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FISHING • HUNTING • ADVENTURE

AKSPORTINGJOURNAL.COM

KEITH COLBURN OF

DEADLIEST

CATCH Wizard Captain’s Early Days In Alaska

LATE-SPRING

STEELIES Stick It Out Till Run’s End! Steelhead Obsession

BIG, BAD BRUINS! Arctic Grizzlies Field-dressing Bears

A WILD PROMISE New Book Calls For Protecting Prince William Sound

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Volume 9 • Issue 12 www.aksportingjournal.com PUBLISHER James R. Baker GENERAL MANAGER John Rusnak EXECUTIVE EDITOR Andy Walgamott EDITOR Chris Cocoles WRITERS Paul D. Atkins, Christopher Batin, Tony Ensalaco, Ron Gillham, Scott Haugen, Tiffany Haugen, Jeff Lund, Bixler McClure, Krystin McClure, Debbie S. Miller, Hugh Rose SALES MANAGER Katie Higgins ACCOUNT EXECUTIVES Rick D’Alessandro, Mamie Griffin, Mike Smith, Paul Yarnold PRODUCTION MANAGER Sonjia Kells DESIGNERS Kayla Mehring, Sam Rockwell, Jake Weipert WEB DEVELOPMENT/INBOUND MARKETING Jon Hines PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Kelly Baker ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT Katie Aumann INFORMATION SERVICES MANAGER Lois Sanborn ADVERTISING INQUIRIES media@media-inc.com ON THE COVER The first time he set foot in Alaska to become a commercial fisherman, Keith Colburn was turned away and wondered if he’d made a right career choice. More than 30 years later, he captains his own crab boat and is featured on Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL) MEDIA INDEX PUBLISHING GROUP WASHINGTON OFFICE 14240 Interurban Ave South • Suite 190 Tukwila, WA 98168 (206) 382-9220 • Fax (206) 382-9437 media@media-inc.com • www.media-inc.com OREGON OFFICE 8116 SW Durham Rd • Tigard, OR 97224

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CORRESPONDENCE Twitter @AKSportJourn Facebook.com/alaskasportingjournal Email ccocoles@media-inc.com


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CONTENTS

VOLUME 9 • ISSUE 12 (PAUL D. ATKINS)

96 THE BRUINS OF SPRING

Bears, particularly fierce yet majestic-looking grizzlies, are steeped in legend and lore. For author Paul Atkins, hunting the boars that roam the wilds outside his Arctic home base conjures up some of his fondest outdoor memories and represents a dream come true for this former Lower 48 resident. Find out what makes this bruin hunting fanatic tick every spring.

FEATURES 20

32

49

HOW DEADLIEST CATCH’S COLBURN LANDED IN ALASKA Once an aspiring chef and a ski bum in the 1980s, Keith Colburn had 50 bucks in his pocket and a tent when he fled north to chase a commercial fishing career in Kodiak. After an inauspicious arrival in Alaska, Colburn eventually elevated himself to captaining his own crabbing boat and is among the competitive, tough-as-nails captains featured on Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. SIGHTS IN THE SOUND There are few areas as ecologically diverse and spectacular as Prince William Sound, which is the star attraction in a new book written by Debbie Miller and photographed by Hugh Rose. This fertile outdoor playground – a melting pot where salmon, bears, marine mammals and some of North America’s most gorgeous scenery collide – is A Wild Promise, and then some. STAY LATE FOR SOUTHEAST STEELIES While so many anglers are thinking about pending salmon runs or heading out into the saltwater to target halibut, Tony Ensalaco is still thinking about his beloved steelhead. Even late into spring the

fish are still there, and with less pressure but warm T-shirt weather to fish in, you’ll understand why Ensalaco still gets his steelie fix well into May. 77

DIVE RIGHT INTO HALIBUT SEASON Krystin and Bixler McClure are no strangers to dropping lines off the Kenai Peninsula for halibut – in summer, anyway. But when some eager friends wanted to not only get in an early-season scuba dive but try for flatties too, it gave the Seward-based skippers a chance to see if April’s bite was actually better than hit-or miss. Oh, how was it!

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE 67 89 116 133

A steelhead angler’s loyalty to misery Lodge profile: Tikchik Narrows Father-son Dall sheep adventure Testing the best new outdoor gear

DEPARTMENTS 17 47 109 127

The Editor’s Note Outdoor calendar From Field to Fire: Black bear hunting Alaska Big Game Focus: Sitka blacktails

Alaska Sporting Journal is published monthly. Call Media Inc. Publishing Group for a current rate card. Discounts for frequency advertising. All submitted materials become the property of Media Inc. Publishing Group and will not be returned. Annual subscriptions are $29.95 (12 issues) or $39.95 (24 issues). Send check or money order to Media Inc. Publishing Group, 14240 Interurban Ave South, Suite 190, Tukwila, WA 98168 or call (206) 382-9220 with VISA or M/C. Back issues may be ordered at Media Inc. Publishing Group, subject to availability, at the cost of $5 plus shipping. Copyright © 2018 Media Inc. Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be copied by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or recording by any information storage or retrieval system, without the express written permission of the publisher. Printed in U.S.A. 12

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EDITOR’S NOTE

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Deadliest Catch Capt. Keith Colburn (far right) and the editor both have a connection to Lake Tahoe, located on the Northern California/Nevada border. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

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he more I chatted with this month’s cover story subject, Deadliest Catch crab boat skipper Keith Colburn (page 20), the more I missed my childhood and how much simpler life once was. Colburn grew up around spectacular Lake Tahoe, an alpine playground that straddles the Northern California/Nevada border. I grew up just outside of San Francisco – a three-plus-hour drive from Colburn’s childhood home – but the Tahoe area may as well have been my second home. Every summer my family made at least one trip to Reno/Tahoe, known as much for outdoor activities as it is for its gambling haunts. Colburn had me in stitches when he talked about his parents’ jobs in the Tahoe casino industry and being stuck in the arcade while Mom and Dad were at work. I can’t tell you how many nights on our trips my sisters and I and our family friends played Defender, Pac-Man and pinball while our parents filled out keno tickets and pulled slot machines at North Lake Tahoe’s Nevada Lodge casino. Colburn also talked about life in Tahoe, which for him included a lot of world-class skiing in the Sierra Nevada range. We rarely ventured up to the mountains in winter (though I did give skiing a couple half-hearted chances in Tahoe later when I went up with friends). But while Colburn ironically wasn’t a hardcore recreational angler – “Back then I didn’t really have the patience to sit there and stare at a line and not catch stuff,” he jokes – it’s all I thought about during our family vacations (OK, the swimming and arcade games were cool too). I once caught a massive Mackinaw in the lake as an adult and won’t soon forget trolling to catch a couple rainbows when my dad and I rented a boat there. Colburn might have stuck around and become a chef at one of the many restaurants that dot the area around the lake, but he traded one scenic home for another when he headed to the Last Frontier. “If you’re in Alaska, you’re seeing some incredible scenery up there. So for me, I was already spoiled having grown up in an incredible, beautiful mountainous environment with a big lake,” says Colburn, who always have Lake Tahoe in his memories. So will I. -Chris Cocoles

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FROM COOKING TO CRABBING ONCE AN ASPIRING CHEF, DEADLIEST CATCH’S CAPT. KEITH COLBURN

FOUND HIS SEA LEGS AS A FISHERMAN BY CHRIS COCOLES

W

hen Keith Colburn first set foot in Alaska, there were bears – albeit a stuffed one – snow and regret about his decision to head north. This was March 1985, when Colburn had manifest destiny expectations of arriving in the Last Frontier and finding work on a fishing boat. Initially, it went terribly. Fast forward over 30 years and Col-

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burn’s life in Alaska is completely different. He captains his own crab boat – the F/V Wizard – and is one of the skippers featured on Discovery’s hit series Deadliest Catch, which recently began its 14th season. His celebrity status offers plenty of perks – it’s true: crab captains can be TV stars. Spy on Colburn’s social media pages and you’ll find him visiting Venice and attending sporting events like thoroughbred races, Seattle Seahawks


Keith Colburn went from being a ski bum who worked in a French/seafood restaurant to finding a love for the sea. He and his crabbing boat, the F/V Wizard, are featured on Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL) aksportingjournal.com | MAY 2018

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Wizard deckhand Kevin Stafford pulls in a haul of valuable crabs. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

games – sharing snaps of he and quarterback Russell Wilson – and college basketball’s NCAA Tournament. “Overall, it’s been a wonderful, great ride. I’ve experienced new things; I’ve met some amazing people,” he says. “I’ve been able to do things I would have never done (and) the doors that have been opened from the exposure of being on TV.” But it hasn’t been always like this; it’s a dream that was spawned on that gloomy welcome-to-Alaska nightmare of a first day.

COLBURN AND HIS BEST friend Kurt Frankenberg fled their beloved ski slopes of Lake Tahoe, a gorgeous alpine setting along the California-Nevada border, when they were in their early 20s – a little restless, a little impatient and maybe even a little dumb. Colburn’s parents were in the casino industry in Tahoe, a popular gambling destination on the Silver State side of the lake. Their son had different career plans. 22

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“I knew at an early age that I would not be in the casino industry,” says Colburn, now 55. “And I spent more time in the game room waiting for my dad to go on break to bum a quarter off of him – or a dime back then – to play pinball. And I just didn’t want anything to do with the casinos.” At that time, he spent most of his days doing two things: skiing and cooking. He worked at a French and seafood restaurant, working his way through the ranks of the kitchen, from scrubbing dirty dishes to an assistant’s chef position. The money was OK, and the camaraderie between Colburn and the rest of the staff meant fun times on their one day off a week. And the skiing, of course, in one of the West’s best locations for that sport, was fantastic. But it wasn’t enough to keep him there. “The lifestyle was pretty demanding. I would spend eight to 10 hours a day in the kitchen and four or five hours in the morning skiing and not getting a whole lot of sleep,” he says.

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Fishing? Save for trolling for Lake Tahoe’s famed trout and Mackinaw with buddies, Colburn was more entertained by the slopes than salmon. But a few years earlier, a restaurant coworker named Santo had had a proposition. He needed to get a Hans Christian sailboat moored in the San Francisco Bay area down the coast to San Diego and wanted a passenger to go along. Why not? The fearless 18-year-old was up for any adventure. Colburn was hardly a sailor, and by the time they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and hit the open water of the Pacific, he wasn’t sure if Santo knew what he was doing either. “It went from flat water to 10-foot seas. That’s when I got my first instance with seasickness. We’re on a 36-foot boat with 25-foot seas sailing down the coast. It was a pretty scary situation,” Colburn says. “But at 18 years old when the captain is sort of a big bulletproof guy – I didn’t know what kind of mariner Santo was, I didn’t know anything about sailing, but he seemed calm enough


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and faithful enough that I never really became afraid when I was out there. I was crazy.” The weather was violent enough that they had to hand-steer rather than use the autopilot. They were essentially surfing downwind with 20- to 25-foot waves crashing over the deck. “Every two minutes I’m waist- or chest-deep in water trapped to the helm trying to follow a little red globe as a compass and keeping the boat on course,” Colburn says. “It was nuts, but I fell in love. And a few years later, I was getting a little burned out on cooking.” Cue Colburn convincing his BFF Frankenberg to find their sea legs on a fishing vessel far from home, on far more stormy seas. “I had an older friend who a couple years earlier had gone to Alaska and had come home with a pocket full of money and he’d said there were lots of opportunities for young guys who wanted to try and fish,” he says. “And so I made the decision to, instead of committing myself to wanting to be a chef, I would be willing to try something different. And so, kind of on a whim, we decided to go to Alaska.” What could possibly go wrong?

