Frank Lee felt there were bigger fish just waiting to be caught, so after bringing in a 25-pound king salmon Thursday near Hoonah he released it to keep the small fish from counting against his daily limit.
It's a good thing, because a little while later Lee hooked into one of the largest king salmon ever caught in Southeast Alaska waters.
Lee, who said he's known about town as ``Uncle Frank,'' caught a king salmon weighing 86 pounds, 0 ounces around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. The fish measured 50 inches from nose to tail and was 38 inches around in girth. Lee was fishing in his skiff in an area near the Hoonah Ferry Terminal and the Tunnel, only about a half-mile offshore from the Tlingit village.
``I let the 25-pounder go before this because you only get one fish a day, and I'd seen some in their 40s and 50s (pounds),'' Lee said by phone Friday. ``The biggest (king) before this I'd ever caught was 54 pounds about eight years ago.''
The fish is the largest many longtime fishermen remember being taken from the Hoonah area, and even in Southeast Alaska. Hoonah Cold Storage general manager Terry Barry, who had the fish on ice awaiting a trip to Douglas this weekend for mounting, said he's been in the area for 25 years and has never seen a king salmon as large as Lee's.
``You don't see one of these every day,'' Barry said. ``I've seen several in the 50s (pounds), 60s and up to 70 pounds, but nothing like this, not even commercially caught. I was talking with another troller who's been here his whole life, and he couldn't remember one like it either. It's a pretty incredible fish. The girth of the fish is bigger than he (Lee) is.''
The Alaska state trophy fish record, and world sport tackle record, for a king salmon caught by rod and reel is 97 pounds, 4 ounces, in 1985 by Soldotna resident Lester Anderson on the Kenai River. Before that, the state and world records were held by Juneau resident Howie Miner with a fish weighing 93-pounds-0 caught in 1977 in Kelp Bay, near Baranof Island. (Miner's fish has been mounted and is currently on display in the stairwell of Douglas Island Pink and Chum fish hatchery in Juneau.) In order to qualify for Alaska's trophy fish certificate program, a king salmon has to weigh at least 75 pounds on the Kenai River and 50 pounds in any of the state's other waters.
Teresa McAllister, the trophy fish program manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the largest king salmon anyone in her office could remember being caught in Southeast was Miner's. She said nobody from Southeast has filled out the paperwork for a state trophy king salmon certificate over the past two years, but that doesn't mean large fish haven't been caught. Archie Cavanaugh, the coordinator for the Spring King Salmon Derby in May, said Valerie Hillman caught a 72-pound king salmon in Funter Bay near Juneau in June 1999.
But Lee thinks there are bigger fish out there. He said he's seen, but wasn't able to catch, a king salmon he thought might weigh as much 120 pounds. Also, when he was younger, Lee said he remembered seeing fish in the 90-pound range being turned into Hoonah Cold Storage. Lee said those fish were turned in when Mike Thompson ran the business, before Barry began working there 25 years ago.
``I ain't done yet. There's bound to be a bigger fish out there,'' Lee said.
Lee's trophy fish was to be sent to Northstar Taxidermy in Douglas for mounting, then it will return to Hoonah for a permanent display at Icy Strait Lodge, said lodge owner Brian Martin. Martin said he's hoping the display might include Lee's pole and fishing rig.
``I can't pay for the mounting, so Brian Martin agreed to have it done,'' Lee said. ``The fish was caught in Hoonah, and this way the fish will stay in Hoonah.''
Lee is a commercial fisherman aboard the Hoonah-based Vagabond Queen, but when the commercial boat is in port Lee goes sportfishing. He fires up his 18-foot Lund skiff, with a 15-horsepower outboard motor, and heads out into the waters near Hoonah.
Lee, 48, said the area near the ferry terminal and Hoonah Point has been a favorite fishing spot of his for years. It's near where he used to go fishing with his grandfather when he was a young boy, reading ``Spiderman'' comic books in the boat while also watching and learning how to fish from his grandfather.
``I've always wanted to catch a big fish right in front of the ferry with all the tourists there,'' Lee said. ``The ferry wasn't in, but I got the fish.''
On Thursday, Lee got off his commercial boat and took off in his skiff for some sportfishing. He baited his hooks with one of the eight herring that jumped onto the deck of the Vagabond Queen during a recent fishing trip near Angoon. Lee used a Pink Lady downrigger set-up, without a flasher, and trolled a shallow area behind the Tunnel that was only 1 1/2 fathoms (nine feet) deep.
``The Pink Lady tripped, so I pulled up on it to reset it, then something pulled on it again,'' Lee said. ``I decided to reel in to check and see if I'd lost my herring, and I seen this big king come right up and take it. He swallowed the whole herring, both hooks, so I knew I pretty much had him unless I really messed up. But I only had 50-pound test for my main line and 30-pound test for my leader, so I couldn't try and horse him in.''
Lee said the fish took three runs on him, with the first run stripping almost all of the line off his reel before Lee could reset his drag. He said it took between 30 and 45 minutes to get the fish into his boat. Lee then had to club it twice, and he said it's the first time he's ever had to club one more than once after boating it.
``It was a good fight,'' Lee said. ``It's an awesome fish. It's all silver because it's not up the river yet. It's a beautiful fish. Everybody fishes their whole life to catch something like this. I've been happier than a peacock the last day and a half.''