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March 30, 2010

North Sea Halibut

Discovered: A trophy release fishery for Atlantic halibut in Norway's shallow coastal waters

Conquered, Not Killed
Not surprisingly, halibut are considered food fish in Norway. The lines between fishing for fun, food and profit are pretty indistinct; in fact, residents can keep or sell their fish, however they're caught (and most are still caught on hand lines). Not many Norwegian halibut (generally smaller fish) brought to an angler's boat ever see their freedom, to be sure.

Jonasson began targeting halibut in Tromsö a couple of years ago. He's apparently the only full-time halibut guide in Norway, and his operation is an anomaly since clients release 100 percent of large halibut, keeping only an occasional small one for food. And they do it gladly: Jonasson has built a clientele of trophy hunters, looking to conquer, not kill, huge halibut. Using a huge sling, the guide quickly tapes and photographs fish, and if not more than 150 pounds, he weighs them in the sling. Then - working in conjunction with the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research - Jonasson inserts a dart tag before release. "The institute does tag fish, but I'm the only one tagging really big ones," Jonasson observes.

An angler vanquishing a large fish can document the catch to his heart's content after Jonasson tows the fish to a nearby beach (keep in mind that most catches occur very close to shore) for photos.

Perhaps in part because this trophy fishery for halibut is unique in Western Europe, Jonasson has found that devotees are passionate. Some might say fanatic - as, for example, when describing the two Swedish anglers who arrived the day we left. They flew in for 13 straight, solid days of halibut fishing. "And that's their third trip this season," Jonasson laughs. "Plus, they have one more trip booked for next month!"

Midnight Sun
While 13 consecutive days may seem like a lot of time devoted to the pursuit of trophy halibut, it's really even more than that. Consider the length of fishing days - typically a good 10 hours, but if the client has the desire, Jonasson will fish considerably longer. And of course, during the Arctic summer, there is no darkness. From May through much of August, you can be fishing in bright light at midnight. Indeed, "the Danes," as we referred to Beck and Lichtenberg, often returned to the dock at 1 a.m. or later (yet by 7 a.m. they were back for another go!).

The other reason that such long days are an option is Jonasson himself; he couldn't be more personally enthusiastic about guiding anglers to huge halibut or more tireless. The affable Swede will fish as close to around the clock as his anglers wish and can handle. (Confession: Wimps, all, we were perfectly happy with being out from about 8 a.m. until 8 or 9 in the evening.)

By day three, that trophy-size halibut had eluded us. "Trophy" is, of course, a loaded term. For Jonasson, that generally means any fish clearly tipping the scale at three figures. By mid-July of that season, Jonasson had landed two halibut of around 200 pounds and was looking for one 300-plus. In fact, not long before we'd arrived, he'd hooked a fish that he knew had to be 300 and possibly much, much larger. But they're tough customers, and that one didn't stay buttoned. Three weeks later, though, he did release one above the 300 mark.