So about a month ago I disappeared for a while. Posts stopped for two weeks, and no one could reach me.
Thankfully, it wasn’t without warning, at least for those who had kept up with my prior posts. I’d been offered a lucrative trip to Alaska to make some quick funds, and it was funds that would be greatly appreciated. In the end, despite losing a few weeks worth of writing work, I decided to take the job.
And along the way, I took a bunch of pictures.
So, you guys already know about my adventures getting to Alaska (I wrote about it here), by one thing I left out of that account was a write up of the actual fishing experience itself. Well, you’ve waited long enough. Patreon supporters got it, and now you’re getting it.
So, what was my fishing trip like? Read on.
So, where to start? Why not with the departure?
Look at all that gear. There are a lot of things to get ready on a fishing boat for any trip, and halibut is no exception. Even though all the gear was already aboard the boat when I arrived, the day we departed we still had some stuff to take care of. Fueling up the boat, for example, as well as getting groceries for the trip, ice and bait. We also had to chop a bunch of that bait and bait our hooks with it. Gear had to be moved around or unpacked during our trip out to our fishing grounds. So while there was a lot of time spent during the journey just sitting around reading, watching movies, and the like, we definitely spent some time getting ready. That picture above? That was a lot of the gear stowed on the back of the boat, but much of it needed to be unstowed so we could start working.
So, why chop bait? And what did I mean by baiting hooks? Well, let me give you a little explanation.
You can probably guess that the bait is to attract fish and that baiting hooks is, well, as it sounds. Good guess. But there’s a why as to the mentioning.
See, it has to do with how commercial halibut fishing works. In the departure picture above, did you notice the blue barrels? Each one of them is full of roughly a mile’s worth of line. You make a “set” of halibut gear by laying two barrels worth of line across the bottom, with an anchor at each end to keep it in place (and a set of buoyline leading up from the anchor to a couple of buoys so that you can pull it from either end).
This line however, is just line. Around two miles in length, but there are no hooks on it. Those you attach as the line goes over the side.
Confused? I’ll explain. You let out your buoys and buoyline, and then when that’s all out you attach your anchor and toss it overboard where you want your set to start. Then you drive the boat forward, following where you want the line to rest on the bottom, and while the line spools over the side, you attach the hooks to it via metal snaps (a “hook” consists of the hook itself, the metal snap, and a length of heavy-duty twine in-between).
Sound dangerous? Well, sure. It is if you’re not careful. You don’t want those hooks snagging on something. Trust me. Especially if that something is a someone.
Anyway, there’s an ideal placement for these hooks (every thirty feet or so), so for a two-mile stretch of line you need a lot of hooks and a lot of bait. You can’t bait them as you go, so you need to prep in advance. And for this trip, we were doing four sets a day (setting three sets in the morning, then resetting the first after we’d pulled it).
So yeah, a lot of bait to chop and hooks to bait to get ready for the first day of setting. Afterwards you can usually get by with baiting hooks as they come aboard, but at first you’ve got to prep.
So prep we did. It didn’t take long. And the grey skies cleared up by the time we arrived at our anchorage, leaving me able to take a few shots of the view and the sunset. The next day, our work began.
We started at five. When you’re halibut fishing, you’ve got to start early, as the sets you make need to sit on the bottom long enough to catch some fish. I already explained how you set gear, so I won’t go into that again, but we spent two hours getting our first three sets in the water. After that, we had to switch everything over to pull (which mostly just meant moving things around) and then we were able to go have breakfast and relax until the first set had been in the water for about three hours.
Now, onto pulling. Pulling is the act of bringing the gear aboard. You go and pick one of your buoys, feed the line into a hydraulic hauler that does all the work, and then you start bringing up your set. Hook after hook.
Now, ideally, most of them will have halibut on them. But you’re bound to get a full array of other fish that are mooching off of your bait. Dogfish (miniature sharks). Rockfish (pointy little demon fish that should not be touched). Skates (part of the manta family, I believe). Grey Cod. Black Cod. Ling Cod. You toss all of those back as you’re hauling in this line bit by bit, one person managing the line, the hauler, and steering the boat while someone else handles the hooks, and a third handles any halibut brought aboard.
