CHUGACH ISLANDS — Sitting on an upside-down bucket and holding onto the gunwale of a 26-foot Bay Weld that rocked and rolled, Larry Keller patiently watched for his rod tip to bounce. He was taking a well-deserved break from jigging for one of the most beastly fishes on the planet — the toothy, lizard-like lingcod.
"Now this is what you call wild Alaska," said the 67-year-old Homer angler as he admired the ruggedness of nearby Elizabeth Island.
The western-most Chugach Island hugs the southern coast of the Kenai Peninsula and serves as the boundary between the Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska. It is so wild and so far from civilization here that tales of the nantiinaq (Alaska's version of bigfoot) roaming the forests of Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park are still told. It is also here where anglers go to search for halibut, rockfish and giant lingcod, a fish that looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel.
From the Homer Spit, it's about a two-hour run along the coast of the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Park to Keller's favorite lingcod spot. A trip like this requires a full tank of fuel, calm seas and good nautical knowledge of the area.
"It's a nice commute," said Keller, who was fishing in Alaska saltwater for the first time since recovering from neck and lower back surgery last winter.
Giving his body a break from getting tossed and turned in rough seas, Keller sat down and whipped out his smart phone from beneath his bright orange rain slicker. He showed me a picture of a lingcod he once caught near Monterey Bay on California's Pacific coast. The lingcod was nice and dark, but significantly smaller than a typical Alaska lingcod, which can grow to five feet or more and exceed 70 pounds. Charles Curny holds the state record with an 81-pound lingcod he caught in 2002.
"They're a solid fish," Keller said.
And delicious too, he added.
Kings of the hill
At the beginning of the day, Jim Lavrakas caught the boat's first lingcod. It was barely the legal length, so he decided to let it go, hoping to catch a bigger one.
Strict regulations in Southcentral's North Gulf Coast prevent anglers from keeping lingcod that measure less than 35 inches from head to tail. Anglers are only allowed one per day, one in possession.
The season runs July 1 to Dec. 31. The reason it starts at the beginning of July is to protect nest-guarding males, according to Carol Kerkvliet, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's division of sport fish in Homer.
"Male lingcod are aggressive throughout the nest-guarding period, making them extremely vulnerable to harvest," she said. "Harvest of nest-guarding males virtually ensures complete loss of the egg mass."
Known as "kings of the hill," lingcod are aggressive, opportunistic predators who hang out on top of underwater pinnacles and sea mounts, waiting for something appetizing to swim past.
We targeted them in 70 to 150 feet of water and with a variety of lead-headed jigs from 12 to 16 ounces. When presented with a slow and steady up and down motion, the lingcod were quick to strike the jig.
"They don't nibble," Keller said.
Rather than anchoring up, Keller said the key to catching lingcod is to drift over these pinnacles and sea mounts at about two knots; ideally in the rip current. The theory is that the lingcod, which like to concentrate on these flattened tops and hide inside the cracks and caves of rocky reefs, will see the jig passing by and think it's some creature in distress.
"Once those lings see it, they'll chase it all the way to the boat," Keller said.
Tagging studies have shown that adult lingcod tend to be homebodies, non-migratory fish that stick close to their nesting sites. As juveniles, they inhabit eel-grass beds, then move to flat, sandy areas.
"When they grow up, they find an apartment out here (in deeper water) and stay put," Keller said.
Only in the last couple decades has lingcod fishing become popular for sportfishers in Alaska. Back in the 1980s, Keller said anglers rarely -- if ever -- ventured out to the Chugach Islands to target halibut, rockfish or lingcod. Why spend the money on fuel when the same could be caught in Kachemak Bay?
But these days, there seems to be fewer and fewer big fish in the bay, Keller said, giving anglers a reason to believe the maxim that the farther a boat captain drives, the bigger the fish he or she will find.
A good day
By the end of the day, we were much more successful catching halibut than lingcod: four halibut and two lingcod (the barely legal one that Lavrakas released and a 24-incher that I released). Keller caught two of the four halibut (a 55-pounder and 25-pounder), but no lingcod.
Fishing aside, Keller was thrilled to be back on the water, doing what he loves, and teaching me and Lavrakas a thing or two about lingcod fishing, or, as Keller called it, "linging."
I was impressed at Keller's linging stamina. Halibut and lingcod fishing can be tough enough with a healthy neck and back. Try jigging for a full day and reeling up two nice-size halibut within a year of neck and lower back surgery.
Not once did the man complain.
"I love being out here," he said. "Today was a good day."
Here's how the fishing looks across Southcentral Alaska:
Silvers are in at the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Homer Spit. Fishing should be good to excellent into August. Fish the incoming tide on cured salmon eggs or herring. Snagging is prohibited in the lagoon. Ned Friedman's 278-pound halibut continues to lead the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, which has already seen three tagged fish caught. Dipnetters seeking relief from the craziness of the Kenai or Kasilof rivers, might give the China Poot Bay personal-use red salmon fishery a try through Aug. 7. Fishing is considered fair.
Kenai River / Upper Kenai
Anglers are reporting lots of reds in the Lower Kenai River, but expect that to taper off soon. The Kenai River personal use fishery is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily through July 31.
In order to meet the late-run king escapement goal, Fish and Game implemented two restrictions:
• Kings may not be retained or possessed from the mouth of the Kenai River upstream to a marker just below the mouth of Slikok Creek
• Anglers fishing within that stretch of water may only use an artificial lure with a single, barbless hook. If your hook has a barb, Fish and Game says it needs to be crimped down so the barb is in complete contact of the shaft of the hook.
Silver fishing has been slow inside the bay, but anglers expect it to pick up soon. Look for silvers around Fox, Hive and Rugged islands. Pony Cove, Cheval Island and Agnes Cove.
Prince William Sound
The red salmon run at Eyak River is tapering off, but there are still a few fish at the weir. Eshamy Lagoon is just getting hot and Jackpot Lakes Lagoon should be a good bet for ocean-bright reds. Anglers say it has been a good year for catching lingcod in the southern part of the sound. Use 12- to 16-ounce jigs about 10 feet from the bottom of rocky reefs and ridges. Silver are showing up in Whittier and Main Bay, and Fish and Game expects coho fishing to improve by this weekend.
Fish Creek will open to dipnetting 6 a.m. Friday. The personal use fishery, which has already counted more than 20,000 sockeyes swim past the weir, closes 11 p.m. July 31. Check Fish and Game regulations before heading out, and remember that any king caught must be released.
Coho counts on the Deshka River continue to grow, but the stream level remains the same, which means fishing could be good this week.
Silver fishing is slow at Ship Creek, but should pick up soon. Try fishing the incoming tide using either No. 4 or 5 Vibrax in various colors.
Fishing is good at Bird Creek, but anglers are seeing an increase of bear activity. If you're filleting your fish, chop the carcasses into small pieces and toss them into the fast-moving current.
Kevin Klott is an Anchorage freelance writer and avid angler.