At 4 a.m. on a Thursday, the sun was rising above the mountains as fire trucks lined the streets next to the fishing docks here May 24.
A mother and her daughter carrying signs of welcome positioned themselves behind the trucks and waited eagerly. They didn’t have to wait long; soon two shuttle buses arrived, escorted by police cars, carrying two loads of military troops.
Some had returned from deployment; others would soon be deploying. Their mission today: the Annual Armed Services Combat Fishing Tournament.
Some of the troops were experienced anglers. Some had never fished before.
All were looking forward to the Alaska experience.
“I wanted to experience one of the things that people are supposed to in Alaska, so when I took the opportunity to come fishing today,” said Airman 1st Class Rhonda Anderson, 673d Aerospace Ground Equipment technician. “I have zero experience fishing. Back in the day I used to try to make fishing poles with sticks and yarn but that didn’t work.”
Several charters volunteered their services; Anderson’s charter was called Sea Quest.
“We’ve been doing this for a full six years, since the tournament started,” said Sean Carlin, Sea Quest charter captain. “We happily volunteered for ‘Combat Fishing’. It’s been a good time; it’s the least we can do for what you guys do for our country. You guys go to war so that we can go fishing every day.”
The captain first took the group to a spot in hopes of catching fish weighing in at more than 100 pounds.
None were caught, although there were some bites, including one that took the entire rig - evidence of a fish weighing a great deal larger than that.
Some of the more novice fishers took the time to adapt to the situation and equipment.
“I definitely feel like I’m being taken care of here,” Anderson said. “It’s a lot easier than I thought because I had no idea what I was doing at first. I’m hoping to catch a big one or a billion little ones, as long as I catch something...one would be nice.”
She was among the first to get a bite, reeling in a small shark.
The morning went really well, Carlin said.
“It’s kind of fun to do the hog-hunting in the morning,” he said, “It slows things down and gives everybody a taste of both worlds of the fishing here at Seward. It’s definitely slower fishing when you’re going for the 100-plus pound fish, but as you can see patience does pay off.
“I mean it’s not every day you break a 250-pound filament line right in half within a matter of seconds. Those fish were well over 150 pounds. We got to see what they look like when they bite and they run. Next time we’ll get to see what they look like on the hanging rack, hopefully.”
Carlin soon decided it was time to get more action, and moved the group to a new location.
Soon, fish began filling the boat as everyone began reeling hard. The rigs, including weights, pulled enough on the line to sometimes make it difficult to tell if a fish was at the end of it. More often than not, “Fish up!” was shouted after several minutes of reeling.
“The afternoon bite was fantastic,” Carlin said. “It was slow picking in the beginning but tried and true paid off and we got a nice variety of fish. We ended up with I think six yellow eyes which is always nice for a halibut haul, we got a nice yellow back, we got 30 halibut total.”
The captain recommended the annual combat fishing trip, or just charter fishing, to experienced fishers and novices alike.
“We normally get a good variety of first timers and fishers of various experiences,” he said. “We love taking out first timers because they get so excited throughout the trip. That’s easy to please.”
Judging took place during a ceremony that evening, where more than $50,000 was given away in cash and prizes, organized by the Armed Forces YMCA.
“The judging is different this year than it has been,” he said. “The big fish doesn’t win this year; it’s going to be mystery fish. They’re pulling sizes out of hats and if you had a four and a half pound halibut and they pull that, then you’re a winner.”
While no one on Sea Quest caught anything weighing near 100 pounds, Carlin said he was pleased he gave the troops a good time.
“There’s limited time out there,” he said. “We could have caught a 200-plus pound fish today but it does take the better part of the day of salmon carcasses and just waiting. This is more fun with just action, action, action which is what a lot of these guys want to see, that’s what they see overseas and they want to see it on the boat.
“Half of these guys are jumping out of airplanes with parachutes and so I’m sure everybody was getting a little bored in the beginning but it was good to see everyone’s frowns turn upside down once we got to a mass of halibut.”
Coordination to make an event of this magnitude takes collaborated efforts.
“In 1994, I decided to become a charter operator and it’s been every summer since,” said Jim Lee, Swell Time charter captain and Combat Fishing tournament coordinator. “There are five active committee members, plus several staff of the Armed Services YMCA. A fair amount of the town is involved; definitely the majority of the charters are involved.
“By the second year, we needed more boats and so I joined in and this will be my fifth year participating out of the six years of the tournament,” he said. “For the last three years I’ve had the honor of coordinating the boats for the tournament and this year I actually got to sit on the committee that helped plan the tournament.”
Lee puts his time and effort into these events because it feels right to him.
“For me, it just seems like the right thing to do,” he said. “I don’t know that we can do enough for our enlisted folks. I’ve always been about supporting the military, I was raised that way. Part of it stems from what I learned in high school about how our Vietnam veterans were treated when they came back home. That, to me, was such a disservice for the guys that were out there protecting our freedom.
“This is a heart-felt way for me to try to make sure that that doesn’t happen this time. It’s an honor to participate and take our enlisted people fishing, a relaxing day on the water, to enjoy what Alaska has to offer...take their minds off what they are going through or have gone through.”
Anderson said she loved the entire experience.
“The view on this trip is absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “People should do this; if I get the chance to do this again I definitely will, every time. Seward is beautiful; the trip down here was gorgeous too. I’d like to sight-see some more here. It was so cool how the firefighters saluted us when we came in; I wasn’t expecting that.”