottom. The tide was almost slack. None of us expected much. We were content to just be on the water, enjoying the evening and fishing, catching up on news and gossip with friends.
The fishing wasn’t fast, but it was far better than what we had expected. In two hours, we put six halibut in the fish box – four chickens, a 68-pounder and a 99-pounder.
We headed in at 9:30 p.m.. The sun was still an hour away from dropping behind the mountains.
By the time I got home, it was 1 a.m.. I was tired to the bone, but happier than I’d been in months. With a king salmon fillet and several bags of fresh halibut in the refrigerator, it didn’t matter that I had yet to see a robin this year. Spring had officially arrived.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.