Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Halibut Fishing off Homer

On the day before were scheduled to fish (Tuesday, July 27th), those of us without our own cars loaded up into Spike’s van and he took us down to the boardwalk on the Spit so we could purchase our fishing licenses and pay for our spot on the charter boat. Debbie at The Fish Connection told us the name of our boat and where at the docks we could find it. She also gave us a stern warning that the boat would leave at 6:45 AM. and would not wait for late-comers.

At some point, Spike told us most of the boardwalk on the Homer Spit and the retail spaces along it were built by and owned by the same family who owns the Time Bandit of “The Deadliest Catch” fame.  He always knows tidbits about the local area, no matter where we are!

Anyway, that evening Consuelo packed a back pack for me with a lunch and a set of dry clothes and she made sure I was in bed early - since it would be an early wake up for me the next morning. Despite her declarations to the contrary the night before, Consuelo was up with me bright and early - she made some coffee and sent me on my way. Worried I would have problems with seasickness, she made sure I had my pressure points wrist bands as I left to meet the others at Spike’s van at 6:00 AM. Since Roger and Teresa would also be fishing, Roger drove all us hopeful fishermen down to the docks, In addition to me were Neil Brown, Paul Deragisch, Jim Dick, Bob Bennett and his grandson Weston.

When we arrived at the dock, we weren’t surprised to see John and Linda Bland’s white Jeep already parked – John is an avid fisherman and it was no secret he he’d been looking forward to this since we met up in Hazelton. I was a little relieved it hadn’t worked out for me to ride with them as we planned— John probably left the RV park at 5:15 AM!

We walked down the slight ramp from the parking lot to the dock and quickly spotted our fishing boat and her crew waiting for us. Also waiting was the rest of our fishing group – Don Braucher, Herb Neubaum, Tim Wolums, John Melcher, Snake and Irene Simpson, Jim and Bettye Chaplin, and of course, John and Linda Bland.

The captain introduced himself, checked each of our fishing licenses and gave each of us 2 things that looked like big safety pins, each with a number embossed on it. He explained the limit on halibut is two fish per person. As we caught fish, the deck hands would ask for a pin and pin it to the fish. When you run out of pins you may as well stop fishing, because you can’t keep anymore. The captain also told us to remember the number on our pins, because that’s how they would identify who’s fish is whose at the end of the day. I was number 3, since I was the third person to get on the boat .

Once everyone was on board and had their pins, the captain had us gather in the galley area so he could give us the mandatory safety briefing. After he pointed out the location of the life vests, many of us agreed that if we ended up in the water, a life vest would only prolong the agony - although we wouldn’t be going out onto the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska is still some pretty darn cold water.

Finally the captain fired up the engines and pulled away from the dock, and he navigated us out of the harbor. We were soon cruising along, headed to the open waters where we would do our fishing. We saw nothing but some beautiful cloud formations as we motored along. I tried to stay out on the aft deck as much as I could (to stay in the fresh air and reduce my chance of getting sick).

After about 2 hours, we finally spotted our boat’s sister ship, who was stopped with all her passengers happily fishing. Our captain swooped our boat around— perhaps so we wouldn’t be hitting the same school of fish? And our deckhands started giving us lessons on how to catch halibut. They had rods and reels and bait all ready for us. One of the deckhands picked up a rod and showed us the 2-pound lead weight; he showed us how to unlock the reel and told us to just toss the weight out and let it carry the line to the bottom. He explained the bottom was about 200 feet down, so to be patient. When we felt it hit the bottom, we should jerk it up quickly and let it sink again. Once we felt a fish hit, we shouldn’t try to jerk to set the hook – that would likely yank the hook out of the fish’s mouth. When we felt a hit we should just smoothly start to reel the fish in.

While the deckhand was demonstrating all this, he got a hit! So he called young Weston over to bring in the fish. And so it was that 11-year-old Weston caught the first fish of the day!

The hand also explained that when we got a fish close to the surface we shouldn’t try to pull it out of the water but to instead shout out “fish up!” so they could come and assist. The two deckhands gave each of us a fishing rod and spread us out around the boat. They kept an eye on us and quickly came to our aid when anyone had a problem. I had a little trouble at first with locking and unlocking the reel, but one of the hands got me sorted out. When I got my first hit, I started reeling and reeling (200 feet is a lot of line to reel up) until it finally got to the point where I could see my fish in the water.

It seems like halibut don’t fight very much, but their shape and weight make them tough to pull up (picture a big flat fish – they’re not exactly slicing through the water…we were pulling in 12 to 20 pounders – but they can reach a couple of hundred pounds!).

So I could see my fish and every time he got close to the surface, I could see him dive under the boat. So I kept reeling and reeling. Finally one of the deckhands noticed I was struggling and he came to help me. He looked over the side, saw my fish go under the boat, he told me he’d be right back—he was going to the other side to cut my line. A few minutes later, he was beside me and told me my fish was lying on the deck on the other side of the boat. He took my rod from me and told me to go get my fish.

I went around to the other side of the boat where I found Irene sitting and resting. In front of her were two halibut fish lying on the deck and flopping around. I asked her what happened and she said someone else’s fish was tangled up in her line, so the deckhand had cut the line. We laughed at each other as we realized we had been fighting each other under the boat! Right about then the deckhand showed up and I was relieved when he told me the bigger of the two fish was mine. He showed me and Irene where he’d cut the line and he asked me for one of my pins. I reached into my pocket and he pinned my first fish. When he picked it up off the deck, he told me he thought it weighed about 18 pounds—not bad for my first one! I was happy.