LONG BEFORE THE INTERNET was a useful tool, Colburn’s Alaska research was done from a landline. He called the chambers of commerce at various port towns. He and Frankenberg concluded that Kodiak had enough fishing seasons to give them a decent chance to find work. In their possession the guys had literally $50 and a tent to sleep in. Never mind a return ticket to the Lower 48. “We were completely committed,” Colburn says. And they questioned that commitment immediately. Colburn remembered the exact date: March 7. “We get off the plane, and back then in 1985, the airport at Kodiak was like two Quonset huts put together. But they had this big statue when you go through the terminal and walk out of the other side of this big Kodiak brown bear that was kind of standing up,” he says. “It’s your introduction to Kodiak. And we just looked at each other and 24

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When he’s not fighting the heavy seas and his fellow captains in search of Alaska’s prized crabs, Colburn spends free time sportfishing and skiing with his best friend Kurt Frankenberg, who he headed to Alaska with in 1985 with almost nothing in their pockets. (KEITH COLBURN)

Colburn, now 55 with over 30 years of Alaska fishing under his belt, in action on the bridge of the Wizard. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

said, ‘Oh man; we’re screwed.’” It wasn’t the only time Colburn and Frankenberg shared a blank stare and an uh-oh moment. With a dusting of snow coming down, they hitchhiked from the airport to get down to the harbor. Upon entering the harbormaster’s office, they

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asked to leave their packs with him and look around for a while. When the harbormaster inquired about their presence on that blustery late-winter day, the guys said they were looking for jobs. Here’s how the exchange went: “What kind of work you looking for?” “Well, we want to fish.”


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Colburn eventually bought the Wizard from one of his mentors, John Jorgensen. The skipper’s come a long ways from his early days in Alaska, when he helped clean up a mothballed 135-foot crabber/tender, the Alaska Trader, for room and board. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

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“You watch Deadliest Catch and you see guys risking their lives to catch crab; you get a better understanding of why it’s expensive. (Crab are) incredibly dangerous to catch,” says Colburn, front with Wizard crewmembers. “Going back to the first industries that were ever in America – fishing and whaling – long before we became a country and started farming in America, there were fishermen.” (DISCOVERY CHANNEL)

look at each other and say, ‘No, we’re not screwed. We’re totally screwed.’ So there was a lot of, ‘What the hell did we get ourselves into?’” A few days later, some hope arrived in the form of the F/V Alaska Trader, a 135-foot crabber/tender that had been mothballed around Bristol Bay. It was pulled into Kodiak looking haggard and beaten up, but with an owner aspiring to put it back in the water again to fish. Enter an opportunity for two eager, if not desperate, greenhorns looking for any opportunity they could find. It was the first step in a new career as a fisherman for Colburn. “And what they needed was two really stupid kids to do the worst jobs you can ever imagine on the planet. It was for room and board,” he says. “There was no pay. But you know what? Those staterooms on the Alaska Trader were a helluva lot nicer than the tent we were staying in.”

WHEN HE LEFT HIS skis for the sea in the 1980s, aspiring chef Keith Colburn was pulling in about $24,000 a year in the kitchen of that Lake Tahoe restaurant. That first year in Kodiak, when he and Frankenberg were doing the grunt work to restore the Alaska Trader 28

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and eventually fish on the vessel, they didn’t gross half that. But he says that’s a story no different than the other dreamers who flock to Alaska to hitch a ride on a boat and try to make a life out of it. “So the question wasn’t, ‘Why did you go to Alaska?’ The question was, ‘Why did you go back?’” Colburn says. “But the very first time we set sail out of Kodiak going to Togiak for the herring in early April, we were on watch. It was a beautiful night and we’re going through the islands, and I’m over on the port side of the wheelhouse and the captain comes over and goes, ‘Yeah; you’re hooked.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’ve got the look.’ I was literally hooked immediately and just fell in love with being on the water.” By 1988, he became a full-time deckhand on the Wizard, and within a few years he elevated himself from working down below in the engine room to being on deck as a deck boss, to then a mate and a relief captain. Finally, in 2005 he purchased the boat from one of his mentors, John Jorgensen. “All of a sudden John handed me the keys and said, ‘You know what? You’re the captain now.’ And it’s gone from there.” He’s made not just a career out of


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crab fishing the dangerous, and yes, deadly waters they work on – in this season’s premiere, all of the vessels paid tribute to the crew of the F/V Destination, lost in 2017 when the boat sank in the Bering Sea. But there’s also the fame that’s come with being a fellow skipper on Discovery’s most successful series. That said, Colburn also is grateful that Deadliest Catch has given his industry a collective face. Yes, viewers only see what the cameras shoot and producers decide to air. But as this unlikely mega hit began its 14th season last month, it’s important to note the impact the show’s had on all of those who aren’t household names in the commercial fishing cosmos. Colburn has testified in Congress multiple times, making pleas when pending government shutdowns have threatened to delay the opening of king crab season in Alaskan waters. “It wasn’t like they slammed the door in our face in Washington D.C., but we were the little guys and kind of an afterthought. But all of a sudden, along comes TV and the doors are opening wider and wider all the time,” Colburn says. “It’s helped not only myself but all fisheries, and I think the awareness about the risk of fishing, the rewards of fishing and the value of the product that we bring in, the biggest thing is that it’s helped fishermen all around the United States. You watch Deadliest Catch and you see guys risking their lives to catch crab; you get a better understanding of why it’s expensive. (Crab are) incredibly dangerous to catch.” “Going back to the first industries that were ever in America – fishing and whaling – long before we became a country and started farming in America, there were fishermen. So for us keeping that way of life alive throughout the United States, I think that would be the biggest reward that I can say has come from the show.” ASJ Editor’s note: New episodes of Deadliest Catch can be seen on Tuesday nights on the Discovery Channel at 10 Pacific (check your local listings). Follow Capt. Keith Colburn on Twitter (@crabwizard) and Instagram (@captainkeithcolburn) and like at facebook.com/CaptainKeithColburn. 30

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BORN TO BE

WILD NEW BOOK CAPTURES BEAUTY OF WESTERN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND 32

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Editor’s note: Fjords and fish; bears and birds; glaciers and glitz; Prince William Sound represents one of North America’s most spectacular backyards and flanks Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Author Debbie Miller and photographer Hugh Rose chronicled every step they took around the breathtaking Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area, a 2-million-acre natural wonderland on the sound’s west side, then tag-teamed to create a new book that highlights the region’s flora and fauna. The following is excerpted with permission from A Wild Promise: Prince William Sound (published by Braided River, 2018) by Debbie S. Miller; photography by Hugh Rose. Braided River is an imprint of Mountaineers Books. BY DEBBIE S. MILLER PHOTOS BY HUGH ROSE

I

A black bear makes a treacherous stream crossing along Barry Arm in Prince William Sound, the subject of Debbie S. Miller’s new book about the ecological wonderland along the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula. (HUGH ROSE)

t’s a breathless morning on McClure Bay. Layers of clouds and mist obscure the surrounding mountains, shrouding the rainforest in silence. The rhythmic stroking of paddles breaks the quiet as our kayak slips through the glassy intertidal water. Below, I spot small, purple shore crabs racing between barnacle-specked rocks, while gold rockweed undulates with the current. Every so often we see a dazzling orange or purple starfish, anchored in a sheltered pool. On this particular day, I’m paddling with Kaz, an 82-year-old woman on her first trip to Alaska. Fit and full of enthusiasm, this is also her first experience in a kayak, and she’s thrilled to be paddling. A retired graphic designer, Kaz sees the beauty in rock and water, the intricate patterns of nature, and the subtle elements of a landscape few would stop to study and photograph. “What’s that?” Kaz hears a strange new sound. It’s the shrill, descending chitter of a bald eagle soaring above us. We watch it perch on the crown of a moss-cloaked Sitka spruce. We’re close enough to see the intense golden eyes of this formidable bird. Kaz and I spot several bald eagles, some flying above the forest, others gazing down at us from their evergreen perches. When eagles gather MAY 2018

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near the head of a bay or an incoming stream, you can safely bet that salmon are there. Soon we see salmon jumping and wriggling up a nearby shallow inlet stream. It’s low tide, so we can clearly observe the big chum salmon (also known as dog salmon in Alaska because they are traditionally fed to sled dogs). They wiggle and scoot across the water’s surface, dorsal fins and backs exposed. There are hundreds of them, moving through the shallows, thrashing and splashing to reach the clear freshwater inlet. Without a whisper, Hugh points across the stream, near the forest’s edge. We study the landscape of tall spruce and hemlock, alder thickets, and a fringe of meadow. Something round and dark is moving. A big black bear, looking healthy, with a belly no doubt full of salmon, ambles through the grasses and scattered willows. What a great place to scoop up a favorite fish. This bear is one of few sighted on Discovery [tour boat] trips in recent years. Their numbers have dropped in the area because of increased hunting

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Chums prepare to spawn in a river leading into upper McClure Bay. Salmon are the lifeblood of these waters. (HUGH ROSE)

pressure, which includes the allowance of bear baiting. While black bears were once regularly seen along the streams and beaches of Prince William Sound, road access to Whittier and overhunting has diminished their population. A number of people have raised their voices about the worrisome decline, including Dean, who has witnessed it. We watch the sleek bear with glossy, thick black fur swagger up the river in

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no particular hurry. Near the stream, there are thickets of salmonberries and blueberries, a perfect buffet for the bear. After he disappears in the woods, we beach the kayaks and take a closer look at the salmon as they muscle upstream through water just a few inches deep.

CROUCHED ON THE RIVERBANK, I’m looking into the eyes of several large chum salmon, their heads and slithering bod-


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“When eagles gather near the head of a bay or an incoming stream, you can safely bet that salmon are there,” author Debbie Miller writes. (HUGH ROSE)

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ies well above the water. Chum salmon are hefty fish, second only to king salmon in size. The spawning males have hooked jaws with sharp, canine-like teeth. Their mouths gape as they fin their bodies forward. Some become stranded in the shallows. They twist, jackknife their bodies, and leap to reach deeper water. The clear water of the stream offers a great chance to see these colorful fish. The males, some of them 10-pounders, have flashing plum stripes streaking across their silver-green bodies. Each fish has a unique psychedelic, tie-dyed pattern of colors. The females’ coloring is more subdued, with a dark stripe running along the midline of their silvery bodies. The countless streams around Prince William Sound support healthy salmon spawning runs, including four species of Pacific salmon: chum (dog), pink (humpback), red (sockeye), and silver (coho) salmon. Two major stateowned hatcheries in the Chugach wilderness also enhance pink and sockeye runs, largely for commercial fishing.

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

While the hatcheries produce millions of fish for the commercial fishing industry, some worry that over time such fish will diminish the strength and productivity of wild salmon, and, in fact, some scientists argue that this is already happening. These wild chum salmon are nearing the end of their lives. After spending three to four years at sea, they now return to their birthplace, the natal stream where we stand. Here the males and females will pair and spawn. In three to four months, their buried fertilized eggs will hatch. The tiny fry will spend a short time in the stream, then migrate to saltwater when they are 1 to 2 inches long. For several months, they will live in protected waters, hiding in eelgrass beds, eating insects and crustaceans, escaping bigger fish. When ready, the survivors will venture out into the big, deep blue. This stream is pristine. Each fin, every rock, each wisp of algae is in perfect focus. It is one stream of thousands that flow into Prince William Sound from the glaciated mountains and through the


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A PRISTINE

ECOSYSTEM IN AND AROUND PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND

Photos by Hugh Rose and reprinted with permission from A Wild Promise: Prince William Sound

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dense forest. The temperate rainforest filters every raindrop through its mosscloaked branches, its understory of devil’s club and ferns, its thick sedge meadows, and its luxurious carpet of spongy sphagnum moss. This filtering creates the crystalline, pure, oxygen-rich water that spawning salmon need.

EACH STREAM IN THE rainforest is a living thread connecting land to sea. What the stream and sheltering forest give to the salmon, the salmon give back when they return to their birthplace. The spawning salmon are a source of food for many forest creatures, and the marine nutrients from their decaying carcasses enrich the web of life in and around the streams. As much as 70 percent of the nitrogen found in vegetation near spawning streams comes directly from salmon. This means a Sitka spruce in salmon-spawning country can grow more than three times faster than trees living away from such streams. Amy Gulick’s book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest eloquently portrays this story. Just as

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A school of pink salmon congregates in McClure Bay enroute to their spawning grounds. “Each stream in the rainforest rainforest is a living thread connecting land to sea,” Miller writes. “What the stream and sheltering forest give to the salmon, the salmon give back when they return to their birthplace. (HUGH ROSE)

salmon are in the trees, so are trees in the salmon. The leaves and needles of streamside plants provide shelter and food for invertebrates. Some of those tiny creatures fall in the water and become a salmon meal. When leaves, branches, or trees fall in a stream, they provide nutrients and food for bacteria, algae, plankton, and aquatic insects.

