One of my very first fishing trips when I arrived in Alaska more than 6 years ago was with my friend Jordan, who invited me to join a bunch of guys competing in the annual Captain’s Invitational Halibut Tournament in Homer, Alaska. We did not win the tournament that year, but I started to find my sea legs and understand a little bit about what drew such an eclectic group of guys together with a love for the ocean.
At the time I had no idea what I was doing. I could barely stand in the confusion of the waves, I didn’t know how to bait a hook, and — heck I didn’t even know what a halibut was until after I arrived in town a few weeks before. Yet there I was, thrown into the thick of it, with fishing flying over the rails at the hands of 5 professional fisherman talking shit and doing what they do best.
It took me several more years to realize how special the Captain’s Invitational Halibut Tournament really is. It’s a rare time when charter captains and deckhands and whoever else they invite along come together to really ply their craft. Sure, we do it every day when we take clients out charter fishing, but tournament day is the only time we pool our collective experience and expertise and try to best our peers.
And we have a lot of fun doing it.
The tournament is held the third Wednesday in May each year. In 2023 the Captain’s Invitational Halibut Tournament was opened to all boats, although most of them were still from the Homer charter fleet. Hosted by Maverick Charters with support for the Homer Elks Lodge, 2023 also marked the return of the one-day tournament after a hiatus due to COVID-19.
Again this year I was fishing with my buddy Jordan, and Josh, a friend I actually met onboard during my very first tournament. Both of the guys work at Big Butt Charters, and we took Josh’s boat the Early Riser for our day on the water.
It was a grey morning with a cold wind blowing down Cook Inlet when we threw the hook in a calm stretch of water that shan’t be named. Snow still clung to the mountain tops. There are no boundaries for the tournament, but of course our best fishing spots are kept close to chest.
It didn’t take long before Chuck put in our first fish. He hooked a 60-pounder as dark as the rocky bottom it came from. Brian missed the first gaff at the fish and the whole boat let out a wail. The fish took a run and then came back to the side of the boat, and Brian brought it in with one more authoritative swing of the big golden hook.
Big fish hunting is rarely fast, but we had a pretty steady bite going after about an hour. We hooked and boxed a few smaller fish — meat for the freezer — before Josh thumped into a biggun’ with a little white jig. It took off running away from the boat and to the side.
“I want to shoot it!” I said, running for the gun.
Eventually the big girl rose from the depths next to the boat, Chuck got in position with the gaff and I took aim. But I started to laugh. I laughed hard enough that I missed the shot. In the insanity of it all Chuck gaffed the fish.
“Oh shit I think I missed it,” I said, still laughing and trying to reload my pistol.
“WHAT?!” Chuck screamed. But by then it was already stuck on the gaff, so we yanked it over the side and hit it with the t-ball bat. Mission accomplished, and I still thought it was funny as hell.
That was the first place fish, caught by Josh, gaffed by Chuck, and not shot by me.
Some time later we were cutting up and drinking beer and one of the bait rods sitting next to me jiggled ever so slightly. It’s a light bite we’re all trained to recognize right away, and all eyes turned to the rod.
It was sitting in the rod holder and the tip started to whomp whomp whomp as it bent over. I didn’t even have time to pick it up, so I just started cranking the handle. The fish took off down stream from the boat, peeling line as it made one explosive run before slowly rising to the surface of the grey water.
Josh shot this one, and he didn’t miss. Ethan and Brian put double gaffs in and the thick flat fish plopped to the deck. Jordan took photos. That was our second place halibut.
The Early Riser and her misfit crew took first and second place in the 2023 Captain’s Invitational Halibut Tournament, and we had a lot of fun doing in. The crew was Captain Josh Wickboldt and Jordan Cox with Big Butt Charters, Ethan Harders with Harders Charters, Brian Ritchie with North Country Charters, Chuck Winston of many boats, and Clay Duda with Homer Ocean Charters.