Teen's huge halibut holds up to win Homer derby

Most high school athletes are happy if they get orange wedges and Gatorade after a tough game. For Preston (Idaho) junior soccer player Jackson Hobbs, 16, the Indians' loss Tuesday night to rival Blackfoot High was made more palatable by news he'd just cashed in a five-figure jackpot.

"Yeah, that brightened my mood," said Hobbs, who received a phone call from his grandfather after Tuesday's game informing him the 335-pound halibut the younger Hobbs caught last month would stand as the winner in the 2014 Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby.

"I'd been trying to follow it online, but you just never know," Hobbs said.

Hobbs had reason to be nervous. He said his grandfather, Tim, had already called a couple times before Tuesday to jokingly tell him someone had caught a bigger fish.

"He's kind of a joker," said Hobbs, who lives in Franklin, Idaho.

The derby officially ended Monday night at 9 p.m. For catching the largest halibut, Hobbs will win $10,000 plus 50 cents for each derby ticket sold, according to Jim Lavrakas with the Homer Chamber of Commerce. The exact figure won't be announced until Monday, when final ticket sales are calculated. However, Lavrakas said Hobbs' haul will likely be similar to the $21,281 taken home last year by Bellevue, Washington, angler Gene Jones.

Hobbs' big fish had to withstand a big challenge when another whopper was brought in just three days before the derby's end. Luckily for the teen, Randall Chadwick's barn door weighed 301 pounds – a monster flatfish to be sure, but still 34 pounds short of Hobbs' derby winner.

"That was a scare, but I knew 335 would be tough to beat," Lavrakas said Tuesday from Homer.

Although no official records are kept of angler ages, Lavrakas said he believes Hobbs is the youngest winner in the history of the derby that began in 1986.

"Someone would have come forward by now," he said. "We believe he is the youngest."

Hobbs caught the winning fish Aug. 19 while fishing aboard the Venturess, captained by Travis Larson of Alaska Premier Sportfishing. Larson said he took the fishing party about 60 miles out of Homer, where they were fishing in the Gulf of Alaska, south of the Barren Islands. Larson said the party was actually targeting lingcod when Hobbs' halibut hit a jig fished in about 100 feet of water.

"We had been catching nice halibut out of that spot, so we knew there were some big fish there," Larson said.

Hobbs said it took about a half hour to land the fish. He said he was taken aback by the monster fish's bulk when it emerged from the deep.

"When it hit the surface I was shocked," he said.

Hobbs was in Alaska fishing thanks to a gift from his grandfather, an avid angler who paid for the youngster's trip in recognition of Jackson's recent Eagle Scout award. It's something the elder Hobbs has now done for eight of his grandsons.

"It's something I do when any of them gets their Eagle," Tim Hobbs said Tuesday from his home in Franklin, Idaho. "They're good kids."

The boat's skipper said Jackson was all smiles after boating the big halibut, but the biggest smile aboard the Venturess was on Tim Hobbs' face.

"I think grandpa was more excited than he was," Larson said.

Larson said he knew the halibut had a chance to overtake the 277-pound fish that was leading the derby, but he also knew he had to get back to Homer by the 9 p.m. weigh-in deadline.

"We had to pretty much book it back right then," he said.

Larson said he arrived at the harbor with about an hour to spare.

Although Hobbs' big catch was the highlight of the trip, it wasn't the only memorable moment. The teen said weather on the trip was flat calm -- "it was like a lake," he said -- and included a visit from a big pod of humpback whales.

"There's whales just jumping all around us," he said. "That was pretty cool."

Hobbs said he plans to invest the money from his derby victory in the stock market and use it to help defray the cost of a mission he plans to take for the Mormon church after graduating high school.

"And maybe a few other things," he admitted.

Hobbs noted that he nearly missed out on the big payday. While his grandfather said he always makes a point of buying a $10 derby ticket, Jackson briefly considered holding onto his cash.

"I originally wasn't going to buy one, but I figured I better try my luck," he said.

Hobbs said Tuesday the enormity of his big fish story hasn't yet sunk in.

"It's all just still kinda hitting me."

Contact Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.