Cochrane Bay Alaska E-mail
Written by Mark Veary   
Wednesday, 28 August 2013 18:41

mv2 There are still places on this earth free from the wanton tinkerings of man. Places fierce yet fragile. Places that remind a man of both his power and insignificance. 

Cochrane Bay is one such place.

Day 4 August 18th, 2013 (7:30 PM)

Last fishing day of an exploratory trip to a far corner of Prince William Sound. Hour 41 on the water and an unsatisfied dream of catching my first Pacific Halibut feels the chilly approach of a cruel dawn. 

A fruitless morning spent torturing greenling on the unseen slopes of a deepwater mound was followed by an afternoon of exploring yet more ‘virgin’ territory. This time, across the mile- wide Cochrane Bay.

The crazy chase of contour lines drew only frustration. While I did enjoy playing bump and run with the local harbor seals and soaking in the hyper realistic Alaskan landscape, my Halibut fishing has proved to be less than impressive. *Sigh*  Two greenling sipping water from the pedal side of the mirage drive hole remind me that I’m not done. But damn…. I feel done. 

The wind and horizontal rain that kicked up during our initial crossing is finally starting to subside. Akfishergal, (Manolin to my Santiago) has already called it quits. She’s enjoying 1:1 time with the hubby as I burn up my last gallon of resolve, pushing thru wind chop to a spot we haven’t touched since its discovery on Day 1. 

Day 1 August 15th, 2013

I’m exhausted but can’t stop smiling!

The morning was spent traveling to Whittier along the scenic Seward Highway, past blue ice glaciers and thru the 2.5 mile long, one lane, war era Portage Tunnel. Excitement runs high as we load the water taxi for an hour long trip to a remote forest service cabin near the mid-point of Cochrane Bay. 

After the urban normality of Anchorage, Prince William Sound now stretches out before us full of wild, deep and craggy promise. ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto…’

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The first sign of the cabin is a steep staircase leading into the woods at the back of the diminutive Paulson Cove. Anticipation draws akfishergal, her husband Carlos Danger and myself to the bow for our landing. Gear is unloaded then carried up the stairs to the cabin to make a hurried camp before we launch. In the adjacent creek I watch a lone pink salmon resting in the pool from which I pump water for the days expedition.

Kardinal_84 had been generous in providing me with his Hobie Outback for this week. I have no experience with this kayak but I do my best to rig it for fishing. Who loans someone they’ve never met a brand new kayak?  Who invites a complete stranger to spend a week in the close quarters of an expansive wilderness?  Crazy!

Trolling past the nearshore rocks within sight of our cabin, I score my first fish. A perfect bait-size greenling. Note taken. Several kicks of the mirage drive later I’m floating in a shallow estuary watching hundreds of staging pinks darting about in the brack. The weather today is nearing 70 degrees and the small spawning creeks are too low to satisfy the dying urges of all these salmon.

An hour later we round the corner of a 350’ deep cove into a shallow mud flat. Fresh pinks are jumping from green glass. Thru a gap in Jurassic bonsai islands can be seen a sprawling Technicolor estuary fed by 3 small drainage creeks. Un-F’ing-Real…..

Pushing thru the outflow I see schools of fresh pinks darting to avoid ill-tempered packs of chum. A small pod of silvers makes an exploratory dash past my yak and rockets back to the salt. My first instinct is to get a lure out, but I’m overcome by the indescribable beauty and opt for the camera instead. No luck on capturing the action in the glacial runoff but being so close to the action tickles my soul. Posting up near the inlet I stand in the outback and sight cast to undulating pods, hoping for a return of the Coho.

My fish finder is unusable in its hurried configuration so I rely on Akgal to call out marks as we head back across the deep water cove. “I’m showing lots of fish at 125 feet” she announces. “Rockfish” I reply and ready a jig. Two fat keeper Yelloweye, a flounder and a bunch of pesky cod later we head for home, exhausted but grinning like fools. My scorecard says six species caught today. Two are completely new to me. Carlos Danger greets us with a campfire and cold beer. Fresh Yelloweye and equally fresh coleslaw by the campfire is our dinner. Advil works its magic on tired muscles. Sleep comes effortlessly.

