Monday, May 21, 2012

Day 156: Halibut Fishing in Homer, Alaska


I took advantage of an unexpected trip to Alaska and booked a little fishing charter to further explore my killing spree. I was thinking fresh halibut and salmon might just be the ticket to break up my ongoing protein intake of legumes, tofu, oysters, clams, and the occasional steelhead.

I also really wanted to be back on the water, if only for the day. Apart from missing my old crew, one of the worst things about being retired from the Coast Guard is the dryness of it all, the lack of sea-spray, the porpoise and whale spotting, and the rock and roll of the waves that makes me forget all about Meniere’s disease and the ever-annoying state of vertigo. When I am on the water, I feel stable, safe, healthy, and electrified.

Booked through Bob’s Trophy Charters, I selected the Wave Dancer over the Nauti-Lady. The Nauti-Lady is a 50’ 20-passenger vessel, and despite her provocative name, she is popular with the less-adventurous. But I wanted something smaller, something faster, and less crowded. I selected the Wave Dancer, 32’ of fun with the youthful Captain Corey and Mate Joey, both in their early twenties.

Too excited to sleep beyond 3am, I arrived at Homer Spit nearly 2 hours early. Homer Spit in the morning light is stunning. There was no sun to speak of, so there was no sunrise, just a subtle lightening of an eggplant sky to gun-metal gray to periwinkle to brilliant blue (notice I did not use the term, cerulean – even if it was).

I checked in at Bob’s around 6am, and then followed my strip map to slip J-29, the moorage address of the wave dancer. Although we didn’t speak, I shared the trek with a short, stubby man with salt-and-pepper hair and a matching, well-trimmed beard. He smelled of bourbon, but not of a fresh shot. No. His bourbon mixer was the funk of sweat from a fitful sleep following last night’s binge. I stepped out in front of him to stay upwind of his seeping pores.

I climbed aboard the Wave Dancer and was followed by Mr. Bourbon. I looked full into his face, smiled, and offered a morning salutation. He ignored me, or maybe he failed to hear. The bright sky made him grimace. He knitted his eyebrows in a painful way, as if suffering from gastronomical distress.

Corey and Joey greeted us with handshakes and asked where we were from. I was about to answer when Mr. Bourbon spoke up. He took a dramatic step away from me and proclaimed in a voice I found a little too hostile, “Oh, I am not with are not with her.”

Bourbon and I were probably close in age, but I was holding up better in the wrinkle and belly-fat department. Assuming he and I were together was an understandable mistake. I don’t suppose too many women charter fishing trips solo. It would have been a quick fix had Bourbon reported, “Texas,” and I reported, “Seattle.” I always say Seattle or near Seattle because it’s easier than saying, “Washington, as in the state.” The crew would have pondered the geographical separation and concluded that we were not a couple. But there we were, stuck in the morning glow of Mr. Bourbon’s disgust.

Bourbon’s reaction caught me off guard. He acted like I was some sort of sea-witch or maybe a sea-cow. I get it that I was not his type. I get that my fishing attire of ski-pants over yoga-pants over leggings, topped with camouflage parka over polar fleece over thermal top over sports bra, with my wild morning hair, and water-proof but not unfeminine boots, did not flatter my figure or make me very appealing.  But even on my best day, fresh from the salon, I would never be Bourbon’s type. He like’s ‘em real scrawny, half-starved, with bleach-blond hair and stage make-up. His ideal gal comes complete with a set of silicon tits that he bought just three months into the relationship. He owns those tits, owns that woman. No, I would never be his type. Honestly.

Bourbon took a seat in the cabin and I stood on deck, waiting for the rest of the charter to trickle in. Two men hefted a blue cooler over the side. They bantered back and forth, giving away their southern roots. Tom was from Georgiana, Alabama. Rob was from South Carolina. Rob shook my hand and wished a belated, happy Mother’s day and then followed-up with a quick peck on the cheek. Friendly and a little forward, but I didn’t mind. Later I’d learn all about Rob’s mama. He’d even show me the bracelet made from antique silverware stashed in his Carhartt overalls, a trinket picked up for her during his visit to Homer. The bracelet and his open admiration for his mama were sweet, but only at first.

