This may be a cruel way to destroy one of sportfishing's most cherished myths, so I'll get it over quickly: Going to Alaska to fish for the wily and acrobatic salmon may be challenging, but the plain fact is that the angler who tries but does not catch a salmon in Alaska ranks right up there with the guy who tries but does not find a drunk in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
If you're after a real angling adventure in the 49th state, I have a suggestion. First, however, take this little test: Tie a 10-foot length of rope to your stoutest fishing rod, then haul a refrigerator onto the roof of your house, tie the rope around it, hold on to the fishing rod very tightly and shove the refrigerator off the roof.
If you went screaming past the gutter and slammed face-first into the patio...well, the king salmon run in Alaska begins about the first week in June and I suggest you book a reservation early. Those who were not yanked off the roof by the refrigerator might be ready to tangle with a Pacific halibut. I say "might" because it's possible you will come up against a halibut that outweighs a refrigerator, or even the Refrigerator, by 100 pounds. And when was the last time you encountered a side-by-side that was in the midst of a temper tantrum?
Early last summer, in the cold waters off Ketchikan in southeast Alaska, Larry Mascari of Los Angeles made the acquaintance of a Pacific halibut for the first time. The seas had been churned up by strong winds during the night before, and as Mascari braced his feet against the transom of Captain Jerry Engleman's 32-foot Chris-Craft, he could feel the surging swells lift his 16-ounce sinker off of the ocean floor 100 feet beneath him and then deposit it back onto the gravel. Up and down, bump. Up and down, bump. And down. And down.
February 29, 1988
The reason Mascari's sinker no longer rose along with the swells was that a halibut had flicked its wide bulk off the bottom and engulfed the 10-inch herring he was using for bait. Then, without fanfare, the fish returned to the bottom with its snack. Mascari's only indication that something had happened was that he no longer felt his sinker bouncing. Now, it's possible that the fish knew there was a stainless steel hook imbedded in its jaw. And it's even possible the fish knew the hook was secured to 60-pound-test monofilament line and that at the other end of the line was a strong man in a large boat. But if the halibut knew all that, and understood the implications, it showed no concern.
"Can't be a fish," Mascari said. "No way. It's a rock."
"It's a halibut," Captain Engleman said calmly. "Relax. This is going to take a while."
There was no silvery spray of ocean or screeching reel in the first few rounds of this brawl. A salmon responds to the bite of a hook by, in essence, losing it in a big way: leaping out of the water, shooting all over the place and wearing itself out. A big halibut responds like this: You want me, then move me, sucker!
For half an hour it was a tug-of-war, with Mascari hauling back on his custom-built rod with all of his strength. Once or twice he gained bits of line as he raised the fish's head from the gravel. But in a second the halibut would lay its head down again, tearing back that foot of line with a blast of power.
Eventually the strain, or maybe just annoyance, got to the fish, and it lifted off the bottom and took the fight into another dimension. Now the halibut began hauling back. Mascari's upper body was jerked downward by the repeated violent surges. He would straighten up, only to have the big fish drag him back into a semicrouch.
The constant pressure eventually sapped some of the strength from the fish, and Mascari inched it toward the boat. But the halibut never quit. Finally it appeared on the surface, an apparition from the chapter about mutants in the oceanic bestiary. The fish floated toward the starboard side of the pitching Chris-Craft, its large eyes seeming to stare malevolently at Mascari.
When the gaffs were sunk into the halibut, the already boisterous sea became instantly more turbulent as the fish attempted first to drag its attackers overboard and then to sink the boat. But the gaffs and the men held fast, and after a few more hectic minutes the fish was subdued and hauled aboard.
It was five and a half feet long and four feet wide. It weighed 209 pounds. The fight had lasted 40 minutes. It was a nice halibut by Alaskan standards. Not spectacular, just nice. Nothing to get worked up about.
What does it take to grab the attention of seasoned halibut anglers? A few years ago, Orville Luther, president of Alaska Sportfishing Ltd., witnessed a battle with a 305-pounder that had been hooked by a man standing on the dock at Clover Pass Resort, just north of Ketchikan. "By the time he wore that fish out, we had half the people of Ketchikan here watching," Luther said. "Almost sank the dock."
Pacific halibut can reach astonishing sizes. Many larger than 400 pounds have been hauled in by commercial fishermen, and biologists say 500-pounders patrol some of the deep canyons off the Alaskan coast. But even the average halibut of Alaska—the 100-pounders—come equipped with gargantuan appetites. A fish estimated at 200 pounds swallowed a hooked six-pound cod near Clover Pass last summer and allowed itself to be dragged 100 feet to the surface before spitting the cod out. The cod, by the way, was still very much alive.
Despite its alarming appearance as an adult, the Pacific halibut begins life looking like most other fish. But during its first two years the fish's body becomes laterally compressed, and it starts swimming in a horizontal rather than a vertical manner. That is so the mature fish can lie flat—and almost invisible—on the bottom, waiting for a meal to swim by overhead. When one does, it pounces. To facilitate spotting lunch, the eye on the left side of the young halibut—which, if the fish had a normal piscatorial physiology, would do nothing but stare at the sand all day—migrates across the maturing fish's head and joins the right eye on what is now the top side of the halibut.
It's the same sort of process that other flatfish like flounder, fluke and turbot go through. Which may have a lot to do with the halibut's image problem as a game fish. Like those other flatfish, the halibut is excellent table fare and widely sought by commercial fishermen throughout its range, which extends from central California to the Bering Sea. But while a two-pound flounder gives about as much fight as a newspaper, a halibut uses its weight and its wide body to put up a terrific battle.
The Pacific halibut would seem to be a perfect target for game-fishermen: a big, defiant and delicious quarry. But sometimes it's a package that's just too mean to handle, particularly in Alaskan waters, where the world-record rod-and-reel fish, a 350-pounder, was boated by Vern Foster in 1982 and where all but one of the 20 International Game Fish Association's current line-class records have been set.
Captain Engleman knows well what kind of havoc a halibut can wreak. "A couple of years ago these two guys moved up here and bought a boat, a real nice, brand-new 32-footer, and went out after halibut," he recalls. "One of 'em hooks a monster and after a half hour or so gets it to the side of the boat. They gaffed it and dragged it into the boat. Fifteen minutes later they managed to get it back into the water."
In the interim, the enraged halibut had caused nearly $6,000 in damage to the boat, tearing the bolted-down fighting seats from the deck and smashing much of the electronic navigational gear while the two men hid behind the closed door of the cabin. When the loud noises on deck subsided a bit, the men dashed out and heaved the fish overboard. It wasn't even a 200-pounder.
Rich Tosches is a feature writer on the staff of the "Los Angeles Times."