There are plenty of ways to spend the Fourth of July here in Alaska, but this year I made my way back to Afognak Island in pursuit of sloppy, slimy, delicious fish with my friends Luke and Josh Randall.
After an early-morning flight to Kodiak, and a scramble to catch a bush plane out to Afognak Wilderness Lodge, I was already behind the curve. I hauled my bags up off the dock, grabbed a set of rain gear, jumped in the boat, and we bee-lined it straight to one of the halibut hotspots. We were on the fish in no time.
Pictured here is Mary from New York City. Mary and I shared a plane to Afognak and we quickly became good friends. She was fishing on Luke’s boat on our first day and was lucky enough to catch a white king salmon! White kings are called such because they have all white meat, as opposed to the pink meat associated with most kings. White kings are few and far between, and they are amazing on the dinner plate.
After a couple hours of furious action we had quite the pile of fish to clean. These small halibut in the 25- to 30-pound range are referred to as “chickens” here in Alaska, and are some of the very best halibut to eat.
One of the cool things about fishing in the waters around Afognak is the variety of fish you can catch. As you can see, we sure put a hurt on them, catching halibut, lingcod, sea bass (black rockfish), and Mary’s white king. Not bad for an afternoon!
Two guests from Switzerland caught the largest halibut of the day: 75 and 120 pounds (the fish, not the Swiss).
Although they look like some kind of alien creature, lingcod are excellent for eating. They are an interesting and very aggressive fish, and will eat anything they can swallow, which is saying a lot: Their mouths are enormous! The best tasting part on these large cod is the cheek meat. On both cod and halibut, the cheeks are a firm, almost chewy meat that reminds me of lobster.
The next day, we decided to take it easy on the fish and spend the 4th of July checking out some of Afognak’s awesome scenery. We were able to get up close and personal with these sea lions. They smell terrible.
These two young males duked it out for about 5 minutes. The scene was like something straight out of National Geographic. Sea lions are pretty aggressive predators, and the males show a lot of scars from fighting. I’m no expert, but it was apparent that there is a certain hierarchy in these groups of lions.
There was no doubt that this guy was the bad boy of the bunch. I’m not sure how much he weighed, but he was more than twice as big as any other sea lion on the rock!
After getting our fill of the sea lions and seeing a few whales, we took a hike up to this waterfall. Luke told us about the time jumped off of it while there was a bear fishing in the pool below. I guess it was quite the sight as the surprised bear took off like he was on fire as Luke splashed down in the water! With no bears around this time, a whole group of us decided to take the plunge. Being the genius that I am, I decided it would be cool to do a cannon ball, but about halfway through the descent I thought to myself, “This is definitely NOT a good idea.” Long story short, the back of my right leg was black and blue for the rest of the trip.
If you recall the photos from my brown bear hunt on the Alaska Peninsula back in April, I thought it was funny that I found a couple of flyswatters washed up on the beach. My new friend Mary found this one on the Afognak shore. Apparently they are being found all over Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula, and come from a shipping container that fell overboard a boat from China earlier this year!
We ended the evening of the 4th with a big bonfire back by the boat yard. Right around midnight we heard one of the boats coming. It was pretty hilarious when we saw that it was Josh pulling a guy in his underwear (who will remain unnamed) on a wake board!
This isn’t your typical wakeboarding environment, with huge rocks, cold water, and who-knows-what swimming beneath, but he sure made it look easy!
We were also greeted by this really pretty cross fox that seemed awfully interested in what we were doing. What a way to spend the Fourth!
Another awesome fishing resource here on Afognak is salmon. This time of year, the sockeye (known as “reds” in Alaska) are running hot and heavy. We pulled into this tidal lagoon that the salmon run through heading toward their spawning stream, and got ready for action.
Another guest at the lodge, Chuck, was putting on a clinic for us right off the bat! Something that I didn’t know beforehand is that sockeye salmon feed almost exclusively on krill, and will NOT bite a lure. The only productive way to catch them is to snag them, which is legal here in saltwater. I’m sure there are plenty “more ethical than thou” types that would rather sign up for PETA than snag a fish, but truth be told it’s quite challenging to snag them. Plus, they taste just as delicious as they would if you caught them on the shiniest lure in your tackle box.