An old man tottered down the dock toward the Wave Dancer. Joey hopped out of the boat to assist. The old guy nodded at each of us before making himself comfortable on a cabin bench for what seemed like the longest and most expensive game of iPhone solitaire ever played. No matter how great the swell or how excited the other passengers seemed, the old man kept his eyes lowered as he fat-fingered the screen.

The last passenger to join was a slight man in his thirties, a radiologist from Fairbanks. He was late, apologetic, and poorly dressed to face the elements. In jeans, windbreaker, and tennis shoes, he was shivering before we pulled from the slip. I offered up a spare pair of waterproof pants, knowing he’d need to cinch them way up and roll the cuffs a few times to fit. He politely declined.

Our first stop was a known salmon hold about two miles from the mouth of the Anchor River. The strategy was to get as close as possible to the river’s mouth in order to entice the King salmon moving upstream to spawn. Two miles from the mouth was the closest legal distance allowed for charter and private fishing, although according to Joey, commercial fishing boats may legally swoop the mouth with nets. I don’t see the logic in the commercial fishing allowance. But maybe I don’t understand the whole story. Or more accurately, I don’t understand the politics.

In charter King salmon fishing, or at least on this charter, the customer does little to nothing to catch the fish. Joey baited and dropped four rods while Captain Corey maneuvered the boat in a circling pattern, dragging the bait across a given grid square. We were instructed to take turns grabbing the rods and reeling once a fish strikes. Mama’s-Boy-Rob suggested that the mama on board catch the first fish for luck. Everyone seemed to agree. I felt a warm blush spread across my face, and before I got out a proper thank-you, we had our first hit. I half-stepped toward the pole, more out of politeness than anything. But in my hesitation, Bourbon pushed by and grabbed a hold. I stepped back like a good sport and watched him land a beautiful King, about 25lbs of wildly delicious protein that I so desperately wanted in my freezer.

The next strike bent the pole closest to the radiologist. He looked at me as if seeking permission. I yelled, “Go! He’s all yours.” It no longer made sense to play the mother card. The first fish was in the boat and the luck was already set.

It was all the radiologist could do to keep the tip of the pole up. This was no normal King Salmon. The fish made a break for it, running out the line faster than the poor guy could reel it in. Joey took over, balancing on the catwalk as the monster circled the boat before entangling the three other lines in its fight for freedom. After a few circles around the boat, the fish was getting tired. Joey gave the pole back to the radiologist for a fight that lasted another 30 minutes. It was clear this was no salmon.

Captain Corey loaded a compact rifle. I’m guessing it was a .22 caliber. Once the fish was brought closer to the surface, he planned to shoot it in order to get it onboard. I really wanted to shoot the fish, but I kept out of the way with camera ready. A mottled brown fish, flat and ugly neared the surface. Corey readied his rifle while Joey leaned over with a gaff. I braced myself for the blast, but Joey hooked the monster in the head with the gaffing hook and pulled it on board. With two whacks of a fish-bonking bat, the excitement was over. The radiologist landed 60lbs of halibut with light tackle meant for salmon. It was an amazing accomplishment, and the guy couldn’t stop smiling.

Time and tide were not on our side. We had less than an hour to each catch a salmon before moving out with the slack tide to bottom fish for halibut. With the exception of the solitaire-playing old man, we stood on the deck and watched for the slightest twitch in the motionless poles.  About an hour passed before Mr. Bourbon serenated us all with the most wretched bout of seasickness I have ever heard.

