Halibut Fun

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”
– Yvon Chouinard.

Drove South to Homer (5 hours) for some halibut fishing this weekend. We went with our friend Becky who has a house and boat down there. Left friday night and by 11ish saturday morning we were uploading the skiff into Kachemak Bay.

Weather was kind of iffy at the put in — foggy, a slight breeze and seas around 2 feet. By the we motored out of the harbor and into the bay we were questioning our decision. Of course once you’ve started you can turn around without at least a peek — so on we continued. And as we motored west the weather improved and soon it was partly sunny with steady seas around 1-2 feet. We were in a 21′ skiff; open in the back with a plastic cover in front — and we were relatively comfortable. Anyway’s – we motored for about an hour and about 20 miles out. Our first stop was about 1/2 mile off shore; we dropped in anchor in 50′ of water and within a few minutes we were pulling up Irish Lords — a blood red fish that grows to about a foot long and is covered with spines. Apparently the spines have a mild poison in them so we were very careful as we removed them and tossed them back. After about 45 minutes of fishing all we had caught were 7 Irish Lords and no halibut so we pulled anchor and headed further out.

This time we anchored in 90′ of water. We dropped our lines and waited. For about an hour we had a few nibbles but no fish… however we were beginning to get nervous about the water and weather. In the time since we had dropped anchor and fished the seas had risen from steady 2′ to steady 3′. We were also beginning to see white caps. White caps form when the wind reaches 15 knots and can make for unpleasant travel. Furthermore we were now a mile offshore and 20+ miles from the harbor. So we called it; pulled in our lines and readied the boat to head back.

I climbed through the hatch and got on the bow and readied the anchor. When you pull an anchor in a skiff you attached the anchor line to a buoy and then motored away in a circle so the rope pulls through the buoy. Once the anchor hits the buoy you turn then pull the rope in and thus don’t have to pull the anchor off the ocean floor. So in a circle we went — but nothing was happening… So Becky gave us another push when suddenly the buoy pull tight and pushed up against the boat. This was a bit scary — a somewhat common accident is when the anchor line becomes tangled in the prop and the boat is literally pulled underwater towards the anchor. Becky killed the engines immediately and let us drift back to where the anchor was once again in front of the boat. This time I got up on the anchor line and began pulling in while Becky motored us slowly forward. I pulled for about 20 minutes until the anchor line was directly below us tight as a drum.

All this time the weather was getting worse and the seas rougher. By now they were steady 4′ sets – which meant when we crested a wave and then dipped the bow of the boat would be so low in the trough that the next set would splash over the front. The water didn’t bother me too much. To be honest I was starting to feel quite queasy, so the cold water in my face was a relief that kept me from thinking about curling up in a ball and puking. (“Why do I go halibut fishing?” I kept asking myself.)

I pulled and pulled and when I had taken in as much slack in as possible Becky readied to boat for another try at going in a circle. She turned the boat and motored out away from the buoy (which was positioned well away this time); progress was hard so we revved the engine once… and suddenly the boat pulled tight against the anchor and we spun instantly – the bow pointing back to the anchor and the stern suddenly taking in water.

To put it mildly the feeling of suddenly spinning out of control in the open ocean with foul weather and large waves is not a good feeling. We all let out a collective gasp and Becky quickly hit the motor and spun so we repositioned and once again faced the waves.

By now we were at a loss. We needed to get behind the anchor and pull it away from whatever it was stuck on — but the waves were too large to allow us to position our stern against them. So we resorted to the old fashioned method — which meant I kneeled on the bow and pulled with all my might while Becky motored slowly forward in the hopes of pulling the anchor straight up. This method went on for about 30 minutes as the waves soaked me and the weather continued to worsen.

Finally after screwing with the anchor for close to 90 minutes we called it. The waves were a steady 4′; the wind was getting worse and we were all quite worried. Becky handed me a knife with the instructions “Cut it.” I touched the knife to the rope – barely touched it – and the rope exploded in half instantly and we jerked back.

Becky then threw the boat in gear and we were off. The ride back was hell. The waves steady, the wind hard and visibility low. Every 10 minutes we’d crest a huge wave and when dropping into the trough the entire back would get soaked. The bilge pump was going constantly and we motored along slow and steady.

At this point I was feeling really really rough. There was nothing I could do — I know nothing about driving a boat – so I left the driving to Becky, the moral support to Yvonne, tightened up my rubber rain gear and dropped off to sleep in a sea sickness stupor. I’d wake up every time the water poured into the boat — but it wasn’t enough to make me want to move so I kept drifting in and out of sleep.

It took a full 2 hours to get back… and by the time we reached the harbor the storm had passed and the seas were glassy, the skies blue and I, refreshed by my nap, was useful again.

The next day was the polar opposite… glassy seas. Swells that maxed out at maybe 6 inches. We caught tom-cod, ling-cod, halibut and flounder and the adventure of the day before seemed like a dream. Halibut fishing didn’t seem so bad at all.