One of the highlights of our recent trip to Alaska was going fishing with my dad and son in Prince William Sound. We chartered a boat through Bread n Butter Charters in Whittier, Alaska, based on a recommendation from an avid fisherman who lives next door to my friend, Susanne, in Anchorage. He told Susanne that Bread n Butter would not disappoint us, and he was right.
We got up at 3:45 am to drive down to Whittier so we wouldn't miss our 7 am launch. Fortunately, it was light outside, so it didn't seem as early as it actually was. When my dad says we're leaving at 4:15, by golly, we are leaving at 4:15. We ended up driving Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Mitchell to the airport on our way out. Dr. Mitchell was a featured speaker at the conference, and asked if he could hitch a ride, so we obliged. He is a lovely man, and it's not every day you get to hang out with a true American hero. Dr. Mitchell, my dad, Alex, Ralph, and I all bundled into the car at exactly 4:15 am and set out.
The reason for the early rise was that we had to catch the Whittier Tunnel opening by 6:30 am, or we might miss the boat. The Whittier tunnel is a one lane tunnel through the mountains that is used by cars and the train. You have to time your trips to and from Whittier to coincide with the tunnel's schedule, or be off by an hour. We made it to the tunnel at 5:45, and were the last car through before they opened for traffic going back the other way.
The tunnel was carved out by the Army, to connect their former secret military installation there to the main road for supplies. We heard that they managed to blast out the two and a half mile tunnel in 6 months, with two crews working on each side, meeting up within 6 inches of each other in the middle. The crudely carved-out tunnel looked like John Henry himself had just used his pick axe all the way through it. It was kind of dark and creepy inside, and we were the only cars passing through at 5:30 am.
Bread n Butter Charters is owned and operated by Mary & Jim Norris. Jim is the captain of the boat, and Mary does the bookings. We got to the Charter office at the marina before they opened, but there was already another group waiting. They were going on a different boat. Mary came to open the office, and sold us our fishing licenses and took our payments for the trip. The trip was pricey ($280/per person), but we were going out with an expert guide and would be out all day long. I figured that I probably wouldn't have the chance to fish in Alaska with my dad again, so it was well worth it.
Captain Jim took us out on the Carry Me, a small cabin cruiser that could seat up to six passengers. Dad, Ralph, Alex and I were the only ones on board for this trip. Captain Jim told us that he had been fishing and guiding in these waters for about 18 years, although he is a native of Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Mary, bought the business about a year ago. His dad owned a larger boat and was taking out the large group that we met when we arrived.
We set out on Prince William Sound into a misty, gray day. It was cold, but not unbearably so, and I had dressed Alex in about six layers of shirts, sweaters, and jackets. On top of that, he was required to wear a red life vest the entire time that was emblazoned on the back with the words "KIDS DON'T FLOAT". He begrudgingly wore it, even though he is a much better swimmer than I am.
We sat inside the toasty warm cabin of the boat until we got to our first fishing spot. We zoomed past commercial fishing boats, tugs, and barges, and saw the Princess Cruise Line Coral Princess coming into port. We looked ahead and saw a break in the clouds ahead, a good sign for our day of fishing.
The Carry Me is equipped with a GPS and fish locater, and Captain Jim had already marked off spots where he had been successful in past days. He knew the fish migration patterns, where they liked to hang out, when they were likely to feed, and where. We hoped to catch some halibut, but were open to whatever happened to bite. We bought the multi-species fishing license before we boarded, so we could bring home whatever we happened to catch. The salmon were not yet running, so he was not optimistic about catching those.
Alex fell asleep on Grandpa's arm on the way out, which seemed to really delight my dad. I have memories of childhood of fishing on lakes with my dad, which always seemed to me like an excuse for a power nap. My dad was famous for wanting to fish anytime, anywhere, and camping and fishing were what we did every weekend when the weather permitted. When I asked Alex what he wanted to do in Alaska prior to the trip, he said, "Go fishing with Grandpa."
Who am I to deny my boy one of life's simplest pleasures and greatest gifts?
After about 40 minutes of zipping through the water, Captain Jim spotted what looked like a big school of fish about 300 feet down. He stopped the boat, baited hooks with cut up herring, and instructed us on how to use our rods and reels. Each one had a two pound weight attached to the line, to get the line to drop to the bottom. He told us to drop the line all the way to the bottom, then reel it up a few cranks, so it wasn't resting on the bottom. He warned us to hold on tight and not let go of the rod if we felt a tug.
About thirty years ago, I was home from college and went fishing with my dad. I got a bite and freaked out, causing me to accidentally let go of my rod and reel, and it fell in the lake. My dad dove into try to retrieve it, but couldn't find it. He has never let me forget it. In fact, he said, "You lose your rod this time, I'm not going after it. You'll just have to pay for it."
My dad took great delight in recounting this to Captain Jim and Ralph, and even Alex thought it was hilarious. I was determined not to let it happen again, so I gripped my rod like I was holding on for dear life. Alex did the same, but I worried that a 300 pound halibut could easily drag him into the icy water.
We all dropped our lines, and within minutes, we all had bites, or it seemed like we had. Alex's rod was jerking all around, and he couldn't turn the reel. The captain came over to help him, and confirmed, that yes, he had a fish on it. We all got really excited, but Alex had a hard time, so we took turns holding the rod while he used both hands to reel it in. When it finally surface, the Captain used a grappling hook to raise the Mighty Whale into the boat, which turned out to be a 10-12 pound cod. It was a beautiful fish that flopped around on the deck until the captain knifed it and it became more still.
I think Alex was upset by the knife-action and asked the Captain why he had to "stab the fish in the heart." The Captain replied that he needed to let the blood run out so the meat would not be tainted. He opened a hatch and tossed it into a well beneath the deck. We could hear the fish flopping around inside the well, and I have to admit, it was a little unnerving.
My dad was the next to catch a fish, another cod that looked identical to the one Alex caught. Ralph got several bites, but it seemed like every time he got his hook back up the boat, the bait was gone. At one point, we could see his fish right below the surface, but just as the captain reached out to pull it in, the fish in, it freed itself and swam back into the depths.
The funniest moment for me came when I thought I had a bite, but was not sure. I thought maybe I was tangled up in some seaweed or something, but Captain Jim came by and confirmed that there was a fish on there, so I started cranking it up. It seemed like it took forever to reel the thing up from 300 feet down, and I was pretty sure I was going to give up before the fish. My wrist and forearms were killing me, and I started to get annoyed. If this were a sardine or some other small fry, I was going to be seriously pissed.
After about half hour of pulling and cranking, I could finally see the fish emerging through the gray-black waters, and I was shocked. The fish was unlike anything I had ever seen before, with huge googly eyes,a big gaping mouth, thick fishy lips and big quills sticking out of its back like a stegosauraus. I was certain I'd caught some prehistoric creature resting on the bottom. I screamed, "OH MY GOD!" and Captain Jim came over with the hook to haul it in.
As soon as he had it in the boat, I dropped my real and darted into the cabin. My dad exclaimed, "That's the ugliest fish I have ever seen in my life!"
And it was.
Captain Jim said this was a Quillback Rockfish, and was one of the best fish to eat in these waters. He said the meat has a high oil content and is one of his favorites. He said that the quills on its back are poisonous, so you have to be careful when handling it. I made my dad take a picture of me and my Catch of the Day. Alex thought the Ugly Fish was hilarious. I don't think the fish was amused.
For the first half of the day, my dad was catching one thing after another, brought in another Ugly Fish aka Quillback, and another cod. He caught a rather large Arrowtooth Flounder, with scary looking pointy teeth, but Captain Jim advised us to throw it back because it was not good to eat. He explained that the flounder you find in the grocery store are Atlantic Flounder, but these just turn to mush when you cook them and are not worth it. So we tossed the flounder back.
After my big catch, I decided to take a break to take pictures and make sandwiches. We brought snacks and sandwich fixings with us, and I had bought enough to feed us for a week if we got stranded. I made Alex a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and he declared it the best PB&J ever. Food seems to taste better when you're out on the open water.
Ralph had no luck at all during the first half of the day, and was very quiet and determined. We moved to a spot further out on the sound, where it got warm, and we had to shed a couple of layers of jackets, when finally, Ralph got a bite. It took him at least forty minutes to drag the thing up, but when he did, it was a 30 pound halibut, the first halibut of the day. We were thrilled to see it, and it looked huge compared to our puny fish. Ralph exclaimed, "Now we're fishing!"
After that, Ralph caught two more halibut and a flounder. We tossed one halibut back, because it seemed tiny compared to the other two. Ralph was quite pleased with his catch, and so were we. He and Captain Jim hit it off, and talked for quite a while on the trip back about hunting and fishing. I don't think I've ever seen Ralph so animated.
Late in the day, we started back toward the marina, but Captain Jim wanted to try one last spot before calling it a day. He said it was a "Rabbit Hole", meaning that if you've had a bad day fishing, this is the spot you go to as a last resort and try to pull a rabbit out of a hat. We told him, we felt that we all had a great day, and were very pleased with our catch (plus, I'm not sure I could have afforded to ship more home). We let him know that, but he still wanted us to land a big fish, and told us he had caught a hundred pound halibut in these waters. I'm pretty sure reeling in a hundred pound halibut would cause one of my arms to fall off, like one of those unfortunately people in a Monty Python skit.
We parked off the shore of a beautiful, green island, in dead calm waters. There were no other boats around, and for the sake of preserving my arms, I decided to stop fishing for the day, just enjoy the view.
I was enjoying the scenery when I heard a loud "SPLASH!" on one side of the boat. I looked out to see a big rippling ring where something had jumped out of the water right next to the boat. The next thing I knew, I heard another splash and another, then saw a Dall porpoise jumping out of the water. Soon it seemed like there were twenty or more porpoise surrounding the boat, jumping and splashing in and out of the water. Dall porpoises are abundant in Prince William Sound, and they look like mini-Orcas with their black and white coloring.
Captain Jim told Alex and Ralph to bring their lines in, because porpoise can get tangled in them. He said he had a kid about Alex's age the prior week get dragged all over the boat when a porpoise got its fin tangled in the line. He said they don't eat the bait, but they like to swim around and under the boat, and get their dorsal fins tangled in the lines. It's dangerous for both the porpoise and the fishermen, so he thought it best that we let them have some space.
Alex started reeling up his line, as instructed, when suddenly, this line when "whrrrrrrrrr" and seemed to take off on its own. Alex gripped the rod with both hands and yelled, "Grandpa! What's happening to my line?"
Captain Jim jumped up and tried to find a knife, and yelled, "Porpoise! We need to cut the line!"
Alex held tight, but the entangled porpoise was freaking out and swimming for its life. I was afraid Alex was going to get pulled in. My dad and I were trying to hold onto Alex and his rod, while the Captain tried to cut the line. After a couple of tries, he succeeded, and the porpoise swam off with about 100 feet of fishing line, a 2 pound weight, and a plastic squid attached to his back. I hope that he was able to free himself from it, but I was more relieved that Alex remained calm and intact during the whole thing.
After that bit of excitement, we figured it was a sign that we should pack it in and call it a day. We rode back through Prince William sound, past the snow-streaked mountains and evergreen trees, through the sparkling waters. The mountains looked to me like humpback whales lined up against the cloudy sky. There are some places on this earth that are so beautiful it makes your heart ache and your eyes moist just to look at them. This is one of those places.
On top of the exquisite natural beauty, I had the beautiful experience of seeing my dad in his element, with a grandson he adores, doing what comes most naturally to him. Of all the excitement of catching fish (and a porpoise), I think the thing Alex will remember most is the time spent with his Grandpa and "Uncle" Ralph. When I asked Alex after the trip what his favorite thing was in Alaska, he said, "Fishing with Grandpa."
Me too, Alex. Me, too.
"Many go fishing their entire lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after."
--Henry David Thoreau