Charterboat Fishing in Alaska
Owning a saltwater boat in Alaska can be an expensive proposition. Besides the regular maintenance, there's hauling it behind a vehicle, jockeying for space to launch, and trying to find an adequate parking spot. Not to mention the high cost of fuel. A weekend of fishing out of your own boat can easily add up to several hundred dollars.
Many anglers opt to fish from a charterboat, at least for their first few trips until they get to know the ropes a bit. Depending on how often you go, it can be more inexpensive than owning a boat, and you are almost assured to end up with someone who knows how and where to catch fish.
There are some things you should be aware of when embarking on a charter fishing trip; things that will make your outing more comfortable, safer, and more fun. And they can even boost your odds of catching fish. Let's take a look.
Booking a Charter
Charterboat fishing can be expensive, especially if you're bringing family members along. So it pays to check around before you pay a deposit to someone who may not offer the kind of trip you want. One of the best ways to choose a charter company is by referral from others who have used them recently. But unless you have lots of friends who hire charters regularly, chances are you aren't going to get the information you need. The single best resource for charterboat referrals is the Saltwater Fishing Forum on this site. Pop in and ask the members for a referral. You will almost always get someone who will do a good job for you.
The timing of your trip is crucial to success in catching fish. Naturally if you are fishing for salmon, there are certain times of the year that are more productive than others. But even if you're fishing for halibut, lingcod, rockfish and such, timing is important. In some areas the season for lingcod is closed during part of the year. Halibut move from deeper water to shallow water during certain times of the year. But a major success factor has to do with tidal movement. Whether you're drift fishing or anchored up it can be difficult to keep your line from drifting off the bottom, especially in deep water. Try to time your trip around the times with the least tidal interchange of the month. This gives you the maximum amount of time with your bait or lure in the strike zone near bottom, instead of it being pulled off the bottom by the drag of strong current against your line.
Most charters offer trips for specific species, usually at certain times of the year. These decisions are made well in advance, based on fish movement patterns throughout the year. But local variables can delay or accelerate fish movement into certain areas in a particular year, so the dates of those charters can move around a bit as opportunities change. Other trips may be geared to target multiple species, but remember that multi-species trips are often a compromise of sorts. You don't always find halibut in the same areas you would troll for king salmon, for example, and switching from one species to another may require time-consuming moves and re-rigging for the next species. Finally, on trips where the entire boat is booked for a group, the captain will make the group aware of the best opportunities, and the group decides what they want to do.
On general charters where a variety of species are available, the decision of which species to target often goes by majority rule, with some coaching by the captain, based on weather, sea conditions and other factors. In such cases, be prepared to be overruled by the group. Go with the flow, and you'll have a great time.
Getting ready for your charter requires some preparation in advance. Get plenty of rest the night before. Staying up late, then getting up early for a two-hour drive to the harbor leaves you exhausted. You'll be tempted to sleep on the boat as you motor out to the fishing grounds, a huge mistake that can contribute to bouts of seasickness.
Second, eat sensibly. Meals of fatty or greasy foods, or acidic foods such as orange juice or citrus fruits can enhance the onset of seasickness. Stick with easily digested foods like apples, pears, bananas (don't bring bananas aboard the boat- more on that later), muffins and cereal with milk are all good choices. Avoid coffee or soda; they are diuretics (they cause frequent urination) and you can become dehydrated.
Don't bring a lot of junk with you! Space on the boat is limited. Your personal items should fit into a small day pack. If you're bringing your own fishing gear, you should get by with two rods, two reels, and a tackle box.
Keep a large cooler in your vehicle for fillets after the trip, and stock it with a couple of large trash bags or larger Ziplock bags if you plan to freeze your fish in Ziplocks. Pick up your ice after your fish are cleaned.
Avoid cotton clothing; if it gets wet, it stays wet and loses its thermal capacity. Footwear should have non-marking soles, so you don't leave black scuff marks in the boat. Here's a list of the main things you need; pack these items in a small day pack that can be stowed in the main cabin.
