When I moved to the Kenai Peninsula in 1984 the Cook Inlet held plenty of halibut as well as other species for us anglers. I didn’t know anyone with a boat to take me out to fish for halibut, and was too broke to afford a guided fishing trip that first couple of years. I heard the stories of big halibut being caught in the three hundred pound range. Two years later the city of Homer would start The Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby and for the next three decades would boast many a halibut over three hundred pounds.
My first Halibut fishing trip wasn’t until the summer of 1990 when I finally had enough money to pay $125 to get out on a guided halibut/salmon fishing trip. The guide told us that as long as the weather and waves cooperated we would catch halibut. He was right about that guarantee and we did catch several halibut forty pounds and under. In 1992 I bought a boat capable of fishing both river and ocean and set about learning the secrets of halibut and salmon fishing in the Cook Inlet. Just about anyone with a boat and good weather would catch halibut back then. I fished close to shore in forty to eighty feet of water from May to the first week of July and caught all the halibut I wanted. This went on for the next four years and I caught a 115 pounder for my biggest and friends caught halibut 100-105 pounds from my boat.
After moving away from Alaska in 1995 I still returned most of the next twenty years to go fishing. In the first few years after moving away I’d go out halibut fishing with a guide once each summer to catch a few halibut for the freezer. Each year we seemed to have to go father out in the Cook Inlet to find halibut. The guides explained that between the Homer derby and commercial fishing pressure the big ones were disappearing. The problem is that the big ones are almost always females and lay millions of eggs. Without these big egg-laying females it’s taking a toll on the entire halibut fishery in the Cook Inlet. The guides are having a tough time just getting a couple of twenty pounders for each client lately as exhibited by our trip to Homer last year. We went by the docks where the returning halibut charters hang the caught fish for pictures and we saw a bunch of halibut under thirty pounds, but nothing bigger.
I had not fished halibut since a trip to Petersburg, Alaska in 2006 when my wife and I joined my parents for a charter trip to. We caught several including one that was around eighty-five pounds.
We were happy to have our limits of two each to take back home. Even in the Southeast Alaska area they are feeling the effects of keeping the big ones and some fishing guides and lodges reward anglers that release the big ones with incentives such as, half off your next trip or other attractive prizes. They recognize that if they don’t protect the breeding halibut they may not have a job in a few years.
This summer my family and I decided to try another self-guided trip and chose the Elfin Cove area of southeast Alaska. We were going to fish for salmon and halibut out of an eighteen foot open boat that I would operate. I announced that if I caught a big one I’d release it and suggested the others do the same. During our first day at the lodge we only had five hours to fish and not being familiar with the area needed a practice round. We motored out to a spot just ten minutes from the lodge and got skunked. We moved to another spot five minutes away and had more of the same. Then we motored over to Lemesurier Island and tried jigging which produced one good bite but no fish. It looked like releasing a big one might not be a problem with fishing results like that.
The first full day of fishing found my brother and sister sleeping in while my wife and I went out at five am to get an early start. We fished a spot I had seen from our floatplane the day before where a creek emptied into the ocean. After anchoring up within twenty minutes my wife said, “I’m getting a bite.” That gave me just enough time to look over and see her rod bend down hard. It only took me a few seconds to reel in my line since we were in only forty feet of water. I could see the fish was too big for her and grabbed the rod to bring it in. It was a beautiful eighty pounder! Things were looking up and we caught three more but much smaller that session.
The next two days were good for halibut but a bust for salmon. On day four of five we went back to this hot spot hoping to catch enough to fill a fifty pound box each to take back home. It started out slow as the slack tide turned and with the outgoing tide we had hopes of catching our limits of two each. After almost two hours of fishing my wife announced she had a bite and I watched her fight her fish waiting to see if she would need help with this one. She did and I set my drag super light while laying my rod down on my seat. Just after grabbing her rod to help fight her fish my rod went off. Line was just peeling out like there was no end. I told my crew not to worry about my rod since we needed a first fish in the boat my wife’s fish had priority.
As I got her fish close to the boat I saw that my rod’s line had wrapped around hers and was gathered at the tip. Knowing that this could bind up and break the line we could lose both fish. I said I was going to cut the line. Luckily my sister saw that it wasn’t tangled too bad and by passing the rods over and under each other we might save both fish. I knew the fish my wife had was a decent one around twenty to forty pounds but had no idea how big mine was. I had set my drag so light a ten pounder could have taken out that much line. When the lines were untangled we got her fish in and I picked up my rod to see what I had on. After tightening the drag I started to reel it in and it took another run, damn near taking out all of my of line. I told my brother to let loose the anchor line to give us the ability to motor towards the fish if needed.
I couldn’t tell just how big this fish was but figured it was fifty to 100 pounds. It took me over ten minutes to get it near the boat when it took another run, and this time got near the anchor line. I pulled it away from the anchor line and it seemed to be on the bottom, directly under our boat. As I pulled on it now with my line straight down I could tell it was 100 pounds or bigger. When it finally came into view we all were amazed to see a fish that was probably as long as I am tall. At seventy inches long the halibut charts indicate the fish weighs 179 pounds! We shot a shaky video of it while I tried to unhook the monster, but it was too difficult so I ended up cutting the line ten inches from the hook. We watched the big girl slither into the depths from which she came happy to know we let loose a big breeder.
My hope is that anglers will understand the big ones need to be released for future generations of anglers as well as halibut. There is more satisfaction to this than bragging about killing the halibut fishery one big fish at a time. It’s good that halibut seem to do well after being released. Over the years I have caught several with rusted hooks in their mouths or scars from where they were hooked. The hooks rust out in just a few weeks leaving the fish a nice little tattoo. Wouldn’t you rather let the big one go and make more halibut for all to catch? I know I would and hope others will too.