By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
My favorite ocean captains resemble football coaches. They are full of the inspiring mangled quotes and near heart-attack enthusiasm that make fishing about catching. They can get away with saying things that can’t be said in the office because, “80 percent of the people that die in the water don’t make it back.”
It’s the authority of skill that makes everything these captains do and say a part of the salt. It’s never been reassuring to me that a charter boat captain has a degree in seafaring or psychology. What reassures me in any leader, and a captain is surely a leader, is that when they say, “Get ready,” I get ready. I don’t always know exactly what they mean, but I’m sure instructions will follow.
We were fishing for halibut and noticed a ball of bait fish attracting gulls a hundred yards off. “Better get down a salmon rod,” the captain said. There were three captains on this boat — the technical captain and boat’s owner, a river guide, which is a kind of captain depending on his grit, and the captain of a charter boat who was fishing his day off. It was the charter boat captain who suggested we get the salmon rod. Because it was a good idea and because he couldn’t stop captaining a boat despite whose boat it was, he seemed to be the captain of the captains. In my mind he was the captain.
I didn’t pay much attention as the downrigger was set up toward the back of the deck and line let down. We had been catching halibut, but it had been a slow morning. When the salmon rod went down, I went for it. I don’t remember the sequence of where my halibut rod ended up or if I handed it off. All that happened next was a fight with a fish that was nothing like yarding one up from the bottom on 80-pound test. It wasn’t a king salmon, either. Nobody had to guess and everyone knew. It was a halibut.
“He’s over here.” The river guide pointed to where the fish broke the surface 20 yards behind the boat. The halibut had run on me three times. I held the rod, just waiting for room to reel. “He’s 40 or 50,” the river guide had said when it started. “What’s your guesstimate?” At the surface, the guess changed to 50 to 60 pounds. I held the rod upright as the halibut swayed on the surface. It had been 20 minutes and my arm shook against the rod. “Don’t run,” I thought. When he let up I reeled. “Just don’t run.”
“That’s a good one. You better get a harpoon on him.” The boat’s owner headed in the cabin for the gun.
“Harpoon ’em first,” the guide shouted. “Screw the gun. There ain’t much hook on there so harpoon him.” There was never any cheerleading from these three captains. No one was a spectator. All hands were on deck. They espoused worst-case scenarios and gave second-nature orders, and even though I couldn’t hear much of what was being said at the time, I remember the nature of it.
“There ain’t much for hook on there, so keep the rod up. Get the harpoon ready. He’s probably 50 or better. Probably 60. Hooked right in the kisser. Don’t throw the handle in this time. You gotta back up. You guys ready? Here he comes. Hold your rod out to the side a little.”
The captain was closest and his voice was a more even tone. It was the voice of a pilot now, reassuring passengers of protocol for an imminent crash. “You gotta stay with it. Reel down to your flash. Now he’s gonna sway.”
“Assume the fetal position,” I thought. “Assure your oxygen mask is on before helping others.”
The other captain’s voice made its way over the sound of the motor. “He makes a jump with that thin leader, he’s gonna be gone.”
“He’s got 80-pound leader on there,” the boat owner said.
“I don’t know what’s on mine,” the guide said.
“Well, it ain’t on yours so it don’t matter.”
“Prepare for impact,” I thought.
I held the halibut and only worried that it would run again, even though it wasn’t likely. I didn’t know if I could take another run.
“Now he’s gonna sway,” the captain said. “Now let him sway back the other way.” He harpooned the fish, and relief broke through me. “Nice and easy,” the captain said.
“He’s gonna go crazy now,” the guide said. The halibut thrashed in the water and my arms felt heavy and good. All I could do was watch now. Struck dumb, I was no help.
“OK, get your gun,” the captain said.
“Uh, hold on one second,” the second captain said.
The river guide recognized the lull as I did and looked to be chewing a nail. “I’d do something but I’m hung on the bottom. My line’s hung on the bottom so I can’t do nothing. Careful with that thing now.”
A long stick was handed to the captain and a metallic boom sounded.
“Load it up again,” the captain said.
“You miss?” the guide said. “I don’t know how those things work. A regular pistol you need 3 inches of water. Gives ’em more concussion.”
“With these you just hammer down on ’em.”
The second shot seemed louder than the first and the halibut flattened and shook.
“That stunned him.”
My voice finally came back to me. The past 30 minutes I’d been struck mute and focused. Now I wanted to ask about the stick. My fishing partner asked if it was a .38. It was. The halibut was being pulled up over the edge by the captain, and he paused as the weighty fish rested on the gunnel.
“That’s probably a 60 or more, eh?” the guide guessed.
I just stared at the fish. I didn’t care if it was 50 or 60, but hoped it was 70 or more. The book said 100 by measurements, but the captain said it was about 80, and that’s what I’ll believe. As long as I wasn’t one of those 80 percent dying in the water — possibly from arm exhaustion — an 80-pounder sounded good to me.
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. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.