PUBLISHED: 2:58 PM on Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Trips to Harbor Island

Barbara Turley photos
  A strong 18-year-old manages not to show how hard he's working as a big one comes up.
Harbor Island, about 40 miles south of Juneau at the mouth of Holkham Bay where Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm enter Stephens Passage, was always a favorite spot when we were raising our family in Juneau.

The scenic grandeur of the glacier-covered coastal mountains set the tone as we made frequent boat trips to fill our freezer with fish, crab, and venison, and our souls with the pleasure of being a family in a glorious world.

Exploring the small island, as well as the two long peninsulas that extended from Holkham Bay on either side, we had both wildlife and history to enjoy. In Sanford Cove on the southern side of Endicott Arm, there once was a little mining town called Sumdum.

It was named for the glacier on the mountainside right behind the bay. It even had a post office at one time. The town remained through the early 20th century.

The fox farm on Harbor Island was in operation into the 1930's. When we first visited the island in the 1980's, the little house was still standing with its view of Stephens Passage, and a few wire fences were still in place on the fox runs.

Barbara Turley photos
  Harbor Island gave us some red meat for the freezer, as well as fish.
Since then we've seen the house turn into a pile of boards. Over the years, seeing humpback and gray whales, black bears, brown bears, wolves, deer, mountain goats, river otters, and mink has added to the fun in this beautiful area. With the small boat that we had when we first came to Juneau, camping on shore was part of the fun. Even when we upsized our vessel to something we could sleep on, we still enjoyed many on-shore picnics.

For my son, John, my daughter, Kathy, and myself, this was the area where we each had the pleasure of catching our first really big halibut.

I will never forget the thrill, or the anxiety, I felt when I realized that I had something really big on the end of my line.

As I started pulling it to the top, the thought came to me that this was just the way I had felt every time my nine months was up and I'd realized that I was actually in labor: thrilled, but a little scared. I knew I had some hard, hard work to do and I fervently hoped I could do it.

After a short while, my husband Kim took time out from hovering over me to tie the line from the harpoon head onto a cleat at the back of the boat. It wasn't long before we got our first glimpse of the fish.

Kim positioned himself with one foot on the out drive housing and one on the side of the boat. He hoped to harpoon the halibut before it took the customary second run.

Barbara Turley photos
  It's hard to beat a fresh king salmon dinner. Below: Catching a trophy halibut in a spectacular setting - that's Southeast Alaska.
When the halibut was at the surface, I loosened the drag and Kim plunged the harpoon into it.

He withdrew the shaft, leaving the point embedded in the back part of the fish's head. Kathy, who was 12 years old and the only one of the children who was with us this time, was ordered off the photography detail to quickly fetch a shark hook.

When Kim had slammed the shark hook through the halibut's jaw and tied off the rope on the boat, the next order of business was to get a rope around the tail and then through the gills to immobilize the fish. It began to wildly thrash the water, but it couldn't go anywhere.

Kathy leaned down and put the loop over the tail, then Kim put it through the gills.

Once he'd pulled the halibut into a bow, there was nothing more it could do. Kim and I together were able to hoist it into the boat. It registered 110 pounds on our halibut scales.

Almost always, time on Harbor Island was part of a fun fishing day.

That particular day, while our cooking fire was burning down to coals, we explored a little, poking around the ruins of the fox farm's small house and shed, gathering salmon berries. When we had a nice bowl-full of berries, we went back to the fire. We hoisted the halibut up against a tall rock on the beach and took some pictures of it. Then I fixed salmon berry pancakes while Kim and Kathy filleted the halibut. Along with the pancakes, we enjoyed a delicious pan-full of halibut cheeks fried in butter. On another occasion there, as we were walking around the rocky southern tip of the island we surprised a whole family of mink. They bounded off over the rocks in a long line. We stopped where we were and soon saw mink peeking out at us from behind various rocks.

It was early one calm summer morning when our son, John, a high school senior at the time, hooked his first halibut that was more than 100 pounds. He was hauling it up so calmly that at first we didn't realize that he had anything more than another 40-pounder on. Only when I noticed how his thick pole was bending did I start to think that this might be something better than that.

"Do we need to get the harpoon hooked up," I asked. When he grunted affirmatively, we all quickly reeled up and got ready for his fish. It wasn't long before his trophy was up, harpooned and firmly attached to the boat.

Good luck isn't the only sort we've had there. The first trophy-sized halibut that Kathy pulled to the surface was on a circle hook that somehow pulled off the line as the fish was thrashing there. John hurled the harpoon after it, but to no avail. Later, she did get her turn to haul up and keep a halibut that was just slightly smaller than the one that got away.

We'd been fishing for halibut there with a friend from Montana one August day when I announced that lunch was ready. Kim reeled up until his hook was only about 40 feet deep, loosened the drag, and put his pole in the pole holder. As we were eating, we saw the pole suddenly bend. Kim had it in his hands very quickly. It wasn't long before he brought in the biggest king salmon that he'd ever caught. That salmon, roasted over the coals on the beach that evening, ranks as the best fish we've ever eaten.

It was in late September one year when we took a deer rifle with us on a Holkham Bay excursion. John had recently returned to Juneau from a summer job in Russell Fiord. Eager to get into the swing of life at home, he quickly convinced us that a one-day boat trip somewhere would be a great thing to do. When we checked the marine forecast and found that the prediction for a bad storm had been changed, we decided to make a halibut fishing trip down to Holkham Bay area. With relatively good water and John at the helm, we made a fast trip, arriving at Harbor Island in about an hour and forty-five minutes. The tidal conditions were right, the water was calm, we were using proven lures, but the halibut just weren't biting. We fished all morning with no more action than one bite on John's line.

At lunch time, we went ashore in a little cove we had never visited before. Slabs of rock with vertical sides twenty to forty feet high surrounded a tiny gravel beach. We climbed around on the rocks and explored a little into the forest behind them. Deer trails seemed to be everywhere in the forest. After eating, John and Kim got the rifle out of the boat and took a short walk back into the woods.

They had been gone about half an hour when Kathy and I heard a shot. In another half hour, they were back on the beach, carrying a deer between them with its feet tied to a pole. It was the second deer that they saw. When they had gotten into the forest, they stopped at a point where they had a little view and Kim blew on a piece of survey flagging. Almost immediately, a deer appeared out of the trees at a full run.

It looked at them, turned and disappeared before John had time to do anything. After moving on to another likely looking place, Kim whistled again. This time John was ready when he saw a deer and dropped it. We were very glad to have some meat to bring home even though the fishing had been unproductive.

Holkham Bay and Harbor Island, whether they are the specific destination, or just a stop along the way, have been part of many boat trips. Whether we're bringing in a pot full of crabs or listening to wolves howling on the mainland south of Holkham Bay, this area has always represented the essence of Southeast Alaska.