THE AREA WHERE ICY STRAIT MEETS GLACIER BAY IS THE GULF OF ALASKA’S BEST BET FOR TROPHY HALIBUT.
State stats show it can be ground zero for highest average fish weight.
by Andy Martin
For years, Ron Goode had traveled from one end of Alaska to the other in search of a barn door halibut.
He’d come close off of Kodiak, and near Ketchikan, but he was still looking for his first trophy-size fish. Then, in the frigid waters of Icy Strait, Goode finally hit pay dirt. The 78-yearold Napa, Calif., man was fishing a whole king salmon head near the mouth of Glacier Bay when he felt the massive tug he’d been waiting for.
Goode’s stiff halibut rod doubled over as a massive fish began peeling line from his oversized Penn reel. For 45 minutes, he went back and forth with the giant fish.
It took nearly half an hour just to get it off of the bottom, and another 15 minutes to get the beast close to the boat. As he and the fish were near exhaustion, the giant silhouette of the halibut appeared below the surface. A few cranks later and the halibut’s basketball-size mouth came into view, with the 20/0 Eagle Claw circle hook latched into its jaw. Goode and his buddies could barely believe it. The fish was at least 6 feet long.
They’d never seen a halibut that size. It was twice as big as anything they’d ever caught.
With a quick jab of the harpoon and a single shot from a .410 shotgun, Goode’s first 200-plus-pound halibut was now subdued. The giant fish measured 76 inches, and weighed 235 pounds.
Goode joined the barn door club in what is arguably Alaska’s most fertile trophy halibut grounds, the section of the Inside Passage between Elfin Cove and Gustavus. In most Alaskan ports, a 200-pluspound halibut would draw quite a crowd as it is hoisted onto the scale back at the docks. A fish that big would contend for first place in the Seward halibut derby. It would be one of the biggest fish of the season in both Homer and Ninilchik.
But along the northwest end of the Inside Passage, a 200-pounder, while a fish of a lifetime for many anglers and one that most others can only dream about, barely turns heads. Individual charter captains catch dozens of 200- and 300-pound fish each season in Gustavus and Glacier Bay.
A few 400-plus-pounders are landed every year. Fish pushing 500 pounds have been measured and released. No other area of Alaska yields as many halibut over 200 pounds for sport anglers as the fish-infested waters where Icy Strait meets Glacier Bay.
THE ‘HALIBUT HIGHWAY’
Charter boat captains and commercial longliners refer to the North Pass of Icy Strait as the “Halibut Highway.” Most of the halibut that migrate into the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay to feed on herring, candlefish, pink salmon and pollock pass through the narrow waterway between Point Carolus and Lemesurier Island.
The small fleet from Gustavus that fishes the pass each day lands more halibut over 100 pounds than charters do in any other part of Alaska, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game creel surveys. The section also has the shortest angling effort time to get a limit, and by far the largest average size of halibut kept, state stats have shown.
Two of the biggest halibut ever landed have been unloaded at the Gustavus dock. Last September, a 95-inch halibut that weighed an estimated 480 pounds was caught on a self-guided trip out of Gustavus. The year before, a 466-pound, 94-inch halibut was landed in the same area. Both would have contended for a new world record, but the closest IGFA certified weight station is 45 miles away in Juneau, and by the time the rod was handed off to other anglers and harpoons and shotguns were used to land them, it’s questionable whether they would have even qualified for the record.
A few halibut between 475 and 500 pounds have been brought up to boats, measured and released in recent years.
Witnesses say those fish were bigger than the 459-pound world record caught in 1996 out of Dutch Harbor.
Aside from those monster fish brought in each year, and the hundreds of fish landed between 175 and 400 pounds near Gustavus, the area is the undisputed halibut capital of Alaska when it comes to average size fish. According to ADFG stats, the average size halibut kept in Gustavus in 2010, the last year the figures are available for, is 47 pounds. That’s substantially bigger than the 15-pound average out of Homer, Seward and Sitka. The only place even close is Yakutat, where the average size is around 30 pounds. The 10-year average also shows the average size halibut kept in Gustavus and the Glacier Bay area is three times bigger than Seward, Homer, Kodiak and Ninilchik. So even with a onefish limit, anglers fishing in Gustavus are likely to come home with more fillets than anglers fishing elsewhere.
But it’s those really big fish that tend to draw anglers like Goode to the Glacier Bay area. Anglers who want a barn door have learned Gustavus is ground zero for the biggest halibut in the world.
TONS OF FOOD
The mouth of Glacier Bay is one of the largest feeding areas for humpback whales during the summer. The tons of baitfish that attract the whales also draw in the halibut.
There is so much food that fish swimming along the Halibut Highway often spend the entire summer in the small area near the North Pass to fatten up on the herring, candlefish, pink salmon and other abundant food. Some halibut will continue on the Halibut Highway toward Juneau, Hoonah, Skagway and other Inside Passage harbors, but most stay where the food is. After all, it takes a lot of herring or small salmon to keep up with the appetite 300- or 400-pound fish, and the strong currents colliding at the mouth of Glacier Bay and the North Pass trap untold tons of feed.
From May through September, the halibut fishing is wide open. It’s not uncommon for an angler to release a dozen fish before settling on the halibut he or she wants to keep. Sometimes it’s that 200-pound barn door. Often it’s a 30- to 40-pounder, considered to be the best eating size.
While anglers aboard charters in other Alaska communities may sort through half a dozen small fish just to catch a 15-pounder, anglers in Gustavus are known to release 100-pounders so they can get that perfect 45-pound fish with prime fillets.
CALM, SHALLOW-WATER FISHING
Most anglers who fish near Glacier Bay have fished somewhere else in Alaska
A large halibut caught in the area, including first. After all, many anglers can’t even when a big fish hits, it can take the bait and run without feeling resistance. Using leverdrag reels, the tension is increased as the fish makes off with the bait.
Fighting belts are needed to give anglers a chance to land the giant fish.
Gustavus, population 460 as of 2011, is the smallest community in Alaska with jet service from Alaska Airlines. The town is 45 miles to the west of Juneau. The afternoon flight from Seattle to Juneau continues to Gustavus each day during the summer.
Smaller prop planes also make dozens of flights a day between Gustavus and Juneau. There also is ferry service. Most anglers come for a five-day trip and stay at a lodge, although some open charter seats may be available.
Alaskan Anglers Inn (alaskasportfish.net) is the largest fishing lodge in town, with six boats. Anglers fish four or five to a boat and once limits of halibut are caught, lingcod, king and coho salmon and rockfish are targeted.
Editor’s note: Editor’s note: The author is an Alaska fishing guide and charter boat captain who skippers out of Gustavus for Alaskan Anglers Inn. His Web site is wildriversfishing.com.