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

Young salmon then thrive on these food sources. Each generation of salmon benefits from the nutrient-rich forest that their ancestors helped create. ASJ Editor’s note: To order A Wild Promise: Prince William Sound, go to mountaineers.org/books/books/a-wild-promiseprince-william-sound.


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OUTDOOR CALENDAR

Valdez hosts its popular halibut derby beginning on May 19. (VALDEZ CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU)

May 10 Spring brown bear season opens in GMU 9 (Alaska Peninsula) May 15 Start of Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby; homeralaska.org May 19 Start of Valdez Halibut Derby; valdezfishderbies.com May 19 Start of Ketchikan King Salmon Derby; ketchikansalmonfishing.com May 31 Most bear hunting seasons end June 1-30 Seward Halibut Derby; seward.com/welcome-to-

seward-alaska/halibut-tournament-june June 8-17 Valdez Halibut Hullabaloo; valdezfishderbies.com June 8-17 Slam’n Salm’n Derby, Ship Creek, Anchorage; anchorage.net/events/salmon-derby July 4 Mount Marathon Race, Seward; mmr.seward.com July 21-Sept. 2 Valdez Silver Salmon Derby; valdezfishderbies.com July 21 Valdez Kids Silver Salmon Derby

Editor’s note: For more specific information on hunting regulations, refer to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s handbook (adfg.alaska.gov).

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STAY LATE,

CATCH STEELIES

Author Tony Ensalaco caught this gorgeous steelhead late in the season, a time of year that most Alaska anglers begin to target saltwater species and prepare for salmon runs. But Ensalaco says the Panhandle river fishery thrives into May. (TONY ENSALACO)

AS LATE SPRING IN ALASKA DIRECTS MANY ANGLERS TO OTHER SPECIES, DEDICATED STEELHEADERS STICK AROUND FOR LAST CASTS BY TONY ENSALACO

T

he afternoon shade from the overhanging tag alders, along with the water’s broken surface created by the riffles, prevented me from seeing if anyone was home – although I was sure the steelhead were there. As I fumbled my way against the swift current, I felt my left wading boot shift about my ankle, causing me to momentarily lose my balance before I was able to regain my footing. The forecasted temperatures were in the 60s – balmy by Alaskan standards – so I had chosen not to wear my wool socks. I’d never considered how that choice

would affect the fit of my waders. As I scanned the opposite side of the stream looking for an opening in the brush line to place my cast, I observed my buddy Danny Kozlow unhooking his sixth or seventh Dolly Varden taken from a sweeper that he was working above me. It was strange to see someone fishing for spring steelhead while wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. I had to remind myself to stop daydreaming and focus on fishing. My first cast came up short, so I stripped 5 more feet of line off my Martin 72 fly reel and lobbed another cast toward the opening in the alders. This time my yarn fly landed close

enough to my intended target. I then I felt the familiar tapping of my split shot, which was rhythmically skipping along the gravel bottom. About then my line abruptly stopped. I reluctantly set the hook, as I assumed my weight was stuck in one of the crevices in the stream’s bottom. Suddenly, the “snag” began slowly swimming upstream before gradually picking up speed and then cartwheeling in the center of the stream, revealing its massive crimson flanks and olive-green back. “Danny!” I shouted, “This thing is a toad!” A rush of nervous energy came over me as I stumbled my way downstream and chased the dump truck-sized male

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Bob Ensalaco fights a steelhead under sunny skies late in the season. The author’s dad also cashed in on a “dropback” steelie, females that have spawned and are recuperating before making their return to the saltwater. (TONY ENSALACO)

steelhead that was connected to the end of my line. You would think the 9-weight Sage saltwater blank that I was using should have been plenty of stick to slow down the beast. No chance. This alpha male was calling the shots and I was just along for the ride! Thankfully, the fish decided to stop its beeline when it reached the deep hole located 50 yards downstream. It gave me the chance to catch up and retrieve some of the precious mainline that I had lost during its initial run. Once I was able to regain my composure, I could concentrate on the heavy, methodical headshakes that were being telegraphed through the graphite rod. I knew that the fish could easily blow out of the hole anytime it wanted. There would be no way for me to follow it any further. Fortunately, every time the steelhead would act like it was going to take off downstream, its momentum stopped and it returned to the deepest part of the hole. The slugfest went back and forth for several nerve-racking minutes be50

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fore I was able to work the big steelie close enough for Danny and I to get a clear look at it. Of course, the net was still in the boat back upstream, so my partner had no choice but to attempt to grab the beast with his bare hands. After several valiant tries, Danny was somehow able to get a hold of the fish by its tail and subdue my prize. The fish taped out just shy of 38 inches, not the largest steelhead ever landed in Alaska, but a respectable

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

fish anywhere on the continent. After a celebratory high-five and a quick photo session, we returned it unharmed to the river to continue its mission.

SPRING FLINGS Late-season steelheading has a vibe of its own. The snow, as well as most of the fishermen, should have disappeared by this time, which results in a more tranquil atmosphere along the stream. Most anglers have elected to put away their steelhead gear, turning their


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attention to the tremendous saltwater fisheries that Alaska is renowned for. Others will patiently wait in anticipation for the king and red salmon to make their return to their parent streams in the coming weeks. Calling it a year is a difficult thing to accept for hardcore metalheaders, and for them one last outing is never a bad idea. This is when the steelhead streams can become virtual ghost towns, even though fish are still in the system. It makes for a worthwhile trip. The lack of fishing pressure creates a relaxing, unhurried feel to the day. If you have ever fished some of the popular streams during the height of the season, then you will know what I’m referring to. When you fish during the heart of the run, there is a good chance that your mind will become more obsessed with where the other anglers are instead of concentrating on the actual act of fishing. You will end up spending a large portion of your day worrying about whether your favorite runs are going to be occupied by fishermen when you

QUANTITY MIGHT NOT EQUAL SUCCESS An intriguing but also frustrating subplot in all this is seeing the vast amount of steelhead throughout the river. I mean, you will see fish at this time – lots of fish – but whether or not they are willing to play is a different story. You would think that with warmer water temperatures and so many steelhead in the system, fishing will be easy, right? Not exactly. Don’t get me wrong; you will catch your share of fish, but it can be a tough bite. There are a few things you should be aware of prior to running out and purchasing extra memory cards for your camera: Remember that a steelhead does not remain the same fish, either mentally or physically, from the time it enters the freshwater until the time it spawns. Therefore, the way you go about fishing for them must be considered. As a steelhead’s time in the river increases, so does its urge to spawn, which causes it to become less interested in biting. This is what fishermen refer to as a “stale” fish. It’s likely that steelhead have been harassed for weeks due to relentless fishing pressure. Unless you are on a remote stream, most steelhead have seen a multitude of baits and lures by this time of the season, and a fair amount of the fish have already been hooked. Veteran steelheaders understand this and will adjust their presentations by downsizing their baits and choosing subtler colors. This is when they will select beads and yarn flies as their first choices of attack, either bounced along the bottom or dangled below a bobber. TE finally arrive. This won’t be the case when the run is starting to wind down. Most of the holes will be vacant, and with the longer days at this time of

year, you will be able to leisurely work your way along the stream at your own pace. There is also a good chance that the weather will be more bearable than it was back when the early-arriving fish began showing up several weeks ago – but don’t take that for granted. Even though it’s the only time when the words steelheading and comfortable might be used in the same sentence, I would still bring plenty of warm clothes, along with high-quality raingear ready to be either worn or removed, depending on what Alaska’s unpredictable weather decides to throw at you.

HE’LL HAVE THE EGGS

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A common belief among some fishermen as to why egg imitations work so well later in the year is because there are eggs in the river being extruded by fish spawning upstream. Washed downstream in the current, they trigger a steelhead’s instinctual feeding response. Although a steelhead is a sea-run rainbow trout, I personally don’t believe that this is the exact reason why egg imitations work so well. I think smaller baits in general are a better choice late in the season because the streams tend to run clear at this time. Fish have also been subjected to weeks of fishing pressure. I downsize all of my presentations as


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Baseball icon Yogi Berra gets credit for the cliché, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but stubborn steelheaders like the Ensalacos would say the same about getting in their last at-bats of the season. (TONY ENSALACO)

the season progresses, including plugs, spinners, jigs and flies, and I definitely think that this approach results in more hook-ups. In reality, there are no rules set in

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stone when it comes to steelheading, just some general guidelines that are a good starting point. Until people discover a way to communicate with the fish, opinions will be purely based on specu-

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

lation, which gives anglers the chance to participate in some spirited debates.

LOCATION, LOCATION Another thing to keep in mind is the


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part of the river to fish. During the early stages of the run, steelheaders will typically start fishing the lower sections of the tributaries. The cold water temperature – along with the steelhead’s lack of urgency to spawn – will slow the fishes’ journey upstream. The majority of them will spend more time holding in the deeper runs and holes that are located in the bottom sections of the rivers. Extended periods of high water can shake things up and cause the fish to ascend the tributaries more rapidly. But for the most part, you can’t go wrong fishing down low. As the season progresses, the fish will gradually begin working their way upstream and will spread out throughout the entire system. By the end of the run, your best concentration of fish will be in the upper sections of the stream. This is where I will look for dark water near spawning gravel. Troughs and holes that are in close proximity to gravel bars are great places to find steelies that aren’t quite ready to participate in the spawning ritual. These are the

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fish you want to target.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP While fishing these deep holes, you will most likely run into some dropbacks, which are also called kelts. They are usually female steelhead that have spawned and are recuperating before making their return to the saltwater. Dropbacks start to regain their silvery appearance as they prepare for their journey out to sea. What distinguishes a dropback from a prespawn steelhead is its sunken belly. Dropbacks have a reputation for smashing a bait or lure and then going ballistic for a short time before quickly giving up the fight. Because they are fairly easy to catch but lack stamina, some steelheaders look down on catching dropbacks. Personally, I don’t specifically target them; however, it’s always a welcomed encounter when I do happen to hook one.

COLORED IN CHROME Sure, it’s a blast and a blessing to catch any steelhead, even the dark fish that have been in the river for a while, but

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

how about a chance at catching some legitimate chrome? You know what I’m talking about: Those black-backed, silver-sided demonic creatures that host sea lice and instantly go berserk on the hookset before crushing your dreams and making you wish that you had bought a set of golf clubs instead of that new fly rod. Well, if you are on a river that receives a healthy run of steelhead, then there should be fresh fish entering the stream on every favorable tide throughout May and possibly into June. One thing to keep in mind is that late-returning steelhead are movers; they will shoot through the system fairly quickly. This is why it’s important to learn where travel lanes are so that you can increase your chances of hooking bright fish. I suggest using polarized sunglasses to look for deeper slots along the riverbanks, especially if there is some sort of cover to provide the fish some extra security. Search for signs of moving fish. You may see steelhead cruising over the shallow sections of the stream or


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If it seems absurd that in Alaska you can catch steelhead in a T-shirt and not be miserable, just stick around till late in the season. Though it can be tricky to have success, the fish are in the rivers, as Danny Kozlow and the author can attest. (TONY ENSALACO)

wakes from fish pushing water and disrupting the surface. Steelhead that are on the move are difficult to catch, so watch for them to slide into the deeper water or into logjams that are adjacent to long flats. These temporary resting places are ideal places to intercept steelhead. Of

course, water below rapids and other obstacles that can slow a steelhead’s migration are great areas to consider spending some extra time. There you can wait for the fish to come to you. There will also be times when the river feels as though it were void of fish, but somehow they’ll suddenly show

up out of nowhere. There is a reason why steelhead are referred to as grey ghosts: They are capable of swimming through the shallowest of water without their presence ever being detected. Keep that in mind when the fishing slows down and you lose confidence in the run that you are working.

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Something you should never do – under any circumstances – is try to catch spawning fish while they are on their beds. Wild steelhead deserve the chance to procreate without any human interference. If you happen to be sight fishing, have fun, but please make sure the fish you are targeting are not in the act of spawning. A spawning bed is easy to recognize, as the bed will be lighter in color than the surrounding gravel. You will see a female using her body and tail to fan the gravel to create the bed, while the darker-colored males will be lined up around her. These fish are vulnerable to being hooked, but their fighting ability is subpar. When encountering spawning fish, take the opportunity to watch one of Mother Nature’s greatest spectacles, but please keep your bait secured in the hook keeper. While you are in the area, pay close attention and be extremely careful when you are wading near gravel bars, so you don’t inadvertently walk through any beds and destroy the precious treasure buried in the stream’s bottom.

