A Halibut Guide’s Life

Driving rain, gusting winds and lack of fish give customers plenty of time to question the judgment of their captain. (photo by Hastings A. Franks)

Fighting seasickness and living up to expectations are part of it.

[by David Bayes]


For 17 years, I’ve worked as a halibut guide in Homer. My yearly income is made by fishing the 100-day period between Memorial and Labor days.  The profits from that stretch support everything I do the rest of the year. Missing a day equates to a 1 percent loss of my annual gross income. Running a fishing boat in Alaska does not allow for days off.

The alarm sounds at 4 a.m., and I hit snooze. For the past 67 days, I’ve promised myself that I would bound out of bed at the first hint of a morning alarm. Now, as my feet hit the cold wood floor, I realize that day 68 is destined to begin as the others had: late. As I lean forward and do a Walking Dead stumble toward the coffee pot, I chastise myself for (yet another) day of snooze abuse. I look at the clock—43 minutes behind schedule. The challenge begins. Lunch, coffee, a gallon of octopus tentacles and 44 pounds of herring all fly from the chest freezer to the bed of the truck. The day awaits.

I rendezvous with my six clients for the day. Five are locals with whom I’ve fished before. The sixth client I’ve never met—a wildcard.

 

 

All aboard and underway. At this point, we’ve had some time to get acquainted with the sixth client: Dave. A fishy name no doubt. He is from Louisiana and doesn’t seem to know a thing about halibut fishing except that he wants to catch a 200-pounder. The deckhand and I casually mention that while there is always an opportunity for huge halibut, the average is much, much smaller. Dave nods understandingly then reiterates that he wants a 200-pound halibut.

 

Today’s forecast calls for calm seas all day, but as we enter the Gulf of Alaska, the waves are getting larger. Rough waters mean that my plan A is no longer an option. We retreat to calmer waters and drop anchor on plan B, deploy our lines and hope for the best.

 

Who’s idea was this? It doesn’t take a mind reader to know what they are thinking. Two hours with no bites. And it’s raining. Hard. We should stick it out a little longer, but I might face mutiny if we don’t make a move.

 

 

New spot, plan C. This area has been hot for the past week, but now the moon is waning and the tides are smaller. This new spot also exposes us to the rougher seas of the Gulf, and I keep a wary eye on Frank, the older gentleman in the group. Frank has managed to wedge himself into a corner for stability. I tell the deckhand to keep an eye on him.

 

No tidal current. No bites. Panic rising. Halibut find their food by scent, and we need tidal current to carry the scent-fi eld away from the boat. Avoiding eye contact with the clients, I peer into the chartplotter and silently beg it to provide me with a better alternative. Though I know we could catch a quick limit of good fish in other spots, the physical abilities of the clients, sea conditions and timing of the tides make them impractical options for today. We’re stuck.

 

Good current now, thankfully, and the fish have begun to bite for everyone except Bayou Dave. We tried giving Dave advice on how to stay in contact with bottom and to be sure to let the fish swallow the bait, but he remains steadfastly indifferent to us. Frank, though, has found his balance on the pitching-deck and is outfishing everyone else.

 

Everyone but Dave has limited-out on halibut. Frustrated, we pull anchor and move to a spot just a few hundred yards away. Earlier, Dave caught a couple good-size halibut but decided to let them go while reminding us that he is “looking for a two-hundred pounder.” In good nature, we tell him that we start our return trip to port at 2 p.m.

 

 

Fish on! The fish pins Dave to the corner of the boat as it makes its first run. Dave drops to his knees and rests the rod on the rail to keep the fish from pulling it out of his hands. Under great duress, he begins to expel a steady stream of expletives that are masked in a thick, mostly unintelligible Cajun accent. He makes multiple references to boudin and crawdads and guarantees.

 

 

Dave’s 210-pounder lies quivering on the deck. We needed three shots from a .38 Special and two gaffs to subdue the fish and pull it aboard. Dave is speechless, and no one seems to mind.

Tired, wet and victorious, we pull anchor and head for home.

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