Sockeye salmon is considered by many (including myself) to be the best eating salmon there is. Luke doesn’t agree, but he said that’s just because he eats too much of it. It’s a hard life on Afognak.
While Mary was reeling in one of her hookups, it suddenly took off like a rocket. It wasn’t coming up, so we were thinking it might be a huge halibut that followed the schools of salmon into the shallows. In the end, it turned out to be the most common culprit: A harbor seal had snatched her fish! As you can see, though, Mary had the last laugh. Although the fish was a little tore up, there was still plenty of delicious red meat to salvage off of this guy.
Despite the rain, we were raking them in. As they come into the shallows the sockeye will jump (I’m told it’s the females loosening their eggs). In open water, you wait till you see them jumping within casting range, heave your treble hook out there, let it sink a bit, then give a good yank. Several times I hooked up on the first yank!
We ended up with quite a good pile of reds for the day. It’s some of the best seafood on the planet, and it doesn’t get any fresher than this!
The crew at the lodge has their fish processing nailed down. When we finish for the day and get back to the dock, the crew dons rain gear, hustles down to the dock, and in a disassembly line of flying fillet knives, they get all the fish cut up in a hurry. From there, they go straight to the processing room where the meat is packaged, vacuum sealed, and thrown in the freezer.
The rewards of a good day: A spread of halibut cheeks, sockeye bellies, and cheese steaks prepared by Brian Cameron, the lodge’s cook. Brian is a great guy and he never fails to amaze and satisfy the stomachs of everyone at the lodge. To be honest, the food alone is worth the trip out there!
After dinner, Luke wanted to spool up some of his new Daiwa halibut reels. These things are awesome. Spooling a halibut reel seems pretty straightforward, but it’s more complicated than one might think.
The Randalls use Power Pro 100-pound-test line for their heavy rigs, and it’s very important that it’s spooled tightly. Luke explained that if the line is spooled too loosely, the tension from a large halibut stripping line will cause the outer line to cut through the looser line underneath. So not only do you lose the fish, but also $75 worth of braid. We spent a few minutes jerry-rigging an improvised spooling system to do all 6 reels in a respectable amount of time.
We ended up mounting the spool of line in a vise at one end of a workbench, and the rod in a vise at the other end. In the middle vise, we rigged up an old reel and used its drag as a tensioner, producing an even, tight spool on the new Daiwas. It looks like quite a mess, but it worked great, and the rods were ready to go in no time.
The next day we put them to the test, and within 5 minutes of hitting the first spot, I tied into this 150-pound butt! When a big one hits your jig, you know it. It doesn’t matter what you’re daydreaming about: When that drag starts screaming, it will bring you back to reality in a hurry. Halibut this big require a bullet to the head before bringing them into the boat, and Mary was very excited to do the honors. She doesn’t get to shoot very many halibut in New York City!
Halibut aren’t exactly winning any beauty contests. When they’re born, they look like any old fish, but as they age their left eye moves over to the right side of their head and they swim on their side. Despite their looks, they are an extremely aggressive predator, and phenomenal for eating.
I’m not sure which is more bloodthirsty, halibut or lingcod, but while “dead” in the fish hold, two different ling cod tried to swallow some of our sea bass! Earlier this summer, one of Luke’s guests was reeling in a 25-pound ling when a 76-pounder nearly swallowed it whole. They ended up getting both fish!
Despite a mouth full of teeth, and a face not even a mother couldn’t love, the ling cod is also extremely good to eat, and tastes almost exactly like halibut.
This 80-pound butt definitely outfought his weight. Judging by its fight, I figured I had a 200-plus-pound fish on the line. Although he turned out to be not huge, it’s definitely a respectable halibut for anywhere in Alaska.
If you’re looking for some of the best sea fishing Alaska has to offer, these guys are willing to make it happen! Pictured from left to right are Luke and Josh Randall, Garrett Wood, and Mckenzie Mitchell. As always, it was such a blast hanging out with these guys, and the fishing was just a plus. If you’re interested in the trip of a lifetime, check out their website. They’d love to have you out!
Tyler Freel and his buddies spent their Fourth of July battling halibut, salmon, and lingcod off the coast of Afognak Island in Alaska. Check out the photos of their incredible trip.