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Amazing Alaska

Taking a 100-foot motoryacht on a salmon-hunting safari is not just about the fish, but a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

October 4, 2007
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Bruce Milne’s cryptic comment as we prepared to depart the dock in Juneau for a week of fishing and cruising in southeast Alaska wasn’t meant as a warning.

“I don’t know what it will be, but something will happen to you out there,” said the proprietor of CEO Expeditions and owner of the 100-foot motoryacht, Katania.

On the contrary, his words were intended to fuel our anticipation of the days ahead. And as it turned out, something did happen to us, our first day out-and on our second-and on each and every day we were aboard. The pageant of snow-capped mountains, incandescent-blue glaciers, pristine waterfalls and outrageous wildlife was numbing in its intensity-a spectacle unparalleled in my experience.

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Yet the primary purpose of our trip to “Southeast,” as the locals call this most precious sliver of the American landscape, was to catch fish. Our plan was to use Katania as a mobile, luxury fishing lodge. Katania is one of a pair of motoryachts CEO Expeditions operates on charter in Alaska in summer and Mexico in winter. The majority of the yacht’s Alaska guests come to relax and absorb the scenery and wildlife. Most serious fishermen check into one of the hundreds of lodges scattered about the state and use local guides to work the rivers or coastlines nearby, but our plan involved moving about on Katania among the islands within easy steaming of Juneau and connecting with guides along the way. In theory this would ensure variety and the ability to move if the fishing was slow.

My old friend and organizer of the trip, Ian Kirkwood, a yacht broker based in Ireland, had become obsessed with landing a huge king salmon on rod and reel, and along the way, catching some of Alaska’s other four native salmon species-coho, pink, sockeye and chum-with a Dolly Varden char, a cutthroat trout and a halibut or two thrown in for good measure. Given only a week to work with, that seemed a tall order, but we were willing to give it a try.

Our party of five included Sean Dunne, a Dublin banker, and his wife Eleanor, an artist; Kirkwood and his wife, Niki, a charter broker; and me. Ian, Niki and I are experienced, passionate fly casters. Ian and Nicky spend time most summers fishing for salmon in Scotland and Ireland. I’ve spent my life chasing trout on rivers from New England to New Zealand and lots of places in between. Sean was just learning to fish and Eleanor was content to sit on the banks expertly sketching and painting the scenery.

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Local knowledge is key when fishing in unfamiliar territory. A stop at Juneau Fly-Fishing Goods netted us current hot spots, dozens of hand-tied flies and the name of a local guide. With Katania‘s skilled captain, Eric Edscorn, handling the arrangements, our guide, Andy Audap, arrived by floatplane our first morning out. With relatively few intercity roads, floatplanes and ferries are ubiquitous in Alaska. Still the sight of Andy’s plane dropping him off on Katania‘s swim platform got our attention. Andy came armed with still more flies, extra rods-and a 12-gauge-pump shotgun loaded with deer slugs. An hour or so later, we’d understand why he brought the thunderstick.

With countless pristine rivers flowing into the channels between the islands of Southeast, finding one that had the promise of abundant fish probably wouldn’t have been hard for us to manage ourselves. The benefit of hiring a local guide was to save time and increase our chances of fishing success.

The first of several rivers Andy led us to over the next two days was a short steam away. The yacht anchored off and our party went ashore in the inflatable. During a shoreside briefing, Andy explained the reason for the shotgun. The coastal areas of southeast Alaska are home to a large population of brown bears-the bigger, more-foul-tempered version of the grizzlies that inhabit the inland reaches of the state. They don’t care for surprises from fishermen or for anyone threatening their cubs.

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We hiked through tall grass and salmonberry bushes-a brown bear delicacy-to a nearby stream no more than 20 feet across. There, along the bank under a streamside tree, was a dark patch that could easily have been interpreted as detritus on the bottom. That is, until we tossed a stone in on top of it. The patch broke apart at high speed with pink salmon heading in all directions.

So began two days of world-class fishing. Our arms ached from hauling in salmon after salmon, cutthroat after cutthroat, Dolly Varden after Dolly Varden. To a man used to casting all day for the reward of a few ounces of trout flesh, the experience was surreal; it would be an understatement to call it a once-in-a-lifetime event. We were so worn out from the constant reeling that the Jacuzzi on the foredeck of Katania became a popular pre-dinner muscle relaxant.

If that weren’t enough, dinner-and breakfast and lunch for that matter-provided some of those “something will happen to you out there” moments themselves. Katania‘s award-winning chef, Randy P. Ortega, Sr., created one meal after another with breathtaking architectural presentations worthy of any four-star restaurant ashore. As with the finest yacht chefs, his creations often were built around local ingredients, including the fish we were hauling out of the water every day.

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Lunch favorites included his roasted guinea hen pyramid with trio apples, walnuts and citrus vinaigrette, and a lovely pan-seared vegetable and barley salad with jumbo shrimp, red pepper coulis and chive oil. Dinner standouts included king salmon-basil roulade with savory mushroom and herb pancakes, honey soy glaze and crispy wonton garnish, and halibut with Asian slaw, steamed white rice, ginger-garlic vinaigrette, wonton noodles and puree of sweet pea.

Forget about skipping dessert. My favorite among many memorable finishes was the whole, edible candied orange, sugar-coated and filled with sorbet and served with a basil syrup.

