Minority status pushes female halibut captain to work harder

26-year-old Alaska skipper often mistaken for deckhand

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2006

SEWARD, Alaska - The small-boat harbor is cool and quiet at 6:30 a.m. on a Monday as Capt. Mereidi Liebner prepares the 34-foot twin-engine Jillian Dawn for a day of deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Alaska.

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Still struggling to get a solid foothold in the charter business, the 26-year-old from Soldotna regularly finds herself still doing the chores of deckhands - cleaning windows with a squeegee, wiping down countertops and hauling fresh bait from the freezer.

Prudhoe, her black 6-year-old Australian Heeler, keeps her company. He licks a puddle of dew off the stern while the daily weather report crackles loudly on the VHF marine radio.

"Sounds like it's going to be nice," says the four-year captain as she sips from a cup of tea. "Slight wind coming from the east."

With four clients due to arrive shortly, she has little time to chit-chat and hurries about her work. Her earrings dangle as she paces through the cabin. Out over Resurrection Bay, the morning clouds are burning away.

"This is my busy time of day," she said. "I need to think about where we're going fishing."

Though often mistaken for a deckhand in this community dominated by male captains, Liebner said she finds only motivation in being among the small minority of female skippers. She says it pushes her to work harder.

Her arms are toned and tanned from working outdoors 14 hours a day for seven days a week since May. It is not easy work.

The tiny-framed Liebner gaffs halibut that can weigh up to 200 pounds, reels in a heavy anchor that's sometimes lodged 300 feet deep in the Gulf of Alaska seabed, and keeps busy either running the boat or tending to clients.

She is used to working alone, although she has a deckhand who helps out two or three days a week.

Around 7:30 a.m., the clients show up. Bob Marley is playing on the CD in the boat's cabin.

Curt Wiesenhutter, his younger brother Craig, Craig's son Eric, and family friend Ben Christen have only one thing on their minds, big halibut.

"OK, you have two choices," Liebner tells the anglers from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "We can go east (of Resurrection Bay) for lingcod and silvers, or west for lingcod and rockfish."

Curt has other ideas. The 62-year-old is a world record holder for yellowfin tuna (388 pounds). He caught it 29 years ago near San Benedicto Island in Mexico.

"... I hear you're the best halibut guide around," he says. "We want big halibut ... I've never caught a 100-pound halibut."

"I catch everything," Liebner answers. "Whatever you guys want to catch, we will catch."

From Seward, it's a two-hour run along the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park to Liebner's favorite halibut hole. Eric, 20, and Ben, 22, sleep through most of it. Sleeping, they say, eases their stomaches.

The day before, fishing for Cook Inlet halibut off the coast of Ninilchik, both anglers spent most of the day port side, feeling nauseous.

"It was a halibut puking fest," Craig says, during a break from reading. "They came prepared this time."

The night before, the two stuck Scopolamine patches behind their ears. The patches prevent motion sickness but can have some side effects. Ben said he felt dizzy. Eric said he had vivid dreams. But the upside was the patches worked. They never got sick.

Today the ocean is calm as Liebner finds her spot. She lowers the anchor about 300 feet onto an invisible, undersea pinnacle of sand. Eric and Ben are almost instantly to their feet, ready to jig herring for halibut.

It takes only 15 minutes for Eric to find success. His line jolts toward the water.

"Fish on!" he yells.

"OK, now a lot of people like doing the pump and reel with halibut," Liebner says, coaching. "The steadier the better."

Eric puts the end of the rod on his hip, bracing himself to battle what appears to be an enormous fish thrashing underwater.

He keeps reeling and reeling and reeling. Liebner grabs the harpoon, ready to spear the fish.

A dark, flat shadow passes below the boat. Eric can see now the fish is a big one.

Liebner spears the halibut in the gills. It swims away, tied to a rope attached to the starboard side of the boat. A cloud of blood swirls in the water. The fish fatigues. Liebner gaffs it, and pulls it aboard.

She can see now that it will go over 100 pounds, and she knows that it is a female - as nearly all of these 100-plus pounders are.

"That was 100 pounds of pure muscle pulling," Liebner says. "Everyone wants the big papa, but you got the big mama."

Kodiak-born, Liebner started working boats as a deckhand - cleaning fish, baiting lines and scrubbing fish-bloodied floors - when she was 16.

She earned her U.S. Coast Guard license four years ago at the age of 22.

To do that it, she spent at least four hours a day for 360 days with an experienced captain.

All told, she worked as a deckhand for 15 captains and learned from every one, she said.

"I found my own method," she said. "I learned the right way to do things and the wrong way.

"There's never just one way."

One captain she worked for had at least 10 clients a day for 48 straight days. Sometimes there wasn't a seat for Liebner inside the cabin, even if it was raining.

Often she fumbled around the boat, baiting lures, gaffing fish, spraying fish blood off the floor, keeping the clients happy. It's demanding work, but she's never had second thoughts.

Still, she confesses there are times she would rather be running than fishing.

She grew up running cross-country and track in Soldotna, and she currently spends part of her offseason as a track coach at Eagle River High School. She competed at the collegiate level for four years at Boise State while earning a degree in construction management.

When she gets a day off from fishing, she still likes to drive to Anchorage to run in local races. This year she placed seventh in a time of 1:35:11 in the Mayor's Marathon and Half-Marathon and won her age group by more than five minutes.

She wants to run in next weekend's Hammer Adventure Triathlon - a 70-mile paddle, run and bike race from Cooper Landing to Hope.

"I just can't find the time," she said. "It's frustrating."

The water takes precedence.

On Monday - while cleaning the four halibut, one lingcod and one black rockfish her clients caught - she recalled her first halibut charter.

"I was 14 years old and my dad woke me up at 3 a.m.," she said, rolling her eyes.

She remembers the deckhand's fingers looking frail and cold as he filleted halibut. She wondered why he would want such a demanding job.

Now she's that person, waking up early, manhandling fish, and cleaning them at days end.

"This is what I do all summer," she said. "I love it."

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