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I felt a slight tug on the hand line I was holding in my hands.
“Don’t jig on the first pull,” I could still hear Uncle Jimmy instructing me when I was a boy. “Don’t jig on the second one either. If it’s hooked it will take off on its own. Make sure you are ready for anything because it might take off at any time. Wait for the third pull and then jig hard.”
My uncle was fulfilling his duty to train his nephew in one of the many important life skills necessary to live well in rural Southeast Alaska. Jigging is a term we used to describe setting the hook by strongly pulling the line.
I dreamed about fresh halibut and woke up in the morning with a strong craving for fried halibut. I packed a lunch, gathered up my hand line gear and some bait. I stowed the gear in my small aluminum skiff, checked to see if I had my 22 stainless steel revolver and sufficient gasoline for my kicker. I strapped on my pfd and headed out to my favorite halibut hill.
Grandpa once told us that halibut can suck its prey into its mouth or sometimes it will move its large flat body to lie on top of its prey to prevent it from escaping. Of course the halibut also can simply swoop in and grab its prey. All these actions and more send different signals up the hand line to the fisherman on the surface.
It was a perfect day, partly cloudy and warm with only a light breeze. The weatherman had predicted similar weather for the next several days. There are strong tidal currents in and around the area I was heading for. I did not have a long enough anchor line to reach bottom to hold my skiff in the good spot but I knew it would be nearly slack tide when I arrived and I could let the current move my skiff over the spot. If I didn’t get a bite, I would simply run back up-current and repeat the drift. At slack tide, I would be stationary over my favorite spot for up to a half hour before the current began running in the other direction. In that case I would simply reverse the process.
I let my line down to the bottom and immediately got a strike. From the way the fish struggled I could tell I had a halibut on my line. Unfortunately it was a small one that we called a “ping pong paddle.” I really wanted to catch several larger ones that I could share with family, friends and elderly village residents but the next several strikes were also small. By the time I had caught and released a dozen or so, I was ready to pull up my gear and try another spot.
For a change, the fish stopped biting and gave me a welcome rest. These halibut were small but feisty and I had to haul in 200 feet of line for each halibut before I could release them. My arms needed a rest and anyway it was time to eat my lunch. Smoked salmon salad sandwiches, an apple and a thermos of coffee made for a perfect noon time meal. At slack tide, I was just finishing eating. I hauled in my line and added fresh bait, then sent the halibut rig back down to the bottom.
This was when I felt the slight tug on my line. I pulled gently on the line to check if anything substantial was investigating my bait. Fortunately I held the line loosely and avoided a potentially fatal accident. The fish was huge and powerful, easily capable of pulling me overboard. I quickly sat down and braced my feet on the gunwale and started to pull on the line to try and turn the fish. Here was my second near fatal situation. The line was over the side of my skiff when the halibut started its run. It tilted the skiff’s side down and water rushed in over the side. I was in great danger but I turned loose of the line and managed to work my way to the bow and fastened my line to the bow cleat.
For the next half hour I was treated to a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” made famous by whale hunters back when whaling was an important part of the economy. The halibut pulled the skiff nearly as fast as the small kicker was able to haul my skiff. I took this opportunity to bail the skiff and to clean up the apple core and the contents of the bait bucket. I tossed them overboard, to the delight of the seagulls. “Hax’ la k’etl,” my uncle would yell to the seagulls. “Give us a luck.”
Eventually, the fish tired and slowed its mad rush in its desperation to escape the hook. Now the real work began. I had to pull the halibut by hand some 200 feet up to my skiff on the surface. One of the tricks I was taught was once the halibut’s head was facing upwards, one could pull the halibut up with less effort. Done properly, the halibut will allow itself to be pulled up but it is important to pull the line steadily and smoothly otherwise its head would face back down, giving it the advantage. With little effort, the fish will use this advantage to make several more runs before it is finally brought to the surface.
I could finally see the fish as it neared the surface. It was enormous! A true monster that probably weighed more than four hundred pounds. My little skiff was only 14 feet long but in the water, the fish looked as large as my skiff. It was closer to eight feet but there was no way I could even try to pull a halibut that size into the boat. Smaller halibut have been known to kill the fisherman.
Fortunately I had my trusty 22 revolver. A novice will shoot the fish right between the eyes as soon as its head breaks the water surface. This doesn’t kill the halibut but it greatly annoys the fish and it will immediately dive forcing the fisherman to turn the fish and to pull it back to the surface. The proper vulnerable spot is actually located behind the eyes. If one pictures an equilateral triangle formed by the two eyes and the proper aiming point, a shot there will hit the brain, instantly killing the halibut. This assumes that he hits the spot accurately.
I must warn the fisherman that dealing with a fish that size is incredibly dangerous and should not be attempted alone, especially in such a small boat. A bigger boat is called for and pulling the halibut into the boat should be done with at least two or more men. Shooting it should be done with a rifle to increase the chance to hit the spot. In retrospect, I should have cut the line to free the monster. I would have returned home with no fish but alive and well. I did have a fantastic story to tell but who would believe it?
A small but persistent mental warning was telling me to cut the line but I foolishly ignored it and concentrated on shooting the fish. Success! I had the trophy of a lifetime hanging over the side and all I had to do was load the 400-pound fish in my skiff and take it home. Now I had a huge problem that I should have considered before I shot the monster halibut. I could not pull the fish into the skiff. There was no room to pull the fish over the stern, nor was the bow suitable with its pointy end. Trying to pull it in over the side would surely swamp the skiff and I would likely not survive the attempt. In any case, I was not strong enough to pull the fish into the skiff by myself.
I could not tow the great fish all the way home, but I could tow it to the nearby sandy beach where I might be able to pull the fish into the skiff without fear of swamping. But after a number of futile efforts, I realized that the fish was simply too heavy for me to handle by myself.
I sat on the beach and studied the problem and to rue the foolishness of young men with eyes bigger than the fish. I decided that I could try to tow the fish home and do my best to keep from losing it.
I stowed my gear and readied the skiff for the trip home. I pulled the drain plug to let the water out when my brain finally kicked in. I unloaded the skiff including the kicker and everything that wasn’t nailed down. Then I moved the skiff into the water and let it fill with water.
Then I simply slid the fish into the flooded skiff. I replaced the drain plug and bailed the skiff. I replaced the kicker and all of the loose gear then happily headed home with my prize.
When I got home, I recruited a couple of men to help me unload the fish. They were flabbergasted when they saw the great fish. “How in the world did you get that monster into your skiff?”
“Well, I did it the regular way. Head first.”
I kept the real answer a secret and saved the story for a time and place where my story would have the biggest impact.
I gutted and filleted my catch and cut the filets into approximately five pound chunks. Relatives, friends, the elderly and just about everyone I knew got a share of the fish. My stock and my story telling audiences were at an all-time high.
That night I dreamed of king salmon.
Bob Martin was born and raised in Kake. He is a retired electrical engineer and has been an Army Officer, an FAA Radar Maintenance Tech, Juneau Chamber President, University Regent, 2008 Juneau Citizen of the Year, Alaska Energy Authority Board Chairman (AEA built Bradley Lake hydro on time and under budget), Commercial Fisherman, listed in 1968 Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, and a member of the Tsaagweidi clan. He has been married for 44 years to Ginny and has two daughters.
While this is a fictional piece, it is based on the place called Cain Seet in Tlingit, Martin said.