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Aialik Venture

July 2, 2014

Every summer we strive to head west to at least one of the fjords in Kenai Fjords National Park. A few summers ago we were lucky enough to explore all the fjords. Last summer we had boat issues, so we only ventured west once. This summer the weather has been against us. Luckily for us, this past weekend we had a break in the weather and managed to fight 7-foot swells with familial unit in tow to round into one of the most beautiful destinations out of Seward: Aialik Fjord.

Aialik Fjord is frequented by boats taking loads and loads of tourists up to the heads of glaciers to view wildlife. Despite the number of boats, a visitor on a personal vessel hardly sees them since there are numerous private anchorages and great fishing spots in the area. We spent much of the weekend playing tour guides of our own, showing off Holgate Glacier, fishing extensively, and anchoring in two of our favorite anchorages. Bixler even took advice from a couple aboard a small powerboat anchored nearby to hike up a notch for some killer views of the cove and beyond.

We had two interesting milestones on this trip. The first is we ate polar bear. Nope, polar bears are not on the endangered species lists, so take a breath. And yes, Alaska Natives do hunt, eat, and use the hides of such bears. Through a series of circumstances, we were gifted polar bear and warned of the taste. For the past few months, the polar bear meat has been sitting in our freezer due to our skepticism. We decided to finally give it a try. For a bear-to-bear comparison, we coupled our usual black bear burgers with polar bear sliders, both with the same glob of guacamole on top. Black bear is sweet, mild, and peppery; polar bear is not. The meat is distinctly fishy smelling and gamey with a strange aftertaste. Usually we can stomach just about anything – except polar bear. Ironically, our family unit loved it and he hate his entire slider.

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Dinner of Champions: Black bear burger on the right, Polar Bear slider on the left. Mmmm…..

Second, we successfully caught salmon trolling off our sailboat. Trolling is difficult on a sailboat mostly because we have so much momentum that controlling our speed can be an issue. Also, trolling requires patience, which neither of us have. We really wanted to catch a silver (coho salmon) and master the art of trolling to try to capture the sailboat category in the Seward Silver Salmon Derby in August this year, so we put our trolling to the test.

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Bixler stands proudly with his silver caught by trolling off the sailboat.

Fishing was slow and we caught one silver and one pink (humpy salmon). Our moods were uplifted during the monotony of trolling when the nearby whales started putting on a show! Here’s a short video:

And here are some great pictures of the scenery. On Saturday we had amazing weather that was so hot we switched to complaining mode. Thank goodness is socked into the usual misty gray skies the next morning.

 

Meanwhile in our Backyard…

June 26, 2014

A common question people often ask is: Do bears every get into our trash? The answer is yes. Usually, as the silver salmon start running in Seward in late August, bears emerge from the woods and knock trash cans down on their way to the many salmon-filled streams. It is part of the quirkiness of living in Alaska. The Lower 48 has problem animals like raccoons; we have bears.

The other day we headed out for some trout fishing at our secret lake. On our way home, we noticed someone pulling out of our driveway and a camper parked in the street. Note to self: Buy No Trespassing signs.

Oh no! Robbers? Not likely. Bears. We had been leaving our trash cans out because normally bears aren’t a problem this early in the summer.

As we rounded into our driveway, we saw what little trash we had in our can strewn about. The trash can was flattened and bear poop was right next to our porch. The people in the camper, tourists from Australia, were ecstatic because a brown bear sow and her cubs had been munching on our trash just five minutes before. Bixler gave out his email to get the pictures, especially since the brown bear cubs were apparently fascinated by our porch.

The Australians left and we set out to clean up the trash and move our trash cans indoors. As if the gravity of the situation wasn’t obvious enough, a neighbor we had never met parked in our driveway and walked over. We recognized his car as the one that almost t-boned us at the intersection, so he obviously knew of us. He proceeded to berate and belittle us, calling us irresponsible, telling us he was unhappy with the location of our trash cans, and telling us there are bears in the neighborhood. Just before this Bixler had gotten into the argument with the She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named post office employee who is counting down her retirement by fighting with each and every resident in Seward. We were on edge and defended the situation considering we practically just moved in. Note to self: Buy Trespassers Will Be Shot signs.

