Surprises lurk for deep sea anglers in Alaska waters

For halibut fishermen, the murky depths hide more than they often expect

Posted: Sunday, August 27, 2006

KENAI - From the seafloor deep below a halibut fishing boat to the water's surface above, there's no telling what mysterious sea creature a halibut hook might grab hold of. From creatures that will fit in the palm of your hand to beasts that rival some of the largest halibut, halibut fishing has plenty of surprises to offer.

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"The salmon shark is probably the neatest," said Tim Kelly, owner of Ninilchik Saltwater Charters. "It's like hooking into a freight train."

This summer Kelly said one of his charter's clients landed a nearly 300-pound salmon shark, one of the Pacific salmon's main predators. Salmon sharks occasionally steal bait and halibut from halibut fishermen. But due to its sharp teeth, the salmon shark usually cuts itself free before a halibut fishermen can land it.

And when a halibut fishermen does manage to land a massive thrashing salmon shark, the shark is sure to give them a handful. Even on a halibut charter equipped to handle 300-pound halibut, salmon sharks are too powerful and dangerous to bring on board alive.

"A halibut won't try to bite your leg off," Kelly said.

While halibut fishermen rarely land salmon sharks, they do land a number of other finned creatures almost as frequently as they do halibut. The small shark known as a dog fish and the Irish lord frequently ruffle the feathers of halibut fishermen as they steal bait and force fishermen to reel their line and lead weights in from more than 100 feet below.

From time to time a halibut fishermen might think they have caught a "barn door" only to discover a skate at the end of their line. The skate is a member of the ray family, but lacks the tail barb, or stinger, found on most other rays.

Although many halibut fishermen will toss a skate back into the ocean, the wing-like pectoral fins of this ray can make a fine contribution to any seafood dinner, and are often described as having the texture and taste of scallops.

Another tasty surprise sometimes caught on a halibut fishing trip is the ling cod. And rumor has it, the sometimes detested dog fish can also be tasty.

As one of the most unusual catches he has seen while 14 years of halibut fishing, Mike Flores, owner of Ninilchik Charters, told of a long fish with nightmarish teeth - the wolf eel. The wolf eel lives in a rocky den, can weigh as much as 41 pounds and can bite a broomstick in half.

Fish aren't the only creatures that can be lured to the end of a halibut fishing line. Sea lions, octopus and even puffin make appearances.

Sea lions are likely to show up after you already have a halibut on the line, steal your prize and thrash it around on the surface like a toy. Octopus and puffins, on the other hand, are more likely to be helplessly reeled on board.

But once on board the octopus can put up a fight, suctioning its strong arms to the deck, fishing gear, rain gear and what ever else it can get a hold of.

"Once you get them attached to the deck you can't get them off," said Flores.

Strange as it might seem, halibut fishermen occasionally lure puffin, a bird that can be seen diving into the ocean where it hunts for fish, and not just from a few feet below the surface of the water.

Flores said he has seen a puffin reeled in from as deep as 100 feet.

If one's halibut gear and bait doesn't lure in something strange, it might just scrape it up off the bottom.

Mel Erickson, a captain for Alaskan Game Fisher, said he has seen sea anemone, clams and sea cucumbers hooked and reeled onboard while halibut fishing. In addition to these more familiar creatures, there's always the chance something a bit more alien might be discovered.

While fishing for halibut a few miles from Homer, Daryl Palmer, of Soldotna, reeled in a sea pen, or what is also known as a soft coral.

When anchored in the seafloor, the sea pen resembles quill pen, hence the name. When pulled from the seafloor, however, the sea pen reveals a thick stalk at its base. The sea pen uses this stalk to anchor itself in the seafloor while its feathery end captures food from currents.

If a halibut fishermen doesn't find something unusual at the end of his line he might find it in the stomach of his halibut. As halibut scoot around on the seafloor they are likely to vacuum up just about anything that will fit into their mouths. Charter boat captains report finding everything from beer cans and beef steak to other halibut in halibut stomachs.

"Yesterday I had one cough up an octopus," Kelly said.

While filleting a halibut on shore, Erickson said he watched a live crab crawl out of its mouth.

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