Harvesting Chickens Alaska Style

There are days when it seems, as Barbra says, like you could put one of your socks on a hook and catch halibut. Two-fish limits are the norm even on slow days. This brace of 20 and 25 pound fish came back-to-back and fell for twister-tails on five-ounce jigs in 80 feet of water near Homer. Halibut this size are referred to as “chicken halibut” and make for fine dining indeed.

We love Alaska, but between the cold and our wanderlust, it’s unlikely we’ll remain here permanently. We dream about sailboats and warm beaches, about driving our camper all over Canada and the U.S., and about one day maybe owning a home on a few acres, complete with a clean, wood burning stove, a large vegetable garden, perhaps some fruit trees and of course a few chickens for eggs and for roasting. The good life comes in many forms!

One thing that has dismayed us as we’ve looked for our next utopia is the state of many of America’s freshwater fisheries. Log onto a few of our states’ department of natural resources pages, look at fish consumption advisories, and a pattern soon emerges. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contaminate most freshwater bodies, and some even contain unhealthy amounts of DDT–a chemical we’d thought was no longer a problem. Warnings and advisories recommending limited consumption of fish are the norm rather than the exception all across America as fallout from coal fired power plants, cement plants and other sources have laced our waters with unhealthy amounts of toxins. In some waters, it is recommended that no fish be eaten. More commonly – in our view shockingly – anglers and their families are advised to limit their consumption to just one meal of walleye, lake trout, bass or other fish per week or even less!

That’s not very many fish dinners.

The good news is that, thanks to increased awareness which has led to increased regulation of industry, levels of contaminants on many waters are tending downwards. Yes, keeping toxins out of our environment is expensive, but when we take into consideration health issues and quality of life, letting polluters pollute is even more costly. We have the means to keep our country clean, and that’s precisely what we should be doing. If industries won’t comply, then, yes, we need our government to intervene.

Meanwhile, we feel very fortunate to live in a place where, with very few exceptions, people can eat as many meals of fish as they desire with the confidence that they are enhancing, not harming, their health. And so, at this point in our life, our “chickens” are of the finned variety. For now, our halibut omelets are made with store-bought eggs and Tillamook cheddar cheese. Maybe one day they’ll be made with eggs from our own chickens and cheese from our own kitchen!

Arctic Grayling Shioyaki with Roe – A Yellowstone Connection

Arctic grayling are abundant throughout much of Alaska. I was happy to finally have an opportunity to taste them. I skewered these three, cut a few diagonal slashes in their skin, and salted and broiled them in the fashion that Japanese prepare charr, trout and small salmon. Two of the fish had nice sacs of roe with I cured as one would cure salmon roe in making ikura. The grayling themselves were unremarkable, but the roe was quite delicious.

One summer several years ago I tent camped alongside the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park. It was glorious. Recent fires had changed the ecosystem. Not destroyed it. Changed it. Along with Yellowstone’s iconic bison, elk were abundant, the big bulls absolutely magnificent with their velvet-covered racks. We encountered moose, sandhill cranes, several black bears and a grizzly, and listened in awe as a pack of wolves howling across a valley broke the quiet one evening. It was during this stay that Maia took her first-ever fly caught trout, beautifully marked  cutthroats from Cascade Creek. We still talk about how we had to cross that stream a couple of times to avoid basking bison.

One of the highlights of that visit to Yellowstone was a morning spent alone, fishing the Gibbon River from the lip above the 80-foot falls upstream a mile or so. Although I got a late start and the sun was already high in a cloudless sky, brown trout in the eight to 13 inch range were cooperative, most of them falling to a #14 pheasant tail nymph. Mountain flowers seemed to be in bloom everywhere, birds were out in force, and I had the river completely to myself.

