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VIDEO: Do-it-yourself adventure in Alaska lives up to its billing

SEWARD, Alaska--Things got kind of crazy there for awhile, a predictable turn of events when there's a big halibut at the end of the line. Jerry Stanislowski of Grand Forks had just landed a hefty

1892758+072615.O.GFH_.ALASKA-Keith Omlie and rockfish.JPG
Keith Omlie of Lankin, N.D., shows off a yellow-eyed rockfish he caught July 7 on the Pacific Ocean off the Chiswell Islands, a series of small islands on the Pacific Ocean about 35 miles south of Seward, Alaska. Also known as red snapper, the brilliant orange fish are widely regarded as the tastiest fish in the ocean. (Brad Dokken photo)
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SEWARD, Alaska-Things got kind of crazy there for awhile, a predictable turn of events when there's a big halibut at the end of the line.

Jerry Stanislowski of Grand Forks had just landed a hefty halibut, a 50-inch "flattie" we estimated weighed 60 pounds or more. No wonder he decided to take a break and sit down to catch his breath.

Getting the halibut into the boat had been an adventure, and the video of the battle-filled with enough colorful language to make even a seasoned seagoer blush-captured the intensity of the moment.

In the vernacular of halibut fishing, the fish might have been a "shooter" that required a bullet to subdue. Or at the very least, a harpoon.

The boat had neither.

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"Now what do we do with it?" Stanislowski had asked to no one in particular as the big fish thrashed at the side of the boat. "We don't have a gun or ... if we had a harpoon, we'd be set.

"We don't want to get a leg broke by the (fish) either. Get him in the boat," he said, barking orders like an admiral. "You guys have to get back because someone could get a broken leg. No harpoon-get a rope!"

A rope wasn't in reach, but good fortune was on Stanislowski's side. A dull gaff expertly administered managed to secure a hold under the halibut's gill plate long enough to drag the fish onboard, where it quickly was subdued.

"That's the biggest halibut I've ever caught in my life," Stanislowski said as he sat down, too exhausted to do much more. His breakfast of Fruit Loops definitely had worn off.

It was about that time fishing partner Keith Omlie uttered one of the classic lines of the trip:

"That's not going to fit in the cooler."

And the adventure had barely started.

North to Alaska

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It was the second day of a 10-day unguided, do-it-yourself Alaskan fishing trip to the Pacific Ocean near Seward, and the four flatlanders aboard the 25-foot fishing boat dubbed the "C-Dragon" were soaking in every moment of the adventure.

This is big country, a land of glaciers and snow-capped mountains that has captured the spirit of adventure seekers since before the Gold Rush days. Whales, sea lions, porpoises, puffins and all manner of other marine life abound.

And the fish. Oh, the fish.

Bob Jensen of Grand Forks had organized the excursion. A data acquisition research specialist at the UND Energy and Environmental Research Center, Jensen, 53, has been making regular trips to Alaska for more than two decades.

Joining him for this year's adventure were Stanislowski, 53; Omlie, 38, of Lankin, N.D.; and myself, the old guy onboard at 54.

Like most visitors to the 49th state, Jensen first fished Alaska aboard charter boats. That often meant fishing with upwards of 20 people on 50-foot boats or booking "six-pack" charters that accommodate a half-dozen fishermen.

Jensen, whose brother, Jim, lives in Anchorage 125 miles north of Seward, eventually decided he preferred fishing on his own. He borrowed his brother's 22-foot Hewescraft and fifth-wheel camper, recruiting friends such as Stanislowski to join him, until both rigs were sold a couple of years ago.

"I don't think I could go on another 50-foot charter," Jensen said.

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This year, Jensen rented a 25-foot C-Dory, a fiberglass boat powered by two 90-horse Honda outboards, from a friend of his brother. He also bought a 30-foot used motorhome online from an owner in Anchorage, which served as home for the 10-day excursion.

Don't try this at home

A do-it-yourself Alaska fishing trip isn't an excursion to attempt without the kind of experience Jensen has accumulated in his years of traveling to Alaska. The areas we fished were 40 to 50 miles from our home base in Seward.

Heeding the marine forecast is crucial, Jensen says, because conditions on the open sea often differ drastically from the weather back on shore.

Barely two hours before Stanislowski landed the biggest halibut of the trip, Jensen had abandoned a trek to a favorite fishing spot because 13- to 14-foot rolling waves exceeded comfort levels.

Fortunately, they were the biggest waves we encountered the entire trip.

"They were significant, but they weren't what I've seen," Jensen said. "Maybe that's the whole thing-it depends on what you've seen. We didn't turn back because we couldn't get there. I turned back because it would have been miserable trying to fish in that stuff."

Good judgment can mean the difference between a safe trip and disaster for a do-it-yourselfer. Even as an Alaska veteran, Jensen says the logistics of organizing the trip would be nearly impossible without his brother's help.

"I live in Grand Forks, North Dakota-about as far away from an ocean as you can get, and I like to go out fishing the ocean," he said. "That's a conundrum.

"I think what I've always thought of doing is feasible. The question is, is it worth the work and worry and planning? The logistics to try and carry off a deal like this, living in Grand Forks and trying to set everything up so when we get (to Alaska) we can do a do-it-yourself ocean fishing vacation, that caused me some sleepless nights."