Randy and crew even served us lunch streamside one day-a meal that tested the limit of outdoors luxury. It consisted of Asian pork tenderloin with apple-basil dressing, caramelized-onion-whipped potatoes and crispy rice noodles, complemented with an herbed-parmesan basket with petite greens, gougonettes of halibut, marinated green beans and chunky olive-tomato-basil vinaigrette.

Eric eventually moved the yacht into an odd little community called Elfin Cove, several miles from the open ocean. Elfin Cove caters to fishermen chasing halibut-the giant kind. During our exploration of the little town, whose houses are connected by a wooden walkway along the harbor with no roads to the outside world, we encountered a halibut and king salmon guide named Paul Spiedell. We booked an afternoon with the California transplant to go halibut fishing and the following morning to hunt for kings, the largest of the salmon species.

The week before we boarded the yacht, Milne’s seven-year-old son had landed a 165-pound halibut. It was the classic “barn door” model. Our efforts raised nothing greater than 16 pounds-big enough for everyone’s dinner. But the following day our dream voyage met with its first real obstacle when our fearless leader, Ian, developed a food allergy. Suddenly his objective of landing a monster chinook-or king-salmon was in danger.

In the morning, guide Spiedell arrived at our anchored four-star hotel. Ian still wasn’t up to going out, so Sean and I reluctantly motored off into the Gulf of Alaska, only after agreeing to catch the biggest king we could in Ian’s honor.

Like most salmon, kings move into the rivers to spawn where they become easier prey for fly casters. But as we were a few weeks late for fly rod action, Spiedell rigged spinning gear and downriggers and set us to trolling along the rugged, rocky shores of Yakobi Island, part of the Tongass National Forest. After catching our share of smaller kings and coho, I hooked into a monster. Twenty minutes later and two trips around the boat, I landed Ian’s fish: a “queen” that weighed in at 42 pounds. When we arrived back, the stricken Ian emerged from his stateroom long enough to cast a bearded smile on our efforts. The great silver fish’s deep-orange flesh currently resides in my freezer and fiberglass mounts in her likeness will soon occupy spots on the walls of Sean’s, Ian’s and my offices.

Convinced it couldn’t get any better, we took to sight-seeing, which, along the coast of southeast Alaska essentially means looking out the window any time, anywhere you are. With the exception of several foggy mornings, we had a front-row seat for the best Southeast has to offer. Moving around Elfin Cove in Cross Sound and Icy Strait, we had to occasionally remind ourselves to focus on the massive Brady Glacier and ice field, which covers a significant part of Glacier Bay National Park. The park is home to Mount Fairweather, the highest peak in Southeast at 15,300 feet. Clouds denied us a clear view of the mountain, but there was always enough drama to keep our jaws dragging on the deck.

Strange to say, it’s easy to become jaded about the wildlife in a place such as this. Every hour of every day brings a cavalcade of wild animals flying, walking or swimming nearby. Bald eagles pass overhead with salmon in their talons, brown bears stroll the shore with their cubs, sea lions flop on the rocks.

One encounter-actually two, in the same body of water on separate days-stopped us in our tracks. Twice we passed Point Adolphus on Chicagof Island in Icy Strait. The area holds the largest concentrations of humpback whales in Southeast. I’d seen whales a number of times up close in the Caribbean and New England, enough to know that a pod of whales can provide endless entertainment. But I’d never seen them breaching-and can now report that a seemingly countless pod of whales, breaching, can leave you absolutely dumbfounded. Each time we passed, Eric stopped the boat to allow us to soak it all in. Whales were breaching all around us.

At one point, we were treated to a rare display called bubble net feeding. This tactic involves humpbacks working together while submerged, herding herring into a small area by blowing columns of bubbles. They then shoot for the surface and inhale the concentrated school of fish. As we stood on Katania‘s foredeck with cameras at the ready, we all noticed a large, round slick spot developing about 20 yards from the boat. In an instant, before we could adjust our lenses, the water erupted around the slick. Five whales exploded to the surface like a black-and-white rose. Their bodies came straight up out of the water and fell away. We were speechless.

That occasion, and the one in which I was in the inflatable with Eric as humpbacks breached all round us, are the kinds of moments photos can never do justice to.

Our last day aboard, we motored up a high-sided reach called Endicott Arm to the foot of a sweeping glacier, bouncing off growlers the entire way. Randy sweetened the trip by grilling our fresh-caught coho salmon as well as some Dungeness crabs the crew caught off the boat. As if on cue, the glacier shed several hundred-foot pieces that rocked the boat like a toy. The trip back out, which we enjoyed with cocktails in the open-air foredeck Jacuzzi, was simply sublime.

A final vision summed up our trip: With a day to kill before our flights left, Sean and I took off to play a round at the Mendenhall Golf Course in Juneau. A sign at the shack that served as a clubhouse read, “Surrounded by the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier and majestic mountains, where wildflowers bloom, eagles soar and the salmon spawn.” We chuckled skeptically as we headed off to hack our way around the rocky fairways and crusty greens. As we crossed a little footbridge to the second green, we noticed something strange: a dead pink salmon in the grass next to a two-foot-wide ditch. Then we noticed the grass moving up and down the ditch and we realized the salmon were spawning right there on the second fairway-and in every other water hazard on the course. By the time we approached the final green, stepping through wildflowers in the rough, watching a bald eagle flying low with the popsicle-blue Mendenhall Glacier in the background, we had to agree that the sign had only been stating the truth. n

Katania charters in Alaska for $29,000 per week plus expenses. Contact: CEO Expeditions, (425) 460-4100; www.ceoexpeditions.com; or any charter broker.

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