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Charter boat operators target fish year-round in Resurrection Bay

Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2001

CALLISTO HEAD (AP) -- From high above wave-pounded cliffs, mountain goats watched as Joseph Baker leaned back into the fishing rod to battle with a king salmon deep in the clear, cold water of the North Pacific Ocean.

Fifty yards to Baker's left, the ocean surged into a cave where the water tumbled around the way it might inside a washing machine. The 36-foot vessel Nautilus lifted and fell as each Gulf of Alaska swell slipped beneath its hull.

A big man, jolly and Santalike, Baker kept the butt of the rod tucked in his ample stomach and worked the fish as if he caught them every day -- pumping the rod up to bring the salmon toward him, dropping the tip to take up line.

''It's a live one, whatever it is,'' he said to vigilant deckhand A.J. Cesani.

Cesani could only stand and watch as the king made several strong runs, charging off toward Rugged Island and Blying Sound as well as the open waters of the Pacific before Baker brought it back.

In all probability, the fish was still a long way from home. Biologists don't know where the kings caught in these waters south of Seward in winter and spring are bound, but they doubt it is Resurrection Bay.

Hatchery kings from an artificial run maintained near the city will start poking their noses into the bay soon, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Barry Stratton. But the feeder kings of February, March, April and early May are probably fish bound for other places.

''The Copper (River) has a pretty good run of kings, so that's a possibility,'' Stratton said. ''They swim, supposedly, against the ocean current.''

What little is known about the marine life of Pacific Coast king salmon is that the fish emerge from rivers north of California, turn right and ride the Alaska current. They feed and grow as they are carried in a circular path along the shore around the Gulf of Alaska.

Some of these fish end up as far north and west as the Bering Sea before growing to a size that enables them to begin battling once more against the current, eating their way toward the streams of their birth.

The king that grabbed the herring Cesani had slid onto a treble hook and lowered over the side of the Nautilus behind a big silver flasher had likely been destined toward a stream to the east and south when lured into these waters by an abundance of sandlance, needlefish, eulachon or herring.

Nautilus skipper Wayne Wells said he has found all of those baitfish in the bellies of the kings he has been catching since February. The composition of baitfish seems to change from month to month, he said, but the connection with salmon does not.

These aren't kings milling around waiting to pull into some stream to begin the ritual of mating and spawning. These are salmon gorging themselves on the way to homes still far away.

Well fed and sea fresh, the fish taste good and fight hard.

Baker's face was one big smile as he danced around the always moving deck of the Nautilus. Slowly he brought the king into view. It hung silver and blue in the water off the swim step where Cesani stood with a net.

The salmon tried to dart ahead of the boat moving at several knots. Wells pushed the throttles ahead to increase the speed to 5 knots or better. The engines that had been rumbling all day throbbed with power. The salmon kept pace.

Then Cesani swept it into the net. The battle between angler and fish was over, only to have a second battle joined.

''Help me get this over,'' Cesani shouted as he struggled with 30 pounds of thrashing king salmon in a net on the wrong side of the stern rail.

Clients Ed Moeglein of Soldotna and Boyd Hodge grabbed for the rim of the net. With their help, the fish was rolled into the large, open cockpit of the Nautilus.

Cesani rebaited the lines, attached them to the wires of the 60-pound cannonball weights, and used the power spools to lower the gear back into the depths. Wells swung the Nautilus tight inshore on a circle back through the areas where Baker's king had hit.

At the skipper's seat in the comfort of an oil-heated cabin, he watched the multicolored screen of a laptop computer that linked global positioning satellites to a color-chart of Resurrection Bay. Next to that display sat the colored video of a fathometer that showed the bottom of the bay and the occasional school of baitfish.

A black line on the computer showed where Wells wanted to troll around submerged rocks and cliffs. A block dot along the line told him precisely where the Nautilus was second by second.

The engines thrummed. Now and then the fathometer beeped a warning as it tracked schools of fish. ''We're going through bait balls,'' Wells said.

