When Colorado angler Aaron Buscher hooked something in about 100 feet of water while jigging Monday morning on a halibut charter south of Montague Island near Seward, it was anyone's guess what might be on the other end.
Buscher would pump, reel, pump, reel and gain maybe 15 feet of line. Then the fish would make a short run and those 15 feet would be gone. The stalemate repeated time and again.
After about 40 minutes of muscle-draining toil, Buscher's denizen of the deep finally appeared off the stern of the Crackerjack Voyager. The sight took Buscher's breath away.
"It was bigger than anything I've ever dreamed of," said Buscher, a 34-year-old on his first trip to Alaska. "I didn't even know they got that big. Everybody was floored when that thing hit the surface.
"It was like a submarine coming up."
A small sub, perhaps, but one heck of a halibut. By the time the 7-foot-4-inch fish tipped the scales at 337 pounds on the Seward docks, Crackerjack captain Andy Mezirow had repeated more than once, "It's good to be lucky."
Lucky to have the biggest sport-caught halibut in Alaska this year.
Lucky to have a seemingly insurmountable lead for the $10,000 first place prize in the Seward Halibut Derby.
Lucky to have the biggest fish a Crackerjack angler has ever boated in 15 years of operating -- and perhaps Seward's biggest ever.
Lucky that the 50-pound test line held with a fish that large.
But before anyone could start toasting their luck, there was the small matter of getting the exhausted halibut aboard.
"Nobody knew what to do," Buscher said. "Everyone seemed to be grabbing gaffs."
After the fish was gaffed and shot to keep it from flopping, two men tried to pull it onto the stern of the 46-foot Crackerjack Voyager.
"Two guys couldn't even get it onto the platform," Buscher said.
Then three tried. Same result.
"Finally, we had four pretty big guys and we barely got in through the back of the boat," Buscher said. "We pulled with every ounce of muscle we had. I feel like I dislocated my shoulders."
For halibut anglers, that's a feeling to savor.
"We've been doing this for a long time," Mezirow said. "Everybody was very boisterous and ecstatic. Aaron hugged the fish as soon as he got it in the boat. You know, there are really not many halibut in the ocean that big, and it's nice when a fisherman realizes it's a once-in-a-lifetime fish."
Especially for Buscher, a Conifer, Colo., resident who previously lived in Illinois. He loves to fish, but his Lower 48 quarry has been bass, walleye and trout.
"I don't ever expect to see a fish this big again," he said.
But he will be seeing halibut filets for quite some time. The fat flatfish was 14-to-16-inches thick, Mezirow said, accounting for the weight.
Mezirow said he boated a 91-incher -- three inches longer than Buscher's -- a few years back, but it weighed 318 pounds.
After endless picture-taking on the dock, Buscher had his fish fileted, and he's packing up 88 pounds per side and 5 pounds for each halibut cheek back to Colorado. The tail will be mounted.
"I have to share the wealth when I get back home," he said.
Buscher, who works as a directional driller for Baker Hughes in North Dakota, said his first trip to Alaska won't be his last.
"I'll be back, guaranteed," he said. "My passion has always been halibut. It's my favorite eating fish and I just like catching a big fish."
If he returns next year, a free fishing trip awaits. His day prize for bringing in the biggest fish on Monday is a seat aboard a 2011 Seward charter.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
Big halibut stats
Weight: 337 pounds
Length: 88 inches
Line: 50-pound-test Berkley tracer braid with 30 feet of 60-pound-test Stren fluorocarbon monofiliment
Bait: A 17-ounce Youngquist lead head jig with a white 8-inch Berkley Power Bait Grub lure
Reel: Penn Torque 10
Rod: A 7-foot Penn Torque 20-40 pound rod
Boat: 46-foot Crackerjack Voyager with 800-horsepower diesel
Where: South of Montague Island
Depth: 100 feet
Winner’s Derby Share: $10,000
Second-place Derby Fish: 203-pounder by Jeff Holsinger of Sheridan, Wyo