By Gary LewisTwo Face, that barn door halibut, that crusher of bait as big as salmon is on the prowl
Again the intrepid caped figure of the Batman and his aide, Robin, the laughing young daredevil, team up to battle against that scavenger, that predator, that scale-less monster of the deep.Always outnumbered, but never outfought – two figures slug it out with the horde of halibut. Holy Flatfish, Batman!
It is morning and anglers from around the world gather at docks all along the coast of southeast and southwest Alaska. Their adversary is hippoglossus, a creature of the deepest, darkest, depths of the ocean – a two-faced right-eyed flatfish, white on the downside and a mottled brown on the up-facing slab.
We call them halibut, their name derived from the words haly (holy) and butt (flat fish) for their popularity on Catholic holy days.
As fry, halibut have an eye on each side of the head and swim like other fish, but early in life one eye migrates to the other side and that side darkens while the bottom side remains white.
The fish becomes a bottom feeder that holds a place high in the marine food chain and high in the regard of two-legged fish-eaters. The flatfish feeds on crab, salmon, sculpin, cod, herring and just about anything else they can crush between their jaws. A worthy adversary for a crusader (caped or not) armed with a boat rod and a circle hook.
There are few secrets in the halibut in the waters off the coast of Alaska. A lot of excellent fishermen ply the salt to get their clients into the small fish we call “chickens” and the big old breeders that run 200 pounds and more, the so-called “barn door” halibut. When you head north to do battle and take fillets, heed the words of wisdom of some of Alaska’s best charter operators and guides.
Dark Side Up
A halibut brought to the boat.
Bob Anderson is the owner of Fireweed Lodge, based in Klawock, on Prince of Wales Island. From May to the first week of September, Anderson’s boats stream westward to the big water.
“The thing about the West Coast, from the shore out, there are halibut everywhere. When you want to target bigger sizes, you have to hit specific areas. It is about the configuration of the bottom and how it drops off and how the bait rolls into the holes and stacks around the pinnacles.”
We think of halibut as bottom feeders, scavengers and they are, but they are also predators that chase and kill prey. Anderson and his guides like to target the smaller, best-eating fish where baitfish gather. They hunt bigger fish in isolated spots.
“It doesn’t have to be in a big hole. Your big fish are often going to be in areas of about 140 feet deep. They tend not to travel in schools like the smaller halibut do.”
Anderson keeps track of the areas where the trollers have been working and throwing their cleaned fish overboard. Such places often turn up bigger halibut.
Mike Flores and his crew at Ninilchik Charters fish the waters of Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska.
“We look for breaks in the bottom, where the ground is down-sloping or up-sloping to pinnacles. The other thing we look for is bait. To find the bait, we look for whales on the surface and seagulls or cod and halibut on the fish finders that tell us where the bait is.”
Mark Edwards, of Naha Bay Lodge, fishes southeast Alaska near Ketchikan in the West Behm Canal, Clarence Strait and Naha Bay.
“We are looking around for new spots all the time,” Edwards said. “I try to avoid going over the same spots. I am looking for ledges around the 160 to 220ft. mark where we know bait is coming in.”
Weather, Tides And Currents
Gary Lewis matches wits with a right-eyed flatfish that fell for a herring and a slow hook-set.
It is hard to predict the weather, but in southeast Alaska, it is a little easier. It’s going to rain. Bring a rain jacket and rain pants.
What you can plan for are tides and currents that push piles of bait into rocky crevices where halibut feed.
Try to time a trip to coincide with big tides. That means watching the moon. Some guides will tell you the moon doesn’t affect the fishing. Not Mike Flores.
“When we have a full moon, we have a negative tide, which means we will have a 30 foot water movement in six hours. In the new moon, you get about 11 feet of movement. We get longer fishing time and better fishing in a full moon cycle.”
An impending storm and a major low pressure system will slow the fishing down, according to Flores.
“A low pressure system moves through and the fishing is poor for a day or so. We can go to our “Chicken Hole” and have tons of fish and when that low pressure system arrives, the bite just dies,” Flores said.
“The fish are still there, they just are not biting. We have put Go Pro cameras down and watched the fish. We see them on the film, they’re just not biting at all.”Hunting Big Halibut
It takes years for a halibut to grow as big as a barn door and for every big one an angler hooks, he or she will sort through 40 or 50 smaller ones.
Anglers know the smaller halibut make the best table fare, but for sheer poundage and battle, big fish are where it’s at.
Anderson and his guides like to protect the big halibut, but when they do find bigger fish they tend to be in isolated spots and in places where a reliable food source is available. Conditions can play a part in the odds of finding big
Flores believes the stricter halibut bag limits have helped to grow bigger fish. “I think the best eating fish are the 20- to 60-pounders.”
Pete Eades is the manager of the Glacier Bear Lodge in Yakutat where the prime halibut season runs mid-May to the end of July when they switch to targeting other bottomfish and salmon. When an angler wants to hunt big fish, Eades says one of his favorite baits is octopus.
“It is very tough, it stays on the hook well. A lot of times when you see the big fish come up, they burp and you see octopus parts. We find a lot of octopus beaks in the bellies of big fish too.”
Anglers that don’t want to mess with bait can catch a lot of fish on big scampi-style jigs.Aboard The Boat
Want to catch the most fish on the boat? Start at the back, Mike Flores said.
“For some reason the very back of the boat always catches the first fish. I think it is the scent trail. The fish come to you when they smell the bait.” And the first baits they encounter are the ones at the back of the boat.
Most charter operators and guides have a policy of rotating the anglers around the boat. So once you have had your turn, be nice and rotate.
“Listen to the captain,” Pete Eades said. “There is no setting of the hook. You let them take it. It is a slow retrieve that sets the hook into the mouth.”The Utility Belt
Any rain-slickered crusader that would do battle with the two-faced flatfish must go armed with a utility belt. Going guided, most of the gear will be provided, but an angler that shows up with a few essentials can make the captain’s and the mate’s or bait boy’s jobs easier.
A set of needle nose pliers like the FT6500CP from Coast or a multi-tool like those made by Gerber and Kershaw can come in handy for removing hooks from fish (and sidekicks).
For long battles, there might be a fighting belt aboard. Anglers of smaller stature might strap into a fighting chair to put maximum leverage and graphite to a fish.
Lights out for a big halibut.
On a guided trip, the crew will dispatch big fish before bringing them aboard. A gaff hook is standard equipment. A baseball bat can be employed to put the fish to sleep. BAM! For the biggest fish, some guides prefer a marine-grade 410 shotgun like the Rossi R45S while others will go with a stainless 38 Special to knock the bad guy’s lights out. KAPOW!
If you bring a fillet knife, select a blade that flexes, but has rigidity through the mid-section for the best control. A pair of rubberized fillet gloves can protect the digits at the fish cleaning station.
When the quarry is in the cooler, a system for sealing and freezer packing the fish can be a work saver and protect meat for the long lockup. Systems are available from VacUpack and other manufacturers that make the job easy for a valued sidekick.
Icing down the fish and apportioning the catch into waxed boxes is best managed by oneself. Boy Wonder might talk a good game, but he cannot be relied upon when there are fillets to cut. And Catwoman cannot be trusted around the fish.To contact Gary Lewis, visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com