- Long underwear (synthetic)
- Synthetic socks (2 pair)
- Synthetic pants (jeans are okay, but if they get wet they will not dry)
- Long-sleeve shirt
- Sweater (wool or poly; avoid cotton)
- Rain jacket w/hood
- Rain pants or bibs
- Rubber boots (Extra-Tuff brand; insulated or non-insulated)
- Medium-weight windproof jacket
- Hat (baseball cap and windproof stocking cap)
- Sun glasses (polarized)
Pack a lunch! Most charters don't supply food or drinks, so you need to bring your own. If you are prone to seasickness, avoid carbonated beverages or greasy / acidic foods. Stick to sandwiches, crackers, non-acidic fruit (apples and such), and cookies. Bottled water is important in order to stay hydrated. Crackers can help absorb stomach acid in the event you start feeling a little queasy.
An oft-repeated tradition in Alaska suggests that bananas are bad luck on fishing trips. Whether you are the superstitious type or not, you should avoid bringing bananas on board! If you do bring them, be prepared for the crew to toss them overboard with great enthusiasm!
Charterboats supply the rods, reels, tackle and bait you need for your trip, however some people prefer to bring their own rods and tackle. If you prefer to use your own, your selection should be tailored to fit the species you expect to catch. Halibut require large levelwind reels topped with 80#-130# test line. Braided dacron line is popular, however the new thinner, very strong lines are gaining in popularity. Because of their thinner diameter, these new lines make it easier to keep your line on the bottom, because there is less resistance to the current.
On most trips you can get by with two rods; a larger rod for halibut and larger ling cod, and a smaller one for salmon and rockfish. For terminal gear, refer to our Saltwater Fishing page. Keep it simple though. One tackle box is plenty, as the boat will supply tackle anyway.
Let your Captain be your Guide!
Charter passengers with a moderate experience level (and some newbies) can be the bane of charter boat skippers. You might know a few hotspots from past experience or from the rumor mill, but your skipper is on the water every day. His job is to get you on fish, within the constraints imposed by fish movement patterns, sea conditions and regulatory restrictions, so you can be sure that he's going to do his best to get you to the best places for that particular day. Remember that some areas are better fishing at certain times of the year than at others; the spot your friend fished last year (or last week) may not be so hot on your day fishing. Going to the Barren Islands, Montague Island or Wessels Reef are not foregone conclusions when you book your charter in Southcentral Alaska, for example. Let your captain take you where he believes the best fishing is for that day. Many factors go into making that decision; trust your guide and enjoy the fact that he's taking you to the best locations he knows.
Charterboat Etiquette & Safety
Fishing from a charterboat involves fishing in close proximity to complete strangers. The quality of your experience depends on your attitude. Tempers can fray if fishing is slow; give other fishermen space and grace and you'll have a great time..
Avoiding Tangled Lines
The bane of charterboat angling is tangled lines with other guests on the boat. It's almost guaranteed that some of the folks on the boat will be completely inexperienced fishermen. With the combination of inexperience and close proximity to other fishermen, tangles are inevitable. Avoid this by simply paying attention to what's going on around you. If you're drifting, watch your line, and ensure that you have enough weight to keep the line as vertical as possible. Without enough weight, the current pushes your line and your bait will gradually "walk" away from the boat. When that happens, let out a little more line. But eventually the current is just too strong and the only option is to put more weight on your line. Thinner line, such as Spiderwire, is not as easily moved by the current and you can hold bottom much better than you can with regular braided dacron. At any rate, the farther your line gets from the boat, the greater your chances are of tangling with other fishermen's lines.
With drift fishing, the boat usually drifts sideways through productive fishing grounds. This is a popular tactic used when the current is too strong for anchoring. But the anglers on the "upstream" side of the boat will have their lines pulled under the boat by the current, and it can be difficult to keep from tangling with other anglers on the other side of the boat. This is an excellent opportunity to attach more weight onto your line. By achieving a more vertical angle on your line, you avoid drifting into the lines of the folks on the other side of the boat.
