John E. Hoover
writer, broadcaster, photographer

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    Alaska: The Great Land, Pt. 3

    (Halibut fun, but bring cash and book early)

    Jim Hoover of North Pole, landed this 77-pound halibut off the southern coast of Alaska.

     

    Originally published in the Tulsa World, July 9, 2000

     

    Tired of trout? Sick of sandies? Bored with bass? Casual on catfish?

    Got about a thousand dollars lying around?

    Then, for something a little different, go to Alaska. If nothing else, go just for the halibut.

    The coastal waters of south central Alaska -- primarily the Cook Inlet off the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound between Valdez and Cordova -- are currently teeming with trophy fish that make such a journey easily worthwhile.

    • The giant king salmon and the reds are already gone, spawning and dying in the interior rivers, but pinks, silvers and chums will be running strong for a few more weeks.
    • Record-setting rockfish -- including the tasty red snapper -- are plentiful in the deeper waters, as are enormous lingcod, weighing as much as 70 pounds. There are also salmon sharks, wolf eels, Irish lords and just about anything else your heart desires.
    • But the big daddy -- if you're lucky enough or smart enough to book a superior charter service -- is the halibut, the flat-swimming, hard- fighting mammoth of the deep that reigns over all species of fish when it comes to the main course at dinner.

    After an 8-hour drive from Fairbanks that actually took 10 because of construction and sightseeing stops, we spent three days (June 23-25) at Valdez. It was an excursion that resulted in a degree of personal disappointment but was nevertheless enriching.

    My brother, Jim Hoover, caught his halibut limit of two (including an impressive 77-pounder) and our boat, the Krystal Gail, took in its six-person limit of 12. So even though I was the only one who didn't catch a fish, I still delighted my palate with a few halibut steaks.

    We arrived on a Friday night and, upon the ill advice of someone who had apparently never tried this before, began scouting Valdez Harbor for a charter the next day. We struck out five times before finally finding a captain who made a half-dozen phone calls and located a boat with two openings. Turns out it's a wise idea to call weeks or sometimes months ahead of time. For instance, a service called Popeye -- widely regarded by locals as Valdez' best -- claimed to be booked for the rest of this summer and most of next.

    We chartered the Krystal Gail -- a 28-foot boat customized for halibut fishing -- from a middle-of-the-road outfit called Fish Central, which also rented smaller boats, tackle, knives and probably anything else needed.

    In recent years prices for an all-day charter (12 hours) have run between $100 and $150 per person, but this year, because of the high cost of fuel, they ran $150-$200. Ours cost $180.

    We were told to be at the slip at 7 a.m. and arrived at 6:51, just in time to see the Krystal Gail pulling away without us. She backed up and let us on, and we set sail on a 3-hour tour to the south end of Prince William Sound. The Krystal Gail runs at 20 knots (about 23 miles per hour), so by 9:50 a.m. we were fishing off the north coast of Montague Island, about 55 miles out of Valdez.

    Most charters provide all rigs, tackle and bait, and most will give tips on how to jig off the bottom, what to do when you hook one and how to get it on the boat. Some even clean your catch at sea, although if you land a monster you'll want to show it off back at the harbor.

    My brother got the second fish of the day, pulling up his 77-pounder within 15 minutes after dropping a line. (The captain decided to shoot it in the head with a .22 pistol to make landing it easier.) We were jigging with herring halves in about 110 feet of water when he hooked his. For almost two hours afterward, however, all we got were nibbles.

    We changed locations often, running anywhere from 60 to 140 feet deep, but our luck changed little. The night before, we had seen several 100-pound-plus fish on the docks (and probably three dozen weighing more than 50 pounds), but only two on our boat weighed more than 40. Jim and I were also excited about bringing in some of the big red snapper (also called yelloweye rockfish) we had seen on the dock, one of which had measured 30 inches and was estimated to be 50 years old. But somehow, no one on our boat caught anything but halibut.

    (Actually, I caught a 12-legged starfish, something called a sunstar, which wrapped its legs around my 1- pound sinker, then let go. Booby prize.)

    After more than 6-1/2 hours of fishing we headed in, another 3 hours back to the harbor, where we unloaded scarcely 200 pounds of fish. Sadly, as we were cleaning my brother's catch, other charters -- primarily Popeye and another called Goodhand -- each dumped their limits of big halibut and giant red snapper right next to us. Sadly because halibut commonly exceed 100 pounds, occasionally top 200 and sometimes reach 300. The world record, taken in Unalaska Bay in the Aleutian Chain, is 459.

    The difference, the other captains said, was that they fished off the opposite (southeast) coast of Montague Island, in water more than 200 feet deep. It would have taken the Krystal Gail another 2 hours to reach those holes. The lesson is to book early and find a boat that runs at 30 knots or better, reaching the deep water faster and finding the big ones more often. Still, it beats hooking nightcrawlers and waiting for catfish down at the pond.

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