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October 26, 2001

To Heaven and Hell for Halibut

The Bering Sea. The very name conjures visions of towering, storm-swept seas, white spray separating monstrous green swells from the cold, gray mist. Fact is, much of the year that's just the way it is - a living hell for anyone caught out on a small boat. But now and then the weather turns civilized - frequently in the summer, but only rarely (and for short periods) otherwise.

The Bering Sea. The very name conjures visions of towering, storm-swept seas, white spray separating monstrous green swells from the cold, gray mist.
Fact is, much of the year that's just the way it is - a living hell for anyone caught out on a small boat.
But now and then the weather turns civilized - frequently in the summer, but only rarely (and for short periods) otherwise. Then hell becomes a heaven of fish-rich grounds in the midst of barren peaks covered in soft, green tundra, a seascape and landscape that resemble nowhere else on earth.
During such times, anglers who brave the Bering in small boats have found the rewards rich indeed. And no reward is bigger, in all respects, than the giant halibut that thrive in the deep, cold waters along Alaska's Aleutian Island chain. Sport fishermen have just begun to tap the promise of 200-, 300- and even 400-pound halibut here, drawing increasing numbers of anglers to these awesome and austere volcanic islands that stretch south and west away from the Alaska mainland toward Russia.
Quarter-Ton Flounder
I'd heard that even 200-pound halibut aren't large enough to generate much excitement at Dutch Harbor's small-boat docks. Of course, seeing is believing. And on the first full day of fishing during an early September visit, I saw.
"How are you making out over there, Darryl?" Our skipper, "Kiwi" Thompson, called the only other Dutch Harbor charter boat on the water that day, the Grand Aleutian. The response: "We just had five on at once. One more and we're through - and we just hooked up!" And how: That last fish of the day turned out to be the best, a 292-pounder that looked big enough to swallow a Volkswagen for lunch.
We caught our limits of these monstrous flounder too, aboard the charter boat Shuregood, though we couldn't top 292 pounds.
There's little doubt that Dutch Harbor can truly lay claim to the greatest halibut sport fishing in the world, both in terms of numbers and size of the prized flatfish. Recreational fishermen here catch many between 250 and 350 pounds each season.
In fact, these waters give cause for thinking the previously unthinkable: a halibut over 500 pounds on rod and reel. After all, two years ago a new IGFA all-tackle world record - a 395-pounder caught by James Golat from an 18-foot skiff - came from an area in the bay just a stone's throw from town.
Even a bad day can be good here, as it was one afternoon the very next year (last June), a blustery day that limited the charter boat Suzanne Marie to the bay. Late in the afternoon and without full limits yet, skipper Henry Olson decided to make one quick drop on the way in at Devilfish Point - not even a mile west of the boat harbor. More than two hours later, he put the gaff to a halibut of 459 pounds - another new world record.

Hotel Brings Anglers to Commercial Fishing Mega-Center
The opening of a large, well-appointed hotel late in 1993 also meant the opening up of rich halibut grounds to rod and reel. The Grand Aleutian offers anglers 112 first-rate rooms and welcome comfort after a hard day on "the grounds."
Commercial fishing interests, the area's main raison d'jtre, dwarf the four or five charter boats that offer anglers (as well as whale watchers/sightseers) their services. As any visitor quickly sees, the modern communities of Dutch Harbor and adjacent Unalaska owe their existence to commercial fishing. This center for the Bering Sea's mega-fisheries for millions of tons of pollock, crab and halibut has, for the last couple years, easily led the nation in total landings of seafood. For example, in 1995, a mind-boggling total of 685 million pounds of seafood were brought in here.
Despite such productivity, sport fishermen will find surprisingly little diversity in the waters around the central area of the long spit called the Aleutians. Even though Dutch Harbor is nearly as far south as northern British Columbia, it lacks major local salmon fisheries; while some area streams offer fast fishing for silvers each summer, few silvers are caught in the ocean and virtually none of the other salmon species show up in catches. Bottom-fish enthusiasts expecting to see the monstrous lingcod and yelloweye rockfish for which Alaska also enjoys fame won't find many here, at least not shallow enough to target.
That leaves halibut. Alaska fishing writer and expert Chris Batin has pointed out that the 50- to 80-pounders that tend to be the minimum that Dutch Harbor anglers like to keep do not represent the Alaska average. In fact, he has noted that the average sport-caught Alaska halibut weighs about 30 pounds.