And then I came to the hole. Rip-rap on one side, a rock wall on the other and a log jam at the tail pushed the water into a long pool I estimated to be eight to 10 feet deep–the deepest water I’d encountered. With brush growing along the edges and with the depths guarded by drowned snags, tell-tail strands of monofilament suggested this piece of water was fairly hard-fished. So I took a while to contemplate my approach. Wishing to get as deep as possible, the first thing I did was lengthen my leader and switch to a weighted pheasant tail. I then waded to the shallows at the tail of the pool, gauged the light breeze, and executed a cast upstream to allow for a long drift right down the heart of the pool. Stripping in bright green line as it drifted toward me, I imagined my little fly descending ever deeper. Just as the last of the green line floated above a forked log at the deepest part of the pool, it ever so slightly hesitated. I gave the line a quick strip as I lifted my rod and immediately felt the weight of a decent fish. From the manner in which it fought, I knew right away it wasn’t another brown, and it certainly wasn’t a rainbow. Whitefish? I had no idea. Somehow I managed to keep clear of the snags, and a few moments later my jaw dropped as an Arctic grayling coasted into view. I’d never caught one before, and had no idea they were a possibility in any of Yellowstone’s rivers. I led it to the gravelly shallows near my feet, gently cupped it in my hand and spread it’s amazing, sail-like dorsal fin. The dark fin, wet and flecked with iridescent blue, glistened in the sun and I was reminded that this is why one should always carry a camera. Mine, of course, was up in my car. I let the silvery-gray fish slip from my hand and sink back to the depths. Moments later, following the same pattern, a second grayling presented itself to me, this one a fraction of an inch smaller than the first.

Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) are an ancient fish, their ancestors having preceded their charr, trout and salmon brethren in branching off from a common ancestor some 60 million years ago. As the earth has continued to warm since the last Ice Age, grayling have retreated to ever fewer waters in the lower-48. There aren’t many places where they can still be found, and most of these are high altitude lakes in the northern Rockies. Fluvial grayling–river grayling–are fairly rare in the lower-48. In holding those fish, in being in their presence, I felt a connection to a vanished epoch populated by mastodons and mammoths, sabertooth cats, dire wolves and other species long since vanished. Although those fish were only 11 or 12 inches in length, to me, they were trophies–as fined as any fish I’ve ever landed. I’ve long thought that if and when I settle down, I would like to have fiberglas replica mounts, or perhaps a painting, made of those two  grayling, loafing near the submerged snag where I found them in that deep pool on the Gibbon River.

A Perfect Night

Full moon over Prince William Sound near Whittier, Alaska

Summer days in Alaska are long–near midsummer, they are nearly endless. In our home states of California and Pennsylvania, fall is the season we like best. Up here, it’s summer.

We were camping on our boat in the marina at Whittier one summer in early August. The fishing had been only so-so, but with massive glaciers spilling into protected bays and rafts of sea otters in the nearby waters, the nature viewing was spectacular. On our last day, at about 6:00 p.m. with the sun out and clear skies above, Jack and I decided to take the C-Dory out for an evening cruise. We motored out as the last of the boats of fishermen and sightseers were heading in. We didn’t really have a plan. We just wanted to be out on the water.

Once we got a few miles beyond the harbor, we found a spot to fish and so we cut the motor. There was not another boat in sight. It was as if no one else in the world existed. Surrounded by mountain peaks dusted in the remainder of last winter’s snow, the sea was glassy-calm. Gillie barely rocked as we drifted silently with the current. The slowly setting sun, lit up the few low clouds. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the full moon glowed against a dark blue sky.

We began to pick up fish here and there–mostly small lingcod. The moon climbed higher in the sky and shone brighter and brighter, it’s reflection dancing across the water as our own movements caused the boat to rock. At times we broke the quiet with talk about different possibilities for the future. But for long stretches we were quiet, lost in our own thoughts, washed in this phenomenal night.

The shaker lings continued to periodically attack our jigs, and then Jack connected with something that fought differently. He worked the fish up from 160 feet down and I did net duties on a beautiful yelloweye rock fish. With a fish in the cooler that would provide for a gourmet breakfast the following morning, it was a good place to call it a night. I started up the engine and guided us home across the moonlit water.

