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PUBLISHED: 12:01 PM on Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Deep Drifting for Halibut

The boat rocked gently on the incoming tide in Icy Strait. Gray sky and low-hanging clouds, dropping a steady mist, cloaked the rocky green islands surrounding us. For the 100th time, I lifted the Lamiglas pool cue rod, hoping to feel the weight of a flatfish. And felt nothing but a pound of weight and another of bait, on the bottom 300 feet below.

"Waiting for a big one?" Jason Duby asked. I just shrugged.

I'd watched my friends drag in a dozen halibut from 20 to 35 pounds. Since it was Mike and Jenny Latham's first trip to Alaska and first real fishing trip of any kind, it was a successful trip even if I didn't catch a thing.


Photo courtesy of Lee Leschper
  Mike Duby holds a huge goldeneye rockfish which Jenny Latham landed while halibut fishing, a nice bonus to any bottomfishing trip.
Then a heavy weight began jerking my rod tip toward the surface. While I'd caught plenty of eating size halibut before, this was obviously something more, as 100-pound Kevlar line began peeling off the Penn reel. Jason and his brothers, deckhand Joel and Captain Mike Duby, quickly gathered around.

"Big one!" Mike chuckled.

While my companions gathered in the other lines, I went to work on the unseen beast a football field below us. Or more correctly, it began working on me. Every time I pumped against the fish, it took more line, as though irritated by the distraction. Arms cramping, I lifted against the weight again, and felt it give, just a bit.


Photo courtesy of Lee Leschper
  Jenny Latham hefts her first fish ever, a good eating size Alaskan halibut..
"Slow and steady," advised Jason, who used to guide in Juneau, but now works in Seattle.

Instead of aggressively pumping against the fish, I began very slowly lifting, and began gaining line. A foot at a time, but it was coming. After 20 minutes, the brown-green mottled shape, big as a dining room table, rose into sight in the clear gray water. After one near miss that spooked the 5-foot fish 100 feet deep again, Joel "lipped" it with a huge shark hook and he and Jason slid it onto the deck. My first "over 100" flatfish, it was far and away the biggest.

There was one thing different about the way we were fishing, which probably helped put that big fish in the boat.

We weren't anchored.

Most Alaskan halibut anglers pick a likely hotspot for the flatfish, drop anchor and baits, and wait for the fish to find then. But Mike believes in drift fishing for halibut. And his consistent success proves it works. Mike, 31, has been guiding anglers in Southeast Alaska for 10 years, starting as a camp helper at one of the local lodges and purchasing his own boats three years ago. He's got a reputation for consistently putting his anglers on big halibut and salmon. Call it deep drifting or power drifting, the tactic is both challenging and deadly effective.

"Drifting allows us to cover a lot of territory and find the fish," Mike said. "When you anchor, you have to be right, or wait for them to come to you."

Homer captains I've fished with admit they expect it to take 20 minutes or more before halibut follow the smell of bait to the hook. On a short day of fishing, a few unproductive 20 minute waits can make the difference between success and failure, especially if you're trying spots where the fish are scattered.

"Because you're not holding against the current, it also allows us to use less weight, which is easier on the anglers and fighting the fish." Mike typically uses a pound of lead, compared to the two or three pound bricks that are necessary to hold bottom when anchored. The bottom fish will hammer a big jig or jigging spoon, but the additional work of lifting and pumping a lure 300 feet deep can quickly wear out many anglers, so Mike sticks to bait. The halibut will hit almost anything, big herring to chunks of any dead fish. Some savvy anglers rig long strips of fish belly meat or skin, to flutter in the current like a swimming octopus, which may be the premier halibut bait, if a little hard to find. A quality electronic depth finder is a mandatory, since the tactic requires pinpoint precision, to hit deep structure like the towers of rock in very deep water where the bigger halibut live. Mike constantly monitors the depth and structure below, offering updates to the anglers and advice.

This is also active fishing. Instead of sticking the rod in a rod holder and waiting, each angler holds his rod and is constantly adjusting the bait to keep it bumping the bottom. While this can be tiring by the end of the day, it's sure not boring.

"Drifting also keeps you from fishing out a spot, especially of big fish, which you can certainly do when you're anchored," Mike said. "And when you find fish, you can move back up and drift through the same area again and again."

There's more than halibut awaiting, as my trips with Mike have always include a smorgasbord of rockfish and cod in addition to limits of halibut.

While bottom fishing sometimes has a reputation for being dull work, there's no doubt that for the next couple of months it may be the surest thing in Southeast fishing, providing you find the right spot and use the right tactics. The big flatfish are moving into shallower water and should remain in range for the next three months. Icy Strait is the most popular destination for serious halibut anglers, although there are big halibut moving into shallower water throughout the Southeast.

There always the salmon too, and on this day we had our limit of halibut by lunch and trolled for the afternoon, adding 30 king, pink, chum and silver salmon on the way back to the dock.

How good a day can fishing the Southeast for halibut be? Just ask Mike and Jenny Latham, who recently moved to the U.S. from England and are already planning their next trip to Alaska.

"Second best day of my life, after my wedding!" Mike said in near awe, back at the dock.

"Smart man!" his bride chimed in.

For more information on halibut fishing in Southeast Alaska, call Juneau Sport Fishing, 907-586-1887 or email sportfishing@alaska.com.

Leschper is an award-winning outdoor writer, regional advertising director for Morris Communications/Alaska and general manager of Capital City Weekly and The Boat Broker. Email him at lee.leschper@juneauempire.com.


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