Twice I’d been thwarted, my efforts rendered moot, my hopes dashed. Twice I’d traveled to Alaska to pursue creatures that proved to be more elusive than advertised. On two previous trips I had spent upwards of 30 hours plying the water in and around Prince William Sound, trying to catch a salmon shark, with nothing more than frustration to show for my efforts. And my attempt two days before to boat this elusive, toothy quarry on my third trip proved only slightly more successful.
Yet there I stood at the edge of Valdez’s small boat harbor – only steps from the RV parks that practically define that small town in summer months – waiting under gun-metal gray skies to give salmon sharking another try. A small-craft advisory had been issued that morning, so I expected a choppy ride to the fishing grounds 60 miles out to sea. I soon learned that the word “choppy” was an understatement, as Otto Kulm, captain of the 34-foot Bold Eagle and owner of Pacific Mountain Guides, negotiated the 4- and 5-foot swells. By the time the boat settled on the leeward side of Hinchinbrook Island and Otto dropped anchor, I felt as though I’d been through the spin cycle for nearly three hours.
The Bold Eagle was one of only two sportfishing boats from Port Valdez to brave the conditions that day. The grayness of the sky was nearly indistinguishable from the grayness of the water and the grayness of my mood. It was cold, desolate and unrelentingly miserable in a way that seemed quintessentially Alaskan. Then deckhand Zach Farmer stepped onto the deck in the driving rain to bait the enormous hooks. He looked across the vast monochromatic emptiness and said, “Hey, we have the place to ourselves.” I laughed, then adjusted my attitude. Adventures, after all, should encompass the unknown. And they may require discomfort, even hardship. And, at least in my case, they often end in frustrating disappointment. Or disappointing frustration.
Almost instantly, one of the three lines in the water began zinging seaward. I lifted the heavy rod from its holder as Otto strapped a fighting belt around my waist. On Otto’s command, I was to lock the drag, then lift the rod violently, as if trying to snap it. After about 20 seconds of letting the fish run, Otto shouted, “Now,” and I almost came out of my boots trying to bury the hooks somewhere permanent. I pumped and reeled, pumped and reeled, pumped … and realized that the fish was gone.
The ominous teeth marks on the 10-pound pink salmon at the end of my line revealed that the bait had been clamped between powerful jaws, but the hooks obviously never found purchase. For the next two hours, I sulked, conceded that salmon sharks would forever elude me, then mulled over the facts I knew about salmon sharks.
These first cousins to makos can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Zach told me that he has seen salmon sharks render six grown men limp before being subdued. Though the typical salmon sharks caught by the five charter-boat operators that hunt these creatures from Port Valdez “only” weigh between 300 and 500 pounds, they have perfected their defenses for millions of years, and any angler who tangles with a salmon shark will cherish the battle. Joe White, one of the Bold Eagle’s clients that day who had caught a salmon shark in the past, recalled his memorable battle this way: “It’s like having a bull on a string.”
July is the best time to catch salmon sharks, though the sharks also chase pinks in June and silvers in August, so anglers can hook into salmon sharks during these months, too. The limits for salmon sharks are one per day and two per year, though Otto thinks the limit should be one per angler per year, so that the fishery will be safely sustained. And since the average salmon shark yields far more than 100 pounds of succulent steaks, harvesting one shark is more than plenty for most people.
On the Bold Eagle that afternoon, the line suddenly tore off the reel, so Chad Workman violently set the hook. Chad gained line quickly, reeling hard and trying to remain upright on the slick deck. The initial fight lasted about 25 minutes, then, once the fish saw the boat, the excitement escalated.
The shark arced repeatedly around the boat, but Otto eventually plunged a harpoon into the gray beast. The harpoon was affixed by rope to a large, orange buoy, and the buoy instantly disappeared under the boat. The rod tip bowed into the water, but Chad managed to haul the shark away from the props and close enough to the boat for Otto to fire a bang-stick loaded with a .44 into the shark’s head. The shark seemed unfazed by the blast, and as Otto maneuvered the bang-stick for another shot, the line on a second rod started moving seaward.
John Gunther grabbed that rod, waited for the shark to make its dash, then tried to break the rod. Zach stood on the swim step with gaff in hand, ready for the first shark. But the beast was a battler, so Otto delivered a second shot to its head. John pumped his rod aggressively and, after a half-hour fight, managed to pull the second fish boatside. Just after Otto delivered a third shot to the first shark – a fish that would measure 8 feet 2 inches long and weigh nearly 400 pounds – line from the third rod started zinging seaward. Pandemonium ruled around me, and I felt disappointed, since I knew I was not meant to catch a shark that day. But as the saying goes, “the fourth time’s a charm.”