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Day 4 August 18th, 2013 (8:15 PM)

Thru a gap in the clouds to the northeast, the glaciers overhanging Port Wells catch the last direct rays of sunlight. In the waning hours of the trip I’ve decided that I at least have to bring home some Yelloweye fillets. I drop a scampi jig, tipped with a strip of greenling. The jig never hits bottom.

Two Yelloweye and a Pollock (whose baleful eyes remind me of the little Lemur “Mort” from the movie Madagascar) come in rapid succession. 

As I break down my gear for the trip home a thought germinates. “The only times I’ve caught Yelloweye in Oregon was when I was halibut fishing….” I consider the glow of the clouds and the remaining greenling in my footwell.

Dead reckoning my way back upwind I tie on a large circle hook rig tipped with half a greenling. 347 feet of line unspools from the reel and I daydream of how I’d celebrate sinking my hook into a monster like the one that nearly upended me on Day 2.

Day 2 August 16th, 2013

It’s been raining slow and steady since last night. The rain and cloud cover reveal a new landscape. The atmosphere appears more comfortable today. No uptight airs donned to impress the visitors. Cochrane has let her hair down and without the gaudy yellows and blues, her true beauty shines thru.

A half dozen varieties of berries sparkle against endless hues of green. Salmon Berry, Raspberry, Blueberries, Low Bush Cranberries by the handful. Rivulets of water become creeks and creeks have become rivers. Salmon crowd every trickle coming from the steep hills.

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The contour maps show a 200-foot pinnacle just off one of the islands that defines Paulson Bay. Finding it without sonar proves to be a challenge so I work the rip lines of an outgoing tide. Akfishergal plays with a mixed bag of hungry cod in the shallows while I ply the depths with an iron maiden and live greenling. I know that something is going on below by how the baitfish startles and struggles but there’s no bite.

Slack tide finds me turned around, searching for a snack when the whole kayak rotates up on the opposite edge from where I’m perched. “Holy Shit!”  I look at the rod and it’s buried to the second eyelet….and then it bounces back. Heart racing and full of optimism I check what remains of my bait. The recently lively greenling is now shredded and torn. “How could two 8/0 hooks possibly miss their mark after that?”

In the meantime, Carlos Danger has ridden the incoming tide to the head of the bay. Akfishergal feels the weight of unanswered calls on the VHF and we head south for a better signal. On the journey I’m sidetracked by a mamma otter and her pup. By the time I leave them, Mr. Akfishergal is rounding the next bend and coming into view.

Sometime later:

My cabin mates have proved themselves excellent company. Though we’re stuck inside for the evening and the bears have found “the good beer,” the atmosphere is light and accommodating. Akgal makes a wonderful spaghetti dinner, served with tossed salad and a choice of Merlot or Shiraz and Carlos humorously notes the lack of garlic bread. This becomes the running joke of our generously provisioned trip.

Day 4 August 18th, 2013 (8:45 PM)

Tap….tap tap. I know better than to set a circle hook. I’m not expecting much but follow the protocol, just in case. Freespool for what seems like an eternity and then engage the reel. Slack slowly tightens. I can feel something moving well before my rod loads up. Full of hope but expecting another yellow eye I force the hand by slowly raising my rod tip. Before I can adjust, my broomstick of a jigging rod is doubled over and line is leaving the reel in long slow gallops. HALIBUT!

Once I turn the fish around it’s a slow winch to the surface. At 100 feet, my prey heads back for the bottom but only makes it a couple of yards. “Thank god!” I say aloud.

Progress is made 3 to 5 feet at a time. Grueling pump and reel fishing. When my catch comes to color I can see that it’s BIG… but what’s with the 3 tails?!?!?  What the?!?!  Just then, a 50+ pound male skate breaks the surface. I take some video and pull the beast upside down into my lap. There’s no way I’m getting the hook out without reaching into its mouth so I cut the leader short and send the oversized ray on his way.

Arms outstretch, eyes on the horizon I vent my disappointment to the darkening sky: "ARE YOU F’ing SERIOUS?!?!?  IS THIS REALLY HOW IT ENDS?!?!?

Day 3 August 17th, 2013

Today we’re heading 4 miles north to the mouth of Cochrane Bay. A place called Surprise Cove. It’s rained for 36 hours straight and the Bay is radiant in its gloom. Our first stop is the small estuary near the cabin for bait.

