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Originally published December 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 18, 2008 at 2:29 PM

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Summer fishing hot spot: Craig, Alaska

Summer fishing in Craig, Alaska is a taste of heaven, with abundant runs of salmon and halibut to catch.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you go

Fishing trips to many of southeast Alaska's popular resorts fill up fast, and with some you need to book at least six months in advance. Some fishing resorts and lodges will be pitching their "Alaskan hot spots" at the upcoming Washington Sportsmen's Show at the Puyallup Fairgrounds, Jan. 21-25.

Trip rates range from $1,500 to $3,000.

By air

Alaska Airlines (800-426-0333). Daily jet service to Ketchikan directly from Seattle. Most visitors access Craig by float plane — the ride takes about 40 minutes.

There are several air carriers that offer services to the island communities:

Pacific Airways at www.flypacificairways.comor 877-360-3500; Taquan Air at www.taquanair.com or 800-770-8800; Promech Air at www.promechair.comor 800-860-3845; Family Air Tours at www.familyairtours.com or 800-380-1305; and Southeast Aviation at www.southeastaviation.comor 888-359-6478.

By sea

Craig is accessible by the daily ferry service from Ketchikan. The trip takes about three hours. A one-way ticket is $37.

The ferry arrives at Hollis, which is 30 miles from Craig. Visitors can bring a vehicle on the ferry, or there are car rentals. Most fishing resorts also have pickup and drop-off service at the ferry. Details: www.interislandferry.com or 866-308-4848.

How to find charters

The Craig fleet has about 110 boats. Details: Prince of Wales Sportfishing at www.princeofwalessportfishing.com or 360-961-2116; Catch-A-King Charters at 907-826-2938; Fireweed Lodge at www.fireweedlodge.comor 907-755-2930; KingFisher Charters and Lodge at www.alaskakingfisherlodge.comor 907-826-3350; Sure Strike Charters at 907-826-3909; Shelter Cove Lodge at www.sheltercovelodge.comor 907-826-2939; and Silver Sea Charters at www.silverseaadventures.comor 907-826-2377.

The Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce (www.princeofwalescoc.org) can provide information on charter operators. The City of Craig Web site offers information on the area (www.craigak.com). There is another Web site (www.alaskafishing.com) that has detailed information.

Online information

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game Web site is www.adfg.state.ak.us.

Mark Yuasa

About Craig, Alaska

Population: Estimated at 1,400.

Area: Craig is located on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, 56 miles northwest of Ketchikan and 750 miles north of Seattle.

History: A fish saltery was built on nearby Fish Egg Island in 1907 by Craig Miller. The town was later named after him. The Tlingit and Haida people have historically utilized the area.

CRAIG, Alaska — If there is a heaven on earth for anglers, this is it, the entrance to the holy fishing grounds of the northern Pacific Coast.

Nestled on the west side of Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska, the remote town of Craig is surrounded by miles of untouched coastline and tiny islands.

The mountains, studded with Sitka spruce and western hemlock, start at the water's edge and jut straight into the low-lying clouds.

The ocean off Craig is the major migration point for chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye salmon moving to southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

The first kings arrive in late May and June, and the run continues to build into early August. Coho start moving in around early July and become most abundant by August.

Halibut, including yelloweye (red snapper), lingcod and a wide variety of rockfish carpet the Gulf of Alaska.

When the bite is on around Craig, fishing is fast and furious. Double- and triple-header hookups are not uncommon.

But consider yourself warned: If you're going to Craig next summer, you need to start planning your trip now.

Unlike some of the more accessible sport fishing areas in southeast Alaska, Craig is still somewhat remote, with a population of about 1,400. The only way to get there is by float plane or ferry.

"I like Craig because it is the last real Alaska, with no cruise ships and no big commercial jets landing there, plus it offers so much variety of fishing," said Rob Endsley of Bellingham, owner of Prince of Wales Sportfishing in Craig.

This past summer wasn't a good year for kings in all of southeast Alaska, but every season is different for these prized trophy fish.

