While trolling around Auke Bay in early April, two University of Alaska Fairbanks fisheries students hooked into an unforgettable battle that landed them a halibut nearly one third the size of their aging boat.
Dana Hanselman and Andrew Matala pulled their rods off the wall, lures still encrusted with salt from last year, and headed out in the Salmon Slayer to see if the 1965, 16-foot Starcraft skiff bought for $500 three summers ago had another season on the water.
Around 5 p.m., under a cloudless sky on a cold, crisp evening the two took off toward Fritz Cove. They "cracked a beer and toasted the Salmon Slayer for one more year," said Hanselman.
They turned around at Fritz Cove and on principle decided to drop some lines as they made their way back to Auke Bay harbor. Just minutes after rigging up, Matala noticed "a little tap-tap" on Hanselman's pole, but said it didn't have the distinct look of a strike. He thought they were dragging bottom, but couldn't be certain because the depth sounder's battery had not been charged for their season's maiden voyage. Hanselman grabbed the rod, pulled back to set the hook.
"By the time he jerked back on it, you could tell he had a fish," said Matala. "I said 'This must be the first king of the year.' "
They said the water was extremely murky and they were unable to see the fish by the time the leader was exposed.
"It took about 20 minutes to get it up," said Matala "We thought we had a good king, but nothing crazy."
Expecting a chinook, they were surprised as "a large creature came looming out of the darkness."
"It looked as wide as a truck because we weren't expecting anything like that," Matala said.
Then they asked each other who had brought the gaff hook, and began contemplating how they would subdue the fish and get it on board. They realized all they had was a 12-inch billy club dubbed "the Bopper."
Matala bopped the halibut on the head, instigating a furied dive and a 20-minute struggle to bring it back to the surface. After two more bops and two more dives, Hanselman was fatigued as he fought to keep the fish on the 20-pound test line on his 8 1/2 foot "flimsy" salmon rod, and decided to pass the pole off to Matala.
Hanselman contemplated pulling it on board by using its gills as a handle. He decided not to, describing it as "110 pounds of mean fish that we didn't hurt at all."
After exhausting nearly every option, Hanselman told Matala, "I'm gonna brain it."
He took out the 2 1/2 inch blade on his Leatherman tool in hopes of subduing the fish by puncturing its brain.
"Looking at the 20-pound test I said, 'We're never gonna get it in.' But it was a lot of meat to loose," said Hanselman.
The halibut endured three more attacks, which led to three more dives.
"After three subsequent brainings, she was dazed enough to where we thought we could get her in," said Hanselman. But with no gaff hook the battle was not yet over.
They feared the fish would break the heavily strained line. Hanselman then attempted to put a rope through its mouth and out its gills.
"He couldn't quite muster the courage to do it," said Matala. "I don't blame him, it could have pulled him right in the water."
After roughly 70 minutes into the battle they decided their best bet was to utilize a strap, used to connect the boat to its trailer, as a makeshift noose to grab the halibut by the tail.
"It went hog wild," said Matala. "It looked like he was riding a bronc."
The halibut made one last-ditch effort to escape before they pulled it into the skiff, ending the adventure with one last fatal "bop" to the head.
Exhausted and giddy with their victory, they were approached by the Ocean Chinook, whose captain provided them with a tape measure, and helped them calculate the weight. The fish was 5 feet long, and the weight rounded up to 110 pounds, more than five times the weight suggested for the test line.
"If there was any time we felt like Alaskans after four years (living here), it was that day," said Hanselman.
The two were able to get back to their partially stale Old Milwaukee beers as they cruised into the Auke Bay harbor after a successful first fishing trip of the season.
"Nobody in Auke Bay has earned their catch like we did that day," said Matala.
Eric Morrison can be reached at email@example.com.