Haawa for all the fish caught this week.
We were anchored in 27 metres (90 feet) of water. To the south we could see surf breaking along North Beach. To the north we could see the faint profile of Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. I was guiding a couple from Ontario who had travelled to Haida Gwaii to fish.
On this day we were enjoying the gentle swell as our baited hooks were set at the bottom. Halibut fishing had been slow. Over two hours we had changed locations three times.
The daily limit for halibut is one fish apiece, and so we had released some smaller fish with expecting to eventually hook something bigger.
A boat approached and throttled down a couple hundred metres away. Looking through the binos I could see my Haida friend laying a longline with dozens of baited hooks. “Maybe it’s time to change spots,” I said. My guests picked up their rods and began reeling in when the woman suddenly said, “Um, I think there’s something there.” Her rod was arched heavily into the water. A few violent jerks on the rod told me that she wasn’t hooked on the bottom and that this was probably a keeper.
Halibut lack the dynamic runs and leaps of a salmon. Fighting a large hali is like a tug of war, and bringing one up from the deep can be a slow and tiresome endeavour. In time, she managed to pull the fish about half way up and then it summoned the strength to run back down to the bottom.
“It’s a good one,” I said as I watched her slowly lift the fish off the bottom again. The battle continued for several minutes as I stood by with gaff in hand. In time I could see the fish deep below the boat with its gaping mouth and huge thrashing body. A sudden and unfortunate realization hit me. “I don’t know if we can keep this one,” I said. “Excuse me?” she asked.
“It might be too big.”
I realized I hadn’t yet mentioned the maximum size limit for halibut.
On that day I learned when it’s not the best time to explain about the rules on large halibut. In order to protect the large female breeding stocks, DFO implemented a maximum size for sport-caught halibut — any over 133 cm long must be released. She continued reeling as I told her the rule.
“Oh my god, look at the size of that thing!” she screamed. “Gaff it! Gaff it!”
Instead I put the gaff down and went for my measuring tape. I knew from experience that this fish was probably over 30 kg (70 pounds) and most likely over the legal length. Leaning over the side, I stretched out the tape in a futile effort to measure the flailing fish. The halibut thrashed its massive body sending a spray of water into my face.
I jumped up drenched and watched the halibut swim back down with my measuring tape following it. By now the woman’s arm was burning and she was a little bit angry with me.
“Now what do we do?”
I told her to keep fighting it while I got on the radio and called my friend in the nearby boat to ask for a measuring tape. He laughed at me and I realized my Haida friend was not bound by the same rules as me. He came over anyhow and tied alongside. “You got a good one eh?” he said to the woman. “Let’s see what you got.”
The fish appeared through the depths and again came up to the surface. He quickly grabbed the gaff and in one smooth motion, hooked the fish in the head and dragged it over the gunwale. “Get back!” I yelled as the massive flatfish slid across the deck thrashing its powerful tail and throwing blood and slime in all directions. My friend grabbed a wooden bat and swung at the fish’s head connecting with several violent blows.
The halibut lay quivering on the deck. It was big — close to 40 kg (90 pounds) and well over 133 cm. The stunned couple stared in awe. “We can’t keep that,” I said with trepidation.
“That’s too bad,” said my friend. He picked the gaff back up, hooked the fish in the head, and dragged it into his boat.
“Haawa!” he called as he untied and went to set another longline.