Kayak Fishing Alaska
as printed in Pacific Coast Sportfishing - November 2004 issue
By Jim Sammons, owner, La Jolla Kayak Fishing
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When most people think of Alaska, they think of wilderness. When they think of fishing in Alaska they think of salmon, lingcod, and giant halibut. The funny thing is, they rarely think of kayak fishing - funny because this is the place where kayak fishing was born. Of course those first wood and skin vessels built by the native Alaskans bore little resemblance to the roto-molded plastic, electronics-carrying, bait-tank-equipped kayaks of today, and when their builders ventured out to sea it was for reasons of survival, rather than sport.

Some people say Alaska calls to them; the desire to see the last area of true wilderness in the U.S. has drawn many to our northernmost state - some for gold, some for solitude, some to avoid the law, some to work the lucrative commercial fisheries. The chance to land trophy salmon or barndoor halibut in this wilderness calls pretty strongly to many also.

My call to Alaska came in the form of a phone call from kayak fishing guide Howard McKim, owner of Ketchikan Kayak Fishing, who had learned kayak fishing in San Diego and decided to make a career of it in Alaska. Howard told me stories of salmon fishing and of landing a 100-pound halibut from his kayak right in front of his house. Being an avid big-game kayak fisherman, I jumped at the invitation to join him for a week of kayak fishing and the chance to mark another fish off the list of species I have always wanted to catch, the Alaskan Halibut.

Halibut are not the only fish to be pursued from the kayaks in Alaska, our plan is to go after several species of fish on this trip including, Ling Cod and King Salmon. Later in the season Coho salmon, Pinks and Chums are also readily available. Just a few days before I arrived in Ketchikan one of the local kayak anglers landed a 32 lb King.

In preparation for the trip, I did have to make the investment in some cold-water paddling clothing, since the water temperatures can range from the mid-60s all the way down to the low 40s. Taking Howard's advice, I picked up some dry pants and polypropylene thermals. A good paddling jacket is also a must, as well as a layering system of clothes. The weather conditions can change from sunny and warm to windy and rainy and back again within a morning, so you need to be prepared for all conditions.

Arriving at the Ketchikan airport in a slight drizzle, I couldn't get over how green everything was. Having returned from a trip to the East Cape of Baja only two days prior made the contrast between the two locations even more remarkable. Besides the green landscape and the cool weather, the most notable difference between the two locations was the fact that it stayed light from 3 a.m. to midnight, making for a very long day of fishing.

After I met up with Howard, we made plans for an evening fishing session. Howard has a full fleet of kayaks all rigged with rod holders and fishfinders ready to chase down your quarry. Before we got on the kayaks, we did a rundown of the safety equipment and safety procedures. Unlike when fishing from the coast of Southern California, a kayak angler fishing in Alaska needs to be very self-sufficient.

I carry a lot of safety equipment on my kayaks at home, but up here the need to be fully prepared for any situation seems much more crucial. Howard explained that whenever he does a long-distance paddle or makes any major crossing he carries enough gear to camp out if necessary. The weather can come up fast, and you may need to spend the night camped in the woods.

Our first evening session on the water resulted in lots of rockfish and a couple of sole - not the gamefish I was hoping for, but in this setting, the fishing took a backseat to the scenery. The rockfish were all released, but many weren't lucky enough to make it back to their home before a bald eagle swooped down and grabbed them. The eagles would drop down, mere feet above our heads, wind roaring through their wings as they grabbed the fish just off the bows of our kayaks. It was a sight I won't soon forget.

Our second day of fishing was a more aggressive paddle, exploring some distant waters. For me, it was again all the rockfish I could catch, and again, the scenery and wildlife took center stage. The sun shone for the entire day, and we were entertained by a large pod of humpback whales cruising the area. When we needed a break from paddling, we would beach the kayaks on a nearby island and explore the rainforest - always being careful to pull the kayaks way up on the beach because of the major tidal ranges, which can be as great as twenty-five feet.

On our third day of fishing, after setting several crab and shrimp pots, we went to a spot that had given up some halibut in the past, and I was hoping today would be my day. Howard recommended putting some cut herring on the bottom and drifting near a small river mouth. While drifting, we also were tossing Fish Traps and dragging them on the bottom. I was landing my usual bounty of rockfish when Howard called over that he was on the "right kind."

He had hooked the halibut on a Fish Trap, and his light Seeker rod was bent virtually in half. Fishing a Calcutta 400 loaded with just 12-pound Ande line, Howard worked the fish with finesse, letting it run when needed and gaining line when he could. It took 25 minutes to get the fish to the boat, and then the fight really got started.

For dealing with halibut, Howard carries a small harpoon with a slip-tip attached to 100 feet of rope with a buoy connected at the end. After working the fish into position, Howard stuck it with a well-placed thrust. Not taking too kindly to being impaled, the fish took off in an explosion, dragging the buoy down as if it were not even there. The scene brought back memories of the scenes in "Jaws" where the shark drags the barrels down beneath the surface.

Ten minutes later, Howard had dragged the fish back to the surface, where it's thrashing soaked him to the skin. By the time the fish was finally loaded onto the kayak, it had been 40 minutes since Howard had initially brought it to the side of his boat. We took the fish to a certified scale, and it weighed in at 73 lbs. Later that day we went back out and pulled the crab and shrimp pots and were rewarded with full traps. We had a feast fit for kings that night - halibut, dungeness crabs, and giant prawns.

We spent one full day trying to stay out of the wind while mooching for Salmon; we would just drift with the wind and current for a while and then paddle back to our original spot. The Salmon run had not kicked in and upon checking with the other boats in the area it was slow for everyone. I of course spent most of my day catching and feeding rockfish to the ever present Bald Eagles.

It seems I was a couple of weeks early for the full King Salmon run and just not lucky enough to get my big Halibut. Although I did not get the fish I was looking for on this trip, I did get many fish and would certainly never starve in this bountiful location. Of course not getting my target fish is a perfect excuse for going back.

Howard McKim can be reached at 888-31-KAYAK, or visit his website at YakFishAlaska.com. He is also the moderator of the Northwest kayak fishing forum on the Kayak4Fish.com site.