Marlin, Joel and I spent the first half of May waiting to go halibut fishing.
Just getting to our destination, a shallow plateau over 40 miles offshore, required more than a day’s run. We’d been watching for a four to five day weather window that never appeared, a steady barrage of gales keeping us pinned to the dock for a record 18 days. I started to feel a little embarrassed by my near-residence in the Backdoor Cafe.
Finally, we couldn’t stand it anymore. Our captain studied the online weather chart. It showed two days of “fish-able,” immediately followed by more angry red churning across the Gulf, a windbag’s hasty breath between pontificating.
Marlin sighed. “Well, the weather looks fucking horrendous. Usually we’d sit at the dock through that, but we’re not gonna do that anymore. We’re gonna go for a very expensive cruise, and maybe we’ll end up catching some fish.”
Not much of an endorsement of our departure plans, but after investing in fuel, bait, and groceries, it was time to go. The sea that greeted us wasn’t welcoming. We crashed through steel gray walls, white spray pummeling our windows. Blue tin plates frisbee’d across the cabin and clattered to the floor. The cat began licking her lips, then threw up.
After five hours of this, we ducked into a protected anchorage. And when our captain nosed out in 3 AM’s dawning light, we found a new day, a new ocean. We heaved collective sighs of relief, tensed muscles slowly relaxing with the hull’s gentle bounce.
The thing about having low expectations is that it’s easy to be happily surprised. Unsure that we’d get any fishing time, Joel and I hadn’t dreamed we’d be shin-deep in halibut the next day. We cleaned madly, guts and gonads flying into the fierce beaks of black-footed albatross. When we finally hosed off our gory raingear and stumbled into the cabin for dinner, Joel gaped at the clock. “Is it really 1:30 in the morning?”
Building on that day’s momentum, the trip just kept getting better. We spent two days anchored in Lituya Bay, a dream-like oasis on a brutal coastline, stuffing ourselves with shrimp as our bodies recovered and the weather passed. We left the Bay in a haze of déjà vu: countertops cleared and apologies whispered to Bear, we braced for stormy impact, only to find a glassy calm on the other side of the bar.
Two days later, we slogged back towards Sitka in a collective glow of disbelief, gratitude, and sleep deprivation. The boat sat comfortably low in the water, the fish hold full of generously iced halibut, black cod, ling cod, and yelloweye. Trading wheel watches and weary grins, we dared to speculate that we’d caught all of our quota – that if all our poundage estimates were on target, our longline season was complete.
“This is what’s so amazing about longlining,” our captain reflected. “We just sat around for almost 3 weeks, and then we’re done in four days of actual work. With our quota down so much, the actual fishing doesn’t take any time at all if everything goes right and we get lucky.”
Marlin raised a jelly jar glass. “To a perfect trip, with just the right crew. It couldn’t have been better.”
Indeed. It’s not very often that I get to go to sea with two of my best friends. Thank you, boys, for a safe, productive, fun longline season – it was a pleasure!
Do you have favorite recipes for halibut or halibut cheeks? I’d love to hear how you most enjoy these amazing fish.