(Warning: Cute kid fishing pics contained herein.)
The dream: Alaskan fly-out lodge. The problem: Dream exceeding budget. The solution: A cruise ship.
Seems highly unlikely, right? Swapping a cruise ship for a floatplane. But it works… Even though a cruise ship won’t immerse you in Alaska’s remotest fishing, it will get you places a road won’t go. And the scenery may be even more spectacular. Better yet, the whole family can come along for about the same price.
With that in mind, my daughter Kerri and I hopped on the Norwegian Sun, a cruise ship traveling from Vancouver up the Inside Passage into Alaskan waters. The first port of call was Ketchikan, where we took in a lumberjack show. No fishing was on the agenda but the town’s main drag was a salmon river. The downtown shops overlooked glides and riffles instead of concrete and traffic. Handrails ran alongside the wooden sidewalks; if you leaned over the rail, you could see pink salmon running upstream. The whole place was a great, big fly-fishing appetizer.
The next stop was Juneau. Kerri stayed on board at the ship’s daycare. With all the activities they had planned, she wouldn’t miss me one bit. I hiked off the boat and down the street to the local fly shop, where I met up with Luke Woodruff, my guide for the day. About an hour, Luke anchored his boat where a small stream poured into the salt. We were relatively close to Juneau but could have been anywhere along Alaska’s wild coastline.
We waded the beach, sharing the water with hordes of pink salmon. They were very eager; my rod was almost constantly bent by a four or five pound pink. Although pink salmon, or humpies, register lower than cohos or kings on the desirability scale, the fun factor of any 4 or 5 pound salmonid should not be overlooked!
For a change of pace, Luke suggested hiking up the stream and trying for some cutthroats. Five minutes down the path, a mother brown bear and her cub ambled into view, about 50 yards away. We looked at each other and reversed direction without a word. Our pace was definitely brisk on the way back to the beach. A few furtive, over-the-shoulder glances confirmed that the bears were not following. Although Luke carried a 12 gauge shotgun with slugs, I was quite relieved that he never even took it off his shoulder.
The next stop for the cruise ship was Skagway; both Kerri and I headed off the boat. But this time for the mountains instead of a salmon river. Some rock climbing – guided and beginner friendly – was on the agenda. After Skagway, the ship headed up the Tracy Arm for some serious scenic fiord cruising and iceberg spotting.
The final port of call was Wrangell – another chance to fish! This time Kerri joined me and guide Marlin Benedict had his jetboat waiting just down the pier. We headed up the silty lower reaches of the Stikine River to a deep pool in a clearwater tributary.
Once again, the pink salmon were thick. We could see schools swimming by underneath the boat. Often, the take was visual and I watched a humpy inhale my streamer.
Kerri – who was nine at the time – used a spinning rod and the pinks kept it under strain. Marlin enthusiastically netted Kerri’s fish and that process intrigued her immensely. To be honest, after four or five salmon, she actually convinced Marlin to use the rod and let her control the net. In the spirit of true customer service, with perhaps just a hint of sheepishness, Marlin hooked fish after fish, and let Kerri net them.
On the trip back downriver, Marlin revealed another facet of his repertoire. He allowed the boat to drift slowly downstream and we looked for the hulking shapes of king salmon amongst the pods of pinks. It was a unique and unexpected opportunity for sight fishing watching for big, dark outlines and making a cast.
With time running out, I actually connected with a king. Kerri cheered, the reel buzzed, and my backing made a rare but welcome appearance. There were a couple tense moments involving some tree branches but eventually about 15 pounds of chinook were brought on board for a quick photo.
After that, it was full throttle all the way back to the Norwegian Sun. There were no more stops scheduled so we enjoyed the ship’s amenities for a full day and a couple evenings all the way back to Vancouver.
Being a full size cruise ship, there were a lot of amenities – far more than most fishing lodges. Come to think of it, a cruise ship actually makes a pretty good Alaskan fishing lodge…