Never overlook the importance of an escape route.

[by Kurt Jacobson]

ON A CLEAR AND BREEZY EVENING in June 1993, my friend Clif and I set out on a beach-casting fishing adventure like none other we ever had. We headed to Stariski Creek, where Clif had camped on his first trip to Alaska in 1982. With the massive snow-capped volcanoes—Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna—in the distance, no wonder he had fallen in love with this spot on the shores of Cook Inlet.

For years, he and I had talked about driving down from our shared home along the Moose River in Sterling to beach-cast for halibut.  The day finally arrived when we would take precious time away from the Kenai River’s early king salmon run and go in search of halibut. Never mind that virtually no one fishes halibut from the beach, especially if you own a perfectly good boat, which both Clif and I did, but we planned this trip to be about trailblazing and adventure! 

The plan was to drive onto the beach at the Stariski access road, which only a few people even knew about at that time.  There we would  fish the incoming high tide in hopes of catching halibut.  The thought of getting away from the crowds on the Kenai River was appealing, and let me tell you, we had that entire beach all to ourselves—not always the best sign of fishing success. Clif owned an Alvi rod-and-reel combo, a popular fishing rig from Australia. With this beach-casting rig, Clif could cast almost 100 yards out where the halibut were most likely to be.  The time had come to see the Alvi in action. I took my best 9-foot rod, which couldn’t match Clif ’s tackle for distance, but mostly I went for the show.

Catching halibut from a boat in shallow water can be a wild experience. It’s not like fishing for halibut in 200 to 300 feet of water, where a hooked  fish is mostly under the boat during the battle. In shallow water, they run wild after hooking up, darting left or right at any moment, sometimes taking out 100 yards of line. Figuring they would use the same wild escape tactic if hooked from the shore, we were dying to make our mark in Alaska fishing lore by catching a big one from the beach. 

The high tide that night was not the biggest, but it was substantial, so we figured it would be safe to park and fish from the beach. Within minutes of arriving, we were getting bites, and we soon landed a sculpin. It was encouraging to know that something would bite, and we thought a willing halibut would come along soon. 

The wind, though, was in our faces, making distant casting difficult. But we kept fishing and caught a couple small flounder before noticing our escape route had vanished beneath the tide. I pulled my nearly new pickup, my pride and joy, to a line of driftwood at the high-water line, as far away from the approaching tide as possible. We soon decided this was not going to be our night to catch halibut.

But with no escape route available, Clif selected the cab of the pickup for shelter, and I sought refuge under the camper top. We tried to sleep, but the wind was howling and pushing the tide shoreward, and the shuddering blasts made sleep all but impossible.  The salt spray made it hard to see the waves through my truck’s windows as we settled in for a long night.

I was almost asleep when a wave hit the truck and shocked me to my core. I bolted upright at the same moment Clif did. Dumbfounded, we looked at each other, wondering what to do. Unable to talk through the window between us, we nodded in resignation that we would ride out the watery onslaught. After 10 years in the area, we thought we knew high tides, but when high winds join high tides going in the same direction, it’s a totally different wild and wet world.

We heard waves lapping around the wheels, and my imagination ran wild. I could see the headlines in the Anchorage newspaper: “Two Fishermen Drown in Pickup Truck at Stariski Creek.” We hadn’t told anyone what we were doing or where we were going. Who knows when our dead bodies would be located?

When the wind and waves finally receded, somewhere around 5 a.m., we got up, went out, and looked around.  The ocean side of my truck was white with salt spray. We quickly decided to leave. We drove out with no one to witness our departure. As soon as we arrived in Soldotna, I washed the salt off my truck, saving it from a repainting job.

Years passed before we spoke freely of that trip, and these days, I know it is the kind of tale all fishermen love to have in their repertoires. After all, when you run out of tales about the big one that got away, you need a tale about a fishing adventure that went awry, and that tale of our night at Stariski Creek is among my best. In this tale, the big ones that got away were my hopes of catching a halibut from the beach, my confidence in reading the tides, and my pickup truck.

Kurt Jacobson cooked his way throughout Alaska in the 1980s and ’90s. He writes of other adventures and food on his blog at www.tasteoftravel2.com.

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