By the Sportsman’s News Team
When venturing to Alaska, many dream of catching fish after fish, with their size converting into what legends are made of. Some dreams will come true, while others – well, at least the overall experience was worth the trip.
Many things factor into play that can affect success when visiting Alaska. Weather is a big one as it can affect how active the fish are before and after cold fronts and in some cases, the weather can just make things miserable on the fisherman – period. Another big factor that comes into play is how hard the fish are getting pressured by sport fishermen, and especially commercial fishermen. Runs of salmon can be devastated if not watched closely and regulated correctly. This comes into play definitely in the case of king salmon, the largest of all salmon species in the waters of Alaska.
If king runs start to show signs of decreasing numbers, you may just think, “Well, hopefully they will be better next year,” but that is just part of the potential problem. When you start thinking a little more down the road, the effects of that down-run will really pop up four or five years down the road when the returns of the spawn on that run show up – or don’t show up. Now you may have a problem that is spiraling into a disaster. This is why the salmon runs of Alaska are monitored under a microscope and actions are taken as far in advance as possible, in most cases.
In the spring of 2019, we received a call from Pat Swafford. He had visited one of our Platinum Approved Outfitters in southwest Alaska for some fall silvers and a conversation ensued about Sportsman’s News and the exposure that our publication can offer to hunting and fishing operations. You see, Pat had formed a friendship with the owner of the Island Point Lodge in southeast Alaska over the years and had started working a few sport shows for Frank Stelmach, the longtime owner of the lodge based in Petersburg, AK. So, a meeting was set at the Salt Lake City ISE Show in March to talk about the possibilities.
We talked at his booth at the show and he asked when he thought that we could come up and do a story for them. With our busy summer fishing schedule already pretty well set, we informed them that we didn’t have any time in the early season schedule to fit them in but would have to look at 2020. Pat was not going to take no for an answer, however, and quickly started to explain why.
As many Alaska fishermen know, the runs of king salmon, especially in the southeastern part of the state, have been on the decline. Extreme actions have been taken to try and build these runs back to those of years gone by, but the changes can’t be done overnight. It usually takes years to rebuild and there are still many aspects of the overall problem that can’t be controlled. Mother Nature plays a big part in the process and her schedule doesn’t always work with ours. But in the case of the Petersburg area, Pat explained to me the importance of our visit.
You see, Petersburg is home to the Crystal Lake Hatchery. It has been in operation since 1973, but in 2014, the hatchery started up a new release of Crystal Lake kings. About 200,000 smolt were release that first year and in 2017 some of those released started to show back up. And now two years later, over 5,000 are expected to return.
Now the importance of these numbers should be of utmost importance to sport fishermen. The state-run hatchery only needs 300 male and 300 female king salmon each year to produce enough eggs to support their efforts. The eggs, and later the fry, are raised at the hatchery and then held in net pens to imprint the location in their DNA for their future return.
What this all means for fishermen is nearly all of the kings that return each year are there for sport fishermen. And because those salmon will not be needed for the reproduction system to continue, the fish will literally go to waste if the opportunity for harvest is not utilized. Hence, the importance of our visit to the area to help shed more light on this unique opportunity.
The fish start to return in April into the straits and by mid-June they start entering the rivers and the estuary at the Blind Slough that leads to the hatchery. It was now apparent why Pat was insistent that we needed to tell their story and with a little working over of the schedule, the dates of June 30 – July 3 were set aside for a visit. Pro-Staffer Brooks Hansen was assigned to the trip for pictures and filming.
We arrived in Petersburg on the 10:45 a.m. Alaska Airlines flight and were met by one of the dock hands at baggage claim. We quickly loaded our gear into the awaiting van and after a quick stop at a local grocery store, hit the road for the short drive to the dock. When we arrived a few minutes later, we parked the van and jumped in the awaiting skiff with the lodge hovering on the other side of the narrow waterway.
After a few introductions, we changed into our waders, grabbed our camera gear and then headed to our awaiting boats (18-ft. Lund’s with 40 horsepower motors), with Pat in one and Brooks and long-time guest, Jeff in the other.
With the lodge situated only a short distance from the mouth of Blind Slough, we quickly had our lines in the water as we flipped the bails on our heavy-duty spinning reels, with frozen herring cut on an angle so as to spin though the water behind a flasher.
Minutes into our troll, Brooks could be seen setting the hook on our first fish of the trip. After a good battle, Jeff eased the net under a nice 20-lb. king. Two more fish would come to the net and then we were off to just inside the mouth of the slough for a little spinner casting to roiling fish, seemingly in every direction.