He watched closely to see if they were intact or dispersing, a sign that feeder kings might be ripping into them. The kings, Wells and Dianne Dubuc of Alaska Saltwater charters have discovered, are usually to be found in and around the bait.

This has not always been easy in what is a relatively new fishery for Southcentral Alaska, or -- maybe more accurately -- the rebirth of an old fishery.

''The Icicle (Seafood) plant in Seward was originally built as a (commercial) troll buying station in the early '60s,'' Dubuc said.

Unfortunately for those commercial fishermen, the state banned trolling east of Cape Suckling in the mid-1970s. Trollers, both hand and power, are now restricted to the Fairweather Grounds off Yakutat and the waters of the Inside Passage south to Ketchikan.

Dubuc got her start fishing those waters.

''I learned the commercial troll fishery from a highliner, Floyd Peterson of Hoonah,'' she said. ''He taught me most of what I know concerning fishing for feeder kings. The rest came from long hours and hard work on the drag.''

Looking to get out of the commercial fishery, Dubuc moved to Homer in 1993 to start a charter business. She shifted the Florette C. to Seward in 1999 and started looking for salmon.

Dubuc started prospecting around Resurrection Bay using a variation on gear and techniques proven effective by commercial trollers long ago.

Wells, who said he'd long been intrigued by stories he heard about people catching kings in the Bay during the winter, went to work for Dubuc as a crewman last year. Then he got his own boat and joined her in pioneering a winter sport fishery for salmon.

Both charter boats target kings, but they have found themselves catching other feeding salmon as well -- predominantly chums but some sockeyes and the occasional silver as well.

King fishing can range from spectacular to dismal. Clearly, Dubuc said, this fishery is in the developmental stage.

''I learn new things every time I set in,'' she said. ''I wanted new challenges when I decided to target kings year around in Resurrection Bay and have not been disappointed.''

''It's interesting,'' Wells added. ''This winter, we ran (the boat) every time we could get two paying clients. I can go out with a lot less people and have customers pay to kind of help study this bay. It's still a learning curve for me.''

However, some things are starting to become obvious.

''If I get certain storms in that are coming certain directions,'' Wells said, ''I'll get better days of king fishing.''

He thinks he knows why: Storms move the water, and that piles schools of baitfish up in certain areas near the mouth of the bay. Where the baitfish are, expect salmon.

''The learning curve has been steep, but the rewards are great,'' Dubuc added.

In that assessment, she'd get no objection from Moeglein.

A big bear of a man, a North Slope oil field worker now going to school in Seward after suffering a disabling neck injury, he was quick to stuff a ham sandwich in his pocket and shuffle across the deck of the Nautilus when a salmon hit Sunday.

He grabbed the rod out of a rod holder and cranked madly on the reel as the salmon charged toward the boat.

''I see what you mean about them coming to the boat,'' he said to Cesani.

This salmon came on like it wanted to get in the net. Moeglein kept cranking.

''Can it get any better than this?'' Baker asked. ''Ham sandwich in one pocket. Cold beer in the other. And a king on the end of the line.''

Moeglein grinned, and still the fish came on.

Within a couple minutes after being hooked, Cesani had swept it up in the net and deposited it on the deck. ''Twenty pounds?'' Moeglein asked.

Cesani guessed the guess was probably about right. Moeglein sat down and popped the cold beer.

''You know what I like about this fishery,'' the Soldotna angler said. ''Two (kings) a day, and you don't have to record them on your license.''

Biologist Stratton said the liberal season applies on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula because fishing pressure is low, and the fish anglers catch clearly aren't spawners.

By contrast, Cook Inlet anglers are intercepting fish bound for spawning beds on the Kenai, Kasilof, Susitna and other rivers. Thus, expect a bag limit of only one salmon per day and a seasonal limit of five -- in some places less -- on the west side of the Peninsula.

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