NEVER TOO LATE I have seen my share of so-called “steelheaders” who prematurely close the book on the spring run once the word gets out that the action for other species is starting to pick up throughout the 49th state. However, true steelheaders will find it difficult to accept the finality of the season and will always be “up” for a last-chance rendezvous with their favorite species to target. All of these diehards retain their passion and subscribe to the philosophy of one of the greatest inspirational characters in American cinema, the legendary premed frat boy John “Bluto” Blutarsky of Animal House fame. “Nothing is over until we decide it is!” Blutarsky shouts as the lead-in to the film’s climactic scene. When you’re a steelhead angler, who can argue with those words of wisdom? ASJ 60

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MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com


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What is it about these hard-tocatch, mostly released sea-run trout that author Jeff Lund continues to obsess over? Somehow, he can’t get away from these fish. (JEFF LUND)

A DIEHARD STEELHEAD ANGLER TRIES TO JUSTIFY HIS OBSESSION

WHY CAN’T HE JUST QUIT THEM?

BY JEFF LUND

I

n my sophomore composition class in college, we wrote self-assessment papers in which we took a break from analyzing characters in stories and how authors used the English language, to look at ourselves. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but it did get me hooked on the idea of at least occasional self-reflection, not as a means to justify or validate, but to become proficient at accountability. After returning from a three-day, twonight steelhead trip I tried to understand why I looked forward to hiking a long way for just a few fish, in the cold. I tried to convince myself I shouldn’t like it. aksportingjournal.com | MAY 2018

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So, here’s why I should hate steelhead fishing (and other miserable activities).

I DON’T CATCH A LOT OF FISH The point of fishing is catching. Steelhead sometimes don’t bite even when you do everything right. They don’t stack up like salmon during the summer or fall runs, so getting one per day is the goal; catching six or more with a fly rod is near an anomaly.

have a much more profound impact going forward. Steelhead are sturdy and resilient, as proven by the fact that they return to the ocean after spawning and then repeat the process, unlike salmon. It’s also illegal on many rivers. So what I’m doing is also completely unnecessary by “getting my own food” standards.

IT INVOLVES WORK WHAT I DO CATCH, I DON’T KEEP I sent a picture of a steelhead to a group chat. One reply said, “Dinner?” I typed back simply that I had venison thawing and didn’t get into the phases of a fish in freshwater and how a spring steelhead that was a holdover from the fall would likely not taste very good; nor did I mention that I couldn’t stomach killing a steelhead. Taking a limit of salmon from a river that has tens of thousands isn’t putting too much of a dent into the population. Killing a single fish of 400 or so can

My most used program is a skiff ride to a river, a two-hour hike to a U.S. Forest Service cabin where I camp for a night or two, or an hour hike to a tent camp. The hike is work, and while it’s 4 miles over pretty docile terrain by Southeast Alaska standards, I sweat. I stop hiking, get into the water and am promptly chilled. I stay in that state until I get back to camp, where there

Whereas salmon angling is mostly done during summer’s long, warm days, cold, wet weather conditions are part of the mystique of fishing for steelhead. (JEFF LUND) 68

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is no dry wood to make a fire, but I try anyway and just end up coating myself in wet campfire smoke. Pure misery.

HUNTING SUCKS TOO, BUT IN A DIFFERENT WAY At least in hunting I am procuring meat, but it’s an awful experience too. I already feel the culmination of packing deer off mountains. Every step down trail-less mountains is absorbed by my back, knees and


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feet. My tired core gives and shoulders slouch. The whole body gets wasted just so I can go get what is available to me at the store. We have reached a point in human history where I don’t have to do any of that to get fed. I can exercise comfortably in front of my own television rather than risking injury or joint overuse going outside. Plus, it costs a lot. The money I save getting my own meat is wasted on new camo designs, jetboil pans, North Face tents, Vortex scopes and whatever else I think I need. Also, in a society that is reaching new intellectual levels, it is becoming socially unacceptable to desire to kill animals for food. Soon we can eat plantbased meat. The time of being cruel to animals is nearing its end. The future is protein science.

ANALYSIS Steelhead fishing is illogical and irrational. At its best, it is the intentional (but temporary) relocation from contentment and comfort – the warmth provided by my home and inventions that

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There’s a lot of hiking involved when you’re this dedicated to this species. (JEFF LUND)

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com


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This is why he continues to be driven to madness. Sure, there are other fish in this fishfilled state that Lund could target. But for better or worse, he’s a sucker for steelhead. (JEFF LUND)

make life easy. Hunting is cruel and indicative of a defective brain, one stuck in a time long-since passed; one that should adhere to cultural norms that are more loving and don’t involve violence.

ANALYSIS OF THE ANALYSIS In light of all this information, I can’t wait to go again. It doesn’t matter that one or two fish is a great day, or that my body fluctuates between hot and cold

with almost hazardous regularity. It’s perhaps a little mean to catch a fish by the face only to release it, but knowing a steelhead exists is different than feeling the slime and marveling in something so unique and beautiful. Life will always confront you with arguments that challenge your worldview. It either changes your mind or solidifies it. Sometimes the reason is not in the words but in the feeling. It’s not surprising then that some don’t understand.

It’s not an idea or cause I became aware of, thanks to the bulletin board at the coffee house down the street or posted on Facebook and born in the urban grid that has lost its connection to the wild world. There are a lot of things that we don’t have to worry about anymore, things that we have evolved or progressed from. In doing so, we have paved over a foundation that involved connection. This is not the modern version of buffalo slaughters on the Great Plains or seal clubbing on the Alaskan shores. This is the modern version of people exercising the misery that used to be the way. I have tried, and failed, to convince myself that steelhead fishing, spring bear, alpine deer and everything else isn’t worth it. It is, and I only have to answer to myself. ASJ Editor’s note: Ketchikan-based Jeff Lund is the author of Going Home, a memoir about an outdoorsman’s adventures in Alaska and California. Find it on Amazon.com.

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Metridium, a type of northern sea anenome, cover a rock during an early-spring dive in the frigid waters of Resurrection Bay, an outing that would also find halibut biting for the divers once back topside. (BIXLER MCCLURE)

DIVING RIGHT INTO HALI SEASON APRIL OUTING ON RESURRECTION BAY WITH A PAIR OF DIVERS FINDS FLATTIES BITE IN EARLY SPRING TOO BY KRYSTIN AND BIXLER MCCLURE

W

hen I opened our freezer to browse the selection for dinner, we still had enough halibut to feed a small village, so I grabbed a fillet to thaw to work through our stock before the summer season. Both of us love to fish, but lately we’ve been getting excited about taking our friends fishing, especially those

who have been bitten by the angling bug and are “hooked” – no pun intended – on the sport. Our friend Kenny is this way. A week or so earlier we headed out on a warm spring day, and when Kenny caught his first yelloweye rockfish, he was ecstatic. “I really want to catch a halibut,” he said as Bixler filleted up his rockfish for dinner. “Oh, we’ll go out and soak when the

weather gets good again,” Bixler replied. “The fishing is only going to get better as we get closer to summer!”

ANOTHER STORM WAS BREWING in the gulf. Springtime fishing is an exercise in dodging storms and reading weather. After that warm day on the boat, Seward got slammed with 20 inches of snow and high winds. It was Alaska’s usual last blast of winter before the calm of summer arrives. During times like this we start obsessing over the weather forecast and planning our fishing trips. “Next weekend looks amazing,” I said, scanning the online weath-

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er forecast while heavy, wet snow dumped outside. “Yes! And Kenny is free and he has his diving friend here,” Bixler replied excitedly. “We should dive and fish!” We hatched a plan to do a two-tank dive followed by an afternoon of halibut fishing. The following weekend, the sun peeked out and warmed up the land to 50 degrees. We met Kenny’s friend Connor, a professional underwater photographer and aspiring angler. He too was interested in halibut fishing, though we warned both of them that spring halibut can be hit or miss. We headed out on our boat Missing Lynx to start our dive trip. Bixler and I each decided to do a dive so we could take turns watching our son Lynx, while Kenny and Connor braved the 39-degree water to do both dives. I was happy that I only did one dive and limited it to 30 minutes. I would

later find out that day that my core never fully warmed and I spent some of the halibut fishing experience inside the warm, heated boat. After swimming through fields of metridium (“underwater flowers”) and playing with friendly sea lions, we headed back to the harbor to recharge before halibut fishing. Both Kenny and Connor were excited and interested in the different fishing techniques. “We are going to soak for them,” Bixler told them. “So we’ll go out to one of our spots and anchor up for a few hours. It’s a little early, but worth a try on a day like this!”

I DROPPED OFF THE little guy at Grandma’s and helped Bixler gather our fishing gear at home. Kenny and Connor grabbed snacks and we headed back out on the boat as the sun warmed the cabin. We arrived at one of our fishing spots. I described to Connor where we were and

After a cold winter, it wasn’t exactly balmy this spring day, but the chance to catch a halibut off Seward was worth the chill. (BIXLER MCCLURE) 78

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pointed out snowcapped landmarks. We could see the next storm out in the gulf, but the area around Seward was still plenty sunny and the seas were calm. Bixler and I rigged up our halibut gear and used our Hawaiian-style palu (bait) cone (Alaska Sporting Journal, June 2017) to chum the seafloor with herring. “And now, we wait,” I told everyone. Halibut fishing is an exercise in patience. We passed the time telling diving stories to Connor, who hailed from our home state of California and lived in one of our favorite diving spots, Monterey. At some point as the conversation steered to the disappointing grocery-store sandwiches we had brought, one of the rods had a significant tap. Kenny jumped to the rod. “No, wait!” Bixler instructed. “Wait until the rod is basically jumping up and down. You can’t set a circle hook, so we need to wait for the halibut to do


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it itself.” Before Bixler could finish his teaching moment, the rod was bouncing in the rod holder. Kenny grabbed the rod and gave it a few good reels before reeling up a respectable halibut, the first of the season. We all cheered and put the fish in the hold. “The average halibut caught out of Seward is only 8 pounds,” Bixler told Kenny. “I don’t care how big it is! That was great!” Kenny exclaimed.

AS THE EXCITEMENT DIED down, Bixler went inside and grabbed our .410 single-shot shotgun for dispatching large fish and then pointed to our flying gaff and buoy. “Wow, so you really need all of that for a big halibut?” Connor asked. “Oh yes, a fish that large can be dangerous to bring on board.” As Bixler explained the process, I noticed a slight tap on one of the rods. “Connor!” I yelled and pointed to the rod. Nothing happened. We reeled it and rebaited the rod as

the other one started to get tapped. Nothing happened on that, either. The current was doing something weird and the boat was swinging in an odd direction. “I think I’m going to finish that disappointing sandwich,” I said as I grabbed it out of icebox. Kenny reeled up one of the halibut rigs after a small tap and found it to be a tangled mess. I set to work on detangling the line from the rig when the second rod started getting hit. “Connor!” Bixler yelled and pointed to the rod. Connor stopped and waited for the significant taps and then the rod bent nearly in half. He pulled the rod out of the rod holder and started to reel in the fish under Bixler’s instruction. “The drag is slipping,” a tiring Connor said while fighting the fish. Bixler was getting the gaff and gun ready and I jumped to help Connor adjust the drag. Immediately I could tell that the halibut was huge. Despite tightening the drag, the fish still pulled line from the reel. As Bixler readied everything, Kenny grabbed Connor’s camera and climbed on

Kenny Regan was all smiles hoisting his 100-pound halibut that gave the rookie quite a fight. (BIXLER MCCLURE)

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STACK YOUR HALIBUT FOR BREAKFAST

Halibut? For breakfast? You betcha! Cut off a small fillet of fresh halibut and start your morning right with this delicious breakfast stack. You can mix up toppings, but we usually like a toast base, halibut and a fried egg on top. It is truly the breakfast of champions! INGREDIENTS Fresh halibut fillet Sourdough bread, sliced Chopped kale Butter Eggs Assorted seasonings: chipotle, adobo and black pepper Hot sauce DIRECTIONS Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a heavy skillet, melt a few tablespoons of butter. Season halibut on both sides with chipotle, adobo and black pepper to taste. When the butter is hot, sear one side of the halibut. Flip and place in the oven for about 10 minutes. While the halibut is baking, prepare sourdough toast. Sauté kale in butter and fry eggs to preferred doneness. Plate toast half first, then cover with sautéed kale. Plate halibut next, followed by the fried egg. Top with hot sauce, if desired. KM, BM

the swimstep, hollering in excitement. Connor continued to reel the halibut in; he was now huffing from exhaustion. I stood back while Bixler readied the

gaff and buoy, and loaded the shotgun. I could tell when the halibut reached the surface because Kenny yelped with joy and Connor wiped his brow from

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the struggle. Following Bixler’s instructions, he held the rod while Bixler gaffed the fish and immediately shot it. Once aboard.


