June 19, 2008

Halibut Stack Up ‘Like Floor Tile’

By Kevin Klott, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska

Jun. 19--DEEP CREEK -- The halibut fishing got crazy around 5:30 Monday afternoon as the incoming tide began to slack in the icy waters of the Cook Inlet.

A plume of steam rose from Mount Iliamna several miles north, the Cook Inlet bluffs looked like skyscrapers to the east and sun glimmered off the rolling sea. But 200 feet below Dan Retzinger's 22-foot Hewescraft, a party of flatfish was getting started -- and all five of Retzinger's guests were invited.

"Fish must be all over the bottom," said Wisconsin angler Mike Spende, grimacing as he pulled up and up on his rod, then lowering the tip and cranking the reel fast.

"Like floor tile," laughed Retzinger as he coached Spende, who was on his first halibut trip.

Halibut and lingcod seemed to be swimming everywhere along the murky depths of Cook Inlet -- roughly 20 miles southwest of Ninilchik somewhere between the Kenai Peninsula and the Chigmit Mountains of the Aleutian Range.

Nearly every time an angler lowered his bait to the ocean floor, his rod tip pulsated within seconds, signaling a fish was about to take the chunk of herring. They all fought hard on circle hooks, especially the lingcod, whose head-shaking runs bent the deep-sea rods.

After 90 minutes of reeling in halibut up to 30 pounds, Anchorage's Matthew Pustina needed a break. This was his fourth consecutive day fishing the Kenai Peninsula. He and his friends fished for red salmon on the Russian River over the weekend without much luck, so Monday afternoon's constant action was a nice change of pace.

"My forearms are shot," Pustina said. "But does it beat salmon fishing? I think so."

The Russian River's early red run had slowed down significantly after last week's season opener, which made halibut fishing off the sandy shore of Deep Creek a no-brainer for this group made up mostly of teachers enjoying their break from the classroom.

Retzinger is a computer teacher at SAVE, a high school for at-risk youth in Anchorage. But this summer, he's enjoying his first year as a captain for J&J Smart Charters out of Deep Creek. By Monday afternoon, he was off the clock, so he took his friends and some of their guests to a productive spot he's got saved on a Global Positioning System.

Though the 35-year-old Wisconsin transplant never got a line wet, he enjoyed watching others search for Pacific halibut in the cold saltwater.

"Too much work," Retzinger said about fishing.

His work was invested in the boat. He had spent three summers teaching summer school in Anchorage and saving every penny to purchase his 22-foot Hewescraft Sea Runner. Although fuel prices are at an all-time high, to have the boat parked on the trailer all summer would be a sinful act for a fisherman.

"A boat is meant to float," Retzinger said.


Fishermen with their own boats can access the Cook Inlet via the tractor launches on Deep Creek beaches, or farther south near the village of Anchor Point.

Marine Services, a privately owned business that operates at the Deep Creek State Recreation Area, will launch and retrieve boats up to 28 feet directly into the Inlet for $55 a boat from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Bartholomew Olson is a waterboy and driver for Marine Services. Born in Homer, the 18-year-old has the dangerous job of loading and unloading watercraft all day.

When boats arrive from a day of fishing, his main job is to attach the winch strap onto the bow ring, tighten everything up, attach the safety chain and help lead the boat onto the beach.

The time was 9 p.m. and his work day was almost finished. The tide was rolling out quickly and the seas were pleasantly two feet high with a slight wind from the north.

"This has been a calm day," he said. "The rough days get pretty exciting."

On those days, mostly on extreme tides when water currents pound the shoreline, Olson is extra careful.

"You don't want to smash your hands," he said.

Launching is also possible at the Deep Creek boat launch, at various points off the Sterling Highway and along the beaches of Whiskey Gulch.

But anglers who want an Alaska experience should try the tractor launch out of Deep Creek, suggested angler Justin Steinhoff of Dayton, Wash.

"It's completely different from anything I've ever done," said the 30-year-old who's visiting Alaska for the first time.


Steinhoff heard a rumor the Russian and Kenai rivers were the places for catching red salmon. He heard correctly. But he also discovered it's a place for fish-hungry bears.

"The bears scared us off," he said.

Steinhoff flogged the clear-running Russian last weekend with father-in-law, James Krupp. With one fish on the stringer, his day ended early when he saw a sow grizzly and her two cubs approach a group of anglers just a couple hundred yards downstream of the Russian River ferry.

"They took someone's stringer fish," he said. "She stood guard while her cubs ate the fish."

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game employee said the bears sometimes show up in the evening, around 9, looking for an easy dinner.

Bobbie Jo Skibo of the U.S. Forest Service said personal belongings must stay within three feet of anglers. Stringers, however, can be left on the bank. The Forest Service worries anglers could get swept away in the current while they hold fish on stringers.

Skibo also said they want anglers to chop up carcasses, not just toss full skeletons into the current. If bear problems develop, she warned, a midnight to 6 a.m. closure could go into effect.

More than 150,000 people fish the Russian River in a summer, Skibo said. The river is now second to the Kenai River in angler days.

Steinhoff is one of the thousands. With the bears out of sight, he returned to the river just before 11 p.m. and fished until 4 a.m. with hardly anyone around.

Fishing through the night borders angling insanity, but Steinhoff had a good excuse.

"Hey, I'm in Alaska, it took me a long time to get here," he said. "So I'm going to fish."


Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.


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