Every summer we jaded Homerites sometimes scoff at the sport halibut fishermen who head out almost daily (except Wednesdays) on charter boats. “Pukers,” we might call them, because of course none of us get seasick. Alaskans will drive 80 miles or motor across Kachemak Bay and try our luck dipnetting should-to-shoulder for salmon, but go out on an all-day charter boat halibut fishing trip? That’s so touristy.
Maybe — but on a calm Sunday when the halibut take every hook offered to them, Alaskan living doesn’t get any better. If you’re a local who has never fished for halibut, here’s the secret for why visitors come from thousands of miles away to plunk down $268 a head for the chance to catch big huge fish.
Halibut fishing is a heck of a lot of fun.
Two Sundays ago, I went out fishing with my niece Anna’s husband, Øistein Stokke Berget, while they and their son Aksel visited Homer and Alaska. Øistein and Anna live in Trondheim, Norway. A year ago on a trip to Norway, they took my wife Jenny and me off hiking into the Norwegian wilderness for a stay at a little hut, so when Øistein said he wanted to go halibut fishing, I gladly agreed to return the hospitality by going fishing — even if it meant getting up at oh dark hundred (that’s 5 a.m.) — to catch the boat.
That’s the first thing about halibut fishing you should know. You get up early, very early. Now imagine that if fishermen meet at the boat at 6 a.m., the charter captains and their deckhands have to get up even earlier to prepare the boat for the onslaught of 16 anglers. Someone has to make the coffee and cut the bait. As they say in the fishing business, “You can sleep next winter.”
I’ve been charter fishing before. One time I went out with my nephew, Micah, when he was 13 and his idea of an Alaska vacation was to fish, fish, fish. Another time I went out with my sister Marcia and her sons, David and Andrew, and I caught the Biggest Fish Ever, I think an 85-pound monster, but the fish might have gotten bigger with my fading memory. Fish do that.
Once, Jenny went out with my mom, because Mom said she always wanted to go halibut fishing. The only women on the boat, they caught more fish than anyone because they didn’t get sea sick.
I’d never been out on a big boat, a party boat, where wrangling 16 eager anglers can be about as hard as lining up kindergarteners for recess. Capt. J.R. Tapia ran a good boat, though, and with his deckhands Chelsea Schmidt and Casey McKinnon kept us in line.
J.R. took the Irish way out in the back of beyond. Because a fog hid the coast once we’d gotten offshore, I can’t really say where we went. “Somewhere near Iliamna,” J.R. said. It had to be fairly far out, because our lines went deep, like 280 feet.
That’s the next thing you learn about halibut fishing: you reel in a lot of line. That wouldn’t be so hard if there wasn’t a 5-pound lead weight with hook and bait at the end. At one point while I reeled away, I started to calculate how many times I would have to wind the reel for 280 feet of line. Let’s see, the reel is 3 inches across, so the circumference would be 18.84 inches, divided into … I didn’t want to know. A lot.
It took about two hours to get to the fishing grounds, and after a lecture on Halibut Fishing 101 (“Your lines will get tangled.”), we cast away. J.R. had us fishing in a rotation bow to stern. Pull up your line, get more bait, and move to the back of the line at the bow. Øistein had his line in about 10 minutes when he got his first bite. Pretty soon about five of us had bites.
Oh, and here’s the main thing to know about halibut fishing: When even a chicken chomps down on that hook and begins tugging, that might be the coolest fishing ever. You’ve dutifully put your weight on the bottom. You periodically jig the rod to make sure it stays on the bottom. All of a sudden, shazam, the halibut nibbles and then takes the line. The rod quivers like a skinny birch in a 90 mph wind. Fish on!
I think we might have gotten lucky on that trip. Maybe it’s good luck to have a Norwegian onboard. Maybe I properly respected the halibut by giving the ones we caught a nip of aquavit, the Norwegian liqueur. Øistein said a fisherman friend of his believes you should make a sacrifice to the sea by tossing over something valuable, like chocolate.
J.R. said on a trip the day before the first bite came at 1:30 p.m. Our boat was well on its way to limiting out by 2 p.m. Or was it 3 p.m.? In the frenzy of fishing, time becomes blurred.
We fished and caught and fished and caught. J.R. said to shout “color!” when a halibut came to the surface — all that reeling. I heard that word a lot, sometimes in machine gun spurts. Color, color, color.
With the latest sport charter regulations, only one fish can be larger than 28 inches long. Some fishermen kept throwing back chickens to get that big fish. I was content to land two medium-size keepers, none over 28 inches. I had my Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby ticket just in case, but the fun mattered most. The grayer fishermen on our boat got a workout — but we got our fish.
After everyone limited out, J.R. lined us up on the stern of the Irish for a group photo. He put up a rack for the bigger fish and laid the rest out on the deck. If you want to get a measure of how well you’ve done on a trip, it’s a good sign when the captain and his deckhands get giddy. North Country Charters has been in business for almost 40 years. The charter guides that do well in Homer follow a basic principle: if the client is happy, the captain is happy.
Our happy boat came back to Homer, mostly men and a few women. Sunshine broke over the Spit. We’d started as strangers and formed a bond in the most elemental way: catching food. Øistein and I took home 52 pounds of filleted fish, about $12 a pound, my sister calculated.
It was only later that I realized another blessing to the day. Most likely the fishermen on our boat shared different views, but for one day, no one talked politics — or even thought of it.
Fish on. Color, color, color.