The Interview: Tom Ohaus of Angling Unlimited, Sitka, Alaska
Interviewed by Everett Potter
Tom Ohaus likes to fish. I’ve know this since we were in college together, and used to surf cast along the beaches of Cape Cod as dawn broke. We were in pursuit of bluefish and stripers and sometimes, I’d catch one. But for every one that I caught, Tom would catch five or 10. Fishing, you might say, was in his blood.
It still is. While many things have changed in the ensuing decades, one thing has not: Tom’s utter obsession with fishing. While my interest in hook and line pursuits is fly fishing in Maine or Colorado or Wyoming when I get a chance (read: not often enough), Tom went in the opposite direction. He earned a B.S. in Fisheries Biology from the University of Washington. He became a columnist for Saltwater Sportsman, and angled his way from the Northeast to the Northwest, and then south all the way to Patagonia. He started Angling Unlimited in the Northwest back in 1987 with wife Linda Mae as partner, growing it into one of the premier sport fishing companies in Alaska. He sits on the board of Long Live the Kings, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization committed to restoring wild salmon and steelhead to the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
A day at work? The setting is the waters off Sitka, Alaska, the big game is king salmon, and accommodations are in suites on the water. The fishing is done on one of eight custom-designed 28-foot Almar boats, guided by a well-honed group of captains who seem to be as focused and obsessed as he is. Well, almost. When Tom is not running the show in Alaska during the May to September season, he can be found at his home on the southern coast of Massachusetts, eagerly scanning the fishing grounds between his coastal home and the Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard.
Everett Potter: What do people take away from the experience — apart from fish — when they spend a few days with Angling Unlimited?
Tom Ohaus: They take away countless stories of exciting fish, multiple hookups, and crazy action on the boat. I believe part of my job as a captain is to create moments of controlled chaos. Nothing in my job beats choreographing four anglers with four big king salmon on at the same time. Our customers take away the sights of the natural world in motion — feeding whales, bellowing sea lions, puffins diving on baitfish, albatross sitting behind the anchored boat as you wait for the halibut to bite, bears walking the shoreline, and the endless rolling of the ocean into a wilderness shoreline. They take away comradery with friends and family, as well as the relationships they form with their captain, deckhand, and hostess. Many of our guests have a decade or more of visiting Angling Unlimited under their belts and the relationship feels like extended family. They also take away three or four days of relief from traffic jams, deadlines, stress, 24/7 responsibilities, and immersion in the man made world. It’s a valuable counterbalance to modern life.
EP: Are these considered to be the prime waters for king salmon?
TO: I’m convinced it’s the best salt water king salmon fishing in the world — and I’ve looked around a fair bit. You can catch kings out of Sitka any month of the year, but the main season runs from May until at least the second week in August. The numbers of kings during the peak season in June are sometimes astronomical, with anglers hooking and releasing eight or 10 kings per person per day. The size ranges from 15 to 65 pounds with most fish between 20 and 30 pounds. These are ocean bright fish and, in my opinion, the best fighting cold water sport fish in the world. They are also one of the best tasting and most healthful fish to eat anywhere on the planet.
EP: Tell me about the origins of Angling Unlimited – I know you started in Washington State and then moved on up to Alaska. Why was that?
TO: Angling Unlimited started in 1988. We fished out of Neah Bay, Washington from May through August and out of Seattle the rest of the year. It was a good business, but resource issues, particularly problems with salmon, forced shorter and shorter seasons. By 1992, our last season in Washington, we didn’t end up with enough days in either the salmon or halibut season to make a living. Also, the seasons were quota based, meaning the fishing closed as soon as we hit the quota. This led to uncertainty for clients booking trips. Would fishing be open on the dates they selected? One couldn’t say. That was marketing poison, so we headed north.
EP: Why Sitka? What is it about the waters?
TO: Sitka offered two very attractive features — infrastructure and fantastic fishing. Clients can fly directly to Sitka from Seattle on an Alaska Airlines 737. The non-stop is 2 hours. Once they arrive, they find a charming seaside community, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, liquor stores, and nearly all the amenities of the modern world. The waters near Sitka are a real sweet spot in the North Pacific. We enjoy a very fertile ocean as evidenced by the large numbers of feeding humpback whales, sea lions, myriad sea birds, and huge schools of salmon. We have protected inside water and wide open ocean — we haven’t canceled a day of fishing for years because there is always a protected place that holds the promise of good fishing. The weather, albeit damp, is pretty user friendly — never too hot, seldom cold, and not particularly windy throughout our season. And the fishing is consistent at a high level like no where else I’ve ever fished. Nobody wants to hear “you should have been here yesterday”. All the traveling angler has is today, and that works nearly all the time in Sitka.
EP: How would you characterize Angling Unlimited’s approach to a fishing vacation?