C-Dory 22 Angler: A Boat for Alaska

The Gillie: Our 2008 C-Dory 22 Angler taking a cruise on the Sacramento River

“Gillie” is a Scottish term that refers to a fishing or hunting attendant, much like a guide. As such, armed with an excellent electronic fish-finding unit, a dependable 90 hp Honda engine (and an 8 hp kicker), and enough open deck to comfortably fish two or three anglers (four in a pinch), this boat has proved to be a reliable gillie. Barbra and I have spent many nights both on the water and on land snuggly tucked away in the cuddy cabin, and the dinette table in the pilot house is just big enough for the two of us to enjoy a meal. These boats are capable of storing an amazing amount of gear, the hull is tough, and on flat water loaded down with fishing gear and four medium-sized adults, it tops out around 25 knots (about 29 mph). Inside the pilot house with the Alaskan bulkhead door closed, making long runs is both warm and quiet. The 90 hp Honda trolls beautifully when we’re running rigs for salmon, and the shallow draft (well under two feet) allows us to get in the rocks in pursuit of species close to shore.

Ask a typical boat owner what the best boat is, and they’re likely to tell you, “The one I own right now.” That’s how we feel about our C-Dory. With a beam of only 7’9″, it’s a breeze to tow, yet it’s enough boat to feel safe on fairly big water–from the California coast to the ocean bays of Alaska. You’ve probably heard the quip that goes, “The two happiest days in a boater’s life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it.” Not with a C-Dory. The happiest days are the ones we have it on the water.

Setting the Net

September 4: We’d be wanting to learn how to set a net from shore, so when a couple invited us to come fishing with them, we jumped at the opportunity. The way nets are set here is pretty ingenious.

The first order of business is to get a big enough weight out from shore to securely anchor the far end of the net. In Shishmaref and lots of other places, they use small dingies or other watercraft to accomplish this. But the current runs strong near Point Hope, and high winds can come up quickly. In the past, lone anglers launching small boats off the beach led to drownings. So a different method for getting the cloth sacks of rocks which serve as weights out into deeper water was developed. Here fishermen use long poles–sometimes lengths of two-by-fours nailed together. The fish often run quite close to shore, so even 25 feet or so can be far enough and a 30 foot net set is all you need. The pole is threaded through a loop on the top of the weight, enough floatation in the form of plastic buoys is attached to the end of the pole to keep everything floating as its pushed out, and then the pole is pulled back and the weight drops to the bottom.

Meanwhile, a long line has been run through one end of the net, top to bottom along a piece of wood attached to the net and is also run through the weight. With the ends of the line tied together to form one long loops, and controlled from the beach, this line is pulled until one end of the net is snugged up against the weight. The top and bottom lines are adjusted so that the net is positioned upright, and the lines are tied off to two stakes on the beach. At the other end of the net–the one closest to the beach–another line holds the net in place and is similarly tethered. Corks keep the top of the net up, and a lead line keeps the bottom of the net down. It sounds a bit complicated, but in practice the whole process is fairly simple and intuitive.

Once the net is set, the fishing is much like any kind of fishing anywhere. You wait, hoping to see the tell-tale dancing of corks, or maybe a splash as a large fish entrapped in the net swims to the surface. Up here the quarry are salmon (pinks, silvers and Chinook), and the highly prized “trout,” i.e. sea-run Dolly Varden. While you wait for the fish to come along, you might see grey whales or even Orcas, seals, or maybe a walrus. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds nest and roost on the cliffs of Cape Thomson to the south, so the sea is usually alive with murres, gulls, puffins and more.

Where There’s Only Sky and Water


A solitary surf fisherman in late August hoping to intercept the last of the pink salmon or a roving school of Dolly Varden on the point at Point Hope, Alaska.

