GAFA Day 5: Halibut Hunt
When I planned the Great Alaska Fishing Adventure, I tried to include a variety of fishing options, e.g. Sockeye on the river, Silvers on a fly-out, fly fishing for trout and open water fishing for the fabuous fleshy flat fish lurking at the bottom of Cook Inlet. In part this plan would allow us to have a variety of fish to bring back, but more importantly it would allow us to have a variety of Alaska fishing experiences.
Today was halibut day. So, after getting to sleep at 11:30 last night, we were up at 3:30 this morning (for the math challenged that’s four hours of sleep) to get ready to drive more than 60 dark miles on a moose infested road so we could fulfill our 6:30 angling assignation. At 6:15 we pulled into the Anchor Point State Recreation Area parking lot, just behind our newfound Texas friends Brian and son Travis, and waited for Captain Wally to arrive with our aquatic transportation for the day. At 6:30, he towed his worn but worthy eight-passenger aluminum charter boat to the launch ramp and, as the morning sun began to ease carefully through wispy clounds and climb slowly over the mountainous horizon to the east, the Halibut Adventure got underway
Besides Brian and Travis, two other angling adventurers–Florida-based Jason and Georgia-based Austin–had booked the charter for the day. All six of us met Wally and mate Ethan and climbed aboard the Carrie Ann. The trailer was hooked to a retired logging skidder (a great big tractor) and backed into the sea until the boat floated free and the trailer was returned to the beach. We were off.
A 45-minute full-power blast south in the Inlet gave us breathtaking views of the volcanic mountains to the west, including the landscape-dominating Mt. Redoubt. Beautiful weather, fantastic views, and a smooth ride across the uncommonly still water of the Inlet and we were soon at our first anchorage of the day.
Captain Wally explained the limits to us–two fish per person per day, one of which had to be 26-28 inches in length (8-10 pounds) and the other could be any size, up to and above 400 pounds. That’s a big fish and no really expected or wanted to reel in a bottom dwelling behemoth, but we were all hoping to boat something in the 40-70 pound range.
Our initial stop put us above a feeding ground 180 feet below that teemed with younger halibut that would meet the 26-28″ requirement. Wally and Ethan began baiting hooks. John took the first rod available and dropped his line, weighted with a four-pound lead sinker, into the clear, dark water. Within minutes after his weight touched the bottom John had hooked into the first fish of the day and after a three or four minute John West-powered ride to the surface, the initial halibut was in the fish well.
In rapid succession, the amateur fishing crew reeled in several small halibut at or near the size range required by Alaska statute. If they were too small, they were returned to the sea from whence they had come. If they were larger than 28″ but not large enough to satisfy anyone’s desire for a “big” fish–say 15 pounds or so, those fish also got a break and were released. In about an hour, we had six “good fish” in the well, properly marked so we knew which fish belonged to which halibut hunter. I caught one that was too small by 1/2 inchand one that was too big by about two inches, but the third fish my quickly tiring arms reeled in was a perfect 27 1/2 inches. Although no one kept track, we probably boated about 15 fish and released nine of them before we had what we needed.
Captain Wally fired up the twin 150 hp Yamaha engines and our band of merry men was underway again, on course for a deeper location–about 250 feet– where the older, larger and much scarcer halibut tend to hang out. Instead of 10-15 minute workouts between hits, now we waited 30-45-60 minutes for the lunkers to interest themselves in our baited offerings. Unfortunately the halibut weren’t the only fish feeding at the bottom and during the course of the day we reeled in a half dozen small dog sharks (I got one of those) and three or four skates which Wally and Ethan had to remove from the often tangled lines at some peril.
Travis, one of our fishing mates from yesterday on the Kustatan, seemed to hold the hot rod at this location, landing two fish before anyone else had landed his first. But they were smallish–25 pounds–and he opted to release them so he could continue his quest for a halibeast. John and I decided we would keep one of his returns as a hedge against getting skunked. So, we had one in the well. A couple 25-30 pound fish were caught and kept before Floridian Jason boated the biggest fish of the day to that point at about 40-45 pounds. It’s important to remember that these unhappily hooked halibut had to be reeled 250 feet to the surface, resisting with all their strength all the way. At times that resistance paid off and they were able to escape. That final fight between fish and fisherman comes after 20-30 minutes of “jigging” or continually lifting the four-pound weight several feet off the ocean floor and then letting it drop again. Lift, drop, repeat. This monotonous technique puts considerable strain on arms young and old.
About two hours after we started looking for “big” fish, John’s rod dipped sharply and it was “fish on.” As he began reeling his reluctant foe to the surface, it was clear this was a big fish. Although the boat had no scales, Wally and Ethan estimated John’s catch at 45-50 pounds, making it the largest halibeast of the day.
Unfortunately my only catch at the second location was a small shark, and I ended the day with three halibut, two of which I returned to the sea. But John and I, like the other four halibut hopefuls, reached our two-person limit of four fish, weighing in the neighborhood of 85 pounds.
After the final keeper was in the well, we paused briefly for pictures proudly displaying our catch. Then Captain Wally fired up the powerful Yamahas once more and headed back to the rocky beach and the waiting trailer while Ethan, being the low man on the boat’s two-man totem pole, began filleting the 12 fish in the well, making sure to bag the three teams’ fish separately so we could deliver them to a fish processor for vacuum bagging and freezing for the plane ride home. Our filleted fish at the processor tipped the scales at a respectable 39 pounds that will be added to the roughly 43 pounds of flash-frozen salmon already awaiting our Monday pickup.
Tomorrow we try our hands at catch-and-release trout fishing in the Kenai River Canyon about 30 miles from here. That will be our last fishing outing for this trip. If it’s as much fun as the other three, tomorrow will be a great day.
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