My 1st cast to the swelling creek mouth results in a perfect bait-sized pink. 2nd cast yields in a powerful Chum that runs circles around me. 3rd cast is another pink salmon, too large for bait. 4th cast is a miss and the 5th results in my second bait. All fair hooked. A good day of fishing so far and it hasn’t even begun.

Nature throws a nasty chop and 10MPH headwind at us for the journey. We celebrate our arrival with a hard won lunch followed by fresh berries from the bountiful forest floor. While we eat, the wind dies and patchy openings in the clouds allow the sun to peek through.

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Back on the water, Akfishergal marks holding silvers on her fish finder and sets out trolling. I bait up with salmon strips soaked in crushed eggs and search the ledges and humps of the headland. After too many hours and too many sculpin, Carlos Danger joins us and I follow him thru a gap in the islands.

Beyond the drab rock walls that form the outer cove lies the surprise. A sheltered anchorage surrounded by a Sesshu Toyo landscape. Bonsai trees reaching out from jagged rock, patches of short sedge breaking up the staccato placement of acute limbs and fractal seaweed visible 20 feet below the waters surface.

I explore the bay trailing a copcar coyote spoon. A cod here, a greenling there but who really cares in a place like this. The real prize is the acid view so palpable that you feel it as much as see it.

At the back of the bay I hover next to the outflow of one of the 4 creeks. Upon landing a caricature of a male humpy I put away the fishing rod and search the depths with my camera to see if this place is as perfect under water as it is above. I wade the fast water, reaching to probe a foam covered eddy. When I turn around, I find my companions watching my curious behavior from a few yards away.

Hours have played themselves out and it’s time to head back. I dawdle and fall behind trying to draw in as many details as I can process.

When I finally reach the cabin my soul is so full that I park my kayak and swim out to a rope that hangs from a small tree. Floating quietly in the tranquility of Paulson Bay, I digest all the majesty of the last 3 days and consider my options for the last fishing day of the trip.

Day 4 August 18th, 2013 (9:09 PM)

I can’t end this trip on an anticlimactic note. The VHF has long since died and the water has turned dark. I know that my traveling companions will be worried but Damn It, I can’t let it end this way.

My final circle hook is tied on and baited with the remaining greenling. I pedal to a spot defined purely by intuition and make the drop. Exactly 350’ of line pay out into the inky depths. Seeing that the wind has taken me up an incline, I turn around and pedal back to the depths. The slow throb of my weight dragging is interrupted suddenly by a sharp twitch.

Freespooling, I count to 5 and engage the reel. BAM!  As soon as the reel engages, my rod tip is underwater and 100 feet of line flies off the spool. “Am I going to be able to land this fish in the dark?” I ask myself. Take a breath and relax man.” I say aloud.

The next 10 minutes see me gain back 100 feet only to lose 50. Five minutes later I have this fish 100 feet off the bottom until he decides that I shouldn’t. “This is no skate. Take a breath and relax. You’ve got this.

Over the next 10 minutes it’s 20 feet up and five feet back until I see the wide-open mouth of a big halibut break the surface. My heart’s pumping as the furious fish erupts on the surface and makes a mad dash back to the depths. wice more to the surface before I’m ready to employ the shark hook.

A bad swipe at the mouth nearly severs my leader. Lesson learned. The next time to the surface the monster flares its gills and I manage to slip the hook completely thru to the opposite gill plate. Chaos ensues and my angry prey struggles to pull me from my kayak but only manages to tear out its own gills. Finally, the shark hook finds belly and my reluctant prize is in hand.

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After hog tying the fruit of my perseverance with a length of tuna cord I search for a place to stow it but find no area big enough on the outback to secure a 52” long 70lb slab of meat. The slog back home is long and slow but the difficulty is its own reward.

Back at the cabin, Akgal and Carlos receive me with a hero’s welcome. The dream has been realized and is that much more special for the effort required to achieve it.

Thank you Pam and Dave for sharing this adventure with me and thank you Rudy for providing me with a ride for the adventure. You are the spirit of Alaska personified.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't MV do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. --Mark Twain







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