HUNTING FOR HEAVYWEIGHTS

Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game. 

By Ken Marsh

Forty fathoms beneath the charter boat T. Rex, in the murky depths of Montague Strait, the cargo pilot’s short, stubby saltwater rod seemed suddenly possessed. It bucked and wrenched and bent perilously over the gunwale. The veins in his forearms swelled, sweat beaded on his brow. 

Framed by the cabin door, the skipper smiled broadly, his lower lip fat with a double dip of snuff. “Don’t rest your rod on the rail,” the skipper coached. “Lift up, keep pressure on the fish.”

The cargo pilot, taking a day off from his job in Anchorage, strained to lift his rod. The rod writhed. He grunted. And then his line fell curiously slack. 

“I think it’s gone,” he said. 

 By the tone of his voice, it was hard to tell whether he was disappointed or relieved.

The skipper spat over the side. 

“He’s still there. Reel, reel!”

The cargo pilot lifted the rod and gave the reel a couple of cranks. Then the rod tip shot abruptly down, forcing him to stop reeling and hang on.

“Take advantage of it when (the fish) lets up,” the skipper said. 

After that, the cargo pilot got into the rhythm of the battle: Pull up, up on the rod, then lower the tip and reel fast. Repeat. That is how a saltwater angler gains on a strong fish. Pump and grind, pump and grind. Three feet … of line … at a time. 

Ten minutes and 235 feet of line later, as the cargo pilot strained against the bouncing rod, the white bottom-side of a halibut flashed below the boat. The skipper snatched his heavy gaff from its holder and, leaning dangerously over the side, hooked the fish by the jaw.

 At that instant, a new fight was on. The halibut thrashed, splashing saltwater onto the deck and pounding its tail against the side of the boat. The skipper hung on, like a bull rider on a crazed Brahma. Then, with the grace of a seasoned professional, he hauled the fish smartly over the side and onto the deck. 

A couple of thumps between the eyes with an aluminum baseball bat and the fish fell still.

“Forty pounds,” the skipper announced matter-of-factly. 

The cargo pilot beamed. He’d only been fishing 20 minutes. The day had just begun.

Halibut are heavyweights. Where trout are creatures of poetry and color, halibut are big, broad, mud-colored lugs with close-set eyes situated frog-like on the tops of their flat, fat heads. They fight with impressive strength on the far end of a line and their delicately flavored white fillets are the fare of high-end restaurants. Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game. 

We stalk them by boat, often traveling miles out to sea, armed with rods thick and flexible as flagpoles, and harpoons with detachable heads tied to buoys (a la Jaws). Big halibut brought to the surface may be struck with the harpoons or shot with .44 Magnums or .410 shotguns. The fish spend their lives lying flat on the sea bottom; to reach them, you may need five pounds of solid lead. A steel hook large and stout enough to hang a 130-pound moose haunch is required to hold them. For bait you might use a herring the size of trout caught and released in Prince William Sound streams. Or you might use a three-pound pink salmon. 

 A few minutes after catching the first halibut of the day, the cargo pilot caught his second fish — a 45-pounder.  

“That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he announced. His limit secured, he sat down to relax and enjoy the late-morning sunshine.

One by one, fish came to the baits of the other four T. Rex anglers. One man from Minneapolis was experiencing his first Alaska fishing trip. When he hooked and brought to the boat a 35-pound halibut — considered small in local waters — the skipper asked if he wanted to keep it. Still holding his rod, the angler turned to his mates:

“I catch my first halibut and this guy asks if I want to keep it!” He laughed, then turned back to the skipper and said, “Hell yes I want to keep it.”

The angler, whose biggest fish prior to that were walleyes pulled from his Minnesota lakes, later rounded out his halibut limit with a fish that weighed close to 50 pounds. Joining the cargo pilot, he sat down and looked over the flat-calm seas. To the north, the jagged peaks of a nearby island were silhouetted against warm blue skies. Here and there a salmon leaped. Puffins paddled by.

“You know what surprises me,” the angler said, “is that we’re not surrounded by other boats. I thought there would be other boats, but I haven’t seen another one all day.”

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Published by kenwildcountry

Writer, photographer, and editor specializing in Alaska's outdoors.

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