Homer Halibut DIY
by David Bayes | photos by Hastings A. Frank
If you are thinking about targeting halibut on a do-it-yourself trip, there is no better place to start than Homer.
Aptly named “The Halibut Capital of the World,” Homer has no shortage of halibut. In Homer, catching a limit is the norm, not the exception. Though halibut fishing in Homer is often easy, interpreting the weather and tides and boating Kachemak Bay can sometimes not be.
Having run charters out of Homer for the past 14 years, and as owner of Bayes Boat Rental here in Homer, I’ve put together a short guide to assist DIY boaters with interpreting tides, keeping an eye on the weather and finding fish in Kachemak Bay. Naturally, this guide should only be used as a reference and is in no way meant to replace actual experience on the water. Venturing into the ocean anywhere in Alaska can be a risky proposition, so if you don’t have experience of your own, bring a friend who does.
Speak with anyone who has spent considerable time on K-Bay, and they’ll tell you about the morning they left the harbor with bright sun and glassy-calm seas, only to be faced with 6-foot breaking waves and a hard west wind on the way home. This drastic change in wind and sea-state is most-often a result of the Kachemak Bay day-breeze.
The K-Bay day-breeze is the worst on sunny days. It is created as a result of the land and ocean warming at different rates. When the air over land heats and rises, cooler air from over the ocean is pulled in to replace it. Since K-Bay is a relatively long and narrow bay, the cool “replacement” air is funneled as it approaches the Homer Spit and Homer Harbor, causing the air to move more rapidly. We perceive this influx of cool new air as wind.
The wind created by the day-breeze generally comes from the west or southwest and can create some of Kachemak Bay’s most treacherous conditions. Since the intensity of the day-breeze is based upon how quickly the land warms on a given day, the day-breeze usually does not begin to pick-up until around 1 p.m. The local’s trick for avoiding the day-breeze is to leave the harbor at first light, get fish in the boat early and then be on the way in by the time the day-breeze starts to pick up.
While the west/southwest wind of the day-breeze can be a daily concern on K-Bay, it is the eastern wind directions (east, northeast, southeast) that often create the bay’s most hazardous conditions. Most years, eastern winds are an infrequent visitor to K-Bay during summer, but in La Nina years (such as the one predicted for 2017), eastern winds can become especially prevalent. Eastern winds tend to make the sea-state near the Spit and Homer Harbor much rougher than the seas farther out in the bay. If easterly wind is in the forecast for the day, boaters should check the wind-station on the Homer Spit as frequently as possible and return home if they begin to see a notable rise in wind speed. It is not infrequent for our charter to be out 20 miles, fishing in relatively calm seas, only to get a phone call from someone on the Spit reporting that the wind there is coming from an easterly direction at 20-plus knots with whitecaps visible everywhere around the Spit.
A tidal exchange of 25 feet is not unheard of in Kachemak Bay. A 25-foot tide means that the sea level lowers 25 feet in six hours, comes to rest at “slack tide” and then increases 25 feet in the following six hours. The volume of water that must flow in order to raise and lower the sea-level that rapidly is almost incomprehensible.
The tidal currents on the outer-edge of K-Bay can run at close to 5 mph. Anchoring your vessel in this heavy current can be very treacherous if done improperly. Stories abound about boaters who dropped anchor in seemingly calm water, only to have the bow of the boat nearly pulled under when the anchor “caught” on bottom. A few unfortunate souls have lost their boats and even their lives when they chose to tie the anchor line to the stern of their boat instead of the bow. Boats in K-Bay and Cook Inlet should NEVER be anchored by any point other than their bow, and a sharp knife with a serrated-blade should always be stored near the anchor line, in case the anchor line must be cut.
Though all of Kachemak Bay is affected by tides, the portion of the bay that lies between Seldovia Point and Flat Island is considered to be one of the most dangerous. The tidal current in this area passes over a series of shallow bars, creating “rips.” Fluctuations in the speed and direction of the tide can create extremely dangerous conditions in the rips. Just as the day-breeze can cause the sea state to go from glass-calm to 6-foot waves, so can the rips. Boaters in the Seldovia to Flat Island area must exercise great caution and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice should conditions begin to deteriorate.
Like underwater soldiers, a collection of metal jigs stands at attention.