A side note: for all the late 20-something/early 30-something readers out there, we aren’t sure if this a frequent situation for you, but it happens a lot to us. We tend to look younger than we are and for some reason the older generations seems to have the urge to offer unwarranted advice, usually in a rude or belittling manner. Here’s the conversation from last Sunday when we were cleaning our boat:

Old Man: You just bought this boat. (Statement, not question)

Bixler: No, we’ve had it for five years.

Old Man: Well, it sat for a while.

Bixler: No, they [the previous owners] brought the boat up in September and we bought it the following April.

Old Man: Oh. (walks away).

After the ordeal, we were fuming with anger. Bixler cleaned up the trout as we talked it over. We mutually decided we needed a “calming down” hot tub just as Bixler’s mom arrived for dinner. While we were suiting up, she said a bush in the backyard was moving wildly. Krystin peaked her head out the window in our office and saw two brown bear cubs digging through our lawn clippings playfully. The sow emerged and starting eating the wild greens while the cubs started investigating our resource (not junk) pile.

Bears that are accustomed to humans is a dangerous situation, so Bixler grabbed a gun and walked outside in just his swimsuit to yell at them. The cubs seemed interested in the loud pink creature with curly hair, but the sow was huffing. They bear family disappeared into the back half of our property, making for an exciting and uplifting evening.

Wild animals in our backyard in Alaska? Teaching the bears to be afraid of humans? How “irresponsible” of us!

Solstice Sail and Celebratory Halibut

June 23, 2014

Carpe Ventos is back in action! After three weeks of gale-force winds, we settled on going out after a brief spat about the 20 knot winds forecast. Of course that 20 knots was only Resurrection Bay and right on the nose, so we motored through it. As we turned into the Day Harbor, the seas were like glass.

We fished our secret rockfish hole and Bixler pulled up one of the largest black rockfish we’ve ever seen. We figured we were off to a good start, but out in the distance a storm was brewing on the horizon. Regardless, we dropped anchor in one of our favorite spots: Safety Cove.

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This large black rockfish may have been an omen of fish to come.

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Safety Cove while the seas were still nice and glassy.

Safety Cove was not entirely safe that night. As we sat on deck and admired the green scenery, williwaws started gusting from all directions. Clouds were rapidly appearing. By the time we headed to bed, Safety Cove was filled with sustained winds.

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Hmmm….mackerel sky…

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Williwaws started to appear that night in Safety Cove. Even the lagoon behind the cove had wind on it.

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Carpe Ventos moving around in the wind. This was still early in the night before it got really bad.

Krystin didn’t feel so safe, but Bixler thought otherwise. We decided to pull anchor and return to Resurrection Bay. It was nearing midnight.

Wrong decision.

Most of Day Harbor is open to the eastern Gulf of Alaska where all the prevailing weather originates. Though Safety Cove was slightly windy, the Gulf was gusty with steep waves and short periods. Though we were nearing the solstice, the clouds were so thick that the sky was black. Only white buffaloes could be seen on the horizon.

Bixler steered while Krystin sat uncomfortably seasick. After a few hours of being needlessly knocked around, we dropped anchor in busy Sunny Cove at 3 am. Krystin was still sick. Bixler was pissed. It was a dumb decision. We won’t be doing that again.

We awoke at noon the next morning and headed out for some fishing. It had poured rain all night, but the skies were clearing. There wasn’t a drop of wind on the glassy seas.

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We returned to Day Harbor to fish only to find perfectly glassy seas.

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A storm had obviously passed in the night. Look at those dramatic clouds!

