“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Haulin' Halibut, Alaska Halibut Fishing

Our twin 150-horsepower Yamaha outboards had barely had time to cool down when my fishing rod bent ninety degrees. I was unprepared for action so quickly and stared stupidly at the tip of my pool-cue-sized rod as it twitched violently back and forth. “Fish on!” yelled Landis, our charter captain. His shout fired me up and I pulled the rod out of its angled holder on the boat’s stern and set the hook as Landis slipped a belt around my waist. The butt of the rod slammed into the cup on the front of the belt and I was in business.

“It’s a big halibut!” Landis shouted. And it felt like it. The first hit on the boat today and it must be a monster. I leaned back, pulling the rod tip up and straining against the resistant fish. Between pulls, I’d reel line in furiously as I let the rod tip fall back toward the rolling waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. I’d been saltwater fishing before in the warm waters of Florida and the Gulf Coast and I’d never hooked into a fish that felt this big. After ten minutes of exertion, my arms were burning and my wrists ached and I thought I must be pulling what must surely be the biggest fish in Alaska toward our 28-foot boat.

My friend Wes and I caught a charter out of Ninilchik, Alaska, a small fishing village on the western edge of the Kenai Peninsula, about two hours south of Anchorage. We had a particular hankering to catch some halibut. We had just driven up the Sterling Highway from Homer, Alaska and saw numerous large halibut—in the 90 to 160 pound range—being unloaded and weighed on the docks there.

So it was just a matter of good luck when we ran into Jim Considder in Soldotna, on the banks of the Kenai River about 30 minutes from Ninilchik. Jim is from Florida but spends his summers in Soldotna. He is a charter captain himself, but is not chartering this season. He does, however, know many of the locals and when we told him we wanted to try our hand at halibut fishing, he checked around and managed to get us space on this charter during an extremely busy season.  It's unusual to luck into these last-minute deals and we were fortunate to run into Jim who was able to get us aboard two open spaces on a five-person boat.

So we were a couple of happy campers when we stowed our gear in the cabin with three other passengers; Dale from Florida, Keith from Anchorage, and his father, Ray from Nebraska. Like us, all but Ray were first time halibut fishermen. While we waited to pull out, we watched boats coming in from early morning charters with massive fish. A couple of 150-pounders, a half-dozen in the 100-pound range, and a bunch of 50-to-80 pounders.  Things were looking promising.

So now that I was feeling the pull at the end of my 130-pound-test line, I felt sure that I would be top dog back at the scales. Halibut fishing is different from the cobia, snapper, and speckled trout fishing that I am used to in the Gulf of Mexico. First, halibut like to stay deep so we were fishing in about 200 feet of water, fifteen miles offshore. They are bottom feeders, so the deal is to find a likely spot--maybe a tidal rip or where cross currents meet--anchor, and let heavily baited hooks, weighted with four pound lead weights, ride along the ocean floor. You also want to be fishing with either a strong incoming or outgoing tide. Natural baits tend to collect there and the opportunistic halibut take advantage. They will jockey for a spot on the ocean floor and wait for the rushing tide to whisk a tasty morsel past their nose. The idea is to make sure that the chunk of herring on the end of your hook is the morsel that they chomp down on.

By now I could feel the shortness of the line and I knew the fish was close to the stern. I caught a glimpse of a milky white flank and Landis leaned over the side, gaffed the fished and hauled it aboard. Everyone stood speechless. What we had all thought would be a 150-pound trophy was a 45-pounder. It had snagged the hook on its underside and I had been retrieving it flat-side-forward through the outgoing tide, kind of like pullng a barn door sideways through the water, the reason for the tremendous pull on the line.

Still, like I told Wes, anywhere but Alaska, this would be a prime catch. Only here would we be disappointed in a four-foot, 45 pound fish. We caught six more halibut before dusk, the largest two being 45 pounds. Throw in a few 36-inch gray cod, and two three-foot sharks, and we had a nice trip, no complaints. Still, on the way back to Ninilchik, Landis told us that this had been his worst trip of the summer. Just enough to sucker us into a return trip—not that we needed much convincing.


Saltwater Charters runs charters into Cook Inlet on a daily basis during the May-to-September season. You can book a halibut charter, a salmon charter, or a combo deal, depending on the season. Full-day and half-day charters are available and include all equipment and bait. All you need is a $10 one-day Alaskan fishing license. The Alaskan limit on halibut is two per person per day. Don’t do what we did and expect to show up and get a slot on a boat the same day. Make reservations well ahead of time at 907-333-3333.

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