Recently, three friends of mine asked if I'd be interested in a salmon fishing trip to Alaska.
Growing up and living in Brooklyn, N.Y. I think my most exotic fishing adventure to that point was off the crystalline shores of southern Queens, so you could imagine my excitement for a mid-May journey to the far-reaches of the North.
We were a group of four guys, two of whom are married, and we were all looking forward to a much-deserved trek to the Alaskan wilderness. We had the plan’s broad strokes in place, but were happy to wing it when it came to fine details. We didn’t settle on a hotel or a charter boat; the only thing we nailed down was the airline ticket to Anchorage.
We were to land in the city and drive three hours southwest along the Kenai Peninsula. Our destination was a thin strip of silt gravel, sand and coal that juts off the coast of Homer called The Spit. The Spit is known for its expansive views of the mountains in Kachemak Bay State Park, halibut fishing and ironic bumper stickers that read 'Spit Happens.'
On the plane there, I sat next to an Alaskan returning from a house-hunting trip in Belize. Dori Johnson lived in the state for 35 years but told me she just couldn’t take another long, dark winter.
"The Good Lord wasn't tired when He made this land," she told me. "But the winters, they're tough."
When she found out I prepared for the trip by watching "Survivor Man" and "Deadliest Catch" reruns, she offered me advice. For one, “Star Trek” is the "Final Frontier;" Alaska is the "Last Frontier." If confronted by a bear the procedure is: if it's black fight back, if it's brown, hit the ground. I made sure not to confuse the two.
We landed and rented a car. Too tired to drive another three hours, we decided to spend the night in the city and looked for the cheapest motel money could buy.
You need not be a fisherman to know that fishing is a lot like life: it's more fun to go after something that may bite your hook than something that never will.
After a false start in one hotel, where the rooms were moldy and smelled like wet rug, we checked into Quality Inn & Suites Airport. I slept on top of my bed without going under the sheets.
Early the next morning we set off to Homer. We drove along the Turnagain Arm, an inlet named for the fruitless attempts Captain Cook made searching for the Northwest Passage. Not to worry, I thought to myself, our rented Chevy Malibu came equipped with a GPS.
The Sterling Highway cuts through the Kenai Peninsula. There are lookout areas off to the side where tourists can take pictures of the Russian River and others that, I’m told, in late summer fill up with so many salmon, you could walk across them on the backs of fish.
The road leads you right to the Homer Spit. The first thing that hits you is the ring of rugged, snow-capped mountains across the bay. The Kenai Mountain Range reflects down and the rocks glisten as they wait to be submerged again by the high tide. Bald eagles are as common as seagulls on the 4.5-mile stretch. Walking on The Spit leaves you with the feeling you're an actor on a stage and the mountains are your audience.
The beauty is overwhelming. If you take in the mountains, you miss the water; if you watch the water, you forget the air you’re breathing is as fresh as anywhere on Earth. It's one of those rare moments in life that your senses overcome your ability to take it all in.
We settled into the Land’s End hotel, which sits at the end of The Spit. The rooms were nice, despite the fact that our window faced the parking lot, and affordable at $100 a night. Rooms on the other side of the hotel offered sweeping views of the bay and mountain range and were about double the price.
After unpacking, we priced charter boats. We found out that it was too early in the season for salmon. So my Alaskan salmon fishing adventure abruptly turned into my Alaskan halibut fishing adventure. You need not be a fisherman to know that fishing is a lot like life: it's more fun to go after something that may bite your hook than something that never will.
Disappointed that we wouldn’t be going salmon fishing on our six day sojourn, especially since we went to Alaska to, well, go salmon fishing, our spirits were lifted when we saw an oversized sign that said, "Homer the Halibut Capital of the World."
We decided on North Country Halibut Charters. Judging by the pictures of 300-pound halibut hanging upside down in front of the storefront, we figured they knew what they're doing.
Plus, they offered half-day trips for $125 per person. Alaska is strict with its fishing rules and you're only allowed to keep two halibut per person, per day. So it didn’t make sense to spend more money to go out over night on these ships in pursuit of the monster that we might not be able to keep. Half days were five-hour trips that afforded you three solid hours of fishing at the mouth of Katchemack Bay.
Our boat was called The Irish. Built in 1978, the little hoquiam was used by researchers during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Sean Martin, the captain who jet sets across the world during wintertime, tells me the halibut fishing heats up right after Memorial Day, when the larger fish begin hitting. The boat even has a shot gun on board, because who wants a 300-pound fish flapping around after being caught?
The boat's crew comprised of two young guys named J.R.Tapia and Jack Bunnell. Tapia, 23, was from southern California, but both could tell you anything you need to know about Katchemack Bay. J.R. could clean a halibut with one stroke.
The hour-long boat ride took us past sea otters that would nonchalantly watch us pass by. Later in the year, these waters get populated with orca whales and other species. We made it to the 19 fathom, where halibuts are known to loom. Tapia and Bunnell loaded our hooks with fat chunks of herring, and tossed them over the side.
We went fishing aboard the The Irish four times during our trip. None of us caught anything over 20 pounds. But the fish were abundant and gave good fights. You’d feel a tug on the end of you line. Your initial reaction is to reel in, but as J.R. would tell you, you have to be calm and “let the hook catch the fish.” Once you felt more than one tug and feel the fish begin to run with the line, that’s a good time to start reeling. Just a good, smooth battle.
J.R. tells me that halibut are predators and catch their prey by swimming against to current. He called them the “bodybuilder” of fish because they’re all muscle. They showed their strength when you’d get them on the boat. They’d flap and you’d hear a thud as though someone fell. The crew would stab them in the gill so the meat didn’t get bruised but the fish would stay alive for a while.
After most trips, we’d take our day’s keep to a packing center on The Spit. They preserve your fish so you could ship the meat home. It’s a nice little business out there. After a quick shower, we’d walk about three pounds of halibut filet to a small restaurant that looks over the bay called Captain Patties. We ate like kings. We had halibut grilled, baked and fried. The restaurant's salmon dip is a thing of beauty.
Seward is another town in Alaska known for its fishing and we decided to leave Homer. We already had about 200 pounds of halibut and we decided to take it easy. We spent the night in Seward where we ate some more, admired the harbor and went for a hike through left-over snow.
The flight home, a red eye from Anchorage, did not go smoothly. It was long, my earphones didn’t work so I couldn’t watch the in-flight movie, and I had two noisy kids seated behind me. I was left thinking about the land I left behind, the big sky and the reality I was returning to: New York rush hours, long lines and aggravation.
I find myself comforted, however, that Alaska will be there for the next time I dust off a rod and seek out a 300-pound halibut. After all, what can you do? Vacations end. You lose an occasional fish. Spit happens.