I’ve said it here before; the the fact that I get to escape my bass fishing “bubble” for the stark contrast of life as a fishing guide in Alaska has been an honor and a privilege. Guiding for Mike Trotter at his Baranof Wilderness Lodge has been one of the single greatest settings for personal growth on and off the water.
As I write this I'm returning from my 15th season at BWL and I can’t help but reflect on how guiding for the various species we target in our slice of southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage has accelerated my learning curve in tournament bass fishing.
Ironically, when I was first offered the opportunity to work at BWL I was a naive high-schooler, and I remember thinking. “I’m a bass fisherman. What could a bass angler get from working in Alaska?”
I thank my lucky stars these days that I mustered up at least a small glint of big-picture thinking that an older, wiser, man would have – or maybe it was just pure adventurous curiosity. But in any case, I took the job.
At first I was just a lowly deckhand, icing coolers, dumping fish guts and occasionally assisting on freshwater trips where I would help guests target multiple species of salmon, Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout. Several years later, I decided to get my USCG captain's license so I could leave the rank-and-file for the prestigious role as a saltwater guide.
Okay, so it wasn’t that big of a leap, as I was still doing plenty of dirty work, but it was then that I started to realize I had so much more to learn about fishing than what bass along could show me.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned that has directly translated to success in bass fishing is the influence that tides, and current in general, have on fish activity and behavior.
Where we're in southeast Alaska, we have tidal fluctuations up to 20-plus feet – that’s a lot of water! With 20 or so feet of water moving every 6 hours, in the narrow channels of the Inside Passage, the current is the biggest factor for all species, especially halibut. The bite while pursuing these surprisingly nomadic flat-fish is extremely dependent on the tides, and I rely heavily on the tide chart feature on my Navionics Mobile app when I’m fishing for them.
Halibut fishing tends to be best on smaller tides, when less water is moving, which may be more of a function of your ability to keep baits on the bottom rather than their activity level. Additionally, just like bass in tidal waters, it's imperative that you're ready – with baits on the bottom – as the tide switches, to capitalize on the first hour of incoming or outgoing current.
Fishing for halibut in particular has helped me hone my awareness and understanding of tidal influences, which has certainly helped in bass fishing.
Another key skill that Alaska has helped me with is timely decision-making under pressure. When you have clients who've paid a sizable sum of money to catch fish, you can’t afford to make many bad decisions.
I can’t tell you how many times I've had days when I made the wrong decision on location, species, and/or timing, and came back to the dock with the lightest cooler. However, over the years, I've learned how to be confident in my decisions and how to limit those “dry-fishing” days to a couple a season, if any at all.
The biggest decisions we make on a daily basis, again, revolve around the tides, and how we should approach each species accordingly. Some days you find yourself pulling anchor a half-dozen times before finding the right pick, and others you anchor down, let the scent do the work and load the boat. The same goes for trolling for salmon too.
I've found that regardless of the species you're targeting, decision-making is a learned skill and Alaska certainly has helped me make better, more timely decisions.
Finally, but arguably the most important thing that I've gained from guiding in Alaskan waters, is a healthy respect of Mother Nature.
Though the Inside Passage is not the open ocean, it can be treacherous and unforgiving. With the condensing of tides creating extreme and unpredictable current, if met with a strong wind blowing against it, it can create some of the most nerve-wracking navigating challenges you'll ever experience.
Having had such experiences in stacked seas upwards of 12 feet in a 25-foot boat, I can say I've been somewhat “seasoned” when it comes to rough water boat-driving and safety.
Because of my experience in the rough waters of Chatham Straight and Frederick Sound, I have a better ability to safely navigate (or decide not to) large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes that we on the FLW Pro Circuit visited just over a month ago.
Beyond knowing how to navigate big water, I've also learned how to prepare and maintain my equipment for such arduous trips, such as the 90-plus mile (each way) journey I made from Sandusky, Ohio, up to the northern end of Lake St. Clair.
Although leaving my tournament-fishing ambitions for a few weeks each year seems like a disconnect due to the lack of connectivity to keep up with my social media accounts and business in general, I’ve come to realize I may not be disconnecting at all.
I believe that by leaving the “bass bubble,” I'm reconnecting myself to key aspects of the sport that I forget in the hustle and bustle of tournament fishing. These annual trips remind me about the importance of safety and drive home the critical skill of on-the-water decision-making, as well as teaching me how the ever-changing environment affects the quarry we hunt for.
Guiding for fish in Alaska is certainly not bass fishing, but it sure has taught me a lot about how to do it better.
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an FLW Pro Circuit competitor and the co-host of the TV series "Sweetwater." To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (SonarFishing) and Instagram (@sonarfishing).