We headed towards Bear Glacier in western Resurrection Bay in hopes to find some halibut. The seas were calm enough for us to anchor and soak for the large fish. A few boats had the same idea, so we anchored shallower and further away. Bixler set up the halibut soaking gear on our jigging rods: circle hooks with salmon heads, doused in “butt juice” (a scent attractant for halibut). Bixler then put a small lead head squid jig on a spinning rod and caught two greenling off the bat. He dropped again and felt a nibble. Instead of the small greenling, the fish took off, taking most of his line. At only 20 lb test, it was hopeless. “There are big halibut here!” Bixler speculated. Quickly, he reeled up the jigging rods to reset the salmon heads and use the carcasses of the greenling as additional bait.

An hour or so went by. We made a delicious dinner out of rockfish collars. As we sat on the deck drinking the last of the wine, Krystin’s small TigerLite jigging rod began to bounce. Bixler carefully lifted the rod out of the rod holder and let the fish take line. He increased the drag. Immediately, the reel began to whirl and the fish took off. Bixler used a combination of brute strength and careful tightening of the drag to control the fish. It started to head deeper. Bixler let it go, then reeled it in, trying to tire it out. He barked orders. “Clear the deck, move the other rod, grab the GoPro, move the cooler, move the dinghy (we tend to tow our dingy from place to place when making short moves).” Krystin abided and moved over to the starboard gate with the gaff to figure out what was on the line.

Bixler managed to gain control of the fish. He moved it closer to the boat. Near glaciers, the ocean water is a soft milky blue. As he reeled up, the first thing we saw was the salmon head. We both looked at each other in confusion. Then we saw it. Emerging from the milky water was the distinct mouth of a halibut. And this was no small halibut; this was a big one. Bixler screamed with joy, “HALIBUT!” He gave Krystin the rod and told her to keep it steady. Halibut can pause and then take off at any moment. Because of their strength, large halibut can be dangerous to people and boats.

Bixler ran inside the boat and grabbed Krystin’s Walther PK380. Krystin reeled the live halibut up so its head sat just below the surface of the water. The fish was tired, but very much alive. Bixler fired four shots into the head and gill plate (while this may seem gruesome, this is really the only way to deal with large fish). The fish bled out while Krystin supported the deadweight on the rod.

We contemplated how to get the fish into the boat. Sailboats have very high gunwales, so lifting was out of the option. We thought about running a line through the mouth and gills and winching it aboard. Krystin looked at the dingy and suggested we pile it into the dingy, tow it, and fillet it ashore.

Bixler hopped in the dingy and pulled in the halibut. It was far larger than we expected and filled the entire dinghy. He made sure it was dead and we towed it to our next anchorage: Bulldog Cove.

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Wow! Look at that fish!

Once anchored up in Bulldog, we gathered all the necessary equipment for filleting – or rather butchering – a halibut of this size. Our first task was to measure the fish to obtain an estimated weight since our scale was far too small for this fish (also, we couldn’t lift it). Our measurement was 65 inches. According to the back of our tide book, the estimated weight for a halibut of this size is 141 lbs! Dressed out that is 106 lbs of delicious halibut to fill our freezer.

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Bixler with Krystin’s rod and the fish on the beach.

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A friend had told us to use salmon heads as bait. We guess they work!

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Bixler in the classic Teddy Roosevelt pose with large animal.

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Had Krystin taken the picture top down, it would read 65 inches.

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And here’s what the tide book says about the weight of a 65-inch halibut. Of course Alaskan tide books would have this information.

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A screen shot from video of the catch. Bixler is about 5’9″ and the halibut isn’t much shorter.

We butchered the halibut and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the scenery and beaches in Bulldog Cove.

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Whew, need some scenery to calm us down.

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The famous rocky point at Bulldog Cove that we have so many pictures of.

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Bixler films in the mass of greenery.

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The lake at Bulldog was crystal clear and filled with some sort of fish we speculated got washed into the lake during a storm.

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Flowers in full bloom on the beach.

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The dense greenery was quite a change as we usually visit Bulldog in the spring before everything blooms.

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Carpe Ventos’ final resting spot for the evening. She’s happy about her first big halibut!

What started as a somewhat miserable trip ended on a high note. With the summer solstice on Saturday, the same day we caught the halibut, we had double the reason to celebrate. We finally succeeded in catching a very large halibut off of our sailboat!