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we could see it was easily 100 pounds. “Well, I guess we found halibut in spring!” Bixler exclaimed.

AFTER A ROUND OF high-fives and loads of pictures, we packed up and headed back to Seward. The swell had picked up and the clouds moved over Resurrection Bay, a sign of another storm rolling in. “Wow, that was a blast, and we personally didn’t even catch any fish!” I told Bixler that night as we were getting ready for bed. I used to be a jealous angler, having never caught a halibut over 50 pounds. But I found a new joy in watching others experience the wonders of fishing in Alaska. Sometimes, you don’t even need to have your hand on the rod to have a great time fishing. ASJ Editor’s note: Krystin and Bixler McClure own and operate Seward Ocean Excursions, which offers water-based activities on the Kenai Peninsula. Check out sewardoceanexcursions.com or call (907) 5990499 for more information.

Kenny’s friend Connor Gallagher (right) didn’t mind that his halibut was a fraction of the day’s big fish. All in all they had a great day. (BIXLER MCCLURE)

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LODGING


(TIKCHICK NARROWS LODGE, ALL)

TIKCHIK NARROWS LODGE COMPANY NAME Tikchik Narrows Lodge WHERE In the Bristol Bay area, on a narrow peninsula separating Tikchik and Nuyukuk Lakes CONTACT INFO (907) 243-8450

Alaska Sporting Journal Tell us a little bit about Tikchik Narrows Lodge’s history. Bud Hodson, owner Tikchik Narrows Lodge was started in 1969 by Alaska sportfishing pioneers Bob and Gayle Curtis in the waters of Bristol Bay. At that time, the Curtises owned and operated Wood River Lodge and Bob used to fly up to the Tikchik Narrows to take his anglers fishing. They would wade from shore because there were no boats. Bob always considered the Tikchik Narrows of the Bristol Bay area to be the best fishing around. He would walk up on top of the rock knoll at the tip of

the peninsula and dream of building a lodge there, which he did in 1969 when he sold Wood River and devoted his time, money and love to Tikchik Narrows Lodge.

ASJ What’s a fishing trip to the lodge like? BH Tikchik is totally isolated, with no other lodges or cabins nearby. It is what you would expect and dream about at a “wilderness lodge.” We have an extensive and diverse fishery, with a large number of venues to fish. Each day brings a new experience and adventures because we fly our anglers to different locations. The

fishing is incredible, with high catch rates, historical sizes and an abundance of fish. Tikchik offers extraordinary accommodations and amenities, service, professional experienced pilots and guides. That said, Tikchik creates an atmosphere and culture of friendliness, which allows our anglers to have a special camaraderie with other guests and our staff.

ASJ What’s your dining experience like for guests? BH Meals at Tikchik reflect the best of Pacific Northwest cuisine, with an

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(TIKCHICK NARROWS LODGE)

Alaskan flare. Our gourmet dinners feature Alaska king crab, filet mignon, halibut, a selection of Alaskan fresh fish and shellfish, New York steaks and duck. We

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serve freshly baked breads, pastries and desserts. Our produce is flown in weekly and is supplemented by our own greenhouse to provide fresh, crisp salads, herbs and vegetables.

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

Dining at Tikchik is far and above what most anglers would associate with a fishing lodge, let alone a lodge as remote as Tikchik. Our dining room has a spectacular


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view of the Kilbuck Mountains.

ASJ Can you share a favorite fishing memory at the lodge? BH There are so many memories in my 40-plus years in this business. However, I would say the memories of my kids catching fish when they were young and seeing the pleasure and excitement on their faces. ASJ Anything else you want to reflect on about Tikchik? BH After 40 years in this business, I still love it. I see the joy and satisfaction my guests have throughout their week and know that I am the lucky one to be able to share this amazing land and resources we have. I have staff members who have worked for me for decades. I enjoy working with them, and I especially enjoy hiring people and giving them tools and training to do a great job and see them succeed and enjoy their jobs. ASJ Editor’s note: Like Tikchik Narrows Lodge at facebook.com/tikchik.

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(TIKCHICK NARROWS LODGE)


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Bears, particularly ďŹ erce yet majestic-looking grizzlies, are steeped in legend and lore. For author Paul Atkins, hunting the bruins that roam the wilds outside his Arctic home base conjure up some of his fondest outdoor memories. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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The Stuff Of

LEGEND

HUNTING BEARS CREATES A BIT OF MAGIC FOR ONE ARCTIC ADVENTURER BY PAUL D. ATKINS

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here I was – standing waistdeep in snow with nothing but a rifle and a sharp knife. I was freezing to death, but I knew the big grizzly wasn’t going to back off!” It sounds like the beginning of an incredible tale that could be the basis for a movie screenplay, a book or a short story in a magazine. Either way, it gets your attention pretty quick. Like many, I love stories from long ago and tales of high adventure, especially those that took place in the Last Frontier, and more specifically, here in the Arctic. There have been a ton of books written on the subject, plus numerous magazine articles and even films depicting those incredible times. Many of the really good pieces predate Alaska statehood. Books about such adventures – Hunting the Arctic and Wolfman stand out – plus movies such as Nanook of the North and The Snow Walker have always intrigued me. The stories are extraordinary in so many ways, and it always amazes me how most of the people not only survived but even flourished back then. What really intrigues me is the way they hunted and what they hunted with. The primitive gear they used and how they prepared for adventure on the tundra, in the mountains or even on the water or ice are amazing. Compared to the gear we have today, it’s truly incredible!

Thoughts of these adventures always come to mind this time of year – late winter and early spring – when hunting partner Lew Pagel and I are out in the backcountry looking for bears. We’ll ride our high-powered snowmachines while dressed to the nines in Thinsulate and Gore-Tex. Even though it’s still tough, those before us make today’s hunters look like novices. But we do what we can, and chasing bears, or at least trying to cut a track, is still a lot of fun!

YOU SEE, BEAR HUNTING is a passion of mine; always has been. I didn’t grow up around bears; far from it. Oklahoma is a long way from bruin country, and the only thing close to something ferocious that we hunted were wild hogs. Like many in the Midwest and Deep South, we dreamed of grizzly, black bear and those monster brownies they have on Kodiak. To actually hunt them and see one up close was really only a pipe dream. Those old and new stories are all we had. And I know many of my friends back home still dream of chasing a big bear and testing their skill against one of the world’s top predators. But I know that most will probably never get the chance. I wish I could make it happen for them. Bear hunts can be expensive for nonresidents, what with the logistics of making it all come together so very costly. Alaska law says they need a guide, and I’ve seen spring grizzly hunts

average $13,500 to $25,000, which boggles my mind. I’m lucky, I guess, that being able to take two bears on my resident license here in the Arctic is a blessing, and with so many bears it’s quite possible. All I know is that I wish I would have had the time to get my guide’s license years ago. With all the bears in my backcountry I could have made some money, experienced adventure and helped increase the moose population. But the disappointment hasn’t stopped me from taking advantage of the opportunities to hunt bears.

NOT MANY PEOPLE HUNT grizzlies in Alaska’s far north. The primary reasons are that the bears are not a meat source for many, and eating their flesh is considered taboo for some. Even if you do, the meat has to be prepared correctly and cooked thoroughly. I’ve had bear many times, and for the most part it was delicious. Some of the best I’ve had has been in camp, usually on a mixed-bag hunt when we’ve been lucky enough to take a fall bear. A few years ago, we were hunting moose way north during an unusually cold September. We weren’t having any luck finding a 50-inch bull, but we did happen upon a fall grizzly cruising the tundra one late afternoon. The bear was eating berries and not paying much attention to us. We were able to make a careful stalk and anchor him not far from camp. We field-dressed him and took the hide and skull, as Alaska law requires.

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Cruising to the top of hills and mountains to glass low-lying valleys has been the author’s and his hunting partner Lew Pagel’s (glassing on the tundra) best bet for bears. This year’s hunting, however, has been tougher due to more blizzards. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

After a bit of discussion, we decided to take his backstraps back to camp in the hopes of trying something different other than MREs and dried food. After wrapping it in tinfoil with a little seasoning, we let it sit for a couple days and then cooked it over an open fire. It was as good as anything I’ve ever tasted!

WHEN A HUNTER THINKS about what to pursue in Alaska, grizzly bears are usually the first species that comes to mind. They’re majestic and bold, appearing out of nowhere, which makes them almost ghost-like when you do see them. If you’re hunting them it’s even more of a magic moment, and I’m here to tell you that there isn’t another animal that will get your heart pounding like a grizzly bear. It’s unforgettable. The first actual grizzly bear – I mean a wild bear – that I ever saw, I killed. That may sound crazy if not weird, but it’s a true story. Yes, we did see a lot of bear tracks, especially when hunting 98

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moose and caribou back in the early days. Big and small, there were tracks everywhere; they lined the river and sandbars and led into walls of willow and alder. Except I never saw a live bear. But those tracks told a story, or at least made me wonder what lay ahead. The tracks actually scared me, and to tell you the truth, they still do today. If anything, they have taught me to be cautious, careful and to never assume. Anything can happen in bear country.

YOUR FIRST SPRING BEAR is special. From cutting a track to making the stalk to the actual shot with bow or rifle, it’s all significant. For me, it’s the actual walking up to it after it’s down. It’s a surreal moment and, in my opinion, an accomplishment like no other. Time seems to stop and you actually have a hard time believing you just took one of Alaska’s greatest trophies. When it comes to hunting spring grizzly, late March is kind of the “mark-

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Cutting tracks is what makes bear hunting in the spring exciting, especially if they’re fresh. Sometimes the prints go on for miles and you may never find the end of the rainbow; other times, it’s just around the corner, so beware. (PAUL D. ATKINS)


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Let there be light, which hunters who live this far north appreciate come spring. The sun is back, and hunting hours extend into the evenings. With an additional eight minutes of light a day, it only gets better throughout the spring, making bear hunting even more enjoyable. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

er” for us here in the Arctic. The sun is back and the big boys usually start to stir if the weather is right. It has been my experience over the years that the larger boars emerge first. After six months holed up in a den, hunger and melting ice will arouse them to leave and move to lower elevations in search of food. Finding a den and then cutting a track to the lowlands has brought us a lot of success. Hunting along the river or drainage leading to the river has usually been our best bet. Bears head down to see what the spring thaw has brought in terms of food, whether it be dead caribou, dead fish or whatever else they can find. If you’re lucky enough to find a winter kill on the tundra, you’ll usually find an array of bear tracks too. If you’re really lucky you’ll, spot the bear itself. Another best bet for us has been to glass the bare spots and shale outcroppings of hills and mountains. The snow is usually gone in those places, 100

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with bears tending to like the sun, especially during the long days of April and early May. Good optics are a must and patience is the key, but with enough time and searching we usually find a bear or two. The biggest spring bear I’ve ever seen was during a subsistence sheep hunt in the middle of March many years ago. It was unusually warm for that time of year and we were way north, close to 100 miles north of my home in Kotzebue. We were in a river trying to navigate the overflow and keeping one eye on the river and the other on the mountains that surrounded us. My hunting partner at the time was several hundred yards ahead of me on his machine when I happened to see movement to my right. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! There was this huge beast standing at the edge of the ice and digging in the snow. He saw me about the same time

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that I saw him, but by the time I could stop and try to get into position to get a shot he was barreling over the hill. All I could see was his behemoth backside moving away. I tried to track him, but the effort ended on a steep incline and the deep snow of the mountain. Man, he was huge; to this day I still don’t know how my buddy didn’t see him. I guess we had other things on our mind. This year has been tough so far. With record snowfalls which seem to never end, cutting a track or finding a recently exited den has been tough. Bears in this country don’t like deep snow and I don’t blame them, as plowing through all the deep stuff is hard work. If their stomachs can hold off, they’ll wait a week or so to make their appearance. My hunting partner Lew Pagel and I have searched our normal haunts but with zero luck so far. We still have time and with temperatures rising, it’s only a matter of time or luck that we will find one or hopefully two.


