An Outdoor View: The big one that got away

Author’s note: This is among my favorite the-big-one-got-away stories. It first appeared in the Clarion in 1998. Gary Dennis, the charter-boat captain who told it to me, passed away in December 2000. The 459-pound halibut that Jack Targis caught near Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in June 1996, remains the IGFA All Tackle World Record for Pacific halibut, as well as the Alaska state record. — LP

Some huge halibut roam Alaskan waters, as some awestruck anglers recently discovered.

No one is certain how big Pacific halibut can grow. The one now holding the state record and the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world record measured 8-feet, 4-1/2 inches in length and weighed 459 pounds. At least two 500-pounders have been caught commercially and documented, one at Petersburg, Alaska, and the other at Sakhalin Island, Russia.

Among the reasons why more big halibut aren’t caught is that most sport anglers are ill-equipped to hook one, reel it in, subdue it and haul it aboard. Even commercial long-liners have trouble with the real barn doors. Most of the leviathans escape, leaving only a broken line or a straightened gaff hook as evidence of their existence.

Homer charter-boat Captain Gary Dennis is skipper of the Sea Nile, a 35-foot Bertram “6-pack.” In 18 years of chartering, Dennis has boated his share of large fish. In 1996, he brought in the winner of the Homer Halibut Derby, a 379-pounder caught by Jerry Meinders.

On Aug. 14, 1998, the Sea Nile was anchored in 180 feet of water in Cook Inlet, about 30 miles southwest of Homer. The day was overcast, the sea calm. Aboard were Michael Maysey, 49, his wife, Donna, and mother, Rita, on vacation from Arroyo Grande, California. They were fishing with 5-foot tuna sticks and 6/0 Penn reels, loaded with brand-new, 100-pound-test Spectra line. Their 20/0 circle hooks were baited with chunks of herring and salmon. They had a 75-pounder and some 25- to 35-pounders in the fish box when Michael Maysey hooked a big one.

“At first, I thought I was hung on the bottom,” Maysey said. “But then it moved. It took line off the spool, right away. I told Gary (Dennis) I had a submarine, and I wasn’t kidding.”

To stay with the fish, Dennis had to start the engines and drag anchor for nearly a mile. Finally, after a 45-minute tug-of-war, the fish surfaced. It was the biggest halibut Dennis had ever seen.

“My gaff handle is 6 feet long, and this halibut was wider than that,” he said.

Dennis had to make a decision. He usually shoots big halibut in the brain with a .410 “Snake Charmer” shotgun. Like many charter-boat skippers, he believes shooting and harpooning is the surest way to subdue big fish and bring them safely aboard. For state records and derbies, shooting and harpooning are allowed. However, for IGFA records, neither is permitted.

Two years before, he had been criticized by Jerry Meinders for shooting the 379-pounder that eventually won the derby, Dennis said. By shooting, it was possible that the fish might’ve lost enough weight by bleeding to spoil its chance at a state record or derby prize. Shooting automatically disqualified it for an IGFA record.

“After that, I bought a flying gaff, in case I ever hooked into another big fish,” Dennis said.

When a fish is gaffed with a flying gaff — permitted under IGFA rules — the gaff hook detaches from its handle and remains attached to the boat by a strong rope. The fish can then thrash around until it wears itself out. Only then is it pulled aboard.

When Dennis saw Maysey’s fish, he knew it was a world record. He hooked the flying gaff in its gaping mouth, and all hell broke loose.

“I had the gaff hook tied with two wraps of 80-pound-test,” Dennis said. “When I pulled to break the handle away, it would not come loose. I had tried it three times on a cleat and it was no problem.

“The halibut pulled the gaff out of my hand. When it threw its head back, the gaff handle went just over halfway down its back, so the length of this fish was 11 to 12 feet. When it threw its head forward, the gaff handle hit me in the head and arm and knocked me to the other side of the boat.”

Dennis dove back into the fray. Again he grabbed the gaff handle. By this time, the fishing line had wrapped around it. In the ensuing melee, the line filleted the skin off three of his fingers, and the handle again was yanked from his hands.

The fish then ran under the boat. Dennis is unclear about what happened next, but thinks the gaff handle jammed between the hull and the propeller shaft. The fish then jerked free from the gaff hook and broke Maysey’s line.

Dennis accepts the blame for losing the fish. If the gaff had detached from the handle, it probably wouldn’t have come loose, he said. The next time someone wants to try for an IGFA record, he’ll again use his flying gaff, but with only one wrap of line to attach it to the handle, he said.

“One thing I feel good about is that the fish is still alive,” Dennis said. “I don’t think I hurt it.”

Dennis swears that Maysey’s fish was twice as big as the 379-pounder that won the derby in 1996. If so, it would surely have won this year’s derby and at least $25,000. At present, the top fish is a mere 320.8 pounds. And, yes, Maysey had bought a derby ticket.

“It’s just a terrible, terrible thing,” said Maysey, about losing the fish. “But it was a wonderful, wonderful thing having it up to the boat. It was the catch of a lifetime. We didn’t boat it, but it was caught. It was a monster, a real denizen from the deep.”

And it’s down there still. Somewhere.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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