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Anglers hook, cook fish at Sitka event

Fishing and wildlife-viewing destinations are scattered throughout Alaska, but one offers a difference you can taste.

Angling Unlimited of Sitka is combining world-class saltwater fishing with a world-class Seattle chef – Europe-trained Ludger Szmania. The May 16-21 package has been a hit especially with couples who want a delicious Alaska outdoor experience while learning how to savor it again and again back home.

Anglers shopping at the annual sportsman’s shows for the perfect 2013 fishing adventure often must take a leap of faith as they plunk down the prepayment.

Indeed, other options might be more appropriate for the fish-til-you-die and cheap-as-you-can crowd.

The lodge’s annual “Hook It and Cook It” special event fills its 28 slots each year with little trouble by word of mouth. Cost this year is $2,245 a person.

However, a visit to the fish-and-food fest plus interviews with Alaska Fish and Game Department fisheries biologists, indicate why this event is a special treat in the boat and back at the lodge. Here’s the scouting report for the Angling Unlimited event:

• A saltwater fishery with the highest catch rates for king and coho salmon on the marine waters of the North Pacific, plus good fishing for halibut, lingcod and rockfish in the shadow of Mount Edgecomb, a dormant volcano that sprouts from the sea.

• A small, comfortable lodge with a 25-year track record and a reputation for good fishing, equipment and service.

• A quaint ocean-side town with an historic Russian cathedral.

• Abundant wildlife visible on boat runs to the fishing hot spots, plus an optional eco-touring day to view humpback whales, eagles, sea otters, sea lions, and seals.

• A chef whose Seattle restaurant, in its 23rd year, is critically acclaimed in a city that suffers no fools in serving fish.

Szmania was busy in his kitchen when contacted for an update, but his wife, Julie Szmania, had insight to Ludger’s attraction to Hook It and Cook It.

“Starting with fish right out of the ocean is the best and the camaraderie of fishing together all day and cooking and dining together at night is very, very fun for him,” she said. “He has lots of great and simple ideas that even the most casual of cooks can prepare.”

Double-checking with Angling Unlimited owner Tom Ohaus, little has changed in the event since I checked out the fishing and the food five years ago.

“It’s been a popular activity,” he said. “No reason to fiddle with it.”

Each afternoon after the group’s been out fishing on several different boats, Szmania gathers a portion of the fresh daily catch and demonstrates his techniques for preparing gourmet seafood entrees before letting the guests dine and enjoy.

Nobody with functioning taste buds could be disappointed. Here are the menu highlights for just ONE of the post-fishing cooking seminars and meals served in past years:

• Fried rockfish with pico de gallo and grilled tortillas.

• Lime cod pepper steak with red wine shallot sauce.

• Hot-smoked salmon with apple cider sauce.

When I sat in for a demonstration – with notebook, camera and fork at hand – an eclectic group of participants gathered each day at 4 p.m. to sip everything from Bud Light to chardonnay. They chatted, queried and watched Szmania put on a show and spread out a feast with the catch of the day.

Truly fresh fish is a treat that often can’t be purchased even at the most expensive restaurants.

“This is priceless,” said Szmania, as he began preparing a gourmet meal of halibut and salmon fresh from Alaska saltwater.

One angler stood after the third course on the first night and gave Szmania high praise and keen insight into the evening’s clientele.

Offering a toast, the angler declared, “The only thing keeping this from being the best fish I’ve ever had is that I didn’t catch it.”

But the real reason they were in Sitka was never lost, even among all the good company, food and beverage.

By 7 p.m., everyone, including the chef, was headed back to the lodge rooms for an early bedtime and an early wake-up call for another day of saltwater fishing.

The sportfishing fleet out of Sitka has not been impacted by the troubled king salmon fisheries that forced the closure of fishing last year in major western Alaska rivers such as the Kenai, Ohaus said.

“We’re such a mixed-stock fishery, with salmon coming past us from a variety of areas from Tillamook Bay all the way north, the coastal stocks of Washington, Vancouver Island, northern British Columbia and Alaska,” he said.

Alaska won’t set its fishing rules until April, but Ohaus expects nonresident salmon anglers to be able to keep one king salmon a day and possibly two a day in May.

June is known to have more fish migrating by Sitka, “but the possibility of an extra king a day in May is one of the attractions of coming early,” he said.

Silver salmon limits are higher.

The king salmon season limit for nonresidents is likely to be three or four fish, depending on the abundance surveys fish managers will be compiling in March.

Halibut anglers will continue to be limited to keeping fish less than 45 inches long or longer than 68 inches.

“We have no trouble catching halibut, but the very large ones have become rare,” he said. “We hope fisheries can get to the bottom of that.”

But the changes in the fishery must be taken in perspective, he said.

“Around here, you may still find people who catch two or three 35-pound king salmon and keep three or four silvers and they think it was an off day.”

But nobody goes to bed unsatisfied after a day of fishing in drop-dead gorgeous scenery and an early evening looking over a master chef’s shoulder as he prepares and hands out samples of the day’s catch.