Story last updated at 12:38 p.m. Thursday, June 6, 2002

Halibut means business in Homer
By R.J. Kelly
Managing Editor

photo: outdoors
  Photo by R. J. Kelly, Homer News
Veteran deckhand David Bayes of Homer shows summer trainee Joe Robertson from Big Sandy, Montana, the art of filleting a halibut aboard the Jackpot. Another Homer deckhand, Paul Bacher, no shown, rounds out the Jackpot deck crew.  
They don't hit fast and hard like a trout on a fly, or run with the strength of a salmon, but halibut are the bread and butter of the Homer tourism industry.

Thousands of anglers come from all over the world each season, many seeking a prize winner in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby sponsored by the chamber of commerce.

Through the month of June one relatively small, 30-inch halibut sponsored by the Homer News could mean $10,000 if it's hauled up from the depths by a lucky angler. Late last month, Art Morris, skipper of the Jackpot, a 55-foot boat operated by Rainbow Tours, put the identifying tag on the fish during a morning of fishing off Nanwalek, 23 miles from the Homer Spit.

The bonus fish is but one of 105 tagged halibut that could mean prizes of 10,000, $5,000, $1,000 or $500 if caught during designated periods. Many of the bonus fish are sponsored by area businesses.

But prizes weren't much on the minds of the 11 people fishing dropping their herring-baited hooks 180 feet down from the Jackpot that day.

For cameraman Craig Baumann and reporter Joy Mapaye of KTUU-TV Channel 2 in Anchorage and a representative of the Homer News, the people were the lure. For the other eight visiting anglers aboard, it was a day to glory in the clear air of Kachemak Bay, vacation in Alaska and hopefully send a supply of freshly frozen halibut filets back to their homes Outside.

"I love halibut," said Cynthia Copp as she held her 14-month-old son Hunter and watched her 4-year-old daughter Brittney as the boat hummed through the waters toward the planned fishing grounds above South Ledge.

Once the anchor dropped an hour or so later, veteran deckhands David Bayes and Paul Bacher of Homer, and new trainee Joe Robertson, from Big Sandy, Montana, explained the basics of halibut fishing and rigged up their clients' lines. Bayes and Robertson are college students at the University of Montana, while Bacher goes to University of Alaska Fairbanks.

A resident of a suburb of Honolulu, Hawaii, Copp and her husband Daniel have been coming to Alaska the last three seasons to stock up, but this time they decided to try Homer instead of Seward.

For Leonard Zeedar of Anchorage and Kodiak, and Robert Wagner of Greenbay, Wis., the half-day charter was a spur-of- the-moment side trip.

Danny Nelson of Kansas City, Mo. and his son Cody, 10, had been at Seward over the past week, as well as traveling by rented motor home with his wife and her mother to Denali National Park and the Fairbanks area before motoring down to Homer. Father and son decided to take a half-day halibut charter while the rest of the family stayed at a Spit campsite.

"I wish I'd done this instead of whale-watching in Seward," Nelson said about five hours later after he and Cody each kept two hefty fish apiece and caught several more. The American Airlines employee said he's been taking advantage of his low-cost travel benefits from the airline to vacation in Alaska the last four years.

"I'm going to try to retire up here," he said.

Halibut fishing is a pretty basic way to fill a freezer with one of the world's gourmet fish. Chunks of herring are threaded onto a big hook about 18 inches below a big lead weight, then dropped overboard while thumbing the open casting reel to keep the line from tangling during the freefall to the bottom. Then it's pretty much wait for a subtle tug and start the arm-aching crank of hauling up fish that could weigh in from 10 to 400 pounds.

Morris says the big one can giveyou a run for your money when they hit the surface, but for most of the 20-pounders caught on this trip it was a bit like hauling up a log from the bottom.

Not that anyone seemed to mind <> food, not fight, seemed the desire of the day.

That was clear on the run back to the Homer Spit as Bayes and Bacher skillfully sliced off the thick white filets from each angler's two-fish allocation while Robertson got the feel of the knife on a few of the boat's fish.

As the morning anglers lugged bulging sacks of filets up from the harbor toward the packing houses, a new group of anglers headed down toward the boats.

Anyway you slice it, halibut season means business in Homer.