Our mission was to catch the feisty coho, which had arrived in strong numbers about a week before my trip in late July. Knowing all that, it was hard to get much sleep the night before my excursion.

The first day of fishing was a rain-soaked affair. We arrived at the dock by 6 a.m., and took the 45-minute boat ride to the salmon fishing grounds.

Every few minutes we'd encounter a gray whale rising to the surface, blowing its spout or slapping the surface with its tail, stunning schools of herring, candlefish and anchovies. Birds were also everywhere feeding on baitfish.

Capt. Kim McCarthy, a guide with Prince of Wales Sportfishing, eased off the throttle, and gently pointed the bow of the boat into the running tide off the nearby shores of an uninhabited island.

McCarthy informed me and my companions — Dave Vedder of Woodinville and Horst and Ursula Elendt of Bloomingdale, Ill. — that the fish finder was alive with bait and salmon.

It didn't take long before Ursula hooked a 7-pound coho right off the bottom. The bite didn't start real well though, so we headed to the Tree Hole area off Noyes Island.

The one good thing about Craig is that when the bite dies at one place, there will be another spot where the fish are willing to take your bait.

At this spot, all the boats had gathered from various lodges, and it was definitely alive with coho. We saw double and triple headers, but at first the fish were hard to come by for our boat. Then our turn came, and we started to hook into some nice coho.

On our second day, the predicted strong winds must have chosen to pick on another place in Alaska.

We heard the ocean off St. Joseph's Island was producing halibut. It was here in 300 feet of water that we ended up getting halibut up to 25 pounds to limit out.

We then turned to coho at the Tree Hole area.

What seemed to be a pattern on this trip was Ursula would always catch the first salmon. So it came as no surprise that she hooked into the first coho. The bite wasn't fast and furious like the day before.

McCarthy heard on the VHF radio of a hot bite going on just across the channel off St. Joseph's Island. When we arrived there was a huge armada of boats with bent poles and nets flying about.

Near the top of the ledge I got my first coho. In less than two hours we managed to hook 16 coho from 6 to 12 pounds.

Near the end of the day I dropped my cut-plug herring near the bottom and hooked another salmon, but this one acted funny and right away I knew it wasn't a coho.

This salmon took a long run out away from the boat and then proceeded to dive down deep.

After about 10 minutes we saw the king boiling on the surface. We gently handled the fish and after a few pictures we released it and called it a day.

The weatherman was predicting gale force winds on our final day so we made plans to head straight out into the ocean for more halibut.

I'd been cursed on this trip with the halibut blues, and couldn't get anything to take my bait except for a pesky dogfish.

But around 10 a.m., just as the captain said we'd make our last drift, I decided to bounce bottom and then my pole made a hard dive. I set the hook, reeled more line and buried the hook again.

I knew something heavy was on as line screamed off the reel.

"Now that is what we're looking for," McCarthy said.

I gained about 50 feet of the 200 feet of line I had out, but then it peeled more as my pole danced hard into the water.

About 100 feet from the top it took off more line. I began gaining line as the captain grabbed the harpoon attached to a rope with an orange buoy.

It took about 20 minutes to get it to the surface, but we finally saw the huge halibut boil on the surface. The captain impaled it with the harpoon and the fish wasn't happy. It took off again, but didn't get far, with the buoy keeping it from diving.

I reeled it back to the boat and the captain aimed his 9 mm gun and fired three deafening shots into the fish, and it still had enough energy to peel off more line.

I brought it back to the boat and McCarthy shot it again, finally subduing the fish. We stuck it with gaffs and I helped lug the behemoth aboard.

We measured the halibut at the dock, and it was 67 inches long. The length to weight conversion chart puts it at 155 pounds. It was the biggest halibut of my life, beating out the 101-pounder I caught 12 years ago in Homer, Alaska.

Fishing doesn't always go as well in Craig as we found it. Sometimes the windy weather arrives just like the weatherman predicted, and on other days fishing can actually be downright spotty.

But, the lure of knowing that fishing on the last frontier of Alaska is better than anywhere else in the world is an experience that is truly heavenly.

Mark Yuasa: 206-464-8780 or myuasa@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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