In Hoonah, Alaska there is plentiful food, but in most cases you have to take the initiative and have the knowledge (or maybe the luck) to harvest it. From the ocean dozens of species of fish, plants, mollusks and crustaceans can feed you cooked fresh on the grill in the summer or through the winter months. During my time here I’ve set on a quest to learn and experience as much as I can in harvesting resources from the land and sea. The following story is a fish story, but a true one, that is jubilant and has me yearning to go back halibut fishing soon.
The boat floated off the trailer and sat in stark contrast to the dreary conditions. The gray skies and misty rain were reflected in the ocean’s surface which flowed rapidly with the incoming tide. I pulled over the small 9.9 horse engine of our 14′ boat and with little pause we puttered from the harbor, through the no-wake zone, and accelerated into Port Frederick. We traveled east past the long line of docks, around cannery point, and knew immediately that we would go no further. A strong east wind and a large fetch were blowing up waves too risky in our small craft. Turning around meant abandoning our familiar fishing grounds on the west side, and we made the decision to try a new reef in the Eastport.
The wind blew parallel to a large, outcrop of boulders that was still 4 feet underwater. At low tide the rocks would jut out of the water, but until then they sat lurking below the water waiting for an errant propeller. My jig and weight dropped down 40 feet to the bottom and bobbed alongside Chris’ whose was already there. Ten minutes later my rod tip bent far into the water and I knew exactly what I had – bottom! However, simultaneously Chris said “I think I have a fish”, and as if on cue drag screamed from his spin cast reel under the boat. The fight was on…
Before continuing this story it’s important to closely inspect the situation. Here are a series of facts. Fact A) I am still stuck on the bottom. Fact B) the wind is pushing us rapidy. Fact C) It is evident Chris has a fish large enough that we should be thinking about weight distribution in our tiny boat, is using a stiff spinning rod and 30lb test and did not have his drag set properly. Fact D) We have no way to kill a large halibut (in other words, a gun). It’s very hard to convey how all of those things made the situation very, very stressful!
…the fight was on. After 10 minutes into the fight I was eyeing my rod nervously. The wind had blown us far enough away from where Chris started to fight the beast, that my still-snagged rod was nearly out of line. In an effort to ensure that Chris’s fish would not be lost, my panicked mind could think of only one thing : I was going to have to break the line. Fortunately, after a little consternation, I realized that could slowly back-up and let Chris continue to fight the fish. 15 minutes into the fight my line was free and we were on equal grounds with the yet unseen halibut. On Chris’ light gear the fight lasted a long, long time. Coach Ian yelled out many (extremely useful) tips to battle the monster. As the fight continued, Chris settled into the habit of reeling down, pumping up, gaining some line, and then losing it all as the fish made another incessant run for the bottom of the ocean.
20 minutes into the fight we realized that we were going to be in bad shape when this fish came to the surface. Large halibut are known to injure people and severely damage boats and gear if brought over the gunnel alive. We had to have a plan to subdue it. I looped a rope and set a gameplan to get its around the fish’s tail like I was the cowboy at some water-rodeo. I also tied a stout knife to a rope and tied it to the boat. As the adage goes : I had brought a knife to a gunfight and planned to solve our dilemma of a large and angry halibut by delivering the killing blow like a matador in a bull ring. It was a terrible plan, but the only one we had.
30 minutes into the fight a shimmer of hope appeared as a red-flash of bounding metal on the water. A streaking, red, Lund boat captained by a friend of mine was heading to the sea to check shrimp pots. I waved them closer and was ecstatic to find they were carrying exactly what we needed – a gun. 33 minutes into the fight the halibut was brought to the surface and at 35 minutes it was dispatched with a resounding crack – I plugged my ears. As it was drug on board I let out a resounding “OWOWOWOWOW!!”, did a little irish jig in the bottom of the boat, and slapped hands with Chris in excitement. I couldn’t believe our luck and the adrenaline that coursed through my veins made the situation all the more exhilarating!
It is amazing to consider that fish like this one are pretty common in Hoonah and Southeast Alaska. However, since it was my first time seeing and harvesting such a huge fish, I was shocked by how much meat came off a single animal. A rule of thumb is that halibut are 60% salvageable meaning that from this 100lb fish we took 60 pounds. Harvesting a fish like this is not done for sport, and in the way of the community of Hoonah we gave away some of the slabs of halibut to friends. The 60 pounds of meat yielded from this fish will be used to feed me and many others in the coming weeks and months.