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Spring bear hunting usually entails long days afield. Make sure you have plenty of food and the necessities to make it more enjoyable. When hunting is this grueling, a Pop Tart can be a welcome treat. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

IN MY MIND, THERE’S nothing better than chasing bears during the sunfilled days of an Arctic spring. It does require you to have the right gear, plus

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time and lots of patience and skill to make it all come together. Danger is always part of the adventure, but I don’t know of any bear hunter

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who wouldn’t exchange frostbite for a little sunburn; I know I don’t. But in the end, if all goes right and you get a bear, you might decide to write


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Good optics are must in bear country. Being able to peruse the mountains, looking for the smallest indent of a track or a den is critical to your success. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

The author took this small bear on a solo hunt a few years ago. “In my mind, there’s nothing better than chasing bears during the sun-filled days of an Arctic spring,” he writes. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

some of it down in hopes that someone – perhaps even a kid – will someday read your story and think back to those glory days. ASJ

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Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author who lives in the northwest Alaska town of Kotzebue. He has written hundreds of articles on big game

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hunting, and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.


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TAKE CARE FOR BETTER BEAR FARE

SPRING IN ALASKA MEANS BRUIN HUNTING AND SOME OF THE MOST SNEAKY-GOOD MEAT BY SCOTT HAUGEN

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ear meat is one of my favorites from big game animals. If you smiled at this comment, you know what I’m talking about. If you scoffed, keep reading. I’ve taken over 50 bears in my life, and there’s a reason I keep hunting them. It’s not for the hide, skull or trophy value. It’s because it’s some of the best eating wild game out there. The key to attaining good-tasting bear meat begins the instant you pull the trigger. Recipes and cooks are often blamed for the gamey taste of bear, but the reality is that improper field care is the culprit. Bears have thick fur, thick hides, big bones and can carry lots of fat during certain times of the year. Their bodies are built for insulation and strength. If you want to optimize the quality of meat on the next black bear you tag, follow some of these guidelines.

DON’T WASTE TIME Snap your photos and immediately start skinning the bear. Get the hide off the carcass as quickly as you can. If you want to have a rug made, remove the paws at the wrist and the head at the atlas joint. But do the finishing work on those later. I use the gutless method when breaking down bears, as it’s fast and clean. When the hide is laid flat, it provides a clean work area. With the hide free, remove the hindquarters. As you cut through the femoral artery, that’s the only blood that will be released in this process. Be sure the bear’s hind end is facing slightly downhill so the blood runs off the hide.

Bears have thick fur and hides, plus their skeletal and musculature structure retains a lot of heat. These factors must immediately be dealt with if you want to experience how delicious bear meat truly is to eat. (SCOTT HAUGEN)

KNOCKING OUT THE FAT Once the hindquarter is free, remove all the fat. Place the fat in a game bag, as it renders down nicely and is great to cook with (see tiffanyhaugen.com for steps on rendering bear fat). With your knife, separate the muscle groups of the hindquarter while starting at the ball

atop the femur and going all the way to the knee, but leave them attached. Take some rope and tie it to the femur right below the ball joint. Hang it in the shade so it can start cooling quickly, because bear bones hold in a lot of heat. This process ensures the meat gets cooling from the inside and outside.

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FIELD

Looking for a creative way to cook up your ground bear meat? Tiffany Haugen (front row, left) has a morning pick-me-up breakfast burger recipe. (TIFFANY HAUGEN)

BETTER BEAR BREAKFAST BURGER BY TIFFANY HAUGEN

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here’s no easier way to incorporate your big game into breakfast than with a burger. And if you don’t have any bear on hand, you can substitute virtually any big game – from moose to muskox. If making these with caribou, add a little more pork sausage to keep it moist. These can also be made without the addition of sausage; it’s only included in this recipe for the added flavor. The versatility of ground game makes it easy to season to your liking and cooks up quickly indoors – such as in a skillet or oven – or outside over the fire or grill. Buns are optional with this breakfast burger. And if you’re cutting carbs you won’t miss the bun with the additional goodies in this creation. ¼ pound ground bear or other big game meat 1 tablespoon pork breakfast sausage

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1 tablespoon ketchup 2 teaspoons soy sauce 1 teaspoon mustard ½ teaspoon minced garlic 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided 1 egg ¼ cup sliced red bell pepper ½ cup fresh spinach 1 tablespoon goat cheese Salt and pepper to taste Fresh chives or green onion for garnish In a small bowl, mix meat, sausage, ketchup, soy sauce, mustard and garlic until thoroughly combined. Form into a patty and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Preheat skillet (adding olive oil) or grill on medium-high heat. Sear burger on each side, flipping only once. Cook until patty reaches an internal temperature of 155 to 160 degrees. In another skillet, heat remaining olive oil and lightly sauté peppers and spinach. Push vegetables to one side and fry the egg to desired do-

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neness. Stack burger on veggies and top with the egg, goat cheese and sliced chives or green onions. Editor’s note: For signed copies of Tiffany Haugen’s best-selling cookbook Cooking Big Game, send a check for $20 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489 or order online at scotthaugen .com. Follow Tiffany on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and watch for her on the online series Cook With Cabela’s, The Sporting Chef TV show, and The Hunt, on Netflix.


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FIELD Repeat the process with the other hindquarter. Remove the front quarters, backstraps and ďŹ llet off the neck meat (the neck meat and the shanks are great when slow cooked). There’s no need to separate the sinew from these muscles, as the meat will cook off of them. Remove rib and brisket meat for stew, jerky or sausage.

KEEP IT COOL Once all quarters are removed, and all fat is off the quarters, debone them. Cut the individual muscles off the bone and place them in a game bag. Get the meat cooling as quickly as possible in a cooler, refrigerator or, better yet, a freezer. Bear meat is the only wild game we do not age. The oily fat and ability of

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The gutless approach is quick and clean, allowing for efficient breakdown of big game. This ultimately results in better tasting meat. This bear is almost ready to quarter. (SCOTT HAUGEN)


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FIELD the muscles to retain heat can result in off-putting flavor, which is where bruin meat's bad rap comes from. Instead, wrap the meat in packages, label it and get it in the freezer.

AVOID A ROOKIE MISTAKE The biggest mistake I routinely see being made with bears is trying to get the animal out, whole, to take care of at home or in camp. This can take hours, resulting in meat improperly breaking down and eventually tasting unfavorable. Avoid driving around showing friends what you’ve just taken. Instead, get that hide off and the meat off the bone quickly. Remove all fat to ensure it doesn’t start going rancid in warm conditions. When tended to quickly and properly in the field, black bear meat is de-

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licious. I’m not going to say it’s better than moose, muskox, Dall sheep or Sitka blacktails, but it’s right up there. When my wife was writing her book Cooking Big Game, we had several taste testers. They never knew what they’d get; that was part of the test. More times than not, these folks preferred bear over deer, elk and other game meat. This spring – and if you’re hunting them in berry patches in the fall – break down that bear quickly. Grizzly bears are also excellent eating, especially ones that have been gorging themselves on blueberries. Go into the hunt prepared for success, which allows you to work efficiently once a bear is down. With timely, proper field care, you’ll be amazed at how tasty bear meat can be. ASJ Editor’s note: To learn gutless field dressing and other methods of breaking down game, order Scott Haugen’s best-selling DVD Field Dressing, Skinning & Caping Big Game at scotthaugen.com. Scott is host of the Netflix series The Hunt. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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When properly cared for, bear meat is some of the best wild game out there. The key is quickly getting the hide and fat off and the meat quickly cooling while keeping it clean. (SCOTT HAUGEN)


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THE QUEST FOR

AFTER MANY NEAR MISSES, A HUNTER FINALLY BAGS A DALL SHEEP RAM BY RON GILLHAM

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e had hunched over, sneaked and belly-crawled to within 200 yards of the bedded band of 25 Dall sheep, which held at least one legal ram. Now, all we had to do was wait. At that distance, my son Joe, a Marine sniper, would not miss. But then I caught movement out

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of the corner of my eye. All I could think was, “You have got to be kidding me!”

TWENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, Joe, who was 12 at the time, and I set out to get him a Dall sheep. A few years earlier, I had taken a nice ram from the area we would be heading into and knew it held some decent rams. As we topped a ridge, we saw a

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small band of sheep and noticed there were four rams that could be legal. We set up a stalk and closed to within 200 yards. At this point, I found out just how good the eyesight of these magnificent animals is. We set up our spotting scope and it was only a matter of seconds before all four rams were watching us. They were close, but in Alaska, you don’t want to make the mistake of being too close.


A ‘UNICORN’

It would take 10 trips into the mountains before this rugged country would yield a ram for Joe Gillham. (RON GILLHAM)

We watched them for a long while and could never tell for certain that any of them would make the full 360-degree curl required to be legal. Since that first sheep hunt so many years ago it had became my son’s goal to get one of North America’s most sought after trophies. We have been on many hunts together, and he took his first big game animal at the age of 8 – a black bear. He has been a big game guide as well as a charter boat captain. He’s taken animals from Alaska and Idaho to Hawaii and Africa.

Over the past 23 years he has attempted to fulfill his dream. We have hunted together and he has gone in alone, and in the 10 prior trips, it was always with the same outcome: Maybe next year.

IN SEPTEMBER 2015, I had planned on hunting an area a friend of mine had told me held lots of animals: moose, bears, caribou and sheep. My wife Pamela and I had drawn caribou tags for that unit as well, so that was our plan. I work a three-weeks-on/threeweek-off schedule, while my son works

a week on and a week off. So on Labor Day weekend 2015, I planned to go in a day early and both Pamela and Joe would follow the next day. I was lucky enough to take a small bull moose on my way in. Over the next three days we saw five more bulls, four sublegals and one that was pushing 52 inches, but by then we were packing up to leave so let him walk. There is a four-wheel-drive trail that goes around the bottom of the mountain. It is about 25 miles around and goes through a variety of terrain. On

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Joe Gillham and his dad Ron spent many hunts trying to harvest a Dall sheep. It had become such a futile goal the Gillham inside joke was that a ram became Joe’s unicorn. This trip was different. (RON GILLHAM)

one of our trips we saw some sheep on the mountaintop. There were seven sublegal rams and some ewes. We wanted a chance at one.

