On a day she didn't expect to be fishing, diminutive Valdez angler Frieda Wiley landed a gut-busting 374-pound halibut Sunday, a fish nearly three times her size and the biggest flatfish ever weighed in the 27-year history of the Valdez Fish derbies.
The behemoth was caught aboard the Dan Orion, captained by Wiley's husband, Dan Wiley. It relegated Tim Stadtmiller of Fairbanks to second place in the tournament, some 108 pounds in arrears. By comparison, a 240-pound flatfish leads Southcentral's other big summer-long tournament, the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby.
Wiley's fish appears to be the largest halibut caught in Alaska this season. It measured 91 inches, or 7 feet and 7 inches.
By comparison, Frieda is a 5-foot-5, 140-pound angler.
When a client scheduled to fish Sunday aboard the Dan Orion canceled, Frieda, a veteran Valdez angler, decided to jump aboard her husband's boat, a charter he's operated for some 20 years.
Once on the water, what felt like a nibble left Frieda thinking she might have a rockfish. "We were wondering if it was a halibut until the head started shaking. They have a distinct head shake."
Some 45 minutes of hard-core reeling commenced, gaining some line then losing it to a run, gaining some, then losing more. Frieda planted her rod in a rod-holder to avoid even more arm fatigue, and the only help she got was she had to pick up the pole and move it elsewhere on the boat to avoid tangles.
"My back started spazzing out a little bit and my arm was starting to shake," she said.
"When I got it to surface, I kept tension on line, but kept (the halibut) below the water so it wouldn't go crazy."
That's always a risk. Frieda said her husband, who's helped three other anglers land 300-pound-plus halibut on his charter boat, was masterful.
"It was just this massive thing, kind of scary actually," she said of the fish. "They're powerful, and when they start to flop it can damage stuff and hurt people."
She escaped with sore arms and a bruise this time, better than a decade ago when she hooked another huge flatfish.
That one was even bigger, she believes. It took 2 1/2 hours before it finally broke loose. "It just dragged me around the boat. For 2 1/2 days, I couldn't get out of bed I was so sore."
Big and strong
Dan Wiley and other anglers somehow managed to haul this 374-pounder aboard and barely squeeze it into the boat's fish hold. Frieda and another angler had to stand on the hatch to keep the squirming fish from dislodging the door.
"They're strong. A few years ago, we got a 186-pounder and I saw the power of that. We have a door on back of the boat we can open to pull a halibut in. Its tail hit the back door and broke the weld and knocked the door off."
"You may hook a big fish, but landing it is a whole different story," Frieda said, who said four people helped pull her fish aboard — and onto the dock once back in Valdez. "I credit David. He really knew what to do. His experience really showed."
As the largest fish in the history of the Valdez derby, Frieda's fish will be hard to beat — even in Valdez where eight of the 26 winners have exceeded 300 pounds. However, three of the last four have weighed less than that benchmark, including a comparatively dinky 196-pound winner in 2015.
Frieda said she has more than 200 pounds of halibut filets in her freezer, and even amid the thrill of catching such a huge fish, her anticipation of angling for another species is growing.
Saturday is the Valdez Women's Silver Salmon Derby, one of the largest women-only fishing tournaments in the country, and silvers are Frieda's favorite fish. Her anticipation has been stoked by seeing "large silvers jumping all over the place out in the Gulf (of Alaska)."
Could the Valdez woman become the first angler to capture both the halibut and silver derbies in the same year?