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Landing sizable halibut fishing Cook Inlet from a 12-foot kayak

Kevin Klott
Avid kayak fisherman Rudy Tsukada of Anchorage took part in the 21st annual Homer Winter King Tournament this March. Courtesy Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament

The 57-pound halibut Rudy Tsukada caught last month in the Cook Inlet was no small feat. Sure, it wasn’t a barn door by Alaska halibut standards, but then Tsukada isn’t your standard Alaska fisherman, either.

The 48-year-old from Anchorage caught the flatfish from a kayak.

Instead of strapping on chest waders or hip boots like many anglers, Tsukada’s routine involves squeezing into a dry suit before heading out on his 12-foot Hobie Outback — a pedal-powered, sit-on-top kayak that provides more stability than a typical sea kayak. It’s rigged with a rod holder, a downrigger and even a fish finder. The geometry of the kayak allows anglers to catch a big one without getting dumped.

“These kayaks aren’t like the sit-inside kayaks,” Tsukada said. “These are ultra-stable. I catch fish with my feet hanging over the side.”

On June 20, the day he caught the 57-pounder, Tsukada kept his feet planted firmly in the front of the kayak.

All hell broke loose

The fish surfaced without much fuss. But all hell broke loose after he speared it with a harpoon, which was attached to a rope and a buoy the size of a basketball. The halibut thrashed so hard it snapped the 20-pound test rigged to his rod. The only thing connected to the fish was the buoy and the line.

Usually that’s not a problem. Tsukada just pedals the kayak toward the buoy and retrieves it. But the problem was the buoy disappeared. He looked to his left and to his right. There was no sign of it.

He wondered if the halibut had either pulled the buoy down deep and swam away for good — or if the rope had wrapped around the kayak’s rudder. The latter would have been bad news.

“Fishing on a (motorized) boat, any reasonably-sized halibut would be harpooned and cleated off  (tying a cleat hitch with the rope around the boat’s metal cleat) the line,” Tsukada explained. “The boat acts like a buoy. You dare not attach anything onto a kayak.”

All of a sudden, he saw the halibut’s white underside emerging from below. Then, the buoy popped out from beneath the kayak. Tsukada grabbed the line, strapped the trophy-sized halibut to the back of his kayak and headed home.

An ah-ha moment

At home, the halibut stretched Tsukada’s measuring tape to 49.5 inches, which calculates to 57 pounds on a weight chart. The maximum amount of weight he can strap to the kayak is 60-70 pounds. Anything bigger and he would just tow it. Sometimes the idea of dragging a fish behind a kayak makes him nervous.

“I have to admit, I have some fear of orcas,” he said.

That’s about the only thing about fishing from a kayak that scares Tsukada. As long as the kayaker is outfitted with proper gear, it’s an extremely safe — and healthy — way to fish for salmon, halibut and rockfish, he said.

“I’m not some adventurist risk taker,” he said. “I’m a desk jockey and this is the only athletic thing I can do. Trolling for 10 hours a day is like going for a walk.

“It’s a safe, flexible way to access fish.”

Tsukada, who grew up in Kenai, started fishing from a kayak while living in Seattle. A friend let him borrow a $200 Kmart special.

“I went to a sheltered bay and hammered rockfish and lingcod,” Tsukada said. “I had a powerboat sitting at the marina, but it was so much easier to throw this 50-pound kayak on top of the car, launch it wherever I wanted and catch fish.

The ability to land decent lingcod and rockfish off this super flexible, mobile platform — and be safe doing it — was his ah-ha moment.

These days, Tsukada still owns the powerboat. It’s a 150-horsepower, 21-foot center console that’s been sitting in his friend’s yard ever since he bought the Hobie Outback five years ago.

“I haven’t even looked at it,” he said.

The Hobie, he discovered, is much more friendly to his busy work schedule and his wallet. When the weather is good, he can load it to the top of his two-door Civic and fish from a sea-worthy vessel in a matter of hours.

“A Civic going to Whiskey Gulch and back cost me $60 (in gas),” he said. “You trailer a boat and it’s twice that, at least. Plus you’ve got the launch fees, then a fuel bill on the water that is easily a couple hundred bucks on a big boat.

“The flexibility is tremendous.”

Year-round fishing

Tsukada learned the hard way that wearing a dry suit is the only way to fish safely from a kayak. One day while fishing in chest waders, he accidentally flipped his kayak near Whittier harbor. His personal flotation device kept him afloat, but the weight of the water was too heavy for him to lift himself back onto his kayak.

“I bought myself a dry suit right away,” he said. “The common misconception is you buy a dry suit to stay warm. It keeps you dry. Keeping the water weight off you is more important than keeping you warm.

“I’d almost say that a dry suit is mandatory.”

Tsukada doesn’t just fish during the summer. He targets feeder kings from September to December just off Homer Spit. Then in March, he kicks off the season by participating in the Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament.

“I fish five times more than I ever did with a powerboat,” he said. “It’s amazing to me that more people don’t do this.”

Here's how fishing is shaping up this weekend. 

Homer area

Kachemak Bay continues to produce good-sized halibut for anglers participating in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby — and for those who aren’t.

In the last two weeks at least three halibut weighing more than 200 pounds, and one tagged fish worth $1,000, were brought to the derby booth, but none of the anglers had derby tickets.

Anchorage’s Jim Morgan had his derby ticket when he caught a tagged halibut aboard the Sea Bea on July 3. The fish was worth $1,000. Morgan took third place last year in the Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament.

Michigan’s Molly Malthby leads the derby with the 196.8 halibut she caught June 6. The derby ends Sept. 15.

Kenai River/Upper Kenai 

The bag and possession limit for Kasilof River sockeye salmon was increased to six per day/12 in possession. The 24-hour Kasilof personal use fishery is now open and runs until midnight, Aug. 8. Dipnetters are not allowed to keep king salmon, Dolly Varden or steelhead.

Alaska’s biggest fishery, the Kenai River personal use season opens July 10 at 6 a.m. More than 86,000 reds were counted swimming past the sonar at Mile 19 of the Kenai River as of Tuesday, putting the total number upriver at 126,726.

Resurrection Bay

Anglers are reporting successful silver salmon fishing near Pony Cove. A lot humpies are in the mix, but the cohos are there. If you’re going out, the area around Caines Head is a popular destination, as are Fox and Hive islands.

Prince William Sound

Halibut fishing out of Whittier is picking up. Try Blackstone Bay or Passage Canal. Use small jigs near rocky reefs to catch rockfish, which have been productive near Montague Strait, Hinchinbrook Island and the north end of Knight Island.

Mat-Su

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game re-opened the Little Susitna River to king salmon fishing July 4 and says it will remain open until the season closes at 11 p.m. Sunday July 13. Anglers are still catching king salmon at the Eklutna Tailrace. Some have even reported seeing cohos and sockeyes caught there as well.

Anchorage

Earlier this week, Fish and Game posted an emergency order to close Ship Creek to all sport fishing below the Chugach Power Plant Dam in order to collect enough brood stock for its king salmon stocking program. The creek will re-open July 14 for the coho fishery.

The good news is Bird Creek opens Monday too. Approximately 100,000 silver salmon smolt from the William Jack Hernandez Hatchery were released into Bird Creek last spring, which means it could have a strong return.

Kevin Klott is an Anchorage freelance writer and avid angler.