Sarah Cannard (traveljuneau.com) with a proud display of her hefty halibut.
Article and Photos By Terry W. Sheely
SOUTHEAST ELFIN MAGIC
Where Salmon Funnel and Halibut Overload Plus a Bottomfish Bonus and Shark Surprise
The river otters are on dock patrol, poking into moored boats, tipping bait buckets, sniffing fish cleaning trays, moving in quick short bursts, hunting for tidbits left over from our fish day on Cross Sound. They move like liquid serpentines flowing from boat to boat, five of them, furred, whiskered and squeaking out finds.
Behind the otters, past the edge of Elfin Cove, the flat water of Icy Strait glows in shades of evening orange and gold. The distance disappears into darkening shadows under the sharp teeth of glaciered mountains. Jim lights his pipe, ice clinks, we lean on the railing above the small harbor and watch the otter patrol until it disappears into night. It’s been a good day in a great spot in Southeast Alaska.
Tomorrow TRN publisher/editor Jim Goerg and I will climb into an Alaska Seaplanes deHavilland Beaver bound for Juneau and the next leg of a whirlwind fish-in. But before making the turn to the east we’ll swing wide, bank over Cross Sound and look down on the water that treated us so well today, and I’ll envy the boats just pulling away from the Elfin Cove Resort dock.
Cross Sound is the open end of a gaping fish funnel a dozen miles across, 30 miles long and pointed into the Gulf of Alaska. It’s shaped like an irregular puzzle piece. On the north, waves roll into remote mainland beaches west of Glacier Bay National Park. On the south it washes against rocks that dissolve into unbroken wildernesses on the north ends of Yakobi and Chichagof islands. Most importantly, at least to fishermen, is that east end of the funnel narrows and merges into Icy Strait, arguably the most heavily used salmon migration highway in Southeast and on the west in opens into the Gulf of Alaska.
It’s a nautical crossroads 85 miles west of Juneau that collects every species of salmon in the state and is a corridor followed by most of the pre-spawner salmon returning to north Southeast Alaska. The tiny road less community of Elfin Cove, a conglomerate of fishing lodges, resorts, work boats, and basic must-haves, is fortuitously positioned exactly where Icy Strait meets Cross Sound.
The salmon that pass here count in the millions, a summer-long stream of migrating kings, silvers, chums and pinks sucked from the ocean, piled into Icy Strait; runs roller-coastering toward some of the best known inside salmon waters in northern Southeast. But long before these coveted fish nose under the sport-fishing boats sifting salt at Gustavus, Excursion Inlet, Hoonah, Juneau, Tenakee, Admiralty, Taku, Chatham, Haines and dozens of other familiar salmon centers, they first collect in the funnel mouth called Cross Sound.
And that’s where this nasty chunk of chrome attitude is treating me badly. Three times now it’s tested us with classic king strategy; wallowing just beyond net range, teasing, tempting Jim to reach the net too far, finally exploding with new life; twice on powerful boat runs sounding deep, once toward the horizon like a bee-stung greyhound running long and hard against a light drag and an experienced thumb. And then we do it again—pump, reel, pump smooth and easy, reel down, pump up, turn with the fish, follow the line, rod bent, tip up, pressure on …..never gets old. The king and I went at it on a June morning. It’s now August and we’re going for white meat, slabs of halibut, fillets of ling and yelloweye; maybe northern coho, and possibly a late king. Never know.
On the right day with the right tides and the right skipper this place might be loaded with anything that swims and it can blow your fishing socks off.
Be here the middle of June on a decent chinook year and ADFG says you’re likely to land a king for every two hours of fishing, one of the fastest average catch rates in the state. If there are four people on your boat that’s pretty much non-stop action, especially if you throw in a couple of unbuttons.
Admittedly, that’s a peak of the run figure on good king years, and by mid-August ADFG figures you’ll need 10 hours per king. But that’s when the silvers come, first arrivals sometime in late July.
In average years with average silver returns the success rate on coho matches the peak king action of a fish every two hours. But as in most of the Northwest, coho runs in the last two years have fluctuated between strange and stranger. Last August we fished Cross Sound for silvers that we could see on the electronics migrating along 200 feet deep. That’s about 170 feet deeper than normal, probably because of water temperatures that changed bait fish levels. The year before I caught early July kings that were running on top with early silvers and fat pinks. Credit for the craziness is going to the documented recent string of odd offshore ocean conditions.