A YEAR LATER, Labor Day weekend 2016, I was planning on being back in the area, as my wife and I were lucky enough to have drawn caribou permits again. Unfortunately my son’s schedule had him working that holiday weekend. My wife, daughter and son-in-law decided to go see if we could fill our caribou tags and maybe get another moose. Unfortunately, all we saw were cows and one caribou calf. As we were making a loop around the mountain, we stopped for my wife and daughter to pick some of the plentiful blueberries. I looked up onto the ridge above us and saw a few sheep, so I pulled out my spotting scope and couldn’t believe what I saw: a legal ram, and in an open area. I pulled out my DeLorme and sent Joe a short message: “I found your ram.” It was Sunday afternoon and he wouldn’t get off work until Thursday morning. I didn’t realize that for the next three days I would have to repeat my findings over and over. We planned on leaving home at 6 on Friday morning for the seven-hour drive, which would get us to where we would don our packs and go after what my son was now referring to as his “unicorn,” the mythical animal. After a final stop in Anchorage to get the last of our supplies, we were on our way to hunt that unicorn. Upon our arrival, we found a couple of hunters with a camp already set up. Our hearts sank. We stopped and introduced ourselves and found out they were only interested in caribou and had no interest in sheep. We parked my Polaris Ranger, made one last check of our gear and set off on what we hoped would be a dream come true. We had hiked about a mile when we saw the first band of sheep, a few ewes and lambs, but not what we were after. We could see a few sheep scattered in the distance and hoped somewhere in those few would be the one I had seen the weekend before. 118

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ABOUT A MILE OR SO further we found another band of sheep. This time he was there – my son’s unicorn. There were about 25 sheep in the group and at least five were rams – one legal, another possibly legal and three sublegal. The Leica rangefinder showed a distance of 840 yards, which was too far for a shot. We crawled into a small cutout that allowed us to set up the spotting scope, check out the other animals and put a plan together to get into range. If the sheep didn’t move, we could go to our left and up a small ridge to within 200 yards or less, and so off we went. Halfway down the ridge Joe peaked up over the top and noticed the sheep had started moving away from us, but the rams stayed bedded. We again surveyed the situation and decided we would have a better chance if we could come up the backside of the ridge they were on. We would have a chance if we could get there before they reached the top of the ridge. On our ascent back to the top of the

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The family patriarch, Ron Gillham, had a bear tag and got himself a nice grizzly along the way. (RON GILLHAM)

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com


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ridge I heard Joe say, “Wolf.” There, on the skyline was a coal black wolf watching us from about 600 yards away. Fortunately for us it ran the opposite direction from where the sheep were feeding. After we made it around the ridge, to our surprise we found some small trenches and cutouts, which would let us sneak in without being detected. At about 200 yards, we spotted the back of one of the sheep. We belly-crawled a little closer, then noticed one of the smaller rams was up and looking in our direction. We knew the legal ram was bedded within a few yards of it. With only a couple of hours of daylight left, all we had to do was wait for the larger ram to stand up. Now, it was up to the ram to finish the game Joe had played for so long. But there were more surprises ahead.

Finally! Joe has taken animals all over North America, Hawaii and Alaska, but this ram carried special meaning. (RON GILLHAM)

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OUT OF THE CORNER OF my eye and not a 150 yards away from us I saw a very large grizzly headed straight at the band of sheep. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing; all the preparation, stalking and crawling was now going to be ruined by a bear. I had wanted to take a grizzly, and since it was going to scare the sheep anyway I told my son I was going to shoot it. “Wait and see what happens,” he said. The bear had traveled about 50 yards further further when Joe said, “Shoot it; either the shot or the bear will scare the sheep anyway.” I took a rest, placed the crosshairs behind the bear’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The bear did a somersault, got to its feet and headed down the mountain. I jumped to my feet to see where it would go. When I did I saw the ram – the only sheep to run to our left – running below us and disappear into a small ravine. I yelled and pointed downhill: “Ram!” Joe jumped up and started running down the ridge when the ram came out of the ravine and disappeared into another one. Each time the ram would go into a ravine my son would run towards it. At 352 yards the ram stopped and looked back; my son calculated the shot


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This father-son Dall sheep selfie is one the hunters won’t soon forget. (RON GILLHAM)

and squeezed the trigger. The ram turned 180 degrees and headed back towards Joe. I stood over my grizzly and watched it unfold. I had noticed that each time the ram would exit a ravine it would shake its head. You would think that that on a white animal you would be able to see blood, yet we weren’t spotting any. The ram went into the last ravine at about a 100 yards, but this time it didn’t come out. Joe rushed to the edge of the ravine and saw that the ram was down but not dead. It looked up at him, jumped to its feet and headed down the ravine. But a final well-placed shot put 124

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the ram down for good. I think anyone within a 5-mile radius could have heard him yell. Twenty-three years, 10 trips, lots of time and so many expenses, all those many miles and preparation; all of it had finally paid off.

I HEADED UP TO where the sheep and my son were. It was then that I really understood what this beautiful animal truly meant him. With tears in his eyes, Joe hugged me and said, “I did it; finally I did it.” No longer could his “unicorn” be a mythical nonexistent animal. It was real, and it was his. ASJ


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Sitka blacktails are native to Southeast Alaska, but have been transplanted elsewhere, including to Prince William Sound islands and Kodiak Island. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

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BIG GAME SPOTLIGHT: SITKA BLACKTAIL DEER

BY PAUL D. ATKINS

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The Sitka blacktail deer is native to the wet coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska and in the coastal north of British Columbia. Its range has expanded via transplants and established populations now exist near Yakutat, in Prince William Sound and on Kodiak and Afognak Islands, where I’ve hunted many times. Related to mule deer, Sitka blacktails are smaller and stockier than the Columbian blacktail deer found in the Pacific Northwest. The average live

s soon as we made landfall, we could see the deer in the distance. It was November and the Kodiak hills were teeming with brown dots against the yellow, snow-filled grass. It was one of those “good years” with many deer around, but this guy was bigger than anything we had seen. We scrambled and pulled the spotting scope from its case. Our observation was correct, and after a long stalk we were able to anchor him to the ground.

weight of adult Sitka blacktails is about 80 pounds for females and 120 pounds for males. Bigger-bodied bucks can be found, and some exceptional ones in the 200-pound range are taken. The dressed weight of a 100-pound deer is about 60 pounds, which yields about 35 pounds of meat. They are first-rate table fare, with many hunters considering them the best-eating animal in the state.

WATCH THE WEATHER Deer populations in Alaska fluctuate

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GIMME FIVE: FACTS ABOUT SITKA BLACKTAIL DEER

The author with a harvested Sitka blacktail. The hunting grounds for these deer are shared with brown bears, so be wary of bruins also looking for a good meal. (PAUL D. ATKINS)

considerably with the severity of the winters. When winters are mild, deer numbers generally increase. However, a severe winter will cause a major decline in the population. I find this quite common where I hunt on Kodiak. There have been years that deer seem to be everywhere, while the next year a deer cannot be found. However, since deer can reproduce quite rapidly, reduced populations normally recover quickly. In some cases, predation may accelerate a decline in deer numbers or slow recovery to higher levels.

1) Between 1987 and 2007, an average annual harvest of about 12,330 deer occurred in Alaska. 2) The largest portion of the harvest happens in November during the rut, when both sexes respond to a call resembling the bleat of a fawn. 3) During summer, deer generally feed on herbaceous vegetation and the green leaves of shrubs. During winter, they are restricted to evergreen forbs

Sitka blacktails are found in Game Management Units 1 to 6 and also in Unit 8 (check the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations for more detailed location information). Harvest tickets are required to hunt deer. Season dates and bag limits vary between and within game management units, so be sure to check the current hunting regulations before you plan your hunt. If you do plan to hunt these unique

and woody browse. 4) Sitka blacktail tracks resemble two crescent-shaped halves with two dewclaws. The tips leave a deeper impression in snow or on soft ground. 5) Summer and winter home range areas vary from 30 to 1,200 acres per deer. Migratory deer have larger annual home ranges than resident deer. -Alaska Department of Fish and Game

deer be prepared for bears, especially in areas where the big brown bears call home. The old “dinner bell” saying is true, so be ready for the unexpected. Sitka blacktails are one of my favorite hunts. For my money, it’s the best not only here but anywhere in the world! ASJ Editor’s note: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game contributed to this report. Follow Paul Atkins on Twitter (@aktrophyhunter).

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The annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas gives industry members, including writers like author Christopher Batin, a chance to check out new and state-of-the-art outdoor gear, some perfectly tailored for heading out into Alaska’s wilds. (AMERICAN SHOOTING JOURNAL)

GEARINGAN OUTDOORSMAN UP SHARES FOR NEW ALASKA PRODUCTS TO CONSIDER BY CHRISTOPHER BATIN

M

ost everything Alaskans see in the sporting goods stores, and in catalogs, begins with their introduction at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, held each year in January in Las Vegas. For over 40 years, the SHOT Show has been the place for over 1,850 manufacturers, dealers, retailers and industry professionals to gather and present and promote the newest and greatest items. Over 2,500 members of the media from around the world must submit and be approved through an application process to attend the

show, put on by NSSF, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. To participate in Industry Day at the Range, about 800 select members of the media must be invited specifically by one or more exhibitors to attend. It’s where writers like myself are free to go explore, ask questions and immerse ourselves in outdoor gear and technology, from examining and shooting new ammo and crossbows, to checking out clothing, and the world’s best optics. Without further delay, here are some of the top items Alaskans – anyone traveling to Alaska or who treks around the world, for that matter – should keep in mind for adventures to the 49th state in 2018.

FACE MASK FOR ALASKA COLD The Magnemask Combo Clava by Serius is the face mask not only for hunting season, but also winter use. The vent holes in the solid but easily pliable mask fit snugly on and around the nose, and keeps the hot air from rising up, under eyeglasses. My glasses still fogged a bit, even when using anti-fog spray, but the holes do reduce the amount of fogging. This face mask has a row of magnets, which allow very quick removal of the face portion of the mask, to allow talking, eating or just cooling down and venting. It also wraps around the head and neck, which makes it a hat

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and a scarf/neck warmer. It’s made from performance fleece and nontoxic neoprene, and offers four-way stretch attachments. After using it this year in near-zero weather, I’ve made it a musthave item in my cold-weather hunting and outdoor gear inventory. Info: serius.com

ALASKA CUSTOM MAPS Google Earth has its advantages for prehunt planning, but try to access it in the Alaska wilds and lack of signal will leave you lost in more ways than one. I spent time talking to MyTopo’s Paige Darden, who is a map specialist that Christopher Columbus should have had with him when he was exploring the New World during a time when paper maps ruled. In a world of GPS and electronic maps, a printed MyTopo laminated map is backup insurance, and more. It is virtually the “road map” that ensures success in the Alaska wilderness. My guess is that you’ll use it more than Google Earth maps. “We cover all of Alaska and can customize any map based on a variety of

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criteria,” Darden said. The process is easy: Select the base map type (topo, aerial, satellite, hybrid), and then choose the map’s paper type (waterproof or laminated). Pick from three map sizes (18-by-24 inches, 24-by-36 inches or 36-by-48 inches). Especially important is the premium overlay option, which allows precise ID of landowner names and parcel boundaries, federal land boundaries and game management unit (GMU) outlines. The most popular options include United States Geological Survey (USGS) 7.5 topographic maps (order by the quad). Custom center the map around your hunting location and start choosing options. Benefits to Alaskans include public land boundaries, U.S. Forest Service roads and trails, aerial photographs and satellite imagery. Premium layer options include latitude/longitude grids, MGRS (military) grids, or both. Maps are printed on waterproof paper for use in the field or laminated for use with a dry erase marker or grease pen. The ordering is simple in

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

five easy online steps. Maps are printed and shipped within 24 hours. Info: mytopo.com

MISSION CROSSBOWS SUB-1 If you want to get started in archery but aging shoulders don’t let you draw your compound or recurve anymore, or you just like using the piece of gear that allows you to hunt at your best, you may be in the market for a crossbow. But shop with care. While Ravin and 10-Point crossbows are top-of-the-line choices, the world doesn’t revolve around them, as I found out when shooting Mission’s new Sub-1 crossbow. As an owner of a Ravin R15, I know what it can do, and the Sub-1 shoots arrows quieter and incorporates what I feel are better safety designs and release mechanisms, which is evident in its numerous patents and design elements. Expect superb accuracy, with 1-inchor-smaller groups at 100 yards. Not that you’ll shoot anything at 100 yards, nor should you, but it shows what the bow can do.