Pat and Jeff filled us in on what was in store for us during our stay as we all took our turns hooking up with fresh king salmon entering the slough from the nearby strait. As the tide came in, the fish pushed into the mouth of the slough and as the tide started to go back out, those fish started to slowly make their way up the slough and then the river below the hatchery, with the morning tides pushing the most fish into the system.
The limit for hatchery king salmon in this area is four per day – two under 28 inches and two of any size. With each of us retaining two nice fish, we headed back to the lodge for dinner. After a good meal, we mingled a little with the other 20 guests and then headed over to our cabin for a good, but short, night’s sleep, as we would be heading out at 5 a.m. in search of kings farther up the slough at low tide.
The next morning, four of us loaded into a skiff and headed back across the strait to our awaiting van. We then hit the road for a short, 10-minute drive to the Blind Slough parking lot. A raised, wooden walkway then led us on a short journey to the slough. With the tide out, we were able to cross to the other side easily as we worked our way to the main body of water downstream. Fish could be seen rolling and splashing in every direction and soon Pat motioned that we had arrived at our destination. A couple of fishermen were already headed back out with their limits, so our expectations were certainly high.
Most fishermen use egg sacks on treble hooks, as this method suits the conditions well, with water conditions changing throughout the day and grass growth on the bottom something that needs to be dealt with. But spinners and flies can also be used.
It didn’t take Brooks long, as on his second cast, his bobber went down and he set the hook on a feisty king. Up and then down the slough his line traveled, and finally he pulled the king to the bank as he scurried to the edge of the water to roll his prize safely up the bank. Brooks was all smiles as he hoisted up his prize, a beautiful 22-lb. king salmon and yes, it sported the tell-tale sign of being a hatchery fish, with a clipped adipose fin.
After a few photos, we both got back to fishing and soon we set the hook on the first fish on the fly. Now if you haven’t experienced the thrill of fighting a big fish on a fly rod, you need too! If you think fighting a king on a standard rod and reel is exhilarating, you need to try one on a fly rod. Finally, the king was worked to the bank, the first of eight hookups and six landed fish on this morning.
By 10 a.m., the four of us had landed over twenty kings, with each of us filling our limit. The work then began as we grabbed our stringers and slowly worked our way back up the slough, dragging our fish along through the water until we hit the boardwalk. Then we took turns, tag teaming each stringer to the van.
The dock boys took over when we got back to the lodge and we headed to the lunch bar for a bowl of soup and a hot dog before heading out in search of halibut. Our search didn’t end up putting any fillets in the freezer that night, but we were able to learn a little bit more about the area and techniques that would serve us well before our trip ended.
At dinner that night, the word quickly spread of our success that morning, so by the time we started calling it a night, eight anglers were on board for the next morning at 5 a.m.. And, you guessed it, the action was again hot and heavy, and all filled their limits as reels could be heard singing and rods seemed to be bent all morning. We finished out our morning with a trip to the Crystal Lake Hatchery to see first-hand how the process worked.
Our last afternoon found us again heading out for halibut. Jeff offered to join us, and he told us that he had a spot in mind that had produced for him many times, so that would be our destination, about 40 minutes from the lodge. By 4 p.m., we had our limit of six in the boat, ranging from 15 to 50 pounds, with an eel thrown in for good measure that would serve as a beer-battered appetizer at the dinner table, along with Dungeness crab and salmon fillets.
Our last morning again found us trekking to the slough for a few more kings before we packed our bags to head back to the Petersburg Airport. It was sad saying goodbye to our new friends and fellow fishermen at the lodge, but we had to be off to our next adventure.
In conclusion, the Sportsman’s News team found the Island Point Lodge to be a little different than we had visited in our travels, but a very unique fishing destination for sure. Their operation is strictly DIY (non-guided) on the fishing side of things, so it is more suited to experienced Alaska fishing guests. The hike in-and-out of the slough is a workout to be sure, so it isn’t an adventure for everyone, but one that you want to take advantage of if you are able. The accommodations are rustic, the food is served family-style, and you won’t leave the dinner table hungry. Punch, leftover desserts, and of course cookies are always available as well.
Frank Stelmach has owned and operated the lodge of over 30 years and welcomes back returning and first-time guests year after year. Island Point Lodge’s prices are right, and your stay runs Saturday to the following Friday. Trolling rods and spin cast outfits are supplied, but if you are a fly-guy, you need to bring your own as well as waders and rubber soled wading boots, along with a good rain jacket. You can contact the lodge by calling their toll-free number at 800-352-4522 and check them out on the web at www.islandpointlodge.com.