Friday, September 6, 2013

Alaska: Day 2.

I slept for 11 hours last night. Woke up, ate, dressed and we were boarding the boat by 7am. Nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for the ride out to Mary's Flat. For 45 minutes I sort of prayed the bottom of the boat wouldn't crack in two or that we wouldn't hit a whale or that I wouldn't get tossed overboard as we full-throttled through 3-4 ft waves getting pelted in the face and covered with sheets of sea water. Many, MANY times I tried to estimate how far the shore really was and whether I could swim there, in my heavy boots and layers of clothing, before I froze to death in the 45ยบ ocean.

We arrived thankfully alive and the waters mellowed out and we alternately fished salmon and halibut all day along the shoreline. I finally got a sense of the feeling of the tap-tap of a halibut strike and was able to land 2-3 of them and one very ugly cod fishing that way. The last I caught was maybe 3x the size of the others and took everything I had to bring to the surface. My pole was literally bent in half most of the rise and I had to actually sit on the handle to provide the leverage I needed to reel it in. I couldn't believe the size once I could see it. But, it's incredibly awkward to shark-hook a flat angry thrashing board of a fish with a sharp bait hook already in its lip and a 1-pound ball hanging off the other end of the line slamming around. Disappointingly, it fell off before we could get it in the boat but that fight to bring it up – and the sheer size of what could have been – made me excited to go back and try tomorrow.

Luckily the "We'll catch one more halibut before we try for salmon" catch was Brad's and he brought up about a 50#-er, the largest we'd caught by far. A few more details about catching halibut:

What I didn't learn when we were catching the little ho-hummers (~10#) yesterday was what you have to do to catch a "big" one. Previously all it took was grabbing the V-shaped rope leader down by where the hook was set and hoisting it in. Today, the bat and shark hook came out. When someone it the boat has a halibut on, you first make sure your lines are out of their way. You might reel in, but you can fish for a while if you want because it will take the guy who's hooked one a considerable amount of time to reel it up. Halibut are shaped like huge flat, oval platters. There's tons of resistance because, as I've heard it described, "It's like reeling in a barn door." This is no joke. So you're sweating and struggling and cramping and spasming and resting and winded and straining to bring it up.

Then after an eternity, you catch a glimpse of what it could be as it comes into view, and the excitement spreads through the boat. Everyone secures their poles in a holder. Then one guy grabs the shark hook – about a 6" sharp metal hook on a short rope, and another guy grabs the bat – literally like a baseball bat but half the size. While the fisherman holds his rod up high, bringing the fish right up next to the boat, the guy with the shark hook takes a hold of the rope leader with one hand and with the other hand tries to jab the shark hook into the underside of it's jaw and pierce all the way through it's mouth so it pops out the top of it's head by the eyes. You know, so it's got the jaw bones to keep it hooked up in case the flesh around it tears.

You might imagine that the fish does not like this one bit. Just like it did not like the original bait hook stuck in it's mouth, it did not like being pulled by it's lip up 300 ft. to the surface. It did not like the change in water temperature and it certainly did not like not being able to breath now that it's being hauled out of the water with a second giant hook in it's head. So the fish? It goes crazy. Which is where the bat comes in. Now someone has to knock the fish out by bashing it a few times right between it's eyes, which lie flat on the top of it's body, not on either side of it's head like most fish. Thrash-bash-thrash-bash and the eyes roll back and it's out cold. Now "subdued", you can safely get the two hooks out before you stick a knife in it's gills to bleed it out as you put it in the "live" well.

In my opinion, fishing for halibut is more like hunting for halibut. The largest our group caught was between 50 and 60 pounds. Some groups were bringing in fish up around 200 pounds. I do not know how they manage this. I do not want to know.

The salmon fish we caught today were mostly smaller pinks, but my own personal highlight was when I had one on the line and someone else had a much larger silver hooked at the same time. Once mine was netted and on the floor of the boat Brad yelled, "Bleed that one yourself!" And I said, "But I don't know how!" And he said, "You've seen it done enough by now."

I knew I had to suck it up because there was still the other big fish to unhook and unnet and no one was free to handle mine for me. So I stared at it on the deck until finally I summoned the courage and just stuck my finger through it's gills and up into its mouth and lifted it up. Doing that alone was enough of a first for me to call it a day, but then I had to hold it up over the well, avoiding cutting my fingers on it's sharp teeth, while fitting an extremely sharp knife into the gills to cut the white strips of cartilage in between the red gill sheets while it squirmed and slapped around. Accomplishing this was an extremely proud moment for me.

We saw a ton of eagles today. And whales were so plentiful that by the end of the day it was like, Uh, there's another whale. Saw some sea otters and seals as well.

Several times I daydreamed about getting back to The Drying Room. When that moment arrives, it was just as warm as ever but now it stank to high heaven so not quite as magical. 

It's debatable whether the ride to or from Mary's Flat was more rough. We were on the boat 11 hours* straight.

*I only used the luggable loo once.


  1. Hil, thanks for blogging with such detail; now I know for sure my answer of "no way" when John asked if I would want to go on such a trip was the right answer! :) ... low

  2. I love all the contents of your website