What appears to be the largest halibut caught in the Pacific Ocean in at least a decade has been landed in the Alaska Panhandle port of Gustavus, but it will not be a world record.
Seventy-seven-year-old Jack McGuire from Anaheim, Calif., lost the opportunity for the sport-fishing record book when his 482-pound halibut was shot and then harpooned before it was pulled aboard the charter boat Icy Rose.
International Game Fish Association rules ban the use of any tools other than a net or gaffe for landing fish, and the Florida-based IGFA maintains the international record book.
Unfortunately, it is dangerous to pull monster halibut aboard a small boat. Their thrashing has been known to injure people and even sink watercraft. McGuire was fishing aboard a 28-foot boat -- commonly called a "six-pack charter" -- when he hooked the fish near the mouth of Glacier Bay, just west of Gustavus, on Thursday.
"I think if (Capt. Rye Phillips) had known how big it was, he wouldn't have shot it," said Andy Martin, manager of Deep Blue Charters and Alaskan Anglers Inn in Gustavus. He is Phillips' employer.
Both businesses are based in the community of about 450 people that bills itself as the gateway to the 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve to the north.
Home of monster halibut
Icy Strait, just off the mouth of the bay, and Cross Sound, which is west of the entrance to the Gulf of Alaska, have been producing a lot of monster halibut in recent years.
Back in July of 2011, two halibut estimated at 466 pounds each were landed in both Gustavus and Pelican, a once-bustling fishing village just to the south now trying to survive on the tourism business. Neither community had a scale big enough to weigh those halibut at the time, so their weights were estimated based on a scale linking weight to length.
The halibut estimated at 466 pounds each measured 94 inches. McGuire's 482-pound halibut measured 95 inches. Such monsters aren't exactly common, but they aren't exactly rare in the Gustavus area either.
"I saw 92-incher three years ago and lost a fish in the upper 80s last year," Martin said. Others guides have released several fish over 80 inches at the request of clients in recent years, he said. And so far this year, Martin reported, Anglers Inn fishermen have kept three halibut more than 76 inches. The length-to-weight scale puts those fish in the 250-pound range.
Gustavus is a community that can only be reached by boat or airplane from the Alaska state capital of Juneau, about 45 miles to the east.
"We are so isolated," Martin said, but that has proved to be a bit of a blessing. It is rare, he said, to see a commercial halibut longliner setting gear off the mouth of Glacier Bay. Longliners put down hundreds of hooks to catch halibut and can locally deplete stocks.
Luckily for anglers, Martin said, "it's a long way to come to drop a longline here."
That's made for better sport fishing for big halibut. On average, Gustavus lands the biggest fish in the state. Last year, Angler Inn owner Steve Brown reported, his guests kept more than 50 halibut exceeding 68 inches in length, more than two dozen of which weighed at least 200 pounds. Five went over 300 pounds.
A 'giant' halibut
Because of this reputation for big fish, Gustavus has a loyal following of regular anglers even though the cost of travel and lodging for a week are in the thousands of dollars. McGuire was on his third annual trip to Gustavus.
"This was definitely the fish of a lifetime for him," Martin said.
About all that could have made it better was a world record, but that was probably out of the question even before the fish was shot. The tiring 77-year-old angler had to ask for help pulling the fish up during the half-hour battle, and getting help in fighting fish is also an IGFA no-no.
Phillips told Martin that he knew as soon as he saw the halibut in the clear water beneath his boat that McGuire had hooked a very special fish.
"It was giant," Phillips told Martin. "We knew right away it was over 76 inches, but we didn't know it was going to be bigger than the world record."
The world record is a 459-pound halibut caught in 1996 near Dutch Harbor in far Western Alaska by Jack Tragis of Fairbanks. It was caught at a time when Alaska halibut stocks were near their peak. Stocks have since fallen, and anglers in the Southeast part of the state now are restricted by fishing rules that allow them to keep only one fish a day over 76 inches, up from 68 last year, or one fish under 44 inches.
The regulations are intended more to protect commercial halibut fishing operations than for conservation, and they make life more difficult for charter-boat operators, who must now judge the size of fish before giving clients the choice of keeping them.
In this case, the huge size of the halibut made the call easy for Phillips, and since he'd already helped McGuire out by hand-lining the fish part of the way to the surface, the decision to shoot it wasn't difficult.
Phillips killed it with a blast from a .410 shotgun to the brain and then harpooned it. With the fish secure, Martin said, Phillips got a couple shark hooks attached to lines in its mouth and with the help of two other clients on the Icy Rose managed to pull the fish in over the stern.
"The hardest part was horsing it up at the dock back in Gustavus," Martin said. That required the effort of nearly all the charter boat skippers to be found in town.
For those interested in catching their own monster, Martin reported this hook up came in about 130 feet of water near Lemesurier Island. McGuire was fishing a chunk of octopus just off the bottom on a circle hook at the end of some 100-pound-test line with a 240-pound-test leader.
The fish yielded about 200 pounds of boneless, skinless fillets.
The largest halibut ever caught off Alaska had an estimated weight of 533 pounds. It was landed near St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea in 2003 by a Seattle-based longliner, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported at the time.
A halibut only slightly smaller was landed by an angler using a rod and reel in the Atlantic Ocean off Norway last year. This fish measured 102 inches in length and weighed 515 pounds, the Huffington Post reported. It is believed to be the largest halibut ever caught on rod and reel.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com