Halibut and chips, anyone?

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One of the four halibut fillets!

Fit for a King

June 17, 2014

When we head into the Fish House to buy sets of lost lures, the scenery is always the same: loud male tourists wearing camo and chest waders sifting through lures. Naturally, they all pick the masculine colors – blues, greens, and sometimes orange. With chests puffed out like roosters, they talk very loudly of combat fishing the Russian River or catching the wrong species of salmon this time of year. Yes, silvers (coho salmon) are the biggie in Seward and no, you did not catch one. Try again in a few weeks.

We weave our way through the testosterone to grab all the pink lures. Sure there are some stares as both of us load up on all pink, but we have a long-standing theory: Fish love pink. So far, it has been mostly correct when targeting both bottom species and salmon. Lately, with our new-found shore fishing discoveries, we’ve developed another theory: only Krystin can catch big king salmon.

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Krystin’s second king salmon caught, ever.

With the red run winding down, Krystin opted out of another day of snagging with Bixler and headed over to a supposed king salmon hotspot to catch the most elusive of the salmon species. Kings (chinooks, as L48ers call them) are both the rarest and largest of the salmon species. Because they travel up long rivers such as the Kenai, Copper or Yukon, the meat is high in fat and downright delicious. Both of us have caught one king salmon each in our tenure in Alaska, so when we heard about an obscure shore fishing spot in Seward, Krystin immediately jumped at the opportunity. Bixler is the skeptical one in the relationship, so he stuck with reds until the king fishing was verified.

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Kings are darker in color, have black mouths, and are quite chubby!

The kings in Seward are hatchery “enhanced” and run up a small creek into a lagoon. Freshwater fishing in this area is illegal, so most people crowd around the mouth of the creek in hopes to land one of these big salmon. Krystin arrived and promptly rigged up a pink lure. A few tourists were snagging near the creek mouth, but quickly left when the fishing appeared to be slow. A pleasant crowd arrived thereafter: a talkative teenage boy with a quiver of rods including a fly rod, another lone woman, and a Minnesotan couple up here on vacation.

No one was having any luck and the wind started to freshen. Krystin switched to the other side of the creek where the shoreline was rocky and slippery. What seemed like an unsuccessful attempt at king fishing changed when Krystin glanced in the water and saw a school of kings. She notified the teenager who was across from her and he immediately snagged a salmon. The other woman snagged one too. She watched as the duo fought each fish and landed them ashore. Quickly, Krystin changed to her one emergency snagging hook. She snagged two and lost two. The sheer size of the salmon was enough to break the line. The rocky shoreline didn’t help with landing the fish either.

The fishing became hot as Krystin switched to her pink lures. She called Bixler across the bay who quickly packed up his 2 reds to head over. Krystin cast and caught a salmon instantly. She landed it, carefully negotiating the rocky shoreline. The other woman had her second on. The talkative teenager had switched to his fly rod. The Minnesotans each lost a fish. As Bixler was texting frantically, Krystin nabbed her fourth salmon. A friend watched from the bridge and she tried to land it, then promptly fell hard on the slippery rocks. The fish got away.

Bixler arrived and saw the commotion. Krystin had one king and nearly reached her limit of two. He fished and eventually caught a small king, also known as a “jack” king, but equally delicious. The bite turned off and we left for home, racing on adrenaline.

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A handful of reds and the big king. Notice the coloration differences between the two species of salmon. The smallest fish is actually a jack king (or so we think).

Bixler returned that night. The Minnesotans were there as well as our spectator friend. They expressed deep concern for Krystin’s hard fall on the rocks. Our friend figured she was okay when he asked about the fall and all she responded with was, “the fish got away.”

Both of us tried another hand at fishing the spot. It was obvious that the fishing wasn’t nearly as hot as it had been, but Krystin hooked up twice. She lost the first fish. As the second one was taking drag, a camo-clad male tourist grunted something about letting us use his net. Bixler grabbed the net and netted the fish. The king turned out to be a huge one, the redemption fish.

