An Outdoor View: Handlining halibut

(Author’s note: The Clarion first published this column in 2000. I’ve edited it for brevity. LP)

During a long night last winter, I decided I’d like to try handlining for halibut.

Handlining is an ancient means of fishing. Northwest Natives once fished for halibut with lines made of kelp or cedar bark. Hooks thousands of years old have been unearthed in Scandanavia, and those were attached to handlines. In Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the old man was a handliner.

It can’t be too dangerous, I rationalized, or people wouldn’t have done it.

I figured my 87-year-old father would know something about it, and he did.

By e-mail, he wrote, “As I recall, the Ancient Norskies used very heavy Cuttyhunk or Irish linen line, about 1/8 -inch diameter.

“The first jigs I had must’ve weighed a pound. It hasn’t been too long since I threw away a couple of them with a really large hook. These were used in the Puget Sound area.

“You had to be a tough hombre to handle tackle like that. Can you imagine how that line ran through a person’s hand with a large ling on? It makes my hands burn just to think about it!”

Kenai resident Spence Devito, a life-long angler and walking history book on all things fishing, also responded by e-mail. He recalled seeing fishermen in small “double-enders” handlining for cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, nearly 40 years ago.

“First, I would not suggest that a novice even attempt to use a hand line for halibut unless they have gained some mighty good experience from a so called ‘expert’!” Devito cautioned. “It is dangerous and one could easily be in loss of a finger or hand, especially if they are a distance from medical attention.”

This warning, added to my father’s reference to burning hands, made me wonder if I should forget the whole thing.

Devito suggested 120- to 150-pound-test, low stretch, braided, Dacron-type line. For protection against line burns, he advised wearing thin buckskin gloves with leather tabs sewn on the thumb, first finger and palm.

One problem with handlining is what to do with the line you’re pulling in. I knew it would be risky to let the line loops fall to the floorboards, where they could wrap around a foot. Devito suggested a 36” x 36” wooden box with a screened bottom and 12” sides.

“The box is used to carefully lay the line in as you pull the fish in hand over hand,” he explained. “If the fish makes a run, the line must pay out of the box. This can only happen if the line is very carefully placed in the box. One can readily note that it is much easier to do with smaller fish like lake trout or cod.”

“ONLY the thumb and first finger is used to pull in the line while the line rests in the palms of each hand as you pull hand over hand!” Devito added emphatically. “If the fish runs, the line MUST be free of fingers as it rushes through the palms of the gloves. FREE of FINGERS – there is little room for error!”

All that emphasis wasn’t there for nothing, I knew. Devito probably has a scar for every capital letter and exclamation mark.

Devito’s closing words: “I would not recommend anyone fishing halibut with a handline.”

After all those dire warnings, no one with a lick of sense would handline for halibut. Yet, in July, there I was, handlining for halibut in my 16-foot skiff in Kachemak Bay.

I had hoped it would be exciting, but it wasn’t. Oh, there was suspense, all right, wondering if a big one would bite. And it was fun feeling the bite, with the line between my thumb and index finger. But extreme fishing, it wasn’t. The halibut I pulled in were only “ping-pong paddles.” The biggest was about eight pounds.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to feel the hard yank and heavy weight of a big halibut on a handline. You know, I may have to give it just one more try.

Les has yet to try handlining again.

He can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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