Monday, May 13, 2013

Gulf of Alaska Halibut

I have never really been a big fish eater. For as long as I can remember people would marvel at the fact that I was a such a passionate fisherman that didn't eat fish. Well this statement was never really true in its entirety. I have always loved fish from the Ocean like shrimp, scallops, cod, Haddock,  and my favorite...Pacific White Halibut. There used to be a restaurant in Sarnia that had the best Pacific White Halibut fish and chips.   When my wife and I first met it was our favorite restaurant.
The portions were huge and the fish was outstanding.  Back then a large portioned one piece dinner was $5.75 but oh  how times have change.  Halibut fish and chips portions are no longer large and the cost of a dinner for 4 rivals those of a steakhouse prices.  One of the huge bonuses of the Yakutat Lodge package was that a guided ocean charter for Halibut was included. I was really excited about this prospect.
I wasn't overly excited about the thrill and fight of catching a Hali as much as I was about the prospect of pure white fillets to fly home. Halibut prices in Sarnia can run $25-$30 per pound so one decent fish could honestly equate to quite a windfall for the freezer.

With the forecast calling for calm winds and sunny skies on Monday and rain from Tuesday on through to the remainder of our stay we all agreed this was the day to venture out into the ocean in pursuit of these bottom dwellers.  
We booked the charter with the lodge owner and agreed upon a 9am start time at their request.  After breakfast we made the drive from the Main Lodge  to rendezvous with Captain Steve of the Happy Hooker III Charter boat at the town Marina. Upon our arrival we were confronted by our captain with dismal news of engine problems and a need for refueling. After a small discussion we agreed to give them a half hour to troubleshoot the outboard issues with their Mechanic while we went back to the cabin to regroup and formulate another plan should things goes south.
I will admit our Host had to have known about these issues the night prior and thus the late morning start request but took a "let's hope for the best" approach and booked us for the day without telling us of the situation.  We were all beginning to get a sour taste on our pallets but decided it best to let the events play out.  We returned to the dock to learn how our day would unfold.  Walking down to the docks we witnessed the boat making their way back in from a test run.
Things were certainly looking up. The captain slowly made his way back to the gas dock and happily proclaimed we were going Halibut fishing. By now it was mid-morning. The sun was shining, the winds had laid down and it had the makings of a grand adventure.  Captain Steve drove away to get bait while the fuel truck filled the boat for the trip. Before long we were making our way out through Monti Bay, into Yakutat bay, and then our destination… the Gulf of Alaska.
Our Captain was a well-seasoned fisherman and took his guide job seriously. On our ride out he began to thoroughly go through all of the safety features of the boat. He made sure we knew how to start it, where the bilge was, flares, safety gear, and how the Marine Radio worked and what channels to use should things get weird over the course of our trip. With a minor engine issue still present we decided to set our lines in tight and work our way out in depth over the duration of the day with hopes of filling our 8 fish quota. The technique is fairly straight forward once the boat anchor has been set.  
We utilized short heavy fiberglass rods with large level wind reels full of heavy test braid.  On a large swivel we affixed a heavy test  mono lead to a very large circle hook to which we attached our bait.   To get the frozen whole herring baits down to the bottom and fight the wicked tidal currents we used 1 lb lead ball weights once again affixed to the swivel. Even with the heavy weights our lines were often at a 45 degree angle during times of heavy tidal currents.
Once on the bottom we cranked up two full revolutions and waited for the Halibut. Our captain informed us that we were not to set the hook when using circle hooks but to let the fish take the bait and only crank steadily on the reel once the rod folded over hard. Things were extremely slow in the 40-50 ft depth location and after an hour without any takes we relocated to 80 FOA and reset the lines. We also deployed a giant jigging attractor that resembled a Mr Twister Grub on steroids. This was the largest Grub Jig
I had ever seen and at 16oz was quite the workout jigging up and down repeatedly over the course of the outing. Captain Steve informed us the Jig brings them in via movement and sound. The Halibut are very inquisitive fish and come in to see what the commotion is all about.  Once close they pick up the scent of the herring and move in for the easy meal. It wasn't long until we had our first rod twitching and indicating a fish. Once again our captain cautioned us about setting the hook and we patiently waited for the fish to commit.
Finally the rod bent over and Red cranked down to a positively hooked fish. After a worthy battle we had our first Halibut of the morning and smiles on all of our faces. It was a respectable 15lb fish. Nothing huge by Hali standards considering these fish can reach epic proportions in the hundreds of pounds  but still plenty of good food for  the box. We reset the lines and got back to jigging the attractor. Soon my rod started to twitch and I patiently awaited the fish to commit. All of a sudden the rod rocketed down hard.  I cranked down quickly and pulled the rod from the holder.
It was evident we had hooked a larger fish as the rod loaded up and the line began to scream from the reel. The captain started to prepare deck for a larger fish and got the 410 shotgun from the cabin. He informed us that they shoot the larger fish prior to bringing them in the boat due to the havoc they can instill upon equipment and personnel. After a great fight and a  half dozen memorable runs the fish was at the side of the boat and Captain Steve attempted to make the kill shot.
His first attempt was met with a gun misfire but after a quick hammer adjustment the gun went off and soon he was hauling a large Hali over the side of the boat. We were all shocked at how big it was. It taped out at 55" and an estimated 68 lbs when cross referenced with the Halibut charts in his fisheries book. We were all now stoked and the bite was officially on. Captain Steve was anxious to redeploy the lines as he was certain we were now bringing in the fish. He went on to tell us our baits would run a scent line along the bottom that would run for miles with the tidal currents.
He stressed the importance of waiting for these fish and that they would indeed show up over time once the feeding line was established. I went on the jigging pole and gave Scotty a much deserved break. He was up for next fish and after another 10 mins or so the rod closest to the jig started to twitch again. Scotty patiently waited for the tell tale take and it happened. He was now into another large Hali. It was really giving him a run for the money and quite enjoyable to watch him struggle with the large fish.   
After another worthy battle we started to see some color emerge from the depths. I got behind Scott and simultaneously snapped a pic of the fish while the gun shot went off.  Suddenly Scott's line went slack and the now dead fish started to drift away with the current. The captain scrambled to snag it with his large gaffing hook and rope but it was just out of reach. We all watched in disbelief as $900 or so dollars of prime Halibut disappeared into the depths. Our captain was visually upset as to how the event unfolded and apologized excessively.
The hook popped free at the time of the shot or milliseconds prior. Scotty was a champ and showed no signs of disappointment. He was happy to have fought the fish and that  the battle was now over.  As far as we were all concerned it was indeed a caught fish and rivaled the big one we had already boated. We all shook it off and reset the lines.  In the next 4-5 hours we managed to boat three more smaller Halibut for the box. In the process we must have missed another 3-4 opportunities.  