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The redemption fish!

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Blue steel? Le Tigre? No, Magnum!

The bite turned off and Krystin carted her king to the car. A slew of runners on the bike path cheer at the fish. The talkative teenager said it was the biggest one he’s seen all year. And we forever proved that only Krystin can catch big king salmon. Women’s touch, perhaps?

Men, don’t fret if your significant other catches large salmon and you end up with small ones! We cooked up the jack king on cedar plank sprinkled with salt, pepper, and dill. What a delicious way to end a successful few days of king fishing!

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Salmon on cedar plank is a great way to infuse a smokey cedar flavor into the fish. Naturally, it is delicious with king.

Four Limits Each in Four Days

June 12, 2014

We were standing in the ocean, with the waves lapping around our legs. Our chest waders were full of holes from recent adventures with cold ocean water seeping in. It didn’t matter how cold or how wet we were. We were slamming the salmon. With each cast of the snagging hook we nabbed ourselves a red salmon. We posted a while back that the red salmon were in and we were having okay luck at McDonald’s (the landowner, not the restaurant). At that time we had 3 reds in our freezer. Now we have 47.

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Red salmon filleted, portioned, and vacuum-sealed for the winter.

Snagging is a form of fishing that is legal is certain areas in Alaska in saltwater only. Don’t snag in freshwater, it can land you a ticket from the troopers. For those of you who think snagging might be unethical, there are plenty of rivers and open ocean to test out your fishing skills. For us, snagging is about collecting meat. Lately, our spirits have been down because we haven’t bagged a bear and the marine forecast every weekend has been crap. Really, another bout of 30 knot easterlies forecast on a Friday? We had thought about hitting up the Copper River Dipnet run, where Alaskan residents can sit along the river with a giant net to catch red salmon, but the thought of driving 400 miles during the major tourist season sounded less than pleasant. Red salmon are our favorite and, being that they are plankton eaters, are not voracious biters. So the best ways to catch them are snagging or dipnet. We prefer the former.

When last Friday rolled around with 35 knot easterlies forecast and 11 foot seas coupled with an inch of rain, we made an executive decision to stay home and do some shore fishing. At that time the river fishing was on the cusp of opening and we fondled our fly rods and organized our flies. River trout just opened Wednesday, June 11, so stay tuned for an update on that as we perfect our fly fishing skills.

We spent some time getting to know our neighbors as well. The trooper who responded to our car accident lives across the street. Our neighbor next door has llamas that he planted in our yard to eat down some of the foliage. His cat, Dusty, comes by periodically to stare at Jupiter through the window.  The llamas are at a different enclosure now because a set of curious brown bear cubs broke into their enclosure. Our neighbor spent the evening trying to chase them out while dealing with a fairly angry sow. Alaska problems.

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Llamas, the friendly and social lawnmowers of the neighborhood.

The neighbor who lives next to the trooper is a butcher at Three Bears and told us the red salmon fishing has been hot at McDonald’s. We were skeptical and decided to take a drive into town and try another spot.

Pulling up into the location we won’t disclose, there were plenty of people snagging, but few fish caught. Fish on! Krystin snagged three salmon in three casts. Bixler quickly caught up and surpassed. In this location, the schools of salmon circle back around. As we cast out into the ocean, we occasionally snagged bottom and lost the hooks. Our secret spot eats snagging hooks (many of which we recovered at low tide), so Bixler had to pause momentarily to make an emergency run to the Fish House to restock. He returned and we limited out – six salmon a person per day.

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The ever-growing pile of red salmon on the beach. Look how shiny and delicious these fish look!

We returned again, and again, and again, and again, to reach our total of 47 (including the three we already caught). A few days were slow, but some were hot, hence the 47. Krystin finally ditched her waders and wore Xtratufs. With her first cast she was on, pulling the fish to the beach. “Hey, keep some for the rest of us!” another fisherman joked. A few other fishermen were on the beach watching our success with little luck. Snagging in the ocean requires a certain degree of skill and lots of muscle. Our snagging elbows hurt after four days of intense use.

