Common Ground: Halibut fishing for chickens — Navigating a brave new world of fish terminology

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Playing chicken with halibut fishing.

Photo courtesy of Christine Cunningham. Playing chicken with halibut fishing.

There were plenty of fish being caught, but they were all small. “Chicken halibut” is what they’re called, although the origin of the term is hardly known. The definition is “a small halibut.” And depending on whom you ask, a halibut ranging from under 10 pounds to up to 50 pounds is a “chicken.”

My first thought was that they were called chickens because they weighed about as much as a chicken, but chickens only weigh about 5 to 8 pounds. My next thought was that maybe the title was earned by the “tastes like chicken” cliché. But tuna have already appropriated the “Chicken of the Sea” title, and seafood doesn’t really taste like chicken. So why did the halibut cross the road? To prove he’s no chicken!

In order to get a better understanding of what was chickenlike about chicken halibut, I contacted the International Pacific Halibut Commission. A few days later, a lengthy and well-researched response was provided by biologist Steve Kaimmer via email. According to Kaimmer, the term is as old as the Pacific halibut fishery and was in use in the Atlantic halibut fishery, as well. He had found the phrase in recipes and scientific literature back as far as the 1890s. A governmental report from 1900 states that, in one area of the Atlantic, halibut “are so abundant that only the smaller or ‘chicken’ halibut are taken.” And the popular Fannie Farmer and Mrs. Owen’s cookbooks from the turn of the century both reference chicken halibut as being from 2 to 10 pounds in size.

The commission published a technical report in 1970 stating, “Halibut between 5 and 10 pounds are designated in the market as ‘chickens,’ those 10 to 60 pounds as ‘mediums’ and over 60 as ‘large.’ The halibut in the weight group over 80 pounds are sometimes known as ‘whales.’ Weights are head off, dressed or eviscerated.” While it was interesting to learn the early marketing description of small halibut and confirm the more subjective use today, my real interest was “why” chicken?

Kaimmer provided the two obvious thoughts — the small size (about the size of a chicken), or to the young age of the smaller halibut (“chicks”). He added that, regardless of which of these (or another) beginnings are correct, it was clear that adding the adjective “chicken” in front of the word “halibut” was an embellishment meant to indicate a better quality of product. He cited sources that proved, “Chicken halibut … are much sought after by epicures, and bring a high price in the New York and Boston markets,” and left me with the menu of a St. Valentine’s Dinner held by the Woman’s Press Club at the Hotel Windsor on Fifth Avenue, New York, in 1897, where chicken halibut appears as the lead course in a many-course dining experience — “Chicken Halibut, Diplomate.”

As I pondered the definition of chicken halibut, my line began to pull. Just such a halibut was eating my bait. I waited a moment before reeling. This was not a big fish. This was not a “shooter,” as they call the ones so big you’ve got to shoot them (at least that makes sense!) This was not a “barn door” halibut, a term that is, at least, explainable to anyone who has hooked onto an actual barn door 300 feet under water. This was a head-shaking little chicken. It was a cockerel. It was a featherless fish. It was a halibut weighing about 20 pounds. Only it wasn’t. It was a 10-pound halibut. I frowned when I was told that it was not a “keeper” and watched the captain throw my little flat fish back into the ocean.

“There’s a lot of chickens out there,” the captain said. “And maybe some turkeys.”

This is getting ridiculous, I thought. Before we even have a clue where the term chicken halibut comes from, we’ve got turkey halibut. I shook my head.

“Mine was a quail,” I said.

“More like a Hungarian partridge,” someone shouted from across the deck.

“I’m going to catch an ostrich,” someone else said.

An ostrich isn’t even a game bird, I thought. Not in Alaska, anyways. What’s happening to the sense and sensibility of our fishing crew? I looked over at my friend who hadn’t said much all morning. She was fighting seasickness without anyone being able to tell. She was one tough Alaska girl, and she’d been paying attention.

“I’m going to catch a pterodactyl,” she said. The pterodactyl is one of the largest flying lizards of the dinosaur era, larger than any flying birds alive today, attaining a wingspan of up to 30 feet. To make her halibut claim more credible than any of the others, dinosaur meat is actually proven to have tasted more like chicken.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at christineemal@hotmail.com. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or “like” Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.

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2 Comments

Filed under fishing, humor

2 responses to “Common Ground: Halibut fishing for chickens — Navigating a brave new world of fish terminology

  1. Louis Cusack

    As always the witty and charmimg Christine delivers again!

  2. Nathaniel Emery

    We were on a charter out of Seward two weeks ago and Capt. Nik of Crackerjack Sportfishing speculated that the term “chicken” may have come from the type of bite that the small halibut provide; a peck peck peck instead of engulfing the whole bait like a “shooter” would. We had a great day on the water and thankful to have a deck full of personable clients and the captain.

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