Jigs and Tails Do It
Bringing light tackle to fish Dutch Harbor halibut would make about as much sense as packing a pellet gun to hunt water buffalo. Most skippers here equip passengers with what they need: 4/0 or comparably sized reels (some two-speeds) filled with 80- or 100-pound superbraided (gel-spun polyethylene) line. The narrow diameter, high abrasion resistance and minimal stretch of superbraid make it unbeatable for dropping deep in currents.
Terminal gear couldn't be much simpler: a 1-pound lead-head jig (occasionally 1 1/2 pounds) with a fat, tough plastic curlicue or twin tail of 6 to 10 inches on a heavy mono leader. Technique is about as straightforward as the tackle: Drop the jig to bottom and begin bouncing it, lifting it up and letting it settle. When you feel weight, set and crank.
Sure, anglers present other offerings to halibut such as large herring, salmon heads or whole cod or pollock (alive or not) and octopus. Thompson, for one, swears by octopus when available: "I find huge octopuses' beaks 2 inches across in halibuts' stomachs. That means 50-pound octopus. That shows you how voracious these fish are!"
Charters here generally offer fighting belts and harnesses, though anglers who have such gear they are used to should bring it. With heavy gear, heavy fish and long tough battles, belts and harnesses prove a welcome accessory.

Surface Cruisers in "Waterfalls"
There are times when a lot of weight isn't necessary because these insatiable bottom fish may be feeding near the surface. "Sometimes, we'll actually see halibut cruising right along the surface when it's calm. That's where you could set some fly-rod records!" says John Lucking, longtime local angler and charter skipper with a track record for taking some huge fish.
Northwest fishermen don't generally expect such behavior from halibut, but again, the Aleutians are unique. What brings halibut up from the depths? The answer offers still more evidence of the phenomenal productivity of these islands: herring - schools of huge 12- to 13-inchers ("horse herring") that stretch for miles and miles. So many bio-tons that "if we stop dead in the water, with the engines off, it actually sounds like a waterfall!" Lucking says. (In fact, Thompson points out that recent commercial herring seasons here have been open not for weeks or even days but just 20 minutes. In that time last year, the fleet netted some 3,200 metric tons.)
Still, most of the action happens on bottom and Thompson takes most fish between 30 and 40 fathoms. Later in the summer, during the height of salmon runs, the action may be somewhat shallower as the big flatfish look for dying, spent salmon drifting out from creek mouths.

Tag and Release
Anglers planning a fishing trip to Dutch Harbor should set their goals in advance. Many just want to catch some halibut and bring home meat for the freezer. Neither poses much of a problem.
"Lots of days when we've been able to head out west [when southeasterlies prevail as they often do in summer], we could have kept full limits with not a fish less than 100 pounds," Lucking says. That's exactly the sort of fishing that challenges halibut enthusiasts, many of whom go up - as we did - hoping to test their skills against fish that seriously outweigh themselves, catching and releasing trophy-size halibut.
Both Lucking and Thompson encourage releasing big fish. Fact is, even a couple of "little" 70- or 80-pound halibut (which, unlike many bottom fish, are mostly meat rather than bone) will monopolize the space in most home freezers. Most folks won't know what to do with more than 200 pounds of meat from a couple of really big halibut. But fish this size are strictly females, and the eggs they'll continue to produce each year number in the millions. Fortunately, for durability, halibut may be the Freddy Kruegers of the fish world; even after a long fight, they swim strongly for bottom when released, ready to pounce again.
Lucking's boat tagged over 100 halibut last year, as part of a program sponsored by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sends anglers a written certificate of release. "More and more clients are getting excited about [this program]," he adds.

