Exploring the appeal of Alaska’s strangest gamefish

[by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.]

You don’t need to travel far across Sitka Sound before you begin to fall under the spell of true maritime wilderness—Baranof Island’s convoluted outer shoreline unspools a long way from civilization. Many places in Alaska offer easier opportunities to catch fish, but few appeal more directly to the heart of the wilderness angler.

After a long run south from Sitka, we turned at the mouth of a remote bay where we planned to anchor off a sheltered stream and prospect for silvers with our fly rods before dinner.

We had an important mission to accomplish first. We consulted charts and GPS, cut power and drifted until the depth finder indicated we were above an underwater hump our friend knew. We dropped anchor in 100 feet of water.

Our fly tackle remained stowed as we turned our attention to the conventional rods and reels neatly arrayed alongside the cabin. Salted herring appeared from the bait box, and soon the afterdeck looked like a parody of an Anchorage sushi bar. Our terminal gear went over the side, disappearing quickly into the sea below. Then we jigged and waited for something at the bottom of the sea to come alive.

Grotesque Denizen of the Deep

I am a fly-fisherman at heart and a purist at that … almost. One Alaska game fish provides an important exception to my orthodoxy: Hippoglossus stenolepis, the Pacific halibut. (The name derives from the Middle English haly (holy) butte (fish) because of its Old World popularity on church holidays). Alaska’s giant flatfish don’t run like king salmon or jump like rainbows. Fighting a big one feels more like work than sport. Reaching water they inhabit can involve wind, rain and seasickness. Yet halibut are a mainstay of Alaska’s recreational marine fishery, pursued avidly every season by thousands of residents and visiting anglers alike.

And they are monsters, if you accept this dictionary definition: any human or animal grotesquely deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character. Halibut and other members of the flatfish family Pleuronectidae are the only vertebrates in the animal kingdom that lack a vertical axis of symmetry. This means it is impossible to cut a halibut from nose to tail in a way that produces two mirror-image halves. With their eyes twisted to one side of their face, halibut look as if they have been painted by Picasso.

Halibut begin life looking like ordinary fish, but by age six months their eyes have migrated to one side of their body, which acquires a dark, mottled coloration while the opposite side turns white. The halibut’s flat body shape allows it to remain stationary on the bottom with minimal energy expenditure during periods of peak tidal flow, while the camouflage on its upper half keeps it hidden from prey it means to ambush and predators that include sea lions, orcas and salmon sharks.

Halibut feed predominantly on other bottom dwellers— cod, greenling and crabs. However, they will sometimes rise and feed on pelagic fish. A friend once saw a halibut feeding frenzy on the surface near Kachemak Bay, and caught several on light spinning tackle as the halibut gorged on baitfish.

The bottom from 100 to 300 feet below the surface is the place to start prospecting for halibut. Bait doesn’t need to appeal to a specific component of their diet since they devour almost anything organic. Herring is readily available, but doesn’t last long on a hook. Octopus is a favorite choice in the commercial fishery, since it’s as tough as a piece of snow tire and lasts all night on a baited longline. Salmon bellies offer a practical alternative, as long as they are bought from a store or caught on a commercial-fishing charter.

Fishing is usually more productive if the bait is attached to a weighted jig, which reaches the bottom quickly and keeps the angler fishing if the bait is lost to smaller fish or the current.

Delectable Dinner Choice

I would have released the fish anyway, simply because I don’t care to eat big halibut no matter what impressive “hero” pictures they make back at the dock. The meat from large halibut tends to be coarse and grainy, at least to my taste. For my freezer, give me halibut from the size slot between “chickens” (less than 20 pounds) and “barn doors” (more than 100 pounds).

This observation gets to the heart of the fuss over a fish that inhabits cold, gray seas, took a serious blow from the ugly stick, and fights like a tractor in compound low. An explanation of the halibut’s appeal begins (and according to many, ends) on the dining room table, for halibut is one of the finest-eating fish in the world.

Halibut can be fried, poached, grilled, baked, broiled or served raw as ceviche or sashimi. It requires no elaborate preparation, but has never met a sauce that didn’t like it. Translucent and delicate, yet firm, halibut meat is nutritious and tasty without being overwhelming. In contrast to salmon, which can grow tedious if eaten every day, it never overstays its welcome. Its only weakness as a food fish is that the same low fat content that makes halibut such a heart-healthy choice makes it a marginal candidate for the smokehouse, compared to salmon.

But there must be more to halibut than fine dining. If it were otherwise, Alaska’s 200,000 recreational anglers would just go to the store and buy them, an economically responsible decision even now that commercial halibut catches are selling for $10 per pound at the dock. The mysterious appeal of halibut fishing became clear to me all over again not long after we lowered our jigs into that Baranof Island bay years ago.

Suddenly the inert feel of the ocean floor I encountered with each descent phase of my jig turned exciting and vital, and when I set the hook, I watched with childish delight as my broomstick rod bent downward and line left the reel in short, powerful surges. Eventually I regained line, and the transom grew crowded as the fish approached the surface. None of my experienced companions could resist the urge to ask the essential question: “Just how big is this thing, anyway?”

In this case, the answer could simultaneously be framed as “Not very” or “Just right.” The 50-pounder wouldn’t set a record, but it was just the size I had in mind for the freezer. Soon, three more halibut between 30 and 60 pounds rested beside it in the fish box. We pulled anchor, made for the stream at the head of the bay and found the silvers waiting. They provided ample opportunity to exercise all the skill fly-rod tackle demands. It’s still the halibut I remember, though, for the best reason of all: Catching monsters from the deep is fun.

Halibut on the Fly

Yes, it can be done and I’ve done it, although fly-rod tackle certainly isn’t the most efficient means of putting a winter’s worth of halibut fillets in the freezer.

You’ll need at least a No. 10-weight rod (preferably with a lifting grip) and a high-density, fast-sinking shooting head. Tippets can be short, straight mono, and 20-pound test is plenty. You won’t be horsing fish off the bottom with a fly rod, and if something breaks, you don’t want it to be your backing. Any large, gaudy streamer that looks remotely like a candlefish will do. Lead eyes will help get the fly down and keep the hook clear of the tippet when you jig it.

Forget the deepwater halibut. Look for them in 70 feet of water or less, by locating a good hump on the ocean floor or fishing off the mouth of a stream when dead salmon are drifting out to sea in late summer. Timing is critical since you’ll only have an hour or so on either side of slack tide before the current starts to run too hard for your fly to reach bottom.

Anchor up and check the depth finder. Lay just enough running line out on the deck to allow you to reach bottom. With more line, the fly will hang up as it drags along the ocean floor; with less, you won’t be halibut fishing.

Cast up into the tidal flow and allow the line to straighten as the fly passes beneath the boat, jigging the lead-eyed fly just as you would work a jig with conventional tackle.

Do this long enough in the right places and you may join a select group of fly-rod anglers crazy enough to be able to say they’ve caught halibut on flies.

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