The scene is primordial to its core. Cool ocean currents scour ancient rocky shores draped with kelp. Steep mountains studded with pines sprouting ferns shrouded in mist. Suddenly, the water erupts with showers of candlefish. From the depths, often within yards of shore, arise behemoth humpback whales, bursting upward to engulf terrified mouthfuls of the tiny fish.
This is Southeast Alaska in late summer. These waters course from the Pacific through an incalculable number of islands, inlets, fjords and channels, a movable feast in the Alexander Archipelago—a mind-boggling biomass of candlefish known to the indigenous Chinook nation as eulacheon.
Easy pickings attract more than humpbacks. It is here that silver salmon mass to feed and fatten in anticipation of the fall migration, which will take them up the coastal rivers and tributaries where they had hatched to complete a primeval, generational pilgrimage of reproduction and complete their life cycle.
Late summer in this temperate rainforest is a time of plenty, and the best sport fishing left for silvers—also known as coho salmon—that can grow to weights of more than 20 pounds. Though silvers don’t grow as large as king salmon, they prove more plentiful this time of year and, unlike kings, stage rambunctious aerial displays that delight anglers.
My brother, Joe Hendricks, and I had a chance to sample Southeast Alaska’s great late-season silver salmon fishing last August with Capt. Colin McCrossin, who guides out of the remote yet comfortable Waterfall Resort on Prince of Wales Island, about a 40-minute flight by float plane from Ketchikan. McCrossin has fished these waters for 25 years and knows each nook, cranny and islet of the jagged, barnacle-encrusted shores along which the silvers feed.
Best Season in Years
“This season has been the best coho fishing in eight years,” says the soft-spoken McCrossin, who converses little yet produces big results. “The best time of year for silver salmon in these waters is from mid-July to late August.”
McCrossin skippers one of the 27 boats in the fleet at Waterfall, each a 26-foot North River Sounder powered by twin Mercury outboards and a 25 hp auxiliary outboard for the slow-trolling technique known as “mooching.”
The boats also feature Furuno marine electronics, including sonar, which are critical to finding schools of fish. “Metering bait schools is key to catching fish,” McCrossin says. Salmon don’t stray far from the dinner table.
Whale of a Clue
Yet there are other clues that can lead to silvers, including the presence of those humpback whales that often gather to engage in “bubble netting.” This activity is when humpbacks release air in a circular pattern underwater, condensing schools of candlefish and forcing them to the surface so that the whales can ascend from below to gulp massive mouthfuls of fish and water. The whales squeeze the water out through their bristlelike baleen, leaving only the candlefish to swallow. Such remarkable behavior is a common sight in the late season and a strong indicator that silver salmon are in the vicinity.
Another key indicator is the presence of rhinoceros auklets, deep-diving seabirds with a horn on their orange bills. This medium-size bird can swim like a penguin underwater to chase, catch and eat small fish. If you find them paddling on the surface and diving down, it’s sure sign of candlefish and the salmon that follow them.
The best midwater depths for silvers range anywhere from 60 to 100 feet, but occasionally as deep as 200 feet, McCrossin says. “The sonar will tell you where the life is, and that is where you want to put your baits.” The Furuno indicated a surface-water temperature of 60 degrees during our visit, and the silvers seemed to be hanging deep—about 120 feet down.
Line-counter levelwind reels, such as the Shimano Tekota-A 500LC, serve a critical role, allowing anglers to determine how much line to send down to place the bait in the strike zone. McCrossin instructs the four anglers aboard his boat on how much is needed, sometimes directing them to stagger the depths to cover a broader cross section of the water column.
Rods are 8 feet long and feature specialized slow-taper, parabolic actions that help prevent lost fish when silvers jump and shake their heads during the fight. Maxima 30-pound-test monofilament line also has a shock-absorbing quality that helps minimize lost fish.
Like other guides at Waterfall, McCrossin favors mooching for salmon. The terminal rig includes a 4-ounce banana sinker tied to the main line with a 4-foot lead of 30-pound monofilament and two octopus hooks, one snelled about 4 inches in front of the last one. A medium-size frozen herring needs to have its head cut off at a transverse angle. With entrails removed, the forward hook then pins through the gut cavity and out the back, with a trailing hook pinned crosswise through the back just forward of the tail.
This bait is called a cut-plug herring, and the rigging allows it to spin in the water with the current as the boat moves or the angler gently lifts and drops the rod tip. The slowly spinning bait entices salmon to strike. But keeping it properly spinning depends on your speed, the current, and the angler’s skill in lifting and lowering the bait.
Many of the bites come as the bait is descending, McCrossin says. So, anglers need to stay in touch by lowering the rod fairly slowly and being sensitive to taps as it sinks back down. This also helps prevent the leader from tangling with the sinker or main line.
When you hook a fish, keep the line tight and the rod fairly level. While a fair number of silvers shake the hook as they leap, keeping the rod low helps prevent this. Guides in this part of Alaska don’t net silver salmon, instead using a club with a spike. They first bonk the fish in the head with the club, then spike it in the head, lift it aboard, and place it in an ice-filled cooler to keep the meat in pristine condition. Many prefer the milder red-orange fillets of silver salmon over king salmon.
Once McCrossin finds a concentration of silver salmon, the action can turn fast and furious with double, triple or quadruple hookups—and silver salmon leaping everywhere while anglers dance around the cockpit to avoid tangling lines. When that occurs, limits (six silver salmon daily) can come quickly and sometimes early in the day, allowing anglers to head off in pursuit of other quarry, such as Pacific halibut or lingcod, or head back to the Waterfall Resort’s Lagoon Saloon to exchange stories and show off photos proving their silver mettle.
Travel and Accommodations
Ketchikan, Alaska, serves as the jumping-off point for angling destinations such as Waterfall Resort, which we called home during our stay on Prince of Wales Island. Alaska Airlines offers some of the most frequent service to Ketchikan, with connections through Seattle.
Established in 1980 and accessible only by boat or float plane, the remote Waterfall Resort stands on the 52-acre grounds of the historic Waterfall Cannery, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Tongass National Forest. The clapboard buildings and cabins that once housed cannery crew have been carefully renovated and modernized to host anglers from around the world.
The resort includes the original general store to buy snacks and drinks, a family-style dining room with a delicious buffet, the Lagoon Saloon, accommodations for 92 guests, crew quarters, fish-processing facilities, a marina, and 27 custom-built 26-foot North River aluminum pilothouse boats. Each boat has twin Mercury outboards, heated cabins, suspension seats for four anglers and an enclosed head compartment. Boats depart for fishing at 6:30 a.m., return at 4:30 p.m., and are piloted by expert guides who are also US Coast Guard-licensed captains.
Waterfall offers a wide range of seasonal packages that cover transportation to and from the resort (including the float plane from Ketchikan), meals, fishing (including boat, tackle and guide), Alaska fishing licenses, fish cleaning and packaging, rain suits and rubber boots for fishing, and tips. Coho special packages (August 7-24, 2023) range from $4,360 per person (three days, two nights) to $8,210 per person (five days, four nights). To learn more about what’s available and what to take on your trip, visit waterfallresort.com.