FINDING HALIBUT IN K-BAY
Though halibut are usually in no short supply in K-Bay, there are a few areas that are more productive than others. The “Compass Rose” is one of Homer’s most notorious halibut holes, and it is also the area where the majority of the Homer Halibut Derby’s “tagged fish” are tagged and released. Though the Derby’s tagged fish are worth varying amounts, at least one is worth $50,000 (in 2016). To qualify for derby winnings, anglers must first purchase a $10 per-day Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby ticket. Derby tickets are available at most tackle and charter businesses on the Spit and throughout Homer.
The Compass Rose is located about 17 miles west of the Homer Spit, where Cook Inlet and K-Bay meet. The Compass Rose is, quite literally, a compass rose that is printed by NOAA onto their paper charts. Since the Compass Rose covers a large area, many fishermen choose to begin their day by drift-fishing the Rose in search of a concentration of halibut. While drifting, make sure to use your GPS to mark any spots where you experience multiple hookups. Once the tide slows, you can return to these hotspots, drop anchor and sometimes catch halibut nonstop for hours.
Extreme tides and weather can sometimes make the Compass Rose area unsafe to fish. If looking for an alternative, many anglers find success fishing the Bluffs (from Bluff Point to Anchor Point), the Seldovia Bump (150- to 250 feet of water in front of Seldovia Bay) and Up-the-Bay (the waters east of the Homer Spit).
Though herring is always a favorite halibut bait, many anglers choose to use leadhead jigs instead, especially while drifting. One of the greatest advantages of jig fishing is that you do not have to check bait each time you get a hit. Rootbeer (gold-fleck), white and glow-in-the dark are the preferred jig colors for K-Bay halibut. Many anglers will also mix up their bait offerings to see what the halibut prefer on a given day; pollock, octopus, salmon and cod are all popular alternatives to herring.
“Seafood Chowder,” a collection of fish, all caught out of the same hole while fishing the Gulf of Alaska.
SUBDUING LARGE HALIBUT
Bringing halibut aboard can be very dangerous; a large and out-of-control fish can destroy a small boat and have even been responsible for multiple broken bones over the years. Opinions abound about the “best” way to subdue and boat a large halibut. My preferred method is to use two people to get the fish into the boat; one shoots the fish while the other gaffs.
If using a pistol or rifle to shoot your halibut, the kill zone is a relatively small area, located about 1-inch behind the upper eye. Because of the small kill-zone, many halibut fishermen prefer to use a .410 shotgun loaded with bird shot. The stainless steel .410 “Snake Charmer” is first choice aboard the majority of Homer charters. The Snake Charmer’s pistol grip allows easy, one-handed operation. When shooting fish, I hold the gun in my right hand and use my left hand to grasp the leader and pull the fish up and forward through the water. When done correctly, pulling the fish up and forward will cause it to plane and “flatten-out” next to the boat. When the fish’s eye breaks the surface of the water, I put the gun barrel as close to the water as possible (but not in the water!), aim and fire.
Even after being shot and gaffed, halibut will often “wake up” after half-an-hour or so. Though the “wake up” is really just muscle spasms, those spasms can still create considerable damage to people and property onboard. To prevent damage, I like to hog-tie large halibut as soon as they are landed. To hog-tie, I tie a line around the base of the fish’s tail, run it through the gills and then draw the line tight before tying it off. A properly hog-tied halibut will be “bowed” with its tail almost touching its jaw.
For those without a gun, or when fishing alone, it is best to leave the fish in the water until you are certain that it is dead. To secure the fish, run a line through its gills and tie it off to a secure point on the boat. Once the fish is tied-off, use a sharp knife to cut through the fish’s gills, allowing it to bleed out. Some fish will take an hour or more to die, so don’t be in a rush to bring it aboard.
You may find that the flexibility and affordability of a do-it-yourself fishing experience is one that appeals to you and your group of halibut anglers. For more information on boat rentals contact Bayes Boat Rentals at 907-235-6094. You could be the captain of the 22-foot Hewescraft Searunner for the day. Boating Kachemak Bay is not easy and it should be reserved for fishermen with the most experience at the helm.
Lifelong Alaskan David Bayes is the owner of DeepStrike Sportfishing and Bayes Boat Rentals in Homer, Alaska.
Homer Halibut DIY originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Fish Alaska magazine.