The deckhand laid the fish out at the stern of the deck and set me up to fish some more. With my next hit, I started reeling the line in, but I think that first guy (and Irene on the other side of the boat) had worn me out. I struggled to hold the rod with my left hand (which is so much weaker since the stroke) and reel the line in with my right. I kept having an awful vision of the whole rod and everything jumping out of my hands and disappearing into the water –and I had seen the sign in the galley warning of a $100 charge for lost tackle. Fortunately, Roger was standing right next to me. Without even asking if I needed help, he reached over and held my rod for me. Roger yelled “fish up!” and one of the hands came over to help get the fish off the hook. He asked me if I wanted to keep it, I asked what he thought it weighed, he said maybe 12 lbs, and I said let it go – that first one spoiled me, so this guy lived to grow some more!

My last hit of day, I’m proud to say I brought up completely by myself. I was getting very tired by this point. As the fish got close to the surface someone yelled “fish up! And a deckhand appeared beside me. He looked at the fish and said, “God, you’ve just got him by the skin of his lip, can I go get the gaff?”—I guess he asked because gaffing a fish can ruin the fillets… I told him sure (Frankly I was just glad for the help at this point… I don’t think I could have reeled that line in any more).When he came back with the gaff, he was very careful and hooked the fish in the mouth with the gaff. He took my other pin and pinned my second keeper, telling me he thought it weighed about 14 lbs.

I went back to the stern of the boat to check out the “bounty of the sea” we had brought in. All day long, I had been hearing people yelling “fish up!” but I was focused on my own fishing and hadn’t really paid attention to how the others were doing... Turns out everyone caught their daily limit of 2 fish each—we had a great day!

Laid out across the aft deck and covering the deck from side to side was a great row of halibut fish! The crew gave us the opportunity to go find our fish, pick them up and get our pictures taken with our catches. When I found the fish with the #3 pins, I could barely lift them up!

We had about a two-hour ride to get back to the docks and as we motored in, the two deckhands made use of the time by cleaning and filleting the fish - not a pleasant job, but these guys really knew what they were doing! With super-sharp knives, it looked to me like they could gut and fillet a whole fish in about 2 minutes with 4 or 5 swipes of their knife. They tossed the guts over board as they worked and we soon had a large group of very happy seagulls chasing us. They used numbered plastic bags to line 5-gallon buckets, and as they got a fish filleted, they dropped the fillets into the appropriately numbered bucket. For another $5 per fish they would skin the fillets, as well. I decided to keep my fillets with skins, but a few folks requested this extra service.

When we got to the dock, the crew brought out several large plastic trays. They had index cards with everyone’s name and fish number; they took the bags of fillets and dispersed them among the trays, placing the matching index cards on top of the bags. Right about then a guy came down the dock pushing a big wheelbarrow – he was from Coal Pointe Fish Processing, the place that would be packaging and freezing our fish. This guy loaded all the trays into his wheelbarrow and headed up the dock to load them into his pickup truck and rush them down to the processing center - I was very impressed with how efficient this whole process was. Halibut fishing is what they do in Homer and these guys know how to do it right! The crew told us we should head down and meet the guy at Coal Pointe to put in our orders.

So, tired though we were, we climbed up the steep ramp from the dock to the parking lot (it had been just a slight ramp down that morning but the tide had gone out while we were gone). We loaded into the van and Roger drove us three buildings down to Coal Pointe. Our fish was already unloaded and waiting for us. The staff there was pulling index cards and calling out names. When you heard your name you stepped forward and they weighed your fish. Someone with a clipboard wrote down the weight and asked what you wanted – vacuum-packed, frozen or for an additional charge, flash-frozen.
I told the young lady helping me that I wanted all my fish packaged into 1-pound packs and frozen; and that I would want to ship some home. She told me I’d have to come back in the morning (it takes overnight to freeze the fish), she also explained that they would package the fish in approximate 1lb. packages – no guarantees of exactly 1 pound and in the morning I could take what I wanted then and arrange to have the rest shipped home. Coal Pointe also has a FedEx counter so they can handle everything. She handed me my receipt, which showed I had 12.5 lbs of fillets and told me I would need to show it in the morning to get my fish.

Finally we headed back to the RV park. I was exhausted and excited to tell Consuelo about my day. I wanted a cold beer and to peel out of my clothes and take a hot shower – everything I was wearing smelled like a dead fish. I was also curious to hear Consuelo’s ideas on what we should do with nearly 13 lbs of fish!

As it turned out, I decided to send 10 pounds home (it got there in less than a day, still frozen solid) and we kept the rest which we'll enjoy over the next few weeks.  My plan is to invite friends and family over for a Halibut bake when we get back to Tennessee in late September.

Click here to see photos from this fishing trip.

1 comment:

SimplyForties said...

I've been waiting on this post! My package of your fish was delicious! As a huge fan of Deadliest Catch, and the Time Bandit guys in particular, your adventure in Homer was of great interest. I'm so glad (and so jealous!) you had this adventure!

Post a Comment