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Canada vs USABy Brian Kowalko,
Fishing trips with my good buddy Terry have often come on somewhat short notice and have always been some of the best times of my life. So, it was with little surprise and a great deal of appreciation, that I received a call from Terry to join him and two other avid fishermen, for a three day fishing adventure. Coming with less than two weeks notice was no surprise but this trip was going to be unique as it involved a first for Terry and me, fishing in Alaska.
The minute I confirmed I could arrange my schedule and make the trip, the inevitable competition between the "Canucks" and "Yanks" was on. Of course, as the old saying goes, talk is cheap and I wanted to be careful with any bravado I portrayed without really knowing the territory, like our friendly counterparts, who had the advantage of fishing the waters around Sitka many times before.
As is the norm today, I went online and did some research about where we would be fishing, the techniques used by the guides and the preferred gear. While looking through the website of the lodge we would be staying at, I was struck at what a difference there is in the sport-fishery between Alaska and British Columbia. Most fishing resorts in British Columbia tend to promote Salmon as the ultimate prize with the possibility to catch a Chinook or King over thirty pounds and in some areas of the province, a chance to bag a trophy in excess of 70 pounds. In the Sitka area where we fished, it was evident when researching the area, that a heavy premium is placed on the possibility to catch mammoth Halibut. These monsters of the deep have been landed on sport fishing gear in excess of 450 pounds, so it is understandable that Halibut and Salmon carry more equal weight in the promotion of fishing in Alaska.
The technique of using cut plug or whole herring for Salmon fishing was similar to many experiences I have had, especially fishing Haida Gwaii or Hakai Pass, but the gear used at most of the lodges I searched was certainly different than what is offered at most British Columbia resorts. In BC, the tried and true single action mooching reel and rod set up is almost universal. The preferred weapon of choice in Alaska is a shorter mooching rod with a level wind reel. Of course both catch fish equally well, but the challenge of the good old "knuckle buster" reel just seems to add a little more "sport" to the whole concept of sport fishing. Because of the need for this challenge both Terry and I packed along some of our own gear including regular sized Salmon mooching reels as well as an 8 weight fly rod and saltwater fly reel set up.
All four of us were fishing on a well equipped 27 foot boat so the verbal sparring between team Canada and team USA was on from the moment we left the dock! Of course, being polite Canadian boys, we quietly allowed the skipper to troll with his usual set up. The only request we made was to use the gear we had brought along. We fished using whole herring in a cut plug set up with two single hooks. Our American friends were hooked up off the downriggers anywhere from 40 to 120 feet with the level wind reels. Terry and I used a six ounce weight with approximately 35 to 50 pulls of line trailing behind the boat. The morning produced a good bite with most of the action coming off the downriggers so, of course, the Canadians were taking quite a bit of good natured heat about our different set up and lack of production. As the afternoon progressed, our skipper suggested a switch to put Terry and me off the downriggers and the level winds off the back with the weighted rods. It was at this time, having become more comfortable with everyone on board and because we were picking up some Coho Salmon, I suggested we replace one of the level wind set ups with a fly rod. I happened to have had monofilament line on my reel so we hooked up a 4 ounce weight to the line and threw it out at about 30 pulls. Not only did the great action on the downriggers continue we started to pick up fish closer to the surface on the fly rod. Most of the Salmon were Pinks and Coho on the light gear but around mid afternoon the tip of the fly rod took a larger than usual strike and Terry grabbed the rod set the hook and proceed to have a long and healthy battle with a Chinook that weighed in around 20 pounds. Needless to say, it didn´t take us long to pull out the other fly rod for the back of the boat. It was slightly different in that it had a saltwater fly line with a heavy sink tip. No one on board thought this was going to work because it was going to be barely below the surface. Having seen how effective a bucktail in the prop wash can be, I was excited to see if the whole herring tied to a five foot leader could be just as effective. As I let the line out, I was met with a fair amount of scepticism and jeers, but it wasn´t more than 30 seconds until our first of many fish hit the line.
The rest of the trip produced more of the same great fishing. We managed to catch every species of Salmon including a few Sockeye and a couple of Chum on the light gear. The highlight of the trip came when we pulled into a beautiful bay with a flat bottom around 100 feet. We did some drift mooching with the whole herring and managed to come across a school of Chinook´s on the feed. In one drift we all, including the skipper, managed to hook into a fish. I have never experienced more than a triple header before, but with a good deal of communication and a bit of skill and luck we managed to land all five Chinooks! It was a perfect ending to an amazing trip.
Aside from the usual good natured banter and laughter, which was somewhat heightened by the friendly competition on board, what stayed with me after the trip concluded was how a fishery that is so similar in many ways, can be different as well. Sitka is really not very far from Haida Gwaii and the coastline looks like much of mainland British Columbia as well as Vancouver Island. The same fish that we encountered during our trip could end up anywhere along the west coast as their final destination to spawn an entire new generation for us to enjoy. In the end we managed to add a little Canadian influence to the fishing style, with a couple of good old fashion "knuckle raps" to prove it, but the real memory will be of an experience shared by good neighbours with a passion for fishing and a common resource we can all enjoy.