A cloudy morning in Sitka, Alaska, we head out on a 30-ft Bayliner with Captain "Brownie" into the dark, cold waters of south east Alaska. "Orcas were seen in our usual fishing spot early this morning so we're fishing in a new spot," he says in an accent that is distinctly salty fisherman. "The only time you want to see a killer whale is if they have a sea lion in their mouth. Or else they both eat all the salmon." And with that, we speed out past the commercial fishing boats into deeper waters.
Salmon fishing in SE Alaska is a both a sport and a livelihood, something fit for only those who are the most patient and able to handle the rocky waves. On this particular day, our cruise ship had docked in Sitka, AK, one of the best salmon sport-fishing towns in the state. Sitka, like most Alaskan towns, is small, fueled by tourism, and nearly impossible to get to by roads, so our day on the water was every bit a typical day in Sitka.
Our family had essentially one goal — the same goal that probably every visitor to Sitka has — to catch a prized, wild salmon. We were in Alaska right as the run (the time when migration begins) of spring and summer salmon was starting, so we thought we'd have enough luck and mother nature on our side to reel in a few beauties to take home and stash in our freezers.
Boy, were we gearing up for a rude awakening.
Salmon, with their deep ruby flesh, unusual breeding habits, and smoothy, buttery taste, are a favorite fish in restaurants and kitchens world-wide. Salmon (at least in my humble opinion), is nature's perfect food, so it's not surprising that the fishing industry in Alaska is focused largely on salmon, especially in the summer when the salmon run wild during their spawning season.
Salmon come in a number of varieties and can be found all over the world. They vary in size and color but (mostly) have one thing in common: they are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, and return to fresh water to reproduce. Some populations of salmon do not follow this model, but by-and-large, salmon share this long, twisted journey from birth to adult-hood. Folklore even says that salmon return to the same place where they were born, and studies have generally show this to be true. Salmon fall into two large groups: Atlanta and Pacific. Atlantic salmon is found in the northern Atlantic Ocean, are among the largest of the species, and can be found anywhere from Nova Scotia to the northwest waters of Russia. Pacific Salmon originate in rivers that flow into the Pacific ocean and can be found from British Columbia to Alaska to Japan.
The varieties we were after in Sitka were Coho, King (aka Chinook), and Sockeye. In salmon speak, we were a little ahead of scheduled; the salmon runs weren't due to be at their peak for a few more weeks.
We finally settled on a spot to drop the lines. We were far away from commercial fishing boats and their elaborate setups, and the orcas that were spotted earlier, and we had seen a few fish on the radar. Salmon lurk fairly deep — 50 to 70ft — so we had to factor the depth of the ocean as well as the depth of where we saw the fish. Captain Brownie and his young assistant set up our two rigs: fishing rods attached to the boat with long shinny lures on the end. As someone who's been both a commercial and sport fisherman, Captain Brownie instinctually knew how far to drop the lines. As inexperienced by-standers, we didn't actually do much except stand out of the way and hold on as the small swells rolled by.
After both lines were set, we were ready to "troll." While Captain Brownie manned the boat at a very slow pace, his assistant monitored the lines. Trolling is a slow process that requires patience; our job was to watch out for any tugging on the line to indicate a bite. We would drag the lines for a few minutes before Captain Brownie would raise or lower the line based on the depth. After 20 minutes, he'd bring up the lines, make sure they were acceptable, drop them, and troll for a few more minutes. After still no bites, we brought up the lines and zoomed to a different, far-reaching corner of the ocean.
We used lures that were shinny, looked like bugs, or looked like fish, bait that was actually small fish, and we even used a combination of a few. After a few unsuccessful attempts, we thought we had finally struck gold, but after a few minutes of reeling in, we realized the fish on the other end was gone — along with half of our fish bait. For four hours, we moved here-and-there, tried different lure-bait combinations, and went to Captain Brownie's usual spots. Profusely apologetic and genuinely confused about the lack of activity, Captain Brownie conceded to defeat with 30 minutes left in our trip and took us back.
By the end of the morning, we felt sea-sick, frustrated, and defeated. We caught nothing more than a single bite and a broken line; salmon lurking in the bay and taunting us as we cruised above them. When we arrived in port, the two other vessels didn't fare much better: one shared our fate, and another only caught two fish. My brother and I glared at them with disdain and jealousy, vowing to return to Alaska to avenge our bad luck.
"If this were easy, they wouldn't call it fishing you know," Captain Brownie says, "they'd call it catching."
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.