We’re in a 28-foot Alumaweld boat on Cook Inlet an hour out of the tiny Alaskan coastal village of Ninilchik, and we’ve got a double on halibut. Bob Stocker and Zoe Ann Stinchcomb have substantial curves in the super-stiff rods they’re holding, meaning that 285 feet below, something big has swallowed the salmon heads impaled on circle hooks you could drop a 50-cent piece through.
I’m taking pictures. In the background looms Mount Illiamna, one of four active volcanoes we can see. Topped with glaciers and snow, it forms one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen, so beautiful I have trouble tearing my eyes away and focusing on the action in front of me.
Only later do I realize it’s the ugliest place we fished in for four days.
Alaskans tend to be a little smug about the fact that their state is more than twice as big as Texas, even though a substantial and growing number of Alaskans came from the Lone Star State. They tend to be a little smug about their fishing, too–and with good reason. When was the last time you hauled in an edible 85-pound fish like the one my wife, Zoe Ann, is laboriously hoisting to the surface? Or a 50-pounder like the one I kicked off the day with?
I thought so.
During four days of fishing we harvested 200 pounds of halibut and silver salmon and released a similar amount of salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. We also swooped low over glaciers, moose and brown bears; floated down what is arguably the most beautiful river in North America and shared a campfire with some new friends just as in awe of Alaska as we were.
Doin’ the Halibut Hobble
Steve and John from Houston (last names omitted to protect the guilty) laughed as we hobbled into Alaska Hooksetters Lodge with slumped shoulders, heads hung low and exhausted looks following an afternoon of halibut fishing. “What’s wrong with ya’ll?” they wanted to know. “Just wait until you go halibut fishing,” I replied. “Then you’ll know. You’ll be doing the halibut hobble, too.”
There’s a reason fishing guides take clients halibut fishing: They want someone to do the work. Drop a four-pound weight 285 feet to the bottom through powerful, offset currents and rip tides and you’ll have a struggle on your hands reeling it in. Add a 50-pound fish on the end and you have work. Halibut look like giant flounder, and that width gives them plenty of surface to leverage against the water. It can take 15 minutes or more to haul one in, and by the time you do, both you and the fish are whipped.
We catch more than just halibut. Dogfish sharks and cod up to 15 pounds also take our baits, and they give us a real workout, too. My second halibut, a 40-pounder, is halfway to the surface when it decides to engage in some vicious head-shaking–or so I think. When we finally boat it, it’s missing its tail and a five-pound, shark-mouth-shaped chunk out of one side. “Salmon shark,” says guide Nick Fortney.
Fortney and deck hand Tyler Goggia move about constantly, choreographing the dance of hooked-up anglers between baiting hooks and boxing the catch. “Move to the front, Larry, so Bob can slide in here,” Fortney says as he deftly threads Bob’s rod over and around other lines to untangle them. “Do you need the man-gina?” he asks as Zoe Ann struggles with another big fish, referring to the fighting belt with rod socket. “Go big or go home,“ he says if we look like we’re about to wimp out and stop fishing. Nick’s face resembles the crevasse-laced surface of one of the glaciers we can see in the distance, creased with deeply grooved wrinkles that move when he smiles, which he does a lot. It’s obvious he enjoys this. We do, too, for the first 50 feet of so of cranking. Then it becomes an ordeal punctuated with rests to catch our breath and let our aching muscles recover. We long for the sight of the white leader and Tyler’s shout, “It’s a lunker!” so we’ll know we can take a break.
Despite the physical labor, the hardest part of halibut fishing is concentrating on the fishing. Why watch the end of an ugly rod when one of the most beautiful scenes in the world is right in front of you, snow-covered volcanoes and the cobalt waters of Cook Inlet. Actually not cobalt but the color of pistachio pudding. I know that Hemingway described some water somewhere as the color of a margarita in a bar in Key West or some such place, which sounds a lot more manly, but despite a slight physical resemblance (white beards and pot bellies), with me you get pistachio pudding. He probably made up that margarita stuff anyway. He was a famous writer. I know. I read that somewhere. It must be true. He wrote short sentences. It’s hard to lie in short sentences.
Halibut fishing is a blast.
To continue on to part two of Larry’s Alaskan fishing expedition, click here.
Photo: Frank Kovalchek