A light, icy breeze blew down Cook Inlet at we headed out of Homer, Alaska in the spring of 2020. The cloud ceiling was high, but the air was still filled with a grey morning light. A slight chop rippled the smooth, deep green ocean water as we throttled down in a thicket of kelp blooms north of Homer.
Fishing those areas can often be slow, but the fish are usually plump and healthy, and sometimes there are lunkers cruising the shallows looking for an easy meal.
It was early morning, maybe 7:30 a.m., when I threw anchor over the side of the Storm Petrel in just 30 feet of water. The stern of the boat pointed south with the gentle pull of an outgoing tide. My guys took their rods and dropped bait to the bottom — it didn’t take long to get down.
We were chit chatting and getting to know each other, the usual stuff: “Where are you from?” “How long are you in Alaska?” “Have you ever fished for halibut before?” I’m teaching the guys (it was all dudes that day) what to look for, the telltale nibble-nibble before the rod bends over with a big fish bite.
“With bait on circle hooks you don’t want to yank up on the rod — no bass master hook sets — instead you want to do more of a medium-speed lift, or if the rod is in a rod holder, just start reeling when you see that thing double over,” I told them.
“Another good trick is this thing,” I said, pulling out a rod with an artificial lead head jig and rubbery grub tail. I continue my speech, handing off the rod to one of the guys we’ll call John and showing him how to bounce it back away from the boat in the current.
I was in the middle of explaining the technique when WHAM! Something smacked the jig and it started peeling line off the reel with a fwap fwap fwaps of its tail.
“HOLY COW!” John screams. “What do I do now?!?”
“JUST REEL!” I screamed.
We’re all caught off guard. It hadn’t even been 10 minutes since we put lines in the water, and I don’t think most of us were fully awake yet.
“You’re doing great,” I said with excitement. “Just keep the pressure on ’em. Reel if it stops running and keep a good bend in that rod.”
The fish is still swimming full-speed away from the boat in a panic.
I was staring at the reel as the line ran back-and-forth back-and-forth, the spool getting smaller and smaller as the fish fought for its life. I’ve seen a lot of big halibut caught in Kachemak Bay, and I knew instantly that we had a whopper. But I’ve never seen one take so much line quite so quickly. I started to worry that we’re going to get “spooled” (run out of line on the reel) and lose a monster.
Maybe this is just another story about the one that got away?
The fun thing about fishing halibut in shallow water is that they have nowhere to run but away from the boat. In deeper water the fish tend to come up towards the surface, then dive back to the bottom. Up and down up and down until they tire out. But fishing in just 30 feet of water there is no real up and down, they just take off left or right or back or, sometimes, directly under the boat.
This one made a run away from the boat off the port side, thankfully, and stretched the braided line into the distance.
I have gotten pretty good at judging the size of these fish based on what I see in the water — the intensity of it’s head shake, how hard it’s running, the bend of the rod, and other signs. I know we’ve got a monster on the line, but some things seem a little off today. Maybe it’s just a really pissed off 250-pound fish, but I’m not so sure anymore. It is acting pretty funny… While it was taking lines in spurts, it did not have the same type of halibut head shake I was used to seeing.
Anyways, there was no time to think in the moment. All I knew was that this fish wasn’t stopping, and we were running out of line.
“Ah crap,” I said. “John, just keep reeling and try not to let that line hit the boat. I’m going to pull the anchor and we’ll chase this sucker.”
The other anglers cranked up their lines as I scrambled up to the bow of the boat. I threw the anchor buoy over the side and scurried up the front windshield onto the flybridge. “Everything clear?” I yelled to the back.
John was braced against the stern, still cranking away. I pushed the throttle forward, making a big arch towards the fish to hopefully gain a little ground as I drug the anchor off the bottom, then flipped the boat around and started hand lining in the anchor chain. It didn’t take long — another benefit of fishing in just 30 feet.
Free from the anchor, John’s fishing line was still stretched long towards the horizon, and the reel barely held any more line, so we started driving towards the fish. We went slow enough to keep tension as he reeled and we started gaining line fast.
Soon we were drifting on the surface 30 feet above this fish, but it wasn’t coming up. It was still fighting. And fighting. And fighting. But now we were just floating along with it, waiting for it to tire out. The only real question — who was going to give out first, the fish or the fisherman?
John kept at it. He had already been battling 10 minutes, then 15, now 20, and the fish was still fighting. Running and trashing and sticking to the bottom. 30 minutes passed. We had drifted a mile and a half above the beast and John was still trying to get it up 30 feet from the ocean floor.
Finally, John started gaining some vertical ground on the fish. It was coming up. And it was not long until we saw the big brown silhouette emerge from the murky depths.
The outline got larger and larger until — wait a minute — the fish was facing the wrong way! It’s tail was pointed toward the boat, not it’s head like normal. What the hell?!?
As the giant halibut neared the surface our situation came into view. The halibut did not bite the jig, the jig bit the halibut! The hook was embedded deep into the fish’s fleshy tail.
“Oooookay,” I said in amazement. “That’s a new one.”
John walked up the side of the boat to pull the fish within range. I loaded the .410 shotgun and gave it a pop, a gaff, and a plop on the deck.
A yell of excitement and high fives all around after an epic battle. We weighed the fish when we got back to the docks and it was just over 100 pounds. John managed to catch a 100-pound halibut by the tail, and earned quite a story to tell in the process. So did his captain.
It’s a feat I do not expect to repeat any time soon, but you could always try? Come go halibut fishing with me at Homer Ocean Charters in Homer, Alaska.