But strange as it has been, Cross Sound is and always will be summer-long cross roads for hundreds of salmon runs, millions of fish. When it’s tough by Cross Sound standards, the action still measures a packed fish box above most of the rest. There’s not a day in the summer when some kind of salmon action can’t be scared up, according to catch reports. That may read like I’m blowing smoke, but that’s only to anglers who haven’t fished here.
ADFG harvest surveys for this region pinpoint the hot king periods May-mid July. And that doesn’t count the year-round population of immature and aggressive (that’s bio speak for young and dumb) resident chinook. Just as the peak of the pre-spawner kings are fading into Icy Strait ocean silvers begin moving in and run strong from August through September. In July a mix of ocean-bright pinks and chums join the salmon count.
Salmon tend to come through Cross Sound in runs that fill the water one day, light up the catch boards, then suddenly move on. If bait is thick in the local water salmon may hold in the Sound for days. If not, it’s a pass-by fishery, a roller coaster of old arrivals leaving and new fish arriving, up and down, fast and scratch, hot-and lukewarm—rarely cold.
On lukewarm salmon days, I’ve learned to give up on salmon and pound for white meat until the next salmon run flushes in from the Gulf of Alaska. The Sound is simply wedged with excellent bottom-fish action, especially halibut, prime rockfish, yelloweye, and ling cod and when salmon slows, bottom thumping with jigs or bait is a ready alternative.
Walk the boardwalks and boat docks at Elfin Cove (Summer Population 80, winter 7 maybe 8) Cross Sound’s sport-fishing center, when day boats return and you’ll see boxes and souvenir photo poses crammed with fish colors: orange, black, green, white, yellow, chrome. Mixed catches are the rule rather than the exception here.
Last summer, when the kings were missing and the silvers behind schedule, fishing partners Jim Goerg, Sarah Cannard and I had no problem switching gears when Elfin Cove Resort (www.elfincoveresort.com) owner Mike Legowski suggested running into Cross Sound with Steve McElhose on the 31-foot Olive. The plan was to focus on white meat until salmon showed.
Turns out it was a great plan.
Yesterday afternoon, I had a preview of what to expect when a grinning couple asked me to photograph their catch, an artfully arranged array of halibut, silvers, and big rockfish. Their possession limit fish box was filling fast.
This morning distant fog is vaporizing into rising streamers, the air is clear, jagged peaks of the distant Fairweather Range are backlit in the sunrise between us and Glacier Bay National Park. The surface of Cross Sound is oily flat between long rollers, and halibut hope is running high—especially high because of the proximity of Cape Spencer lighthouse.
A trio of sea parrots, puffins, rip past as McElhose cuts the throttles off Cape Spencer, and drops anchor in 120 feet. Rods with circle hooks and a couple of pounds of lead are baited with greenling, squid, salmon and horse herring—either alone or in sandwiches. Deckhand Jake Meinhold pitches handfuls of chum. The Cape where we’re fishing, Skipper McElhose explains, is bonus water for non-resident halibut anglers.
We’re anchored just across the edge of the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s designated Area 3-A which means we can each keep two halibut a day, one over 43 inches and one under 28 inches. Over there, in the not-so-distant distance we can see IPHC 2-C where we would have had a one-fish reverse slot limit. Halibut, to be kept there by guided/charter sport fishermen, must be between 43 and 80 inches. An 80 inch halibut is 277 pounds, which effectively cuts the reality limit to one chicken hallie.
Area 3-A and its two-halibut daily limit is just a short run across Cross Sound from lodges and charter boats in Elfin Cove and that makes it one of the most popular and productive halibut stops in the state.
Sarah is first to dip into that bonus limit, bending her back into the first halibut of her life—a 38-inch 25 pounder that ate a “flapper,” the skipper’s name for a salmon tail rigged to ‘flap’ in the current. Jim puts a 41-incher in the boat. Even with a couple of ‘throwbacks’ in the mix it doesn’t take long to fill our halibut limits. We end the morning’s halibut hunt with a doubleheader. I’m playing my last fish when Sarah sets the hook with a groan, grimace and bends back so far I think her head will hit her heels. Both fish make it into the fish box.
