Halibut haven on Cook Inlet yields dozens of hungry -- but small -- halibut

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

COOK INLET, Alaska (AP) -- All around the charter boat Julia Lynn, the halibut schooled like so many trout in a hatchery pond at feeding time. Inches below the surface of the clear, blue-green water, they competed to get onto an angler's hook.

None of the fish were big -- 5 to 20 pounds -- but they were ridiculously easy to catch.

Capt. Pete Wedin had both promised and warned of this. The juvenile halibut here in the middle of Cook Inlet miles off Homer feed so aggressively, he said, that once one is hooked others will follow it to the surface hoping to capitalize on any food it regurgitates along the way.

Pull several of these bottom feeders up at the same time, he added, and it is possible to draw dozens of others to the surface with them.

That's exactly what happened on the glassy surface of the Inlet on a recent Wednesday in May.

Peering over the side of the 30-foot, six-pack charter boat into the mix of waters from the Gulf of Alaska and the Inlet, you could watch the fish rising in hordes.

Some of them bumped the hooked fish trying to knock the bait out of its mouth. Others attacked the lead sinker on the line above the bait. Many came all the way to the surface of the calm waters to try to foolishly gulp the bubbles left by battling fish stirring the surface film.

With so many fish swirling around, the trick for anglers was to spot a big one and get a chunk of herring or a heavily weighted jig in front of it before a smaller halibut could grab on.

Sometimes this worked. More often it didn't. Dozens of 5- to 10-pound halibut were caught and released. Nobody complained.

Fourteen-year-old Nathaniel Rouse from Big Lake caught his first-ever halibut this way and his second, third, fourth and many more before he finally lost count. Fifteen-year-old brother Daniel did likewise.

Father Felix Rouse, the only member of the family who had caught halibut before, joined in, too, hoping for something bigger than one of these so-called chickens, but happy to be catching fish.

After catching and releasing steadily for an hour, he confessed it became hard to tell a 10-pound throwback from what might be a 15- or 20-pound keeper.

''By this time of day,'' he said, ''they all feel big.''

Friend Dave Beaty from Big Lake caught so many halibut he had to take a rest, while Big Lake neighbor Mike Price -- the winner of captain Pete's morning halibut derby -- just watched.

Price had the bragger in the fish hold, a halibut of just under 80 pounds.

He had caught it near the mouth of the Anchor River, minutes before low, slack water Wednesday morning. The fish came after nearly three hours of sitting in an anchored boat, telling fish stories and waiting for something to happen.

At 7 a.m. at the dock of the Homer harbor, Wedin had offered the long sit for the big fish as one of the day's options. He revealed that the 214-pound flatfish now leading the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby had been caught on the kelp only days earlier.

The kelp, he said, is one of those haunts patrolled by big fish. Many have been caught there over the years, but there's a catch: Big halibut tend to displace -- or eat -- small halibut. So while the kelp has big fish, there aren't many. Anglers must be patient.

With visions of derby winners floating in their heads, Price, Beaty and the Rouses professed to patience. And so for hours they waited.

Nathaniel had a strike but lost the fish. Wedin warned against striking too soon on the big halibut here.

''Let that fish run with it,'' he said. ''Let it run away.''

One small halibut was caught. It had been allowed to run away with the bait and had swallowed it so deep, Wedin ruled there could be no catch and release of this fish. Removing the hook, he said, would leave it too badly injured to survive.

''This one will have to stay on the boat,'' he said.

It was the only fish brought anywhere near in the first hour and a half of fishing.

Nathaniel, however, got everyone excited when he swore he saw the fin of a whale farther down the Inlet. No one else saw it, and everyone was skeptical.

Fifteen minutes later, the fin of a minke whale cracked the surface not more than 20 feet behind the Julia Lynn as the 20-foot marine mammal breathed gently.

Then the whale dropped out of sight and disappeared for the day. Minkes can stay down for up to 20 minutes. It could have been far away before surfacing again.

Nathaniel was polite enough to avoid saying ''I told you so,'' but insisted instead that he thought the whale he had seen had a ''bigger fin, like a killer whale.''

Interestingly enough, a report of a pod of killer whales near Kachemak Bay arrived later in the day.

The whale reports, the whale and bird watching for murres and terns killed the time anchored above the kelp as Wedin burned through his best fish stories and preached patience.

By 10:30 a.m., though, the anglers were antsy. Nathaniel was in the cabin of the Julia Lynn looking at photographs of fish other anglers had caught. Felix and Beaty were half asleep, lulled by the lap, lap, lap of the gently rocking waters.

Only Price was paying much attention when, at 10:52 a.m., something picked up the herring attached to the circle hook that hung from the end of his fishing rod just inches off the rocky bottom.

True to the advice of Wedin, Price let the fish go before he pulled back on the rod. When he did, the fish gave a good tug of its own. The battle was on.

Wedin quickly rushed to supervise.

''What are you doing with your thumb there?'' he asked Price. ''Trying to lose it?''

Wedin quickly moved the digit out of the way of the whirling, out-going flow of line. Then Price set to patiently working the fish, pumping and reeling it toward the boat, pumping and reeling.

On the heavy rod with 130-pound-test line, it took only minutes to get the fish into view 10 feet below the Julia Lynn.

''Stop right there and let me get the shotgun,'' Wedin said. ''Let's get the big black gaff.''

The skipper scrambled below, grabbed a .410-gauge ''Snake Charmer,'' slipped a shell into the single chamber and moved to the stern of the boat. Price brought the fish up slowly.

When it was just an inch or two below the surface, Wedin shot it between the eyes.

''OK, gaff him, gaff him,'' Price yelled.

Beaty sunk the gaff. Wedin joined him on the pole. And the fish came over the side in one quick, easy motion.

''How big is he?'' Price asked.

''60,'' Wedin said, ''70, maybe.''

Once he got the scale out, however, his guess proved to be low. The big, white-bellied, black-backed halibut weighed 77 pounds.

''You want to hold it up and get a picture before I put it in the box?'' Wedin asked.

Beaty, who works with Price on North Slope oil fields, gave his friend some grief about struggling with an 80-pound fish.

''What kind of roughneck are you, anyway?'' he asked.

Price just smiled. He couldn't stop smiling. He had the catch of the day.

Another hour or two of fishless bobbing at anchor would put the end to that. By then, after watching some action on nearby boats trolling for king salmon and listening to some radio chatter from halibut skippers catching fish, everyone was lobbying Wedin to move.

Fine, Wedin said, but don't expect another 80-pounder. Everyone would have to agree to settle for any fish. They quickly did.

It didn't take him long to find the fish, either.

Minutes after shutting off the engines and letting the Julia Lynn drift over a ''chicken hole,'' there was the report of a fish on. Then another and another. Soon, halibut circled the boat.

There were so many aggressive halibut that everyone was sort of happy they were small. It would have been scary to think of a gang of 400-pounders eying the boat the same way.

Nobody bothered to count how many were caught and released, but it was clearly in the dozens. It may have been in the hundreds. Everyone caught fish until they were tired of catching fish.

They were all in the 10- to 20-pound range. Nobody complained about the size. Everyone had started the day wanting a trophy halibut, but everyone was happy -- especially Price.

He was in a the mood for celebration.

''Give me a beer,'' he said.

He was sitting on the flying bridge of the Julia Lynn enjoying one of those as the boat headed back for the Homer harbor on a warm mid-May afternoon. The fishing season had begun.

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