Surf fishing is addicting. Part of the magic lies in not knowing when or even if the fish will show up. So you fall into a rhythm, walking up or down the beach casting, waiting for the lure to land, and beginning your retrieve. As you fall into this rhythm, invariably your mind wanders… back to fish you’ve caught and fish you’ve lost on this beach or on other beaches, back to something your dad, or a coach, or a friend said to you a long time ago, back to places you’ve been and to people who have slipped into and out of your life. At other times, you find yourself looking into the future, forward to the day when your mortgage is paid off, or to a day when you are at last able to travel to some dream destination. Your feet are planted more or less firmly on sand or pebbles. Behind you are cities and towns, offices, classrooms, dinner parties, appointments, work, triumphs and regrets, small talk, clocks, calendars… Before you, stretching out as far as you can see, there is only sky and water and the possibility that on the next cast you’ll be woken from your reverie, everything suddenly solid, your rod bent into a graceful, lively arc.

Razor Clam Fry

Jack has put the finishing touches on our kitchen in our new home and is already feeding us well. The above razor clams were dusted with seasoned flour, dipped in beaten eggs, and rolled in cracker crumbs in preparation for frying in olive oil. Having been frozen fresh, they tasted like they were just dug. Every bite evoked the wonderful memories of digging those clams just weeks ago.

I’m grateful that our school not only has a pool, but also a weight room this year!

Seeking Silver Salmon

Coho Salmon

Trolling is boring, I thought. Two summers ago we drove around in our boat outside of Whittier at incredibly slow speeds dragging a couple of lures only one silly little pink salmon came to bite. Heck, you don’t even get hold the rod!

This was my impression.

That has changed.

This summer while in Seward, we heard the silver salmon (Coho) run on Resurrection Bay was hot. Out on the bay, Jack got gear ready for trolling; I was prepared to enjoy the scenery. But no sooner did he put a lure in the water and set the rod in the holder than we got hit! We quickly strategized–I drive, Jack tends rigs, fish hits, Jack shouts “FISH,” I drop the boat into neutral, Jack reels in the fish, I grab the net, and Voila–major fun! Then we switch–Jack drives, I reel in the fish, and Jack does honors on the net!

The limit for silver salmon in Resurrection Bay is six fish – which meant with two limits, we could keep 12.. The first 11 salmon came easily. Naturally, that last elusive fish took us a while to find. We took a break from trolling by catching other fish that day…halibut, lingcod, and rockfish. When we went back to trolling, a dime-bright silver was waiting for us. When we finally pulled up at the cleaning station at the marina with our beautiful catch (two Chinook, several large silvers, halibut and rockfish)…even the locals were impressed.

One Hundred-twenty Clams

One-hundred and twenty clams

That’s a lot of razor clams. Back on the Oregon coast, the limit was thirty for the two of us. We love razors, they are THE best eating clams. Driven by our love of clams and the best clamming tide of the summer, we cruised down the Kenai coast to see what we could catch.

We got to the beach well before the peak low tide. The beach was suspiciously devoid of people and very rocky. The day before, a family of campers had told us that this beach was “loaded” with clams. Maybe we had been punked! Patience, Donachy’s, patience.

We walked south in hopes of finding sand or evidence of clams. The day was sunny, and the blue skies were reflected in the glassy waters of Cook Inlet. Shouldered with snow, Mount Iliamna loomed in the distance, catching clouds like wisps of cotton. Bald eagles seemed to be everywhere. We walked immersed in the beauty and stillness, the sun warming us.

As the tide continued to recede, here and there patches of sand began to show. And then, so did the people. Trucks and ATVs drove by and continued down the beach. A-ha! After a few more minutes of walking we joined the two dozen or so people who were beginning to dig. There were old, young, and in between. Dads were coaching kids. Groups of young girls were squealing and giggling with each clam they pulled from the wet sand.

As we joined the diggers, we were amazed at the quantity of shows—the tell-tale dimples in the sand made by each clam’s syphon. Two years earlier, we dug some clams at a nearby beach. They were huge, but we didn’t find many. On this beach, the clams were smaller, but still a good size for eating. After digging for a bit over an hour, we decided we’d better count and see where we were. We were shocked to find we had already dug one hundred clams! We were almost disappointed knowing that we only could dig twenty more.

The morning of clamming and walking the beach had been a blast! We knew we had our work cut out for us cleaning and prepping the razors for cooking. Armed with a six-pack of Alaskan White Ale and the high the two big bags of clams left us with, we went back to camp to finish the task.