When it Comes to Banking on Big Butts

I Always say, "No Guts, No Glory!"
by John Beath, British Columbia Editor

From the moment I first spoke with Captain Travis Peterson from Cascade Inn & Charters in Sitka Alaska, I knew something extra special might happen during my stay in Alaska. Like most hard-core anglers, our conversation quickly gravitated toward one thing - big fish.

Stories of behemoth fish volleyed back and forth, but came to rest in Travis' home court or should I say, "home waters." As I boasted of my accomplishments with super light line and big butts, Travis' smile widened, exposing teeth every bit as white as the underside of a halibut.

"Here's my favorite halibut reel, a Shimano GT100 loaded with Berkley 10-pound Gorilla braid super line," I announced with the confidence of a new car salesman. "Haven't lost a 'butt in two straight years with this line!"

While gazing at the tiny reel's line, Travis calmly and confidently said, "I'll take you where you can't bring 'em up with that line. But bring that reel, I'd love to see you bring one up with that."

Finally, I thought, a guide who's confident, yet willing to let me experiment and play. "Please, take me where I can't bring 'em up on this line," I begged with the eagerness of a dog begging for a bone that's to big too fit in his mouth. And like most dogs, my desire far outweighed the realm of possibility - or so I thought!

My fishing partner, Joe Kaminski, and I met Travis and the Inn's other top guide, Foy Nevers, at the dock shortly after day break. September barely had a chance to cool southeast Alaska, but it did provide a little liquid sunshine and early morning wind.

Both Joe and I hoped to feel the bent rod and rod-butt-in-the-belly syndrome associated with a long tug-o-war with lots of big Alaskan halibut. But first we had to try our luck for Coho salmon - for our freezers and for bