Dad had just boated his largest “flounder,” a 60-pound Pacific halibut, and the memories of this catch will linger forever.
I remember my very first fishing trip as if it were yesterday. It was one of the first warm days of spring and my Dad took me to the Shinnecock Canal to target winter flounder. Fishing was new to both of us and we had spent the previous weeks reading Fisherman articles to prepare us for our first go at fishing. Everyone must have read the same articles as the walls of the canal were lined shoulder to shoulder with anglers. As we drove further and further down the line of fishermen, we became discouraged that all the “good” spots had already been taken. We finally found an opening at the far north end of the canal and staked our claim. It did not take long before our discouragement turned to enthusiasm as we caught flounder after flounder all day long. To this day, this trip is the most memorable and influential fishing experience of my life.
Fast forward thirty-five years and Dad and I embarked on what was to be another extremely memorable adventure fishing for flounder. We headed to the renowned Tanaku Lodge located in Elfin Cove, Alaska to target the king of all flounder, the Pacific halibut. After arriving in Juneau, we walked across the street to Ward Air and boarded one of their floatplanes, as there are no roads to Tanaku. The only way in is by a five-hour boat ride or an hour floatplane flight. Once on board, the pilot handed us a headset so we could communicate with him, instructed us to buckle up, and with a roar of the engine we were airborne and flying around some of the most remarkable scenery imaginable. In addition to the awe-inspiring landscape, we could see salmon jumping, steller sea lions frolicking, and half a dozen humpback whales, some of which were even breaching! Even after landing we continued to be treated to an amazing wildlife show as several bald eagles were calling from the treetops as if welcoming us to Elfin Cove.
The accommodations at Tanaku Lodge far exceed the expectations one might expect for such a secluded place. Being there are no roads to Elfin Cove to bring in heavy equipment, you will appreciate the hard work that went into building such a beautiful lodge that provides all the comforts of home. Spacious bedrooms, family style dining with gourmet meals, and an enormous living area where anglers gather at the end of the day to share all their fish tales.
The anticipation around the breakfast table was intense the first morning. Stories shared by anglers who had previously fished at Tanaku further fueled this excitement. After consuming a plateful of scrambled eggs with biscuits and gravy, we packed a hardy lunch and headed down to the docks to meet Capt. Garry and deckhand Drew of the Ocean Legacy. The fishing vessels are all “six-packs” and Dad and I would be fishing the entire week with my good friend Jerry McGrath and his friend Joe Lien, both of whom I had fished with on previous trips to Tanaku Lodge.
There are many species to target each day and tides play a major role in what will be biting and when. On our first morning, Capt. Garry informed us that there had been a good run of king salmon taking place to our south and the morning tides would be our best bet to put some kings in the cooler. We agreed and headed out on a forty-minute, scenery packed boat ride to Port Althorp in search of kings.
Trolling spoons on downriggers is the preferred method to target kings at this location and although I prefer jigging over trolling, slow motoring through this protected cove was full of amazing sights. We witnessed black-tailed deer feeding along the shoreline, groups of sea otters playing among the kelp, and most impressive was a bald eagle that snatched a fish from the water a short distance off our bow. We quickly snapped back into fishing mode when one of the rods released from the downrigger and Dad was battling his first king salmon. Fighting like a bluefish, it made several runs before he could get it boat side for Drew to net it. Weighing in at 18 pounds, my Dad was thrilled with his catch. The morning bite continued like this all week long. We each caught our limits of king salmon and rounded out each morning with additional catches of coho (silver), chum, and pink salmon all while watching “Nat Geo” up-close and personal.
These jaw-dropping wildlife encounters were not just a morning phenomenon. They were experienced throughout the entire day. One afternoon, while jigging for rockfish, we received a call from one of the other boats about a pod of killer whales (orcas) that were chasing and eventually fed upon a steller sea lion. We quickly reeled in our gear and headed in the direction of the melee. Although they were no longer actively feeding when we arrived, the whales swam around our boat for about an hour with a large bull making several passes directly under us as we sat and watched in awe.
You do not even have to be on a boat to feel like you are watching a show on the Discovery Channel. While sitting on the deck of the lodge, enjoying a cold one after a great day of fishing, I spotted a roughly 25-pound giant Pacific octopus crawling along the bottom of the cove in about a foot of water close to the shore. I quickly turned to my Dad and asked him to “Hold My Beer” as I flew down the stairs with my GoPro in hand while fumbling to get my boots on. To my surprise, instead of fleeing when I entered the water, the octopus approached my camera and tried to grab it. I quickly pulled the camera from the water as this octopus was big enough to open the waterproof housing and flood the GoPro. Realizing it was not going to get a meal, the octopus slowly retreated to the depths of the cove.
These wildlife experiences could have easily made this a trip of a lifetime all on their own, but we came here for the king of all flounder. I have had an obsession with flounder ever since catching that first one years ago with my Dad. Following that first day, Dad and I spent countless weekends in our boat anchored in the bay targeting flounder. Halibut fishing let us relive those days as we were once again in an anchored boat fishing for flounder with only some “slight” differences in the gear we employed. Instead of using a light spinning rod with 2-ounce sinkers and a rig baited with worms, we were equipped with stand-up thirties spooled with 80-pound braid, 1 to 3 pounds of lead to hold bottom, and 16/0 circle hooks baited with whole salmon.
Anchored in approximately 250 feet of water, we lowered our large, stinky baits to the abyss where the currents would carry the scent for a great distance, hopefully catching the attention of a hungry barndoor halibut. It did not take long before Dad was once again hooked up with a good fish. As it pulled him from one side of the boat to the other, it was far from the fight of a 2-pound winter flounder he had been used to. It was more like reeling in a shark, except instead of running great distances away from the boat, a halibut will constantly fight to get back to the bottom.
After a 15-minute battle, we began to see the color of the fish as it came up from the depths. At about the same time, the halibut also saw color (of the boat) and decided to make a run all the way back to the bottom where the fight began. The look on my Dad’s face as the halibut took off was priceless. He was shocked but determined to beat this fish. Dad once again muscled the halibut from the bottom and brought him back to the surface. This time, the halibut was exhausted, and Drew was able to land a gaff and haul it onboard. Dad had just boated his largest flounder, a 60-pound Pacific halibut, and the memories of this catch are even greater.
The halibut bite was strong all week, with Dad, Jerry, Joe and I limiting out each day. On day three, I landed a barndoor halibut that weighed 190 pounds and measured 6 feet long. To date, this is my personal best halibut, but catching it with my Dad is what truly made this a fish of a lifetime.
In addition to salmon and halibut, we rounded out the catch with many other species such as black rockfish, yellow eye rockfish, quillback rockfish, black cod (sablefish), keeper sized lingcod, and several behemoth lingcod that had to be released as they fell outside the slot limit.
With its breathtaking scenery, exhilarating wildlife encounters, and enormous fish that prowl its waters it is no surprise that Alaska is often referred to as “The Last Frontier.” The memories Dad and I took away from our trip to Tanaku Lodge will far outlast the 200 pounds of filleted fish that we came home with.
Editor’s Note: The author is the manager of Stony Brook University’s Southampton Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is an award-winning member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at @fishguyphotos
Elfin Cove, AK 99825