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The waiting game

Posted: June 24, 2011 - 8:00am

You've likely read or heard the news about Chad Aldridge boating a 350.8-pound halibut on June 19, a fish that made him Derby Leader in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby and a contender for the top prize, around $40,000 in recent years. Here's my two-bits worth, along with some interesting details not covered by the media.

Most halibut large enough to win the Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby are caught from charter boats. Charter boats, being larger than most private boats, can fish farther out, where the fishing is often better. Most charter crews are equipped for handling large fish and capable of doing so. In the past 10 years, only one angler fishing aboard a private boat has won the top prize in the Homer derby.

Sterling resident Aldridge, 32, is admittedly "pretty green" at saltwater fishing. His 24-foot Hewescraft is his first saltwater boat, purchased in January. On Father's Day he was fishing with his dad and two buddies. The largest halibut he had ever caught was a 115-pounder. He didn't expect to catch a big one on this trip, nor was he equipped to do so. He had no gun and no harpoon - standard accessories for dealing with large-sized halibut. He had only one gaff and a baseball bat.

Most everyone who spends much time halibut fishing has some idea about when and where the big ones are likely to be found. Many skippers have their favorite spots marked on a plotter, so they can run straight to them with GPS. Aldridge didn't have the advantage of a spot known to have produced large halibut. Upon leaving the Homer Spit, he simply pointed his boat west, toward Augustine Island. He had only a general idea of where he wanted to go, and he didn't get that far. The water turned choppy a few miles out, and the boat started pounding, he said. A few minutes of that was enough, so he stopped. He ended up off Seldovia, fishing in about 140 feet of water. Pure chance took him there. If he had gone to a favorite spot, or if the water had been calm, he wouldn't have crossed paths with that particular halibut.

"I never would've fished in that spot," Aldridge said. "I was just tired of getting beat up."

Aldridge usually anchors to fish for halibut, but this time he tried drifting, dragging chunks of herring along the bottom. The wind shoved the boat along at a pretty good clip, making it hard to fish, he said. When he noticed that his line was trailing far behind the boat, he decided to reel in and head for another location. He reeled in about 40 feet of line, and suddenly felt something heavy on his line. His bait was well off the bottom when the big fish took it, he said.

Hooking this 8-foot-long "barn door" was easy, but getting it subdued and aboard was something else. From the time the fish was hooked until it was in the boat, 80 minutes passed. Forty-five of those minutes were spent subduing it, making it safe to bring aboard. Fortunately, Aldridge's uncle was fishing nearby. He had a harpoon, and he brought it to Aldridge. After tying the harpoon line to a cleat, Chad's father, Ron Aldridge, harpooned the fish. The fish made a run, but was yanked to a halt. The harpoon dart could've pulled loose, or the line could've broken, but neither happened. When it again surfaced, they gaffed it, and subdued it with a baseball bat. Chad then shoved a rope into its mouth and out its gills - an extremely risky operation, as the fish was still alive - and he, his dad and a friend hauled it aboard.

Boating a fish large enough to win the Homer derby is a rare event. To boat one weighing as much as Aldridge's 350.8-pounder is rarer still. In the 25-year history of the Homer derby, only five winning fish weighed more than his. The largest of these was a 376-pounder caught in 1996. Last year's winner weighed only 277.6 pounds.

Having caught the leading fish so early in the season, Aldridge now may have to wait more than three months to know if he'll win the jackpot. The derby runs through Sept. 30. The suspense will be excruciating.

Does he check every day to see if anyone has caught a bigger one?

"I have my iPhone set up to where I just hit 'Refresh,' and I know," he said.

For Aldridge, this could be a very long summer.

Reach Les Palmer at lpalmer@alaska.net.

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