"Catching Halibut the Hard Way" or "the Long Story"

Copyright Alan R. Henderson - January 5, 2005 (minor revisions October 1, 2012)

This story doesn't have a good starting place, so I'll try to keep the background information as short as possible.
It was around March 1981. I had gotten a ticket for running a stop sign and had been sentenced to "Defensive Driving Class" to avoid a ticket. I then broke my ankle skiing in the mountains before the class. See "Broken Ankle at Hatcher Pass". It was my first attempt to drive my Toyota Celica with a stick shift while wearing a cast, so I left early for the drive and the walk up 2 flights of stairs. At the class I met "Kathy" who took me to lunch that day. We ended up dating for 9 months.
Her father "Dave", who I had not met, invited Kathy, myself, her sister "Karen" and boyfriend "Bob" to go out on the boat for the long Memorial Day weekend. We were supposed to leave the dock in Whittier, Alaska by 7:00 p.m. Friday evening. It is a 120 mile drive from Anchorage to Seward, but typically takes 3 hours on Friday evenings. I got off work early that day just to get prepared for the trip. Kathy and Karen were not ready to go at 5:00 and were upset that their father would be mad at them. I tried rushing them, but it was no use. We finally arrived at the boat around 9:00 pm that evening. I called this a boat, but that was not the proper name. The boat was in actuality a "ship". 74 feet in length, 5 cabins, 2 heads, 1 shower, 1 bath tub, a 12'x24' galley, a 12'x24' back fishing deck, a huge bridge and another steering platform above the bridge and a range of 2000 miles on 1 tank of fuel. The boat had all the latest electronic gear including sonar, radar, latitude-longitude positioning system...the works. I was totally blown over. I had been fishing for several years and my cousin, Leland Turner, had bought for me a huge salt-water reel and a heavy duty rod with roller wheel guides. My largest halibut before that day was a 60 pound fish out of Kenai in the Cook Inlet. That is another story called Fishing the Cook Inlet or "Halibut and King Crabs" (to be written in the future). I was definitely ready for some major halibut fishing. Of course Dave was pretty mad when we showed up 2 hours late, but with the amount of drinking between himself and the other 3 people all ready on the boat, I wasn't too worried. We were supposed to go out south to the end of the "Resurrection Bay" and then west and north into "Aialik Bay". This was supposed to take about 3 hours at 6 nautical miles per hour. We started out of the harbor and had just settled in when I asked Dave how many fish did they normally catch when they went out. He told me that that day was the first time out that year and they typically went out 4-5 times. So, far in 5 years they had not caught a single fish. I was totally flabbergasted. I wondered how could they could not have caught any fish. With a very sophisticated sonar system, that can locate fish as small as 12 inches, there had to be something wrong. Dave told me that the waters we would be fishing in were 300-1000 feet deep. I had been used to the Cook Inlet that was 20-100 feet. I told Dave, that this weekend was going to be totally different. I was sure that we were going to catch a lot of fish. We had been going along for a couple of hours when the boat's engine started misfiring. Now, being the know-it-all that I am and not a mechanic, the first words out of my mouth were "sounds like water in the fuel". Dave looked at me and said, "we just got the boat out of dry dock and it was thoroughly gone over by the personnel". Four of us guys crammed down into the engine compartment, that was cleaner than my bathroom, then looked at the engine with total incomprehension. Dave said "I guess I'll call the harbor and get a tow back to town". I couldn't believe my ears. Going back before even putting one hook in the water? I looked for a filter or something, but with my minimalist knowledge of diesel engines, I truly didn't have a clue. With utter sadness I waited for the tow back to the harbor. So, naturally the only thing to do was to put at least one fishing line out and try to catch a whale or two. Unfortunately we were in too deep water to fish. The tug boat arrived a couple hours later and towed us back. Me without a single fish. Since the boat was so nice, we decided to just stay on the boat all weekend and party. Of course, that's another long story that I won't go into at this time. I tried fishing from the boat, but didn't catch anything. We ended up having a good time, so Dave invited us back for a 5 day cruise on the Fourth of July. I was totally ecstatic about an even longer fishing trip.