Throughout the day we witnessed multiple whales breach as they migrated through the Gulf. It seemed if you looked long enough into the ocean one would certainly breach within your peripheral lines of sight. We also saw pods of porpoise from time to time as well as a  few seals. Miraculously I only managed to get sea sick once over the day.  When it did finally happen Scott hooked his last fish shortly after so we joked about my vomit chumming his fish up from the depths.
Come Ebb tide we all were starting to have had enough and decided to call it for the day. It was nearing 5pm and the prospect of an early dinner and some land under our feet was becoming appealing to us all. We raced back to the Marina where the lodge staff awaited our return. They put the fish in big plastic tubs and taxied it back to the cleaning station where they filleted it up then vacuum packed and froze it for our travels. While we posed for pictures with our bounty back at the lodge the cook came out and asked us if we would like some of our days catch prepared for dinner.
We all agreed a fine fish and chip dinner was in order and selected some choice fillets. We drove back to our cabin to clean up and have a few drinks before reconvening at the main lodge for a 7:30pm feast. The meal was outstanding. The fresh stark white Halibut fillets deep fried in a delicious golden beer batter were to die for.  The meal was the ultimate way to cap off an epic ocean adventure.  
Later that evening we were notified that we had ended up with some 50+ lbs of fillets for our efforts and that amount would fill one take home box to capacity. We couldn't have been happier.


JB said...

No finer eating than fresh halibut!! So jealous...

Trotsky said...

Very cool...
Now you are making me envious!!
Seeing the whales in the gulf are worth the price alone.
Too bad about the chummin'...we are going to have to do something about that. There are salmon to catch!!!!!!

Steeliemax said...

If it wasn't for the chummin we likely only caught half the fish or thats what Brian was trying to tell us