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Did harpooned Alaska halibut monster nearly kill Valdez fishermen? (+VIDEO)

Chris Knowles image

"Fish, you are going to have to die anyway. Do you have to kill me too?" -- Santiago, from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea."

Arm-deep in the mouth of a monster halibut diving toward the deeps of Valdez Arm, angler Chris Knowles thought for a moment that it might be over. He had a vision of the halibut dumping the 12-foot inflatable boat from which he was fishing, then pulling him under and leaving fishing partner Steve Hanson to flounder in the chill waters of Prince William Sound.

Only seconds earlier, Hanson had tried to pull the fish to the surface with a harpoon the men had embedded in its side. Knowles was at that point over the gunwale of the boat, screaming in pain with halibut's jaws clamped on his arm, and struggling to keep his head above water. Hanson's panicked effort to yank the monster out of the water had only served to pull the harpoon free.

"Steve’s quick jerk on the harpoon line sent him flying backwards onto the deck of this raft as it finally released," Chris recalled later. "As he flailed like a fish out of water, the fish in the water ... was as bound and determined as ever to take me with him back down. Thinking the boat was going to flip, I let go of the far side loops and relaxed. The fish opened his mouth and drifted down."

Knowles was free. He would live to fish again another day.

But the story does not end here. It sort of just begins. It is a story that smells like a giant fish tale. But Knowles, a responsible employee of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company in the community of Valdez at the end of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline about 100 miles southeast of Anchorage, and Hanson both swear it is true. Then, too, there is the video of them towing the catch home because it was too big to fit in the dingy that substituted for an unavailable charter boat.

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"'No Excuses,' that's usually our boat for getting the halibut for the year," Knowles said Monday by telephone from Valdez. The problem this year was that "No Excuses" had gone to Dutch Harbor in far western Alaska near the head of the Aleutian Islands chain.

"This year we didn't have the boat," Knowles said. "So we went out in the dinghy from here."

The dinghy, as Knowles calls it, is a 12-foot inflatable with a small outboard motor. This is not a boat for the open ocean, but good enough for the protected waters of the inner Prince William Sound. In it, Knowles and Hanson putt-putted out to angle for bottomfish, and they had luck. By the time the weather began to turn at midday on the weekend of July 7, they had three small halibut aboard and four rockfish in the fish box.

"When you go out from Valdez, in the afternoon that sea breeze comes up," Knowles said. Aware of this, the men pointed the boat toward a sheltered bight to wait for the wind to die.

Hanson "is a great guy," Knowles said. "He knows a lot, and he knew this spot had potential. That's why we stopped there."

As they waited out the weather, Knowles lowered a chunk of cod over the side of the boat.

"We'd got some cod," he said, "and we'd run out of herring. We'd used that (cod) a lot on Kodiak" Island when Knowles lived there. Using the cod was good because other cod didn't seem to feed on it. They weren't always attacking the bait, so if something hit the line it was likely to be a halibut, which was what Knowles wanted as he dropped the cod over the side of the dinghy.

"And then the game started," he said.

Halibut rodeo, saddle up

Before the bait hit bottom, something grabbed it. Knowles set the hook. An angler who has caught halibut over 200 pounds before, he knew almost instantly he was into a big fish. It was obvious. When he pulled against the creature beneath the sea, it didn't give much. It, in fact, treated the inflatable dinghy a lot like a big bobber.

"We spent the next 45 minutes being pulled around on step by what we surmised to be a whale of a fish," Knowles recalls. When he finally got the fish to the surface, he guessed its weight at about 200 pounds. Halibut do come bigger, much bigger, but for two guys in a 12-foot inflatable, a fish the size of a large man presents a bit of a challenge.

"Years of fishing commercially for these fish led me to the instant realization that the line needed to be cut and the fish released," Knowles wrote in an e-mail. "Steve was having none of that. After a brief lapse of judgment on my part and him claiming skipper-hood, I agreed to give it a go of landing this fish."

The two anglers worked out a plan. Knowles would pull the fish up to the boat, get it horizontal at the water's surface, and then move to the side to give Hanson a chance to drive home a harpoon. The plan sort of worked. Hanson slammed the harpoon into the side of the fish, but then the excitement began.

"When the harpoon hit just behind the gills, the fish went ballistic," Knowles said. "(And) the harpoon would not release from the handle. So Steve had the fish at the end of that stick while I struggled to stay afoot in the small raft. A second passed and the harpoon head released from the handle, but both of us knew the harpoon had not found its mark and was barely in."

Knowles decided it best to treat the fish as if it weren't harpooned at all. So he reeled up the slack in the fishing line still attached to the monster and began to work the halibut back to the boat once more. This time, he decided he would try to get hold of the fish at the surface. This plan, too, turned out to have some problems.

"I grabbed the leader and lifted his head out of the water," Knowles said. "He bucked viciously and the halibut rodeo was on. I didn’t quite last the needed seven seconds before the leader separated from the hook and the fish slowly dropped from sight."

For a brief moment, the two men thought it was over. They thought they were going to be left with nothing but a fish story. And they were, but not the one they expected.

The harpoon, as it turned out, was still holding. Hanson started easing the halibut back to the surface one more time. Several times, Knowles said, they got the fish close to the boat, but let it go back down to avoid putting too much pressure on the tenuously attached harpoon. They could almost feel it pulling free.

What would Archimedes do?

"It was then," he added, "that I had a 'Eureka!' moment. I would re-hook this fish ... I quickly tied on another leader setup (with) ... the biggest hook I had. This time when the fish came to the surface I reached down and eased my hand below its gills and gently pulled it up, getting ready to put the hook back in its mouth. When the fish ... felt my hand in its gills, all heck broke loose once again, and as I shoved the hook down with my other hand it opened its mouth."

Knowles' hand, still holding the hook -- not to mention most of his forearm -- went into the halibut's mouth. It promptly clamped down and dove. Knowles found himself in a life-or-death struggle with a fish as big as himself.

"Steve panicked and pulled with all his effort (on the harpoon line) to bring the fish and me back up to the surface," Knowles said. "I was now hanging overboard up to my shoulder barely able to keep my head above water."

Unfortunately, when Hanson pulled hard on the harpoon line, the harpoon finally pulled free. When it did, Hanson fell backward into the boat, leaving Knowles struggling with the fish now on the verge of rolling the boat and both anglers into the water. Recognizing the danger of going over, Knowles let go of the grab line that ran atop the gunwale of the inflatable and relaxed, hoping that would stop the fish from fighting. It did.

"The fish opened his mouth and drifted down," he said. Once more, the halibut was gone.

"Steve, now sitting in the stern looking dejected, (stated) the obvious," Knowles said: "'Now we have ourselves a fish story.' I grabbed my pole and started reeling ... My bail had been flipped and a lot of line was out. But it all went tight as that 16/0 hook that I dropped into the fish's mouth" hit home.

Fate, as it turned out, was on the side of the men, not of the fish. Once more Knowles brought his tired catch to the surface. This time, Hanson managed to drive the harpoon through it with a solid thrust. When it toggled on the bottom side of the halibut, the men knew the battle was over. All that remained was to tow the fish home. There they would discover Knowles' guess as to its weight had been close. It tipped the Valdez harbor scale at 185 pounds.

"The faces of the people on the dock ... that kind of made us smile," he added. "All the tourists out there, they had little chicken halibut from their charters, and we pull up next to them in the dinghy with this huge fish. It was quite the show. Adventure is where you find it, and we found it that day."

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com