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August 20, 2013

Sitka Sampler

This former Russian seaport combines history with incredible fishing variety.

Capt. Scott Miller stared into the depth-sounder screen as he maneuvered his 32-foot aluminum skiff Gracie K in tight circles, looking for the perfect ledge far below where a giant halibut might lurk. We had left the port of Sitka, Alaska, that morning and run south down the inside passage of the Alaska panhandle for almost an hour before heading offshore.

We ended up in 325 feet of water, and when Miller found the bottom relief he was looking for, he ran forward and tossed the anchor. Anchoring in depths greater than 300 feet is seldom easy, and on this day, a stiff breeze had the Gulf of Alaska whipped into steep waves, complicating the process further. But Miller had the whole affair under control, and the boat soon came tight on its rode in just the right spot.

We had caught several smaller halibut that fell outside the slot limit, and therefore had to be released the day before, but we wanted a big one, so Miller had made his move to where he knew they lay. “The big fish like the bottom structure out here,” he said, “and it’s just a matter of attracting them to the bait.”

Low-Tech Bait
The bait consisted of large chunks of fish (chum salmon in this case) with a generous helping of fish guts added, all pinned on a large circle hook. Leaders are made of clothesline; no need for stealth here. “The halibut lie on the bottom and can smell the scent this bait will put out as it drifts with the current,” Miller explained. “After a while, they will follow the scent to the bait.”

It took about 20 minutes for Miller’s theory to be proved, but when our Penn International 30-pound-class rod bent over slowly, we knew we had tied into something big. I strapped myself into a fighting belt and went to work on the fish struggling far below us.

These big halibut aren’t called “barn doors” only because that’s what they look like; they also quite effectively use the current and their prodigious width to thwart efforts to bring them to the surface. Think of them as a giant planer. When they get their heads down, it’s difficult to make progress, but slowly, I gained line through relentless pumping and winding, and after about 15 minutes, we saw a huge halibut appear alongside the boat.

Close But No Cigar
In Alaska, you can keep one halibut under 45 inches in length, or one over 68 inches, and Miller estimated this one fell between those measurements and needed to be released. We quickly brought the fish aboard the Gracie K through the transom door for measurement: It was 67 inches long, a single inch too short, so reluctantly we slid the big halibut back out the transom, and it swam off in good health.

According to the length-to-weight table employed by Alaska guides, that fish weighed about 155 pounds, so I was ecstatic with catching my first big halibut, even though we had to release it. But we also had a lot more time left and knew our prospects were good to catch another one. It didn’t take long.

A few minutes after dropping another chunk adorned with guts, the rod bent hard again, and I immediately knew this was a bigger fish. What had seemed difficult with the first one now seemed almost impossible, as my efforts to gain line at first proved futile, but slowly, the huge fish began to come our way. After a long and tiring fight, a much larger halibut broke the surface to the cheers of the crew.

A Keeper
Miller and I dragged this one through the transom gate, and we knew we had a keeper. It taped out at 76 inches of length, a 234-pound fish according to the tables. That’s a barn door in anyone’s book, but far from the largest fish Miller has landed. Halibut of more than 300 pounds are not uncommon in this part of the world, and the all-tackle record is 459 pounds.

Alaska has incredible fish biomass, and Alaskan fishery managers protect it by keeping tight controls on effort and landings. It’s illegal for guide boats to keep halibut caught inside Sitka Sound between June 1 and Aug. 31, for instance, to safeguard fishing for the local recreational fleet. But the best halibut fishing lies outside the sound in any case.

We fished to the north the next day in search of salmon, rockfish and lingcod. We caught several nice lingcod, a fish that evolution passed by in my estimation, and had tons of fun jigging for the colorful and tasty rockfish inside the sound. People prize the yelloweye rockfish above all others, and we caught several nice ones. But the black rockfish were more plentiful, and we caught some truly beautiful individuals, including the dazzling China rockfish.