I meet Beach for dinner in the Café Cups, a warm, brightly lit restaurant with a tropical theme. The family at the next table, Beach informs me, have just returned from their second home, in Cabo San Lucas. Another group of patrons are fresh back from the Kona coast. The cosmopolitan energy is the opposite of what I'd imagined in a remote Alaskan outpost. All the same, the town is running at winter speed, with most of the galleries and nightspots shut for the season. As I head back to my hotel, I notice a glow in the northern sky. It's faint, and at first I suppose it's the light of a nearby city, until I realize that there is no nearby city. I pull over and for half an hour watch the green arc of the aurora slowly shift, expand, and fade.
In summer, tourists pour in by the thousands for Homer's legendary halibut, which can grow to more than 400 pounds. The Homer Spit, a natural causeway that thrusts 4½ miles out into Kachemak Bay, is lined with docks, marinas, fish-processing companies, tour boat operators—most of them now closed. Only a half-dozen charter captains work throughout the winter. One of these is gruff, ponytailed Norm Anderson. I can tell he's a serious seaman by the way he jams giant hooks through frozen bait with his bare hands. We'll be ﬁshing for salmon.
Huddled for warmth in the cabin of the 26-foot Sea Otter, we chug out to sea past a breakwater thick with bald eagles to Anderson's favorite fishing spot. Here and there, real sea otters bob among the waves, and after an hour we spot a pod of dolphins. Our quarry, though, proves more elusive. "Winter king salmon is the best fish you'll ever taste," says Anderson. "They're not expending energy spawning, so it's all stored in oils in their flesh. This fish tastes so good you don't need to put any seasoning on it at all, just throw it on a grill. But be careful; all that oil can go up like tinder."
I manage to land just one king that day, which Anderson summarily dispatches with a baseball bat. I leave the fish with one of the processing companies, which packs it in ice and FedExes it to my apartment in New York. I drive back to Anchorage that afternoon, spend the night near the airport, then fly home. A day later, I'm standing on my stoop in Manhattan, signing for a fish I last saw in the bilge of a boat 3,000 miles away.
I thaw a couple of meaty steaks and invite a friend for dinner. Following the captain's directions, I put the steaks under the broiler naked. No inferno erupts; after a few minutes on each side, they're ready, and with the first bite, all of Alaska's wildness comes rushing back—the briny taste of the sea, rich and wintry. As I eat the fish, I can almost see the view I had when I caught it: the low sun painting the distant volcanoes pink, the wind-whipped waters of the Cook Inlet churning, forbiddingly beautiful.
The rest of the fish I'm keeping in the back of my freezer. Trapped here in civilization, it's nice to have a fragment of wilderness hidden away—a frozen chunk of an untamed world, waiting in the ice to release its moment once again.
JEFF WISE is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.