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March 30, 2010

North Sea Halibut

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

Word association: "big halibut" and "location." What comes to mind? Alaska, of course (and/or British Columbia, Washington and Oregon).

But Norway?

Guess what? The Atlantic has its own monster halibut, though few anglers realize it. And fishing for these enormous flounder entails some fascinating differences from the familiar halibut fishery along our Pacific Coast.

444-Pounder Piques Interest
For years, I've been vaguely aware that Atlantic halibut could be caught around Norway, but I figured that must be a limited, commercial fishery. During a trip I made last summer to Tromsö - above the Arctic Circle on Norway's rugged northern coast - I experienced halibut fishing in a whole different light.

A year earlier, reports of a new all-tackle world record for the species, weighing 444 pounds, had certainly sparked the interest of this veteran Pacific halibut angler. It seems that a Swedish guide, Per Jonasson, had put Danish angler Sören Beck on the enormous flatfish along the Norway coast. It wasn't, pun notwithstanding, a fluke; in fact, a few months later, Jonasson released another halibut estimated at well over 400 pounds near Tromsö.

I began exchanging e-mails with the enthusiastic guide who seemed to have the fishing for big 'buts dialed in, and I soon had made plans to check it out. Last July, I did, joined by fishing partner/spousal unit, Jackie, and two other Pacific halibut pros: Washington-based John Beath (www.halibut.net) and Californian Ben Secrest of Accurate Fishing Products. Among us we had fished halibut off Alaska, British Columbia and points south for years and caught dozens of big flatties. Given that, we were eager to compare this new fishery for the Atlantic species.

Here are some of the high points on how sport fishing for Atlantic halibut (which look identical to their Pacific kin) differs from fishing Pacific halibut in our own waters:

•Fishing in surprisngly shallow (and often crystal-clear) water
•Fishing in calm, protected inside waters
•Surprisingly hard-fighting fish
•Catch-and-release trophy hunting

Attack at the Boat
We were all used to dropping heavy lead weights or jigs into waters ranging commonly to 400 or more feet for halibut. So even though we understood we'd be fishing shallow, seeing the bottom clearly on our first drift in quiet, protected waters surrounded by high, rocky slopes surprised us. We lowered Swedish-made Savagegear Cutbait Herring swimbaits with 10-inch tails (www.savage-gear.com) into the moderate current, and the 1-pound jigs easily hit bottom, all of 35 feet below us.

From the waterfront house that Jonasson provides for his anglers, we'd run an hour mostly in sheltered waterways snaking among islands to the first stop north of Tromsö - one of dozens of such spots in the guide's GPS.

Within the first couple of drifts, I hooked the initial halibut of the trip when it couldn't pass up a white Z-man Paddletail lure. As I was working on that fish, I heard Secrest grunt and from the corner of my eye saw him hard against the rail, his rod now doubled over. Clearly, he'd hooked something far bigger. By the time we'd released my 40- to 50-pounder, Secrest had done a 360 around the boat, following his fish, with the drag nearly maxed down on 50-pound braid. The powerful fish had showed absolutely no signs of slowing when the hook simply let loose.