I don’t get seasick, but I’m prone to a weak stomach. I’ve never been great at dealing with vomit, even my own kids’ vomit. Usually, if someone pukes around me, it doesn’t take long before I’m upchucking too. It’s a family thing. My siblings suffer the same condition and have all through childhood and parenthood. Growing up in my house on a sick day was like one big puke-a-rama.

Had I not been so secretly delighted at Mr. Bourbon’s unfortunate bout with karma, his violent hurling may have triggered my own gag reflex. But all I could do was smile and rename him, “Mr. Chum.” Rob offered Chum a napkin while shooting me a smirk complete with double raised-eye-brows. I almost laughed out loud. Evidently my secret delight was not so secret.

I let Chum suffer three more bouts before offering assistance. Desperate for relief, he accepted and offered up his hands. With my thumbs, I applied pressure to the underside of his wrists, about half of an inch below the start of the palm.

I have a problem with nausea and anesthesia. Actually, I have a problem with nausea and almost everything expect boat travel. I learned about these nausea relieving pressure points after waking from surgery with baby blue cuffs on my wrists. Each elastic cuff was fitted with what looked like half of a white marble. The marbles were situated on my pressure points and held in place with the stretchy, blue cuff. I kept the pressure cuffs and use them from time to time when nauseated by vertigo, long car rides, or migraine headaches. They work. What can I say?

Mr. Chum enjoyed immediate relief and almost seemed grateful. We pulled in our salmon poles and headed for deeper waters and halibut. Mr. Chum landed the only salmon of the day. I tried not to resent him, believing that my poor sports-woman-ship would be punished with a total fish skunking and nothing to show for the $300 I paid for the charter. I wanted fish for the freezer, and I really believe in karma, good and bad.

The Wave Dancer bounced along the swells, making for an outrageously fun ride. I stayed on the deck, knees bent, bobbing up and down with the waves, and clenching my teeth to keep from biting my tongue. But dumb Mr. Chum sat his butt back in the cabin to text and surf the internet. Of course it wasn’t long before the captain had to stop so Chum could heave his guts over the edge. I didn’t offer further assistance and Chum didn’t ask.

We huddled in the cabin while the heaving took place. Joey stayed on the deck to offer support and a paper towel. Rob spoke up first, “Dude’s going to make me yak.”

“No shit,” I said. “I’ve never heard anyone throw-up that long or hard.”

“He gots him a hangover. You can smell it,” said Tom.

“Yeah, hangovers are not good for fishing,” said Captain Corey. “But this ain’t nothing. We see everything out here. People puke so hard they shit their pants at the same time. Try sharing a cabin with that.”

Joey and Chum reentered the cabin. We all went quiet. No one bothered to change the subject and pretend we were talking about anyone else than the guy loosing it over the railing. Chum settled back into his seat and resumed texting. All but the old dude and Chum returned to the deck for the rest of the ride.

Halibut fishing was more fun than salmon fishing, or at least it was more participatory. Instead of sharing 4 rods between 6 people, we each had our own. The rod was short and stout with a 2lb lead weight and a rather huge hook. I threaded a small but edible looking fish on the hook and dropped the line 130 feet until I hit bottom. I could feel the bottom through the vibrations of the line caused by the weight fluxing with the current.

The old dude left his solitaire game to try his hand at halibut fishing. He must have dropped his weight right on the fish’s head. Within seconds he was in the fight of his life and about 20 minutes later he landed 100lbs of ugly deliciousness. Joey whacked the thing to death with the bat and stuffed it in a hold under the deck. Satisfied with his trophy, the old dude returned to the cabin and back to his solitaire love affair.

Rob caught the next halibut, a little fellow about 10lbs. Joey worked the hook from its mouth and Rob tossed it back in. We were each allowed 2 halibut of any weight. Common practice was to hold out for a trophy, like the one caught by the old dude or something smaller but still impressive like the one brought in by the radiologist. But I don’t have that kind of luck. I decided the night before to keep the first fish and then maybe go for the trophy if a second chance was afforded. I did not want to be the fool that threw back a perfectly tasty, small fish only to walk off the boat with empty hands. Rob would catch and throw back several during the course of the trip, and Rob would prove to be that very fool I did not want to be.