There are a lot of places in Alaska that celebrate local halibut potential but I’ve yet to find an area more predictably productive than the 100 to 200 foot bottom from the west end of Icy Strait into Cross Sound. At times, we swear the gravel is shingled with halibut from 20 to 300 pounds. It’s not automatic—but on a good tide it’s close.
Earlier, I’d hooked what I thought was a 50-pound hallie that turned into a 46-inch ling cod—11 inches over the top of the 30-35-inch slot limit and six inches under the 55-inch upper limit minimum. I rarely keep large lings favoring the tender meat of smaller fish, and had no problem watching the big momma go home.
And this was just the start of our white meat day.
Limited with six halibut bleeding out in the box, Skipper McElhose points the Olive at a nest of small islands on the north side of the Sound where he has a pet yelloweye hole. Our one-fish each yelloweye limit fills quickly, then it’s over to a reef of barking sea lions where we each jig five-big black rockfish into the fish box.
When it was over, the box is fat with white meat limits for three anglers with halibut, yelloweyes, lings, and the sweet fillets of big black rockfish. We round off the afternoon trolling the mouth of the Cross Sound funnel at the edge of the Gulf of Alaska for kings and scouting for tomorrow’s salmon.
Days like this are why I jump at the chance to climb into a float plane in Juneau, wag a wing at the spectaculars in Glacier Bay National Park and land at a lodge with a boat running into Cross Sound.
Typically, May and June are the big king months here, and from July through September it’s silvers, chums, pinks, halibut, lings, rockfish and unbelievably strong salmon sharks. In my estimation, the intersection of Cross Sound and Icy Strait is one of, if not THE, hottest halibut holes in Alaska. Fifty pounders are plentiful, 100 pounders are common and most of the lodges post records in the 300-pound range. Rare is the need to cramp and crank from extreme depths. I’ve caught a lot of big hallies in 80 to 225 feet. Rarely more than 180.
The one fish you seldom hear about but never forget is the salmon shark. Cross Sound has plenty of them, and the fishery is getting more popular by the year. Eight to 10 feet long, weighing upwards of 500 pounds, they resemble a Great White. Salmon sharks concentrate in this area, feeding heavily on the schools of salmon. Hooked, they will jump like makos and run at speeds up to 60 mph. If you ask, several of the lodges will rig and fish for salmon sharks, providing heavy duty tackle, specialized rods and lines, steel leaders, fighting belts, and monster baits. I’ve seen salmon sharks here, but never had the tackle on board to fish them in Cross Sound. You don’t tease these creatures with halibut gear. A few years ago, Jim and I did fish for salmon sharks out of Valdez. You could pole vault with our rods, winch trucks with the line, and our bait was plug-cut coho. The hookup was what it must be like to connect with a speeding Amtrak.
There are run overlaps when late-migrating Southeast kings or resident 20-pound chinook trash silver tackle, and hoochie momma size halibut frequently open the eyes of spring chinook fishermen. From Memorial Day to Labor Day I never know what I’ll pull out of the mixed bag in Cross Sound. I just know it’ll be good.
At this edge of the ocean salmon are a long way from inland spawning destinations, scales blindingly bright and feeding aggressively. Halibut, lings, and rockfish are far enough away from concentrated fishing pressure to grow big fillets, and the Gulf of Alaska continuously re-supplies the area with both red and white meat fish.
The seasons open early here, too.
I’ve caught some of my largest silvers in and around Cross Sound, big hooknosed slabs, and in late June spent hours wrestling with gorgeous picture-book kings, long before the inside sport boats start seeing chinook.
Several factors go into Cross Sound’s productivity—and almost all of those factors come back to ‘location.’ This place is a long way from any port with a big fishing fleet. Eighty miles from Juneau or Sitka, 30 miles from Gustvaus. Access is primarily by float plane from the capital city, but some sea-savvy anglers will make the boat run. Either way, distance always decreases fishing pressure and increases success rates.
Most sport fishing in Cross Sound is from charters, resort or lodge boats, although one outfit, Waters Edge Lodge, offers a fleet of self-guided center console boats. Local fishing techniques vary with the seasons, fish species and boat operators. Some troll with downriggers, some jig, some mooch herring—and most of the boats switch gears to match the fish and bite of the day.