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Author Chris Batin tests Mission’s Sub-1 crossbow, which has shown to have great accuracy from longer distances. (CHRIS BATIN)

The best way to see the features of this bow is to check it out at your local archery shop, and make your own comparison. I intend to shoot a Sub-1 a lot more in the months ahead. Info: missioncrossbows.com

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GERMAN HUNTING TRADITION IN CLOTHING AND FIREARMS There’s something to be said about traditional hunting methods, such as longbow instead of compound bow hunting. Old-world tradition meshed

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

with the functionality of natural fabrics is the realm of Jagdhund, which means “hunting dog” in German. Jagdhund is well known and respected worldwide for its traditional hunting clothing made from all-natural materials that include


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alpaca wool, sheep wool, camel hair and cotton. The result is a blend of materials under a variety of brand names that I did not believe was possible. The process and blend of fibers in their hats and backpacks, for instance, is as dense as a beaver dam, and if you’ve ever had to remove one of these from a culvert, you know the true meaning of density. Fabrics like this offer great wind protection, durability, little if any noise, and weather resistance. The clothing line includes men’s and women’s jackets, shooting vests, waterproof capes, pants, shirts, polos, base layers, hats, scarves, shoes, and boots. Its X JAGD line offers high-tech clothing that is designed by hunters, rather than some big-city textile employee. Their demorphing camo is a pattern that truly makes any wearer dissolve into the backdrop of most any wooded or tundra environment. Attention to detail is key to keeping you warm and protected in the Alaska wilds. Take a close look at their Robur-Band sewing material, which allows sewing

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of this material without a liner. Jagdhund line of Potschn boots should be the standard for making most hunting boots. They sport seams away from key stress and flex points, and reinforced in high-wear areas, and have a solid lug sole to tackle anything that Alaska sheep and goat country can dish out. Info: jagdhund-usa.com

LIFETIME-GUARANTEE SUNGLASSES Gatorz rep’s Rachel Anderson stopped me as I walked by their booth at SHOT’s Day at the Range. I’d had no intention of stopping and seeing another pair of protective eyewear, but the “lifetime guarantee” piqued my curiosity. The Magnum Z is the first-ever American-made aluminum sunglass model to meet an ANSI Z87+ high-velocity impact rating. Rachel handed me a pair to check out. “Compare these to other wraparound sunglasses on the market, and you’ll notice the difference immediately,” she said confidently. She was right. The aircraft-grade aluminum frames were lightweight, yet

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

solid – a rugged type of solid. I torqued the frames by twisting and bending them, which is what usually happens to eyewear I’m wearing while falling asleep, or placing them in a pocket and sitting on them. They bounced back to their original shape. The aberration-free, scratch-resistant lenses caused no eyestrain and fit around my head snuggly, yet firmly. They blocked surface-glare well, and best of all they look seriously rugged, if you like the wrap-around look. Lens replacement and prescription options are also available. And again, the lifetime guarantee is reason alone to own a pair for your Alaska outdoor pursuits. Info: gatorz.com

BUCK’S 110 AND MOOSE SKINNER I bought a Buck knife when I was 13 for skinning furbearers, and there hasn’t been a time in my career when I haven’t owned one of this company’s knives. I was lucky enough to review the new models for 2018, and once again, Buck Knives does not disappoint.


The 110 Folding Hunter LT weighs in at only 2.1 ounces, compared to the 7.2 ounces of the original 110 Folding Hunter. It’s the knife I currently carry in my pocket for everyday use on the homestead. Utilizing the same famous blade, the bolster and handles were replaced with a lightweight molded nylon to reduce weight while maintaining the same quality and rigidity. It’s affordable at less than $40. The Open Season Series is the new flagship for Buck’s line of hunting knives. This series was redesigned and offers knives named after their purpose: Skinner, Small Game, Caper, Moose Skinner, Folding Skinner, and the Boning knife, a line that covers just about any animal and all game processing. My favorites are the Moose Skinner and Boning knife, which are perfect for any Alaska hunter who processes his own game meat. Best of all, Buck knives are made in the U.S.A. Info: buckknives.com

MUSTANG INFLATABLE LPU The new Mustang Survival’s Ratis inflat-

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Buck knives have been a tradition among outdoorsmen and -women for decades, with some carrying the blade since they were a kid. The company’s products include the 110 Folding Hunter LT, Moose Skinner and Boning knives. (BUCK KNIVES)

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able LPU (life preserver unit) – the result of ďŹ ve years of working closely with Naval Special Warfare experts – looks like a winner for Alaska’s ice-cold waters. Both lightweight and extremely compact, the unit utilizes exclusive inator technology that is triggered by water depth, time submerged in water, or a combination of both. It doesn’t feel bulky under a hunting jacket or a ďŹ shing vest and allows shouldering a rie with ease. It’s a must for those river rafting trips on glacial streams, where it’s affordable life insurance of the best kind for keeping you safe and alive. Info: mustangsurvival.com

FROGG TOGGS RAINWEAR Frogg Toggs has always meant lightweight, packable rainwear at an affordable price, and their 2018 Dead Silence hunting clothing line does not disappoint. “Dead Silence is a line of breathable, super-quiet, and affordable raingear that uses Teflon-coated, brushed poly exterior material engineered for silence, freedom of movement and warmth,� said Will

Fowler with Frogg Toggs. The middle layer includes the Dri-Pore Gen 2 film. Last, the inner layer consists of a soft jersey liner for the ultimate in breathability, comfort, mobility and body temperature maintenance. It’s designed to be used a liner with their Co-Pilot insulated puff jacket or by itself for year-round use. Available in three camo patterns and includes a lifetime warranty. Info: froggtoggs.com

TRAIL CAM CARD READER Trail cameras are indispensable scouting tools for many hunters, and checking them for images and video clips – of bears using a trail or trophy moose we hope they’ve captured – is always an exciting process. Unfortunately, if those inspiring images do exist, most of us have to wait until we’re back at the truck or camp computer to find out. Not anymore. Wildgame has two all-new SD Card Readers for Apple and Android phones. These small, highly portable and convenient SD card readers make checking trail cam

images from the field with your phone or tablet device both fast and easy; no batteries, internet or cell service required. I use one of these portable readers, which allows me to adjust my cameras on the spot for the best possible images. Info: wildgameinnovations.com

WALLS XCELERATOR HUNTING JACKETS AND PANTS With hunting jackets and pants often costing more than a new rie, ďŹ nding the right clothing at the right price can be challenging. For late-season hunting gear, using lighter camo patterns that blend in with the snow or for alpine or open tundra use, where lighter lichen colors are more predominant in many scenarios, look to the late-season Xcelerator line of hunting clothing from Walls Outdoor Wear. The Xcelerator pants and jacket I wore for the last part of hunting season offers Scentrex, a dual scent management system, using silver and mineral-laced fabric to reduce scent. The jacket offers a detachable hood with

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Having comfortable and durable clothing while in the field is as crucial as the right rifle and knife. Batin likes the layering components of jackets made by Walls. (HEATHER BATIN)

zippers and snaps (a welcome plus), and the deep cargo pants pockets a great for carrying small items. Best of all, it’s comfortable and warm. Walls Outdoor Goods may not be a household name in hunting clothing in Alaska, but the brand rocks among outdoor enthusiasts in the Lower 48. Its Pro Series can punch it out in tough weather

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conditions for Kodiak deer or late-season mountain goats, or you can choose from optional camo patterns to match seasonal Alaska hunting conditions. What I like best about the Pro Series jacket and pants is the layering components, the reinforced belt loops, embedded zipper bases to keep brush from unzipping zippers, and quiet windproof

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fleece with no noisy liner or outer fabric. Info: walls.com

TREESTUMP BLIND Sitting out in the rain, waiting for a moose or blacktail deer, is a thing of the past. The stealthy Deadwood Stump Blind from Ameristep is superb for use in Alaska’s big-forest country. The blind


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combines a wall-hub design with patent-pending kickout technology to create the realistic profile of a large, dead tree stump; the floor kick-outs taper out at the bottom, creating the familiar shape of a tree trunk. While kick-out technology contributes to the Deadwood’s realistic and convincing shape, it also adds room, utility and maneuverability inside. The three floor kickouts provide extra storage space for gear and equipment, which would otherwise be underfoot. Additionally, floor kickouts offer the extra utility of attached floors and sewn-in shelves, and the design of these kickouts gives hunters improved access to Deadwood’s versatile and inconspicuous windows, which are abstract in form to blend in better with the natural environment. Hunters can shoot directly through the replaceable mesh or adjust the silent window covers to customize viewing and shooting options. Up top, dual roof kickouts add height to the Deadwood where it’s needed most, creating a generous increase in headroom for standing and enhanced visibility. The

TrubarkHD camo design blends into most brushy scenarios with ease. Provides three-person capacity, and plenty of room for gear inside the blind. Info: ameristep.com

HALO XL600 LASTER RANGEFINDER Every hunter should carry a quality laser rangefinder, especially when a quality one will cost you only $120. Halo’s new XL600 Laser Rangefinder delivers accuracy to within 1 yard, and its six-power magnification provides bright, clear viewing and fast target acquisition out to 600 yards. Easy-to-read internal LCD displays offer a reticle, battery status,

mode setting, numerical display and unit of measure, which is selectable by yards or meters. The XL600 operates in dual modes. Standard mode provides a single precise distance reading with one push of the button, while the Scan model enables users to quickly range multiple targets without having to reactivate the laser for each target. And for mountain or tree-stand hunters, the product’s AI technology accounts for slope to the target measurements. While the unit is only water-resistant instead of waterproof and uses a CR2 battery instead of double AAs,

MORE ABOUT SHOT SHOW The SHOT Show is put on by National Shooting Sports Foundation (nssf.org) and is a key event for any and everything shooting, hunting and outdoor related. NSSF supports anyone with a passion for firearms, ammunition and outdoor equipment, and the Second Amendment. Bill Brassard Jr., NSSF senior director of communications, said the organization recently picked up a federal grant and expanded the Project ChildSafe, the industry’s firearm safety education program, program, as well as began a partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. CB

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Batin checks out the feel of a Blaser rifle, considered among the crème de le crème of hunting rifles, and noted for its superb bolt action. He noticed that the bolt configuration that doesn’t require lifting up and pulling back; one just pulls back and pushes forward to load another round. (CHRIS BATIN)

it does come with a one-year warranty and feels good in the hand. Info: halooptics.com

THE P-51 OF RIFLES If I were just starting to invest in big

game hunting equipment, I’d probably not buy a variety of rifles. Instead, I’d buy a Blaser R8 and own a rifle that will, like other rifles, last me a lifetime. But it will be a major investment over other rifles. A rifle is a personal piece of hunting

equipment you buy for life. The Blaser RB offers far too many features to mention here, but just think of it as a precision instrument and see if you can find a gun club that will let you shoot one on the range. Be prepared to be wowed! The bolt action is a tempered roar over the clunky cough of other rifles. It’s smooth yet authoritative bolt is as solid as a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in a P-51 Mustang. The R8 offers interchangeable barrels that include popular calibers up to .500, with many suited for the toughest Alaska hunting conditions. It may take a while to save up to purchase one at a base price that hovers around $5,000, but once you do, you won’t go back to a standard bolt-action rifle again. Few rifles in the hunting world can match its quality and accuracy. Info: blaser-usa.com

ANTI-MICROBIAL GAME BAGS Whether it’s early-season moose or August sheep and caribou, 75-degree temperatures bring out hordes of flies, which at the least can be bothersome. At worst, they can infest that hardearned game meat with fly eggs and maggots. What you don’t see is the bacteria contributing to that smell that attracts flies, a smell that means your meat is spoiling. Forget black pepper; forget smoke. Koola Buck uses a proprietary blend in 148

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Koola Buck’s anti-microbial game bags feature a proprietary blend of all-natural flavorless acids and bacterial inhibitors to help prevent meat from spoiling and protect the flavor of moose and other wildlife that hunters enjoy eating. (KOOLA BUCK)

its anti-microbial game bags made of all-natural flavorless acids and bacterial inhibitors to protect meat from spoiling and help protect the flavor of moose and other game meat that hunters enjoy. Koola Buck states that bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures above 40 to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. This range is known as the “danger zone” and why it is advised that one not leave food uncovered and unrefrigerated for over two hours. In Alaska, meat hangs for days at a time. When used with a citric acid spray, each of the four cotton/poly-blend stretch-fitting quarter bags per package helps to minimize damage from heat, bacteria and insects. The Anti-Microbial XL Game Bags are available in a vacuum-sealed, bacteria-free four-pack. Info: koolabuck.com ASJ

Pistol Bullets and Ammunition Zero Bullet Company, Inc.

ZER 150

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P.O. Box 1188 Cullman, AL 35056 Tel: 256-739-1606 Fax: 256-739-4683 Toll Free: 800-545-9376 www.zerobullets.com

MAY 2018 | aksportingjournal.com

Editor’s note: Chris Batin is editor and publisher of The Alaska Hunter, and authored the 416-page Hunting in Alaska: A Comprehensive Guide, which includes a detailed chapter on hunting all of Alaska’s big game. He is also featured in the newly released Alaska’s Greatest Outdoor Legends. As a special to ASJ readers, autographed copies of these books are available from the author at batinchris@gmail.com or order online at AlaskaAngler.com.


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