But do this long enough, and you’ll get a halibut. A large flatfish that is usually not happy with what’s going on (and if it knew what was coming, it’d probably be even more upset). But when you get one, you bring it up to the surface, stop the hauler, and gaff it with a tool called a gaff hook (we’re clever, I know), a large club with a hook on the end. You gaff them in the head (you don’t want to damage the meat) and then drag them aboard. Which can be easier said than done when you realize that these fish can easily weigh 100+ pounds and stretch into 200-400 pound territory. Halibut are big. Throw in that they might be extraordinarily irate and flipping all over the place and you can have quite the struggle tugging these guys aboard. If it’s a big fish, it may take two of you. Or a hoist.
Anyway, once the fish is aboard, there are a few more steps to carry out. First, you club ’em. Right in the head. With, well, a club. This stuns them so they’ll stop flipping around. Easier said than done, but you really do want to do it, as it makes the next parts easier. After they’ve been clubbed, you flip them over so that their white side is up (so blood can’t pool in the meat) and cut a vein behind their gills so that they bleed out.
Yeah, it’s a bloody job. Between that and the farm, might explain my lack of squeamishness.
Anyway, when you’re done hauling, with luck you’ll have a catch like you see in these pictures. Yes, that’s me in the yellow raingear, posing over a successful set.
Anyway, once your set is pulled, you still have to clean and ice the fish you’ve caught. Thankfully, this is actually fairly painless; halibut are like the fast-food of the ocean, you’d almost swear they were designed to be easy to harvest. Their gut cavity amounts to a very tiny part of their body, and what is in there is literally removable with three cuts of the knife.
No joke. Grab the gills, make three cuts, and it all comes out nice and neat. Then you just have to use a tool to clean out the bloodline along the back and remove the sweet meat (both rot easily) and your catch is ready to be iced.
See, you’re going to be out at sea for some time, so you need your catch to stay fresh. There are two ways to accomplish this: You can slush them, ie dropping them into a mix of ice and water that will keep them cool, or you can pack them, which means ice with no water as well as stuffing ice inside the gut cavity to keep everything cool.
Now, obviously packing is more work than slushing them, but it also keeps longer, so for the boat I worked on, we started with icing. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do it; that honor went to the other deckhand who hopped down into the hold and stuffed and stacked them one by one while the captain cleaned and I scraped (removing blood and sweet meat and then rinsing them off). Once the center hold was full, we switched to the side holds and slushing, but it still took a few days before we were at that point.
So, cleaning done, what’s next? In our case, it was reset the first set we’d pulled. As I mentioned, our goal was to do four a day, so we’d pull one, clean, reset it, and then go pull the other two. By the time we finished pulling those two, the reset one was ready for our attention again.
Rinse, recycle, repeat. Except for the day we only got a few sets in due to a mechanical, and a day where we did five sets (resetting two) to make up for it.
Now, as far as my involvement went, you can imagine this was pretty tiring. And man did I wake up sore a few times. But between traveling to two areas, we caught everything we needed in only six days (which was roughly seven tons of fish) and headed in. And with three of us, we worked fast enough that we even had evenings to watch part of a movie with and to enjoy a meal through. Not bad. One of these nights did come on our switching to a new area, but with that came a bevvy of new pictures (the extras of which will be at the bottom of this post).
Six days of tough, tiring, and sometimes painful work … but in the end, we got it all.
Of course, my job wasn’t over. We still had to deliver, which is done by hand. All those fish we caught? We needed to toss them into totes or rig the larger ones with slings so that a hoist could pull them out. We did that. Then came the cleaning, which was … thorough. The captain went above and beyond with this one, since he had us on the “clock.” I’m pretty sure we cleaned parts of that boat that hadn’t seen a brush in half a decade. Maybe more.
So yeah, that took some time. But once it was done, it was done. And I was free to head back. Took a few days to get a ticket, but once I had that … well …
I did take some shots of the scenery as I flew out, as well, which you can find below along with some other assorted shots.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed a little look at the fishing life, and the pictures!
Thanks for reading!
2 thoughts on “A 2016 Halibut Trip, With Pictures”
Wow, those fish are HUGE.
How much, if I can ask, does such a thing pay? How’d you fall into cahoots with halibut fishermen?
It pays a percentage crew-share based on the profits. The fish usually pay out a couple of bucks per pound or more.
I’m from Alaska, so I’ve been doing it since I was twelve.