Despite the cramped hands, cuts from falling on sharp rocks, and the perpetual smell of fish, it was worth every trip out there. We’ve since invested in some new chest waders and wading boots to keep us dry and now have a system for carrying fish back to the car. Can’t wait to get out there again!

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Salmon heads make excellent halibut bait, so we processed these too. Hope to catch some big halibut the in the coming weeks!

Nothing Beats Fresh Salmon

June 3, 2014

Psst. Guess what? I hear the reds are running in Seward. Reds – the Alaska slang term for sockeye salmon – are our favorite species of salmon and ever since we finished off our salmon in February we’ve been craving a good fillet on the barbeque. Our local rumor mill in town said that the snagging was good at the usual spot and the reds were running early. Considering our lack of salmon in our freezer (and our lack of canned salmon, too!), we decided to give snagging a try.

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Our reds caught on day one of snagging. Bixler’s was the big one, naturally.

Red salmon feed primarily on krill, so they are less inclined to hit a lure. Thus one needs to invest in an alternative form of fishing to catch reds: dipnetting, gill netting, set netting, fish wheels, good karma, and our personal favorite – snagging. Snagging involves using a weighted treble hook that is cast into the water and with a slight tug, snags a fish. Rules are strict on snagging in Alaska; you can only snag below the high tide line (our friends from California thought it was comical that snagging was legal altogether). As easy as it may sound – you bring the hurt to the fish – it is actually a lot more difficult than it seems.

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Our local snagging spot (sort of) on a nice day.

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An eagle waits patiently for either a salmon to run, or for you to fillet your fish on the beach.

Our local snagging spot has not produced fish for us in the past two years. As a hatchery run, the reds coming up the rivers are seeded by the hatchery to create a sport industry. Of course there is a cost to create this fishery that must be recovered, which is done by seining the reds. If you show up on a seining day, the run can be poor. If you show up at the wrong tide, the fishing can be hit-or-miss. If you show up and the planets are aligned, you might get lucky.

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Salmon number three on the stringer!

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A cost recovery seiner motors through the fog looking for schools of reds to scoop up. If you see these guys out in the bay during the salmon run, your chances for snagging in the stream become limited.

Last weekend, we go lucky (thanks planets!). We both snagged a salmon on day one and Bixler got a third on day two. With three good-sized reds in the freezer, we are slowly building up our salmon stock again. After a dinner of delicious cedar-plank red salmon, we invested in a DC freezer for our boat for future fishing trips. Because honest, nothing beats fresh salmon. Red snagging in Prince William Sound, here we come!

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Bixler is all smiles holding up his first salmon of the year.

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The last time Krystin caught a red snagging in Seward was five years ago. She was sure happy to have caught one today!

Coverboy

June 3, 2014

A while ago the Alaska Sporting Journal magazine propositioned us to recreate our snowshoeing article for a winter issue. Since then we’ve become regular contributors, with Krystin developing a new story about one of our experiences each month and Bixler editing the article and combing through pictures to spice up the story. The Alaska Sporting Journal usually picks a handful of our photos and lays out the story somewhere in the middle of the magazine for an exciting visual experience. For the June issue, Krystin wrote a story about the giant halibut we almost landed in Aialik last year and we submitted some great photos about fishing in general. One of those was the awesome shot of Bixler and his giant yelloweye we caught in April.

Little did we know that it would be a photo worthy of the cover!

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Bixler poses with himself on the magazine!

The editor emailed us a proof of the cover and we nearly fell over from a heart attack. This magazine sits at the checkout line in Safeway this time of year to entice tourists. Being the small town that it is, most of Seward will be seeing Bixler’s handsome face, trendy Filson hat, and giant yelloweye in places other than the boat harbor or his usual running route. Because of the delay in getting the magazine here, the editor was kind enough to send us a few extra copies to give to friends and family.

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“Hmmm…who is this handsome lad on the cover? I must inquire further.”

Check out your local store for the Alaska Sporting Journal. You will see Bixler smiling right back at you!

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