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Passing The Torch

What does a big-game hunter do for a little getaway? Why, he goes big-game fishing, of course! And when an SCI member goes fishing, he goes all the way – it’s in his DNA.

My son Tom and I spent 10 days on Kodiak Island and had the best fishing ever, but it was a fishing trip with an unexpected turn. It ended up being a time of a role-reversal and a passing of the torch — earlier in life than I even thought.

While not in the same league as Jim Shockey or Craig Boddington, I have managed my share of hunting adventures over the years. From Alaska to Africa, and from brown bear to eland, it’s been quite a ride. So when my son and I decided to go on a fishing getaway, we decided to go big and go north to Alaska!

It all began when we invited my son’s life-long buddy, Rob Williams, over for our annual Father’s Day barbecue. Rob is a new father and a U.S. Coast Guard rescue swimmer stationed on Kodiak. Talk turned to hunting and fishing and before long Rob invited us up. It sounded like fun, but little did we realize what an adventure it would be. I had been on other fishing trips with my daughters, but now was my opportunity to share one with my son.

Rob told us about Ryan Wright, an avid fisherman with an intimate knowledge of Kodiak’s salmon streams. Wright also owns the Kodiak Mountainside Retreat bed and breakfast. We booked a suite on the spot. Rob also said we would go offshore for halibut and salmon with Capt. Daryl Horning.

When it comes to outdoor adventures with my son, I had always been in charge of things. Well, on this trip there was a gentle change going on. I am around the corner of 70, and Tom is in his early 30s. I began noticing that my son would say “let me take care of that dad” or “Hey dad, let me pick up the tab on this one.” When decisions were to be made, Tom would come up with just the right plan, always putting me first — I am very proud of that guy.

Rob, a man’s man and a veteran of numerous highly dangerous rescues at sea, picked us up on the first day, and we set out for the Olds River. While my son and I were tuning up our fishing skills, we watched a bald eagle suddenly swoop down and scoop up a salmon — an amazing sight indeed.

The wildlife on Kodiak is vast. We saw eagles, brown bears (one of which stole my pink salmon), mountain goats, Sitka deer (including a very fine buck), breaching humpback whales, killer whales, sea otters, a sea lion catching a salmon, puffins and more. We caught four species of salmon, as well as halibut and Dolly Varden.

On the second day Wright, Williams, Tom and I packed our gear into Ryan’s side-by-side Rhino and headed 18 miles across the island to the western slope and the Saltery River. Tom took charge and said, “Hey dad, I’ll take this one” and got into the driver seat. I am glad he did ­— it was a very rough and demanding ride indeed. Upon arrival, we put on our waders. The silver run was still in its very early stages, but we immediately hooked-up with some fine pinks.

A whole new level of action started when a Kodiak brown bear made his appearance and took one of my salmon. Tom put himself between me and the bear. Very quickly he turned to me and said, “Don’t worry dad.” At Rob’s direction, we all stood near each other to appear bigger and let out a big holler! The bear looked us over and took off. Ryan was ready with his bear rifle, but fortunately it was not needed. Maulings are not common here, but we were all aware of a recent brown bear attack on a man my age near Kodiak and were not looking for a confrontation. We had a couple of other run-ins with even bigger bears later that day.

After things settled down, Rob gathered some stones, Tom got firewood, and Ryan made roasting sticks. We roasted Dolly Vardens over an open fire next to an Alaskan river. It made for a very fine lunch.

After a grueling ride, we arrived back to Womens Bay at 10:30 that night with plenty of daylight.

I kept my fishing license in a plastic bag tucked in my waders. Somehow, I managed to lose it along the way. A call to Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game straightened it all out in a few short minutes. They emailed another copy to the lodge, and I was on my way.

For the next couple of days, we worked the Buskin River and had excellent results on sockeye salmon. I relied on Kastmaster lures while Tom and Rob found Vibrax lures more to their liking. We began at the mouth of the river and found better results after we waded farther upstream.

Next up were a couple of days with another friend of Rob’s, Daryl Horning. Daryl’s 35-footer, the “Mad Money” is a well-appointed sport-fishing boat, fitted for deep-sea fishing. The first day was primarily for halibut and cod. We set out early and headed north. On the way out we observed an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter with Coast Guard rescue swimmers practicing cliff rescues off Kodiak — a brave bunch of guys. An hour and a half later we set anchor and went down to 60 feet on weighted lines.

After a bit, the tip of my rod bent down sharply.

“Fish on,” I cried and began reeling. Thanks to some expert coaching from Rob, I was able to land a respectable halibut, the first of the trip. I took another, then we anchored-up and trolled for salmon. Pinks were still running, and the silvers were now to be found in greater numbers. Both Tom and Rob hooked-up and landed outstanding silvers. When things finally slowed, Daryl said we would wrap it up for the day.

By now it was late in the trip, so I took a day off while Rob and Tom tackled Barometer Mountain. It was a steep, rough climb — a testing ground of Coast Guard rescue swimmers. Tom and Rob said it was a challenge and the view well worth it. I took their word for it.

Our last full day of fishing began with a beautiful cloudless sky and a gentle breeze, a perfect day to be at sea. We made our way to the marina and Daryl fired up “Mad Money.” He said he had a good feeling about our chances. On the way out, we saw a large sea lion break the surface while thrashing a big salmon. It was an exciting display of the reality of nature.

After a little while I heard Rob yell, “Look at that!” Off the stern we saw what appeared to be a great steam vent, then two, then three. All of a sudden, we were into the thick of a spectacular display of breaching humpback whales. They were everywhere, a dozen or more. The waters off Kodiak are alive with humpbacks during June and July. They migrate all the way from Mexico. After a summer of feeding and mating they will be off again, back south to bear their young. It’s an epic journey of thousands of miles.

Daryl reached his favorite fishing grounds and soon he and Rob rigged us up for trolling. Radio reports were that the kings were biting, and we were hot to take our share. We trolled for a bit and then things started to get exciting. Tom, Rob and I almost immediately began connecting with pinks and good numbers of silvers. Then it happened: Rob’s pole began to dance and the rest of us pulled our lines in. It was a fight overshadowing all the others and before long, there was a flash of color – Rob had a king on!

We were finally into king salmon country. It’s one of the main reasons we had come to Kodiak. Soon, my son had a fight on his hands and also landed a nice king. Seconds later, Rob hooked-up again and limited out on kings for the day. Pinks, reds, and silvers all made for great fishing on Kodiak for us, but the king of them all was the mighty king salmon. We caught our share that day, and what a day it was.

On the way in we heard Daryl shout, “Watch out” as the boat veered sharply to port. A pair of killer whales had surfaced directly in front of “Mad Money.” Daryl averted a potential disaster, and another close call with the mighty creatures of Kodiak Island.

We all went out to dinner that night for a big celebration. What a great way to end a great fishing trip. Ten days on Kodiak had come to an end all too soon. Thank you, Rob, thank you Ryan and thank you Daryl. But, most of all, thanks to my son Tom for taking such good care of the ‘ol man.–Thomas L. Nichols

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