Author’s note: I took many fishing trips with my friend, Doug Green, who died 10 years ago. This story features two of those trips. — LP
Who knew that a word could cause so much trouble?
In the 1980s, I fished on Cook Inlet from a 14-foot skiff. Fishing was simple back then, in those days of ignorance and innocence. When someone would reel in a halibut, I’d simply gaff it and pull it aboard. But after a couple of fish went berserk in my little Starcraft, I started shooting anything over about 30 pounds. There was enough risk, fishing from that small boat in big water, without having to deal with uncooperative fish. After I started using a .22 pistol and hollow-point bullets, things aboard the boat were relatively calm.
Then I learned how dangerous a word can be. Doug Green and I were anchored a couple miles off the mouth of Deep Creek, when he hooked a halibut. I reeled in my line, so I could help him boat his fish.
Doug seemed to be having trouble pulling in the fish, so I thought it might be a big one. I kept my revolver sealed in a plastic bag and stowed away, so I asked him if I should get it ready.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s not that big.”
He and I had fished for halibut a few times before. I trusted his judgement.
When he had the fish to the boat, he handed me his rod and grabbed the gaff. I didn’t see the fish until he gaffed it and pulled it aboard.
It’s unbelievable how much chaos a 50-pound halibut can cause in the cluttered confines of a 14-foot boat. Accompanied by our shouts, curses and cries of anguish, that fish thoroughly blended our lunches, our bait herring and the contents of my tackle box. It was pandemonium.
After we had pounded it into submission, I said, “I thought you said it wasn’t that big.”
Doug grinned sheepishly, and said, “I guess it depends on your definition of that.”
That, I was learning, can be a dangerously subjective word. I began paying heed to its use, considering it as a warning. For example, someone might say, “Have you ever fished on the West side of Cook Inlet? It’s not that far over there,” and alarm bells would clang. Or a server at a restaurant might say, “The Enchilada Diablo isn’t that hot,” and red flags would pop up.
But a high degree of skepticism isn’t easy to maintain. The years went by. I mellowed. I became less cautious.
It’s a sunny morning in a cove in Prince William Sound, and Doug and I are aboard the Suq’a, his 34-foot Tollycraft. I hook a halibut. This is a good thing, I think, feeling the hard jerks and the weight of a good-sized fish. I figure it for a 60- or 70-pounder.
When the fish comes within sight, Doug says, “That’s a big one. Over a hundred pounds.”
The fish is hanging straight up and down. I can see only its open mouth. It doesn’t look that big.
“It’s not that big,” I say, seeing in my mind’s eye a 60- or 70-pound fish.
Doug leans over the side with a single-shot, .410 shotgun and shoots the fish. It hangs there, motionless. Doug gaffs it, but he can’t lift it. He hands me the gaff, and says he’s going to get another one, a spare that’s stowed in the bow.
I’m hanging onto the gaff with both hands. Most of my weight hangs over the rail, which is four feet above the water. I’m holding up a 6-foot-long halibut that weighs almost 200 pounds. And while I’m realizing this, the fish comes alive.
A big halibut is strong enough to hurt you. This one, a “barn door,” apparently had been only stunned. It begins thrashing violently, turning the water to a froth.
“Whoa! Shoot it again!” I yell.
The fish yanks at my arms. Doug is behind me, cursing in frustration.
“What are you waiting for?” I yell. “Shoot it!”
“I can’t!” he says. “A shell is jammed in the chamber!”
“Well, then grab this gaff and let’s pull this thing in! I can’t hold it much longer!”
My arms are coming out of their sockets. Doug drops the gun, leans over beside me and grabs the gaff. With one gut-wrenching heave, we pull the big fish over the side. It crashes to the deck — Ka-womp! — tail banging away like a jackhammer. Doug finds an opening and jumps in with a club. Whap! Whap! The fish lies still.
After we tied down the fish and hosed down the deck, we sat down to a leisurely breakfast. We were recapping the mistakes we’d made while boating the fish, when Doug said, “I thought you said, ‘It’s not that big’.”
“Well, I guess it depends on your definition of that,” I said.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.