TO: Our approach begins with taking care of all the details from the time our customers land in Sitka until they leave. We meet them at the airport, help them claim their baggage, check them into our lodging, write the licenses, provide rain gear, give them a car, and take them fishing each day. We deliver them back to the airport with whatever fish they’ve kept already vacuum sealed in meal size portions and hard frozen. We help them check in and make sure they get on the plane. We have a German sense of time — which means on time, every time. Our standard departure time for fishing is 5 AM, which means the customers are picked up by our van at 4:45, arrive at the marina at 4:50, walk down the ramp, board the boat, stow their gear and are underway at 5 AM, not 5:05 AM. We’ve been fishing a long time and know there are uncertainties attached to the sport. We can’t control the weather or which way the fish decide to swim each day and how far. We can control the quality and maintenance of our tackle and our boats. We can control how hard we work, our customer service attitude, our fishing skills, and our drive to find fish for our customers. That’s really the game in a nutshell — perfect what’s under your control and adapt in the most effective ways possible to handle that which isn’t in our control.
EP: What sets you apart from the other charter companies in Sitka or other towns on the Inside Passage?
TO: We are set apart by a more global understanding of sportfishing. Too many companies see dead fish in a box as the end product. We see the experience, the opportunity to interact with a salt water wilderness as our product. Yes, our customers catch and keep some fish. Yes, we have the finest facilities for processing that fish and sending it home for the enjoyment of our customers. Still, what ends up in the freezer is a by product of the truly unique and challenging experience of light tackle fishing on a stretch of magnificent, unspoiled coast that abounds with wildlife. We are also set apart by our staff. We don’t think friendliness and customer service are anything you can fake. Our people are highly trained to do their job effectively and efficiently, but we carefully screen who we hire for their attitude. They are friendly, care for the needs of the customer, and genuine.
EP: Who are you competing with – is it other sport fishing outfits or are you really after the same crowd that might be doing a biking, hiking or kayaking adventure vacation?
TO: We are competing with other sport fishing outfits primarily. Some of our clients have other outdoor interests but most are focused on fishing. Our competition is global. There are sport fishing outfitters all over the planet and our customers are increasingly aware of that.
EP: How experienced are the sports who go out with Angling Unlimited. Are these people obsessive fishermen or are there neophytes as well?
TO: We have a wide range of anglers visiting us from the obsessive to the neophyte. Our job is to be good enough to satisfy the most obsessive well traveled angler — that begins world class fishing in the local waters. It means providing the kind of tackle that impresses the discriminating angler and understanding that these people know their options include a lot more than Angling Unlimited in Sitka. We also need to be able to read the skill level of our anglers and provide the neophyte with all the instruction, from A to Z, that they need for a successful trip. Our typical customer knows something about fishing and wants three or four days of concentrated thrills — they don’t have time to fish for weeks hoping for a few good days. Given that over 80% of our bookings are either repeat or word of mouth, we appear to be satisfying the needs of fishermen of all levels of experience.
EP: How about fly fishing?
TO: We do have salt water fly fishing rods and are more than willing to give that a go. It’s not easy to catch Pacific salmon on the fly in salt water both because they cruise deep and they like spinning shining herring more than flies. That said, our customers catch coho (silver) salmon on the fly nearly every year. We have a standing offer of a free trip for the first person to hook and land a legal size king salmon on a fly according to International Game Fish Association (IGFA) rules.
EP: What does the future look like for these fish and for the sport fishing business in Alaska?
TO: The future for salmon looks relatively stable. The king salmon we catch originate in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. These runs are, for the most part, recovered from the lows that drove us from Washington State in 1993. The coho (silver) salmon runs originate in Alaska and, for the most part, are in excellent shape. Halibut are on at the end of a downward cycle and we are currently fishing under very strict regulations. The commercial and sport quotas in Southeast Alaska have been cut by 2.5 million pounds in 2011 as part of a rebuilding effort. Such reductions will deliver excellent halibut fishing this year and ensure a more bountiful future. The price we pay for the rebuilding is the maximum size limit of 37 inches for halibut this coming season. Catch and release fishing for big halibut should be about as good as it gets because far fewer of these monsters will be harvested. As for hanging that big halibut up on the hook at the dock, consider foregoing that opportunity an investment in your halibut future.
EP: How many days are you on the water every year?
TO: Roughly 150 days on the water — 80 to 100 in Alaska, 50 or 60 back East and a dozen more somewhere else like bonefishing in the Bahamas or steelhead fishing in Washington.
EP: And Tom, what’s on your short list for places you’d love to go fishing someday, when time allows?
TO: I’d love to return to South America to fish for trout. I dream of the Seychelles for a tropical trip — bonefish in particular. I’d like to fish western Alaska in the fall for big rainbow trout. And, perhaps because it’s somewhere on the other side of the big Pacific from us and shares many of the same fish as Alaska, I’d like to fish the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. So many fishing places, so little time.
For more information, contact Angling Unlimited. Three day, four-night packages, which include fishing, lodging, breakfast and lunch daily, and airport transfers start at $2,275 per person, based on double occupancy. Shoulder season rates for the same package are $1,820, per person, based on double occupancy.