Tangles are common when someone hooks a fish, especially if it involves an angler next to you. So if your neighbor hooks a fish, either move away from them or reel up until they land the fish. If a big fish makes a run, you should reel in anyway, to give the fish room to run without risking tangling up with that line.
Avoid "Sinker Bonk"
Don't hit your deck hand with your sinker! Sounds silly, but it's easy to get distracted when you catch a fish, and forget about that hunk of lead on your line. As your fish clears the rail, grab the sinker and hold on to it while the deck hand is dealing with your fish. Sinkers left to flop around with every tail beat of a halibut can break glass, shatter decking, and injure occupants of the boat. Same is true when you're changing bait. Hang on to the sinker while you are putting fresh bait on your hook.
"One Hand for the Boat"
The old sailing adage, "One hand for the boat, the other for yourself" is an important axiom to remember while charterboat fishing in Alaska. Rough seas, boat wakes, and unexpected waves can toss you around like a BB in a bucket if you're not careful. ALWAYS hold on to a railing, or some other fixture of the boat, to ensure your safety.
Heads or Tails
All but the smallest charterboats have an onboard toilet or "head". Pay close attention to the crew briefing on how to operate the toilet, and do not flush anything that they tell you not to flush. Marine toilets are sometimes finicky on what can be placed in them, and you could clog the system. Also most marine heads are relatively cramped inside. Hold on to the railing or you could be bounced around in there in rough seas.
Pay careful attention to the quantity of each species you catch, so you don't exceed the bag limit. So-called "party fishing", where members of a group catch each other's fish for them, is illegal in Alaska. This practice has mostly faded as fishermen develop stronger ethics about exceeding the bag limit, but some operators are cavalier about it and you may have a captain or deck hand encourage you to keep fishing until they have a "boat limit" (enough fish to limit out the boat). Don't do it! Pay close attention to the regulations.
Catch-and-release fishing is commonplace in Alaska, and is often done on saltwater charters when a non-target fish is taken, or when an angler catches a legal fish but wants to release it in order to keep fishing. Naturally you should not gaff a fish that is intended to be released. Penetrating the fish with a gaff hook damages internal organs and creates a wound channel that can become infected and kill the fish. Also avoid hauling fish over the rail and letting them flop around on the deck. A fish can bang its head on hard objects and it could receive serious injuries in the process. One of the best ways to release a fish is to net it with a rubber knotless net. These nets are very gentle on the fish, and greatly reduce damage to protective slime and scales. If possible, let the fish remain in the net during resuscitation, so it does not escape before it is fully revived.
Releasing a fish is usually a straightforward process, however there are situations that require additional consideration or the fish could die.
Deep Water Release
For larger fish such as lingcod or halibut, it is best to take some time to resuscitate the fish before releasing it, especially if the fish fought long and hard and is fatigued. Grasp the fish firmly just in front of the tail, and use a gentle push-pull action to pump water over the fish's gills. If the fish rolls over on its side it is not strong enough to be released. Ideally you should revive the fish until it swims off on its own.
In some cases a fish is caught that has experienced barotrauma, a condition that occurs when a fish is hooked in deep water and quickly brought to the surface. Indications of barotrauma are protruding eyes and an inverted stomach that protrudes out of the fish's mouth. If a fish is directly released in this condition, it will float away and die on the surface. Read our special section on Deep Water Release for detailed instructions on how to properly release barotraumatized fish.
It is customary to tip the deck hand on your boat, so bring cash for that. Deck hand wages are low enough that tipping is considered part of the salary. Many deck hands take summer fishing jobs to pay for college; be generous if possible. A good guideline for tipping is between 10%-15% of the cost of the trip. If the deck hand cleans your fish, it is customary to tip after they are done. If not, tips can be awarded at the completion of the trip, just before debarking. Withholding a tip because the fishing was poor is frowned upon. It's not the deckhand's fault that you didn't catch fish. If he or she made an honest effort, kept you in fresh bait, and maintained a positive attitude, that's all you an ask for. It's a different story if he spent all his time in the wheelhouse with the captain, and ignored your comfort or concerns.