Not every day does an angler catching a 300-pound halibut let it swim away, but last week Homer charter captain Greg Sutter did just that.
The owner of Captain Greg's Charters took six people out in his boat, the Tomahawk II, on what Sutter called a "gorgeous" sunny day in Kachemak Bay. Everyone caught a limit of two halibut, except a man named Shawn Young. Young was working his line when Sutter saw another reel move. It looked like a big bite, Sutter said, but it's often hard to tell right away.
Sutter motioned for Young to get to the other reel, but the angler didn't move fast enough. Instead, 16-year-old Brycen Lunger got there first and hooked what was on the line.
Sutter was disappointed for Young. Whatever was on the end of Lunger's line would have to be released, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations, because Lunger already had his limit.
'Big ol' cow'
What took 30 minutes to pull up was a monster fish, a "big ol' cow," as Sutter called it. He estimates it weighed about 330 pounds, the largest fish he's ever seen in 17 years of Homer fishing and 33 years of working charters. He once caught a 300-pounder and believes Lunger's fish was bigger.
Sutter let the rest of the boat take pictures and gawk over the fish, which remained in the water beside the boat. If legally landed, it would have led the summer-long Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby by a wide margin. The current leader in the race to win $10,000 for the biggest fish weighs 219 pounds.
Once released, the halibut headed for the deep water of Kachemak Bay.
On the way back to the Homer harbor, Sutter said Young told him that even if he'd caught the fish, he would have let it go.
"(Young) could have been the derby leader, but at the same time he said that he just appreciated the beauty of that huge fish," Sutter said. "What is he going to do with 160 pounds of meat? He would have let her go, too."
Less money to biggest fish
Stories like Sutter's are exactly the kind of tale Homer Halibut Derby organizers are seeking. This year, the Derby, in its 27th year, overhauled the way prizes are awarded. The huge cash payout for the largest fish has been set at $10,000 instead of a percentage of the overall ticket sales, which could net winners more than $30,000 some years. Monthly drawings for released fish and the opportunity to catch tagged fish have replaced the monthly competition for the largest fish. Anyone catching a fish more than 50 pounds can release it and enter their Derby ticket into a monthly drawing for the chance to win $1,000.
It's all in an effort to promote the conservation of monster-sized halibut -- many of which are thought to be large breeders.
As of Tuesday, only 11 people had turned in catch and release tickets since the derby began in May. Five had entered for the first month and six had entered the second. None had so far entered the July drawing.
About 6,000 derby tickets have been sold so far, according to Monte Davis, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. That's only a few hundred tickets behind the number sold last year at this time and on track to approach the overall annual ticket sales goal of 16,000.
'We're doing our part'
Davis was discouraged by the practice of previous years, when people caught fish far too small to win the big prize but kept them, hoping to nab a monthly prize that might cover the cost of the charter.
Those hefty fish -- the 80 to 100 pounders -- are considered prime breeders by some.
Whether or not releasing those fish will make an impact in halibut conservation seems unlikely. The overall catch of large halibut by sport fishermen is tiny compared to the flatfish landed in the commercial fishery. But Davis hopes the derby can change public opinion about catching big fish.
"Not sure if it will make a dent, but we feel better that we're doing our part in helping that species more than just survive," Davis said.
Part of the reason so few catch-and-release tickets have been turned in might have to do with fewer large fish in the ocean.
Many Homer charter operators agreed that catching halibut more than 100 pounds is rare these days. When the fishing is bad and someone catches a large fish, it can be difficult to convince them to release it.
"When people see a big one that's eligible (for catch and release), they want it for the freezer," said Pete Wedin of Captain Pete's Charter.
Tourists travel to Homer looking for that once-in-a-lifetime fish and they often don't want to release it.
"Many get excited, especially when (big are are not) not plentiful. I think that person wants bragging rights," said Donna Bondioli, of Captain B's Alaskan C's Charters. "You can say to them, 'your chance is really good of winning $1,000,' but some just don't want to."
Halibut are in a "weird" place right now, according to Scott Meyer, sport fish biology in Homer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Halibut just aren't growing quickly. Meyer said large fish make up a small proportion of the breeding stock. Most sexually mature fish are only 20-30 pounds. And while the larger ones produce more eggs, there are very few of those big females left, Meyer said.
While the emphasis on catch and release might not have a huge effect on the overall halibut population, Meyer thinks the Homer Halibut Derby is still right in making the change.
"I think what they did is pretty smart," he said. "It gets across the perception. It might not have a big effect, but why not do it."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com