Tricks and Treats in the Passes
Despite both the current and pending world-record halibut taken in Unalaska Bay, most skippers like to head farther afield. When conditions permit, they'll head north then west into the Bering Sea or southeast around Fox Island to fish Unalga Pass between Fox and smaller Unalga islands.
Anglers have plenty of places to catch halibut in either direction over the shelf that surrounds the island. The edges of this shelf plummet to vast depths. Where to fish often comes down to weather, but the passes, particularly Unalga Pass, certainly qualify as favorite areas.
Two words sum up Unalga Pass: fishy and tricky. It's not a place to fish without the right gear and plenty of experience reading these waters. Both those prerequisites can be tied to the marine topography here: The deep waters of the Bering on one side of the pass clash ferociously with those of the Pacific on the other side, particularly during tide changes. Then, wide, relatively shallow (100 to 300 feet) passes like Unalga and adjacent sharp points of land become the currents' battleground.
The ceaseless struggles of one sea to invade the other produce turmoil: roiling, boiling currents creating massive whirlpools and eddies and huge, roaring tidal rips that run for miles. Not a place for sissies and, for anglers from the Lower 48, not a place like any you've ever fished. But it's a great place for halibut attracted to all the baitfish that get swept in and often held by the currents.
Boats don't dare fish the rips, but work the pass inside of them. The trick is timing, to get through riplines on the way into and out of the pass, when the current slackens. Even during calm periods, skippers' crossings of rip areas are timed to tidal flow.
Of course, charter skippers don't let a little chop slow them down. "We'll go out in up to 10-foot seas," says Lucking, who's chartered for years on his 32-foot, custom aluminum Suzanne Marie, noting that wind direction can be a big factor. Only once did he think perhaps the Bering might get the best of him. "I got into a set of 30-foot waves one day [in a rip] - it happened so quick that I was committed and couldn't turn around. One crashed completely over the top of us. That was the worst I've been in," Lucking says, adding, "This area's not a real good place for autopilots."

Where Arctic and Hawaiian Air Masses Mingle
Fortunately, summer offers plenty of calm weather when charter boats have no trouble accessing the grounds. June, July and August prove pretty reliable, according to Gary Hufford, regional scientist for the U.S. Weather Service, Alaska, and a hard-core fishing enthusiast. Best odds of all for good days: the second half of June, Hufford says. Then, fog becomes the major weather factor, but with radar de rigeur up here, that stops few boats.
Hufford recalls, "One day last summer at Cold Bay [near Dutch Harbor], we hit nine days in a row when the weather was warm and calm." But he also points out, "Even in August winds can exceed 80 mph. It's not that unusual." But unusual is exactly the term that fits Aleutian Islands weather.
"Cold air can come down from the Arctic through the Bering Strait and [along the Aleutians] it meets warm air - from as far as Hawaii - coming up from the south. When warm and cold air meet, you get weather! That's why this area is written up in textbooks as producing the mothers of all storms."
Fortunately, they don't linger in the summer. "Summer storms usually move through in eight to 10 hours. Then it'll be clear for at least three or four days, foggy in the morning but clearing
by afternoon," thanks to sea breezes pushing warm air over chilly water, Thompson explains. Indeed, a late August blow only 10 days before we visited in early September had winds howling at over 100 mph. More than once I heard annoyance with all the fuss made in the Lower 48 over mere hurricane-force winds of 75 mph.

Planning and Packing Right Are Critical
Several conclusions can be drawn from all this:
1. Don't visit this area to fish (or sunbathe) before June or after August (when most charters are shutting down anyway). And definitely don't come in the winter unless you want (as some folks actually do) to watch storms that can howl for days and, according to Hufford, whip up 40-foot seas.
2. Plan at least several fishing days, not just one or two, so the odds are you'll get to do what you came for.
3. Bring some good reading material for weather days.
4. Bring an appetite: You can enjoy watching the weather while eating the most incredible fresh seafood you can imagine. I'm sure I ate more fresh Alaskan king crab in several days here than I've eaten in 20 years.
5. Pack serious, industrial-strength foul-weather gear - but also lots of varied clothing for cold, cool and warm weather. Think layers. "The Aleutians are a phenomenal fishing spot," Hufford points out, "but one price to be paid is that, more than other places I've fished around the world, you have to pack so many different kinds of clothing for so many conditions." That leads to:
6. If you don't like the weather, wait a little while. That clichi for most areas could, up here, be a mantra. In an hour you can go through warm sun, haze and high clouds, then low clouds followed by mist and rain and back into sun again.
In a shrinking world, sport fishermen continue to look for genuinely unique destinations. By any measure, Dutch Harbor qualifies. Fished recreationally for years only by locals - and then mostly in the bay - interest in "Dutch" as the world's ultimate destination for enormous Pacific halibut has changed all that. Look for more evolution in and development for this remarkable fishery - and, I predict, for the first world-record halibut over 500 pounds.