I felt a nibbling sensation through the pole, just a slight bump and tug. I fought the desire to rear back and set the hook like you do when steelhead fishing. Halibut takes patience. The halibut nibbles a while before committing to the hook. I waited, growing a little dizzy until I realized I still needed to breathe. Joey watched over my pole, coaching me. But no one had to tell me to reel when that fish finally struck. I felt it all the way through my torso. And I hate to admit this, but I screamed. “Oh my God!”

“We have us an Oh My God!” yelled Joey.

“Can I get a, Help Me Jesus!’ said Captain Corey.

And then I started to swear. Swearing happens when I get excited. I won’t repeat what I said, but it was a filthy string of expletives that shocked Mama’s-Boy-Rob and Tom from Georgiana, Alabama. The radiologist cheered me on while Joey barked advice. I knew it wasn’t a huge fish, not like the old man’s and not like the radiologist’s. I was working hard but I wasn’t struggling as much as the other two men seemed to have struggled. And I couldn’t help but to feel a little disappointed when my fish broke the surface. It was a halibut and I was happy, but I wasn’t ecstatic.

Joey leaned over the boat and pulled it up. “Not too shabby,” said Joey. “Close to 40. Gonna keep him?”

“Yup,” I said, feeling much better about the catch. After all, it was bigger than any fish I’d ever caught before.

“Congratulations,” said Joey as he reached for the bat.

“Wait,” I said. “Can I kill it?”

I was hoping Joey wouldn’t argue or ask for an explanation. I was hoping that I would not have to explain to Chum and the gang that I was on this weird kick and partial to eating plant-based proteins or stuff that I kill myself. But Joey just laughed and gave me the bat.

Now here’s a tip when it comes to fish whacking. There is no polite way to do the job. There is nothing gentle or kind about the process.  Hesitation produced the half-hearted bonk I first delivered and only prolonged the suffering. I believe that the most humane thing to do is to not fish at all. The second best thing, and my preference, is to knock the hell out of it with the first whack. My first victim took about 4 whacks, a fact I am not proud of. Despite the sobriety caused by inept fish whacking, it was impossible not to smile and hold my dinner in the air for a photo.

I needed almost no recovery time before I was baiting my hook and reeling in another. My next fish was small, but not super small. I tossed it back, deciding to go for broke.

I brought in another small fish and decided to release. I repeated this two more times, catching and releasing a total of four fish in search of the monster. The radiologist landed a small one too, but the hook was in deep, too deep. Joey jerked out the hook and scooped up the fish, assuming it wasn’t a keeper. The thing was bleeding like crazy.

“Is it going to live?” said the radiologist.

Joey shrugged, “Probably not.”

“Well, then I want to keep it.”

“That’s fine,” said Joey, and then he bonked the fish on the head.

I liked the radiologist, liked the fact that he didn’t want to waste the fish, that he wasn’t greedy. I thought about my throw-backs, hoping that the hook hadn’t damaged them too much, but how could it not? Each of them bled when the hook had been wiggled free. Joey didn’t rip out the hooks, but still…

My line bobbed with another bite. I reeled in a small fish, only about 15lbs, but still the second largest fish I’d ever caught. I issued one solid thwack, and Joey slid it in the hold below. I reached my limit.

Tom from Georgiana offered up a beer, a Coors Light, not my favorite but a beer none-the-less. I drank beers with Tom and Rob, enjoyed the rare sunshine and fantastic mountain views, let my body rock and roll with motion of the ocean, and listened to the lurching of Chum trying to empty an already empty stomach. Overall, it was a wonderful day.

1 comment:

  1. Man, i miss standing on the deck of a ship.

    Congrats on the fish!