Matter of timing

Jensen generally schedules his Alaska trips for mid- to late July to coincide with the run of silver salmon, which migrate into Resurrection Bay near Seward every summer. Halibut fishing is at its prime, as well, Jensen says; yelloweye rockfish, black rockfish and lingcod also are available.

The setting, of course, is about as spectacular as a fishing destination can get.

That quickly became apparent the first day of the trip after an eight-hour flight from Fargo to Anchorage and a three-hour drive from Anchorage to Seward when Jensen steered the boat down the 15- to 20-mile length of Resurrection Bay to reach some of his favorite fishing haunts on the ocean.

Mountains towered overhead, sea lions basked in the afternoon sun and the magnitude of the experience was almost overwhelming, especially to Alaska first-timers such as Omlie and myself.

Stanislowski, making his sixth fishing trip to Alaska, said that sense of awe never goes away.

"As a kid, I never imagined I'd be fishing in a place like this," he said.

Darkness never fully descends on Alaska in the summer, and we rarely got back to the boat landing before 9 p.m. That's when the real work began-loading the boat, cleaning fish, making repairs, cooking dinner and getting ready to do it all over again the next day.

Stanislowski, a mechanic by trade, was put to work on several occasions.

"It helps to have guys that understand what's going on and are handy at making things work," Jensen said.

Fitting finale

Our last day on the ocean, the second consecutive day of near-perfect weather and sea conditions, Jensen steered us to a halibut motherlode that had all of us complaining-in a good way, of course-about sore arms.

At times, the bait would barely hit the bottom some 200 feet below before someone had a fish.

Most of the halibut during the trip were of the smaller 10- to 25-pound variety commonly known as "chickens," but they taste great and give the arms a good workout.

"I've never been so tired from reeling in fish that I just wanted to quit," Omlie said later.

Reluctantly, though, we did quit-putting an exclamation point on a trip that had lived up to its billing as an epic adventure.

We saw humpback whales by the dozens, including an up-close-and-personal encounter that prompted Stanislowski to yell "Stop! Whale!" to make sure Jensen saw the behemoth whale at the helm. Schools of porpoises provided boatside escorts, mountain goats walked effortlessly up steep rock walls, and we toasted memorable days on the water with glacier ice plucked from the cold waters of the north Pacific.

We caught halibut, silver salmon, black rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, brilliant orange specimens that lived up to their reputation as some of the tastiest fish that swim. We also caught less desirable species such as skates approaching 100 pounds, tomcod, pink salmon and arrowtooth flounder.

We definitely didn't go out with a whimper.

"No one got hurt, we didn't have to call the Coast Guard-we're in good shape," Jensen said.

For now, the motorhome he purchased is back in storage.

"You had drinks with glacier ice, fell asleep looking at the mountains and saw all the scenery that you could see," Jensen said. "It's pretty cool up there."

IF YOU GO

  • Located 125 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska, on the Seward Highway, Seward is a fishing and tourist town. The year-round population is about 3,000, but the community is considerably larger in the summer, when tourists converge in droves. The campground along the Resurrection Bay shoreline was a sea of RVs during our recent fishing trip.

  • We took a do-it-yourself fishing trip, using a 25-foot boat that organizer Bob Jensen of Grand Forks had rented from an acquaintance in Anchorage. About 25 charter boat operations offer full- and half-day guided fishing excursions on Resurrection Bay and adjacent areas of the Pacific Ocean. Halibut and silver salmon are the most sought-after species, but rockfish and lingcod also are available.

  • Like most tourist towns, Seward offers a variety of shops and restaurants. A must-stop destination -- especially for fishing enthusiasts -- is the Fish House, a combination sporting goods store and hardware store with the best selection of outdoor gear I’ve seen in a long time. The Fish House also operates a fleet of charter boats for visitors interested in booking a fishing trip. Info: thefishhouse.net.

  • Fish-cleaning facilities are available at the public dock. For do-it-yourselfers, there’s a $10 daily fee to launch and a $10 daily fee to park, payable at an automated kiosk adjacent to the boat ramp.

  • For visitors not interested in fishing, tours to watch whales and other wildlife and to soak in the mountain scenery also are available. The Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park is a popular attraction.

  • We stayed in a 30-foot RV at a primitive campsite in the Seward campground, where the daily fee was $15. A bathroom and shower house were nearby. Bring plenty of quarters, though, because a shower costs $2 (quarters only), and there’s not a change machine onsite.

  • The final bill for our do-it-yourself fishing trip hasn’t been tallied, but the cost should be in the $2,300 to $2,500 range. That includes round-trip airfare from Fargo to Anchorage on Delta Airlines ($591), rental of a 25-foot fishing boat, rental of a run-down Toyota Tundra pickup, boat gas, vehicle gas, food, bait and other necessities. Other than the airfare, expenses were split four ways. Organizer Bob Jensen, an Alaska regular, bought the motorhome online from an owner in Anchorage and is storing it there.

  • More info: seward.com, cityofseward.us.


Related Topics: RECREATIONWILDLIFEFISHING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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