Notes from the Fishing Grounds: A Bittersweet King Opener on the F/V Dryas

The 2016 king opener aboard the Dryas, a wind-powered fishing vessel

Notes from the Fishing Grounds: A Bittersweet King Opener on the F/V Dryas

Fisherman-owner Spencer Severson recounts his experience during the recent king opener: “a financial fiasco but a soul-fulfilling few days in one of the most beautiful and pristine places left on our threatened planet.”

The sudden end to the July chinook (a.k.a. king) troll season felt like a mercy killing on the F/V Dryas. There were a lot of fish caught and a lot of satisfied trollers on the dock at the conclusion. I suppose you could include me in that group, but only because I enjoy my occupation so much, not due to the resounding success of my efforts.

I went a day’s run southeast of Sitka on the 29th of June. All systems working well in a 15 knot southwest breeze and a few drizzles from a cloudy sky. Not much of a sea, but my mainsail up and the light wind made for a lovely ride. I watched the sounder for bait, the seascape for birds. Disappointed in what I saw, but the ocean changes daily, and I kept up high expectations. Spent the last day tying gear. Checking all my leaders and such for wear or kinks. Slushed my ice (water to create the right ice slurry for the fish).

It’s never easy to start fishing at 2:30 am, and it’s not easy to make myself go to sleep at 7 pm the night before the opening. I got pretty captivated by Khaled Hosseini’s novel And The Mountains Echoed. Kept trying to sleep and then giving up and reading another chapter. Then trying again. The alarm was very alarming.

We were well warned by the weather reports to expect a bit of wind in the afternoon, so I thought choosing to fish in this large bay was a smart idea. A number of other boats shared my conclusion, but after a half hour of watching desperate boats run all over the bay clearly prospecting for fish it became obvious this wasn’t going to be the hot spot it was last year. I worked my way out to the entrance and, after trying some areas nearby, headed out to the 50-fathom line and started working my way back west. Now, the 50-fathom line in that area is about 7-8 miles offshore, but the weather held. In fact, I was basking in sunshine for a while. Fishing all king gear, I was surprised by the number of cohos I kept pulling.Disappointed by the number of kings I wasn’t catching.

Then the wind started picking up. And picking up. Now, Dryas has circumnavigated the globe. She’s a beautiful sea boat and I never worry about bad weather, and can fish in pretty tough stuff. But when the flashers start being blown across the troll pit area as I pull them, everything gets fouled, and then an errant sea will crash into the quarter, and water will start sloshing things around and further contribute to the mess. I call it unfishable for me.Then I got a couple of visiting sea lions stealing fish and wrecking gear, so I pulled my gear and ran for shelter as the winds built to maybe 35 knots and seas built to perhaps 12 feet.

There’s a deep fjord I wanted to get to where I thought perhaps I could try to keep fishing in this gale. But it was a good mile away and often can be a pretty sporty entrance, especially on an outgoing tide when the wind and the current counter each other and waves will build. All went well, though. For some reason I relish storms at sea; I just get high on the power on display. Still, it was a relief as I entered and started getting some shelter from the first islets and rocks that separated me from the wind and seas. I put my gear down and started trolling deeper into the inlet.

There wasn’t a lot of visibility in the rain, so it was a while before I realized how many others shared my great idea. You can’t catch last year’s fish, but the hot spot last year had been straight out of this inlet several miles, and clearly a lot of boats had started there and were now fishing the inlet. I drug around for an hour or so for nothing. Too many boats and too much wind, and I saidthe hell with it!and went and anchored up in another favorite anchorage.

This one requires squeezing between intertidal rock and a tree-lined cliff, but I’ve worked it out so I can do it with my poles down if I pull my stabilizers (winged, weighted boards we tow below our trolling poles to keep the boat from rolling and control our speed). The reward is a lovely, lonely anchorage with incredible geology. Baranof Island has three distinct geological areas, one of the things that makes living here so interesting.

Next morning it continued to blow. I worked my way west through a series of protected channels between the islands and started fishing again in Sitka Sound. Pretty scratchy but I landed a few. As the weather came down, I headed back out to the deep and worked my way further west toward the Sitka’s famous volcano, Mount Edgecumbe, and the mysterious island Richard Nelson describes so poetically on his book The Island Within. There’s a corner of the island where three different troll drags converge, and charter boats and commercial boat are mixed. There are a lot of fish and often short tempers here. I avoid this spot. Fishing by myself, it gets way too stressful. I passed it by well on the outside of all the boats. Of course, I learned later that was a big mistake. The scores from that spot this year were phenomenal.  But I continued on scratching up a king now and again and a bunch of cohos, hoping to find my own red-hot bite to brag about later...but didn’t. Fished till 7 pm and decided a 20-hour day was sufficient for a 71-year-old troller. Was the first to anchor in a beautiful popular cove with a great sandy beach. When I got up to check at 11 am, our own Marsh Skeele was just coming in to anchor up. Ah, youth.

And the next day was hot and calm and beautiful. I tried all my favorite spots, continuing to work west, to no avail. When I reached the end of the island, I decided to run to Sitka, unload, and get new ice before heading out again. I entered the harbor about 11 pm to fireworks and celebration of Independence Day. I’d decided I was going to try a new plan. Run southeast, way past the previous starting bay, and fish some pinnacles I’d had great success with in the past. Only to do that I’d need to fuel up, and the fuel dock was closed on the Fourth of July.

Truthfully, I didn’t mind. I caught up on sleep and spent the Fourth in the sunshine, checking all the wiring systems on the Dryas to see if I might have an amperage leak and my catch rate was problematic because of that. I found no problems. In the early morning of the 5th, I was heading south on a streaking flat ocean in bright sunshine. I passed a lot of boats fishing the 50-fathom line all the way down, but ignored them. I knew what I wanted to do! So I ran on and on, and at 4 pm turned on the radio to listen to the weather update. Along with a great forecast for beautiful weather came the announcement that we were done at midnight that night... Uffda!

And so I fished until 9:30 pm and went and anchored up in another paradise spot. This one I’d pulled thousands of pounds of abalone out of in years past, in my previous life as a harvest diver, which is what I’d done for 52 years previous to becoming a troller in my “retirement.” I remembered every boulder on the bottom of this spot, though the prolific macrocystis kelp beds are new since the sea otters have reestablished and keep the sea urchin and abalone population that eat the kelp way depressed. The kelp, of course, supports its own communities that thrive in its protective canopy, and helps absorb carbon from the water and helps to resist ocean acidification. Winners and losers….

So I hung out the next morning. Beachcombed a bit. South Baranof is a wilderness area and the old growth forest is magnificent. Just to walk there and experience the glory of it all is such a privilege.

And so ended my first king opener. A financial fiasco, but a soul-fulfilling few days in one of the most beautiful and pristine places left on our threatened planet. There are coho out there though, and even if it’s not the big hunter’s thrill that pulling a huge king over the rail is, it’s a great fishery too, in the same beauty and serenity of Southeast Alaska to remind me of the privilege I have to work in this office.