Facing into the Gulf of Alaska, the open mouth of Cross Sound fills with dozens, probably hundreds of separate salmon runs headed for famous northern Southeast fisheries, delivering solid action weeks ahead of inside waters. Neighboring up to the open ocean not only delivers a continual flow of fresh arriving salmon but also assures constant replenishment of the Sound’s halibut, rockfish and ling cod numbers.
It can also, however, mean occasional bouts of fog and nasty water. But when ocean fronts slam into the open mouth of the Cross Sound funnel, skippers head east toward fishable sheltered options tucked into the islands and peninsulas just inside the mouth of Icy Strait. I’ve had some great days on halibut, silvers and kings while fishing just inside the Sound on the rips and ledges of Idaho Inlet, the cluster of Inian Islands and Lemesurier Island, Taylor Bay and Fern Harbor.
If all else fails, a walk down the boardwalks exploring the edge-of-the-world character of Elfin is highly recommended. Almost as much as a soak at White Sulfur Springs, or a gourmet meal at one of the lodges. The entire community is linked by a wooden boardwalk that’s pinned to a rock wall around much of the cove. At one time the boardwalk was classified as a state highway. The boardwalk connects eight lodges, a combo general store/liquor store (with separate entrances), post office, sometimes school, wrapping around a complex of docks, piers and haul-out pilings.
It’s an ‘elfin like’ place but most un-Disneylike. The surrounding wilderness is deep and real, the otters will take a finger off and the brown bears are un-pettable, This diminutive hole in the wilderness exists only because of fish.
Trollers, seiners and sport boats nest here. This isn’t a place for catalog wear. Fishermen here wear knee-highs and serious orange rain gear.
We wrapped up our day in the dining hall at Elfin Cove Resort, looking up Icy Strait toward Brady Glacier, with bacon wrapped filet mignon smothered in mushrooms and a side of banana cream pie.
Unlike most of the lodges in Elfin Cove that face into the placid cove water, the three levels of Elfin Cove Resort face Icy Strait and look out at the peaks of the Fairweather Range reaching to 15,000 feet at the edge of Glacier Bay National Park.
The resort is a complex of four buildings, five guest rooms, a chalet, and a beach house. It accommodates 40 guests, according to owner Mike Legowski. Our private rooms open onto a wrap-around deck looking down on boat docks, and out into Icy Strait. Eagles and ravens perch on the pilings, float planes nudge the docks where the day’s catch is weighed and photographed. In the lodge lounge, a river rock fireplace and overstuffed leather furniture make naps mandatory.
Mike operates a fleet of six 30-to 36-foot sportfishing boats outfitted with 8-1/2-foot Shimano and Lamiglas rods with Shimano reels, for salmon sport fishing and flexible 7-foot Penn rods with Penn reels for halibut.
The resort fishery, he explains, targets “halibut ranging from 20 to over 300 pounds, year round; kings from 20 to over 60 pounds year round with optimal fishing early May to late June.
“Coho are great from late June through September and average 8 to 12 pounds. Other salmon in our area include chum (dogs), pink (humpies) and reds (sockeye). Chums range from 8 to 20 pounds; pinks from 4 to 6 pounds; and reds 5 to 8 pounds.
“Rounding out our sport fish are a colorful collection of rockfish, red snapper, yelloweye, and black sea bass, and lingcod ranging from 8 to 20 pounds.
“The areas we target are short distances from the resort. We don’t spend a lot of time traveling. Unless fishing is particularly good on the open ocean we fish the protected inlets, fjords and bays around the immediate area.”
All good reasons to fish here, I’m thinking, as Cross Sound disappears under the Beaver’s wing. All good reasons to come back.
After several trips to this end of the world, I’ve learned that at Cross Sound there is always tomorrow and another run of ocean salmon, snowy white halibut and a colorful box of rockfish.
Silver, Chum, Pink salmon, Halibut, Lingcod, Rockfish
Halibut and Lingcod, Silvers,
Silvers, Halibut, Lingcod, Rockfish, Salmon Shark
WHO TO CONTACT:
Elfin Cove Resort
Juneau Visitor and Convention Bureau