It was finally July 3, 1981 when Kathy, Karen, Bob and I left Anchorage (late again) in the morning for Whittier and a long Holiday weekend on the boat. It was a typical summer day with the light but steady rain. The adventure was to go all the way out Resurrection Bay into the Gulf of Alaska, then back into a small cove in Aialik Bay. It was going to take us 6-7 hours for the trip. We left the dock around 11am. After the first hour, Dave turned over the helm to me with instructions on how to read the maps and an admonishment "don't hit anything and especially don't run aground!" It was around 12:00 noon and Dave had all ready had several drinks. Around 1pm I was alone on the bridge when I thought I saw a log just a few feet in front of the boat. I started to swerve but decided I better not spill any drinks, so I just closed my eyes. I didn't hear or feel anything hit, so I opened my eyes and saw a group of dolphins "riding the bow wave". They would swim right in front of the boat and swerve in and out of the wave. They played for around a half hour before they swam off for parts unknown. As we went by "Sunny Cove State Marine Park" we saw hundreds of seals playing in the water and "sunning" on the rocks. We stopped for a while to listen to them talk. We kept going out toward the Gulf of Alaska Sound. When we finally got out into the Gulf of Alaska the waves went from 3-4 feet to 6-10 feet. Around 4pm we went around the tip of land to Aialik Bay and went by a pod of 10 or so Humpback whales. These are whales that typically around 50 feet long when fully grown. They came with 100 feet of the boat. "Aialik Bay" is 4-5 miles wide and around 25 miles long. Off this bay are bays that are 1 mile wide by 3-5 miles long. Off these bays are bays that are 1/8 by 1/2 mile and so on down to smaller size coves. Around 5pm we finally got to "Three Hole Bay" where we were going to stay for the weekend. We kept going further and further north and west into the bay. We ended up backing into one of these that was about the size of a football field around 6pm. My job was to drop the anchor as we backed into the cove. Dave got out a 4-man life raft with 2 oars and asked me to take two ropes from the rear of the boat over to both banks and tie them to trees. The bank was made up of boulders from 3-10 feet in diameter with the trees 20-30 feet above the water line. I rowed over to one side while Dave kept the engine running to keep the anchor from pulling us forward. Then I went over to the other bank. As I was finished tying the rope to a tree when I noticed a small (500-600 pound) black bear ambling along the tree line around 60 feet away. Everyone on the boat started yelling "watch out for the bear". Being the prankster that I yelled back "tie the rope where?", "watch out for my hair?" until they were really screaming and the bear stopped. It stood up sniffing the air trying to figure out what all the noise was about. Then it went back down on all four feet and started ambling toward me. I casually climbed down the bank (with everyone still yelling) and jumped into the raft when the bear was just above me near the trees. I really was never in any danger. With all the fresh and dead salmon around, the bear wasn't ever really interested in having me for dinner.

I got back over to the boat and announced that I was going to start fishing. I spent about an hour on the back of the boat without a single nibble when I decided to take the raft back out into the larger bay. It was a steady drizzle, so needless to say, no one wanted to go with me. I grabbed my rod, 5 herring, 2 "Oly Pops" (Olympia Beer) and an extra hook. It took around a half hour to go around a half mile out into the bay. I had purchased 100 pounds of herring, with each fish 1/2 to 1 pounds apiece and 12"-16" long. The hooks where around 4" long and 2" across the gap. I was planning on catching big fish. In the Alaska the halibut get well over 800 pounds. I put a herring on the line and dropped it to the bottom, which was around 200 feet deep. Since it was still raining pretty steady I opened a beer that I planned to finish quickly so that I would have something with which to bail out the raft. This was a 4-man life raft, that was really only big enough for 2 people, especially since I was 6'3" and 210 pounds at that time. The raft was so small you had to sit in the bottom, usually in the rain water. I had almost finished the beer when the rod was almost pulled out of my hands. Needless to say I forgot about the beer. It took a while to reel in the fish. When I got the fish close to the surface I started looking around for my Billy Club. When you catch a halibut in Alaska you typically beat them with a club until they are dead before you bring them into a boat. If they are over 50-60 pounds you typically use a gun to shoot the spine to kill them. If they are not dead, they will shake and flip for a really long time (30-40 minutes). There have been reports of fishermen killed by halibut. I had put the Billy Club and a sharp fillet knife at the back of the ship to take with me, but in my excitement, I had forgotten them. The halibut looked to weigh around 25-30 pounds and there was no way I was going to bring it into the raft. I was too far from the shore and the water at that time of year is 60 degrees. With all my clothes on, if the halibut punctured the raft, hypothermia would kill me long before I could swim to shore. I picked up one of the oars and tried beating the fish to death. All I ended up doing was knocking the fish off the hook. With the water so clear I watched the unconscious fish sink toward the bottom. Since the crew had never caught any fish in the cove, I didn't think they would believe that I had a fish on the line. The beer had spilled while I was trying to catch the fish, so I picked up the can and started bailing out the boat. I didn't want anything spoiling the next fish. I put another herring on the hook and dropped it to the bottom. It took another hour to hook another halibut. When I got it to the surface and saw that it was only around 20 pounds. I decided I had better get land this fish, so the others would want to fish the next day. I grabbed the fish by the tail, then grabbed it by the mouth and removed the hook. I then picked the fish out of the water, put it on the bottom of the raft and sat on it. I put the hook in my shirt pocket with the other hook and started rowing back to the boat. The halibut shook and flipped all the way back to the boat, but luckily didn't puncture the bottom.
 
When I got back, everyone came out and taunted me "here comes the great fisherman" thinking I hadn't caught any fish. They were really surprised when I showed them the fish I was sitting on. I got the Billy Club off the deck and knocked out the fish. Then I filleted the fish and put it on ice in the cooler. It was around 10pm when I got done. I talked Kathy into going back out with me, but only after I promised to have her back by 12pm. We went out and ended up not getting back until around 1am, so she was really mad at me. Our berth was supposed to be the first cabin by the galley, but when we opened the door, someone was all ready in the bed. We tried each cabin only to find someone in each of the beds. Since they had been drinking all day and evening, they were pretty much passed-out. The only bed not occupied was the bow cabin, which was also the biggest room with the only queen size bed on the boat. Kathy reluctantly got into her parent's bed and we went to sleep. A while later I was dreaming that my face was really hot. I slowly woke up to find that the sun was shining through a 12" porthole onto my face. Along the Gulf of Alaska it rains almost every single day. At Seward there are typically around 7 sunny days in the summer. So, this was totally unexpected. I woke Kathy up and said "Let's go fishing!!!!" She asked me what time it was. I looked at my watch and noticed it was 3:30am. Kathy said to me "if you wake anyone up, I won't talk to you for the rest of the weekend, so go back to sleep". I waited about 15 minutes for her to fall back to sleep and then I got up and went fishing again. I didn't forget any equipment this time and by 7am I was back at the boat with 2 more 20+ pound halibut. Everyone was still asleep, but with not a single cloud in the sky, I didn't want to wait too long to move the boat out to the bay and start really fishing. I started making breakfast, making as much noise as I could. I made bacon and coffee hoping the smell would wake everyone up. I finished making scrambled eggs with fresh halibut, green peppers and onions. I finally had to go and beat on all the doors to wake everyone up. It took until 9am to finally get through breakfast and still no one wanted to move the boat. So, I took the raft and started untying the safety lines. When the boat started moving toward the anchor Dave finally got up and helped me move the boat.
 
We moved the boat further out into the bay than I had been previously fishing. I setup the outdoor chairs on the back deck and rigged all the fishing poles that were on the boat. Dave had made it perfectly clear, that I was only allowed to have 2 lines in the water at a time, so I started dragging the crew out to start fishing. Within 10 minutes I had to stop fishing and help everyone else with the fish they were catching. The law at the time was a limit of 2 fish in possession per person. Everyone caught 1 fish each, then they got tired and/or bored and went back inside to drink. After cleaning all the fish and putting them in the coolers, I finally got a chance to do some serious fishing. I had brought 2,000 feet of 300 pound trotline, (20) 6" long by 3" gap hooks, (5) 5 pound weights and a 2 foot diameter buoy. Dave again reminded me that I was only allowed to have two hooks in the water at a time. I ended up putting a weight on one end, 150 feet of line, a 10 foot leader and hook, 150 feet of line, a weight, 150 feet of line, a 10 foot leader and hook, 150 feet of line, a weight and then 400 feet line up to the buoy. On both hooks I threaded 2 of the biggest herring up the leader and 1 herring on the hook. We were fishing in 300 feet of water at the time. I took the raft and took the trotline about 100 feet away from the boat with the other end 500 feet away. I went back to the boat and started fishing. Dave let me have one pole to fish with, so I sat down and started my serious fishing. I released all the halibut I caught that were less than 40 pounds. I don't remember how many I caught and released (10-12), but it was one of the best fishing days of my life.
 
Around 7pm the sun went behind a mountain and we started hearing salmon jumping around the shoreline. Dave came out and asked if I wanted to troll for salmon. Of course I was really excited and asked "how you troll with a 74 foot boat?" He just laughed and said "silly person, you don't. We'll put a motor on the back of the raft and troll with it." I couldn't believe what he had just said!!! I had rowed that stupid little raft 3 times out to the bay for a total of 4-5 hours, when all the while he had a motor. Dave got out a small 2 horsepower motor, a 2 gallon tank, and a "huge" tackle box full of salmon gear. Dave was also over 6 foot tall and 200 pounds. I wondered how we were going to fit all the gear and both of us in that little bitty raft. He finally got everything situated when I decided we should go over to the trotline to check if the crabs had stolen the bait. I grabbed a handful of herring and got into the raft. We motored over to the buoy and I started pulling up the line. I had almost gotten to the first weight when the line started pulling out of my hand. I told Dave I had a fish on the line. Dave said "well...just pull it in." I tried but, it just pulled the raft around. I talked Dave into motoring back to the boat, I climbed on the boat and started pulling the line. I got just past the first weight and could feel the fish on the line, when the line went tight. I could tell that the fish was on the hook closest to me, but the other hook was stuck on the bottom. I pulled as hard as I could, but all I accomplished in doing was pulling the boat closer toward the stuck hook. I asked Dave if he would pull up the anchor and move the boat to the other side of where the hook was stuck, but all he wanted to do was go back inside and have a drink. I let some of the line out and tied it to the back of the boat. Then I went to the front of the boat and started winching up the anchor. In 300 feet of water, it took 15 minutes or so. I then went up to the bridge and started up the boat. Dave came running up and with a sigh agreed to help me. We moved the boat to the other side of the hook and I told him to give it full throttle. The boat took off and then came almost to a stop when the line went taut. Then with a surge, something broke and the boat surged forward, spilling a few drinks. Dave stopped the boat and I started pulling in the line. I got to where the first weight, cut the weight off and then kept pulling, afraid that I had lost the fish. When I was 50 feet or so from the first hook the line started flying out of my hand. I still had the fish! The fish finally stopped, so I yelled for someone to get me a pair of gloves. After a few hectic minutes and I was better equipped, I started pulling the line in again. As I pulled I started seeing the fish coming up. The water in the bay was really clear and you could see around 20-30 feet down. I couldn't tell how big the fish was as I pulled it closer to the surface. As the fish got close to the surface, it took off again for the bottom. When the fish stopped, I looked down at my feet and noticed the line was wrapped around my foot with just feet to spare before I might have been pulled overboard. After that I had someone carefully coil the line as I brought up the fish. 2 more times I pulled the fish toward surface only to have the fish take off for the bottom again. Finally I got the fish closer to the surface. I could tell that the fish was finally tiring. At first I thought that the fish might be 50-60 pounds, then I thought maybe it was 100 pounds. As the fish got closer and closer I started getting really excited and actually kind of scared. The fish was at least 5 feet long and had to be well over 100 pounds. I then excitedly yelled out "Get a gun, get a gun". Everyone scrambled around the cabin looking for a gun that hadn't been seen in a couple of years. Dave showed up with a huge gaff, but I wasn't about to gaff the fish without shooting the it first. No one could find the gun after several minutes, so I decided to let Dave try to gaff fish. I held the fish just under water, when Dave grabbed the line and tried to gaff the fish. Of course it took off again for the bottom, almost dumping Dave in the water. Somehow I grabbed Dave and the line and didn't lose the fish. I pulled the fish back in again and because we still couldn't find the gun, I decided to try the gaff again. This time I took the gaff, put the point below the fish in the water, let go of the line and pulled up with all my life. Dave grabbed hold of the gaff with me and it took all our strength just to hold onto the gaff. After what seemed like hours with the fish flipping back and forth, someone came out with the gun. I grabbed the gun and shot the fish twice behind the head into the spine. This fish immediately started spasming, but then quickly went dead. We put a large rope around the tail and it took 5 of us to just pull the fish up onto the boat. We didn't have a tape measure, but it was longer than I was tall (6'3"), +3' wide and almost 12" thick. We didn't have a scale either, but back at the dock they estimated that the fish was around 250 pounds.
 
Since we had previously caught a bunch of fish, all the coolers were full of fish. There wasn't room for the huge halibut, so Dave agreed to take the boat across "Aialik Bay" to the other side into "Holgate Arm" where there was a glacier. It took a while to cut up the fish and get it into plastic trash bags. When we got into the glacial we started seeing floating chunks of ice. I took a 10 foot salmon dip net and tried to pick up a piece that looked about 12 inches across. It was actually a lot bigger and heavier than I thought and I almost fell overboard. It took a while, but finally got enough ice to fill all the trash bags with the fish. It had to have been at least 400 pounds of ice. I took a piece of iceberg the size of a golf ball and put it into a cup with a warm can of coke. The ice barely melted by the time I finished the drink. After that, we used the icebergs for drinking for the rest of the weekend. I finally sat down around 11pm that night, for what seemed like the first time, and promptly fell asleep.
 
The rest of a trip is a blur due to my exhilaration of catching "The Big One".
 
Somewhere in my basement is a box with photos of me lying down beside the fish. But finding that box will be an adventure in and of itself.


Notes -
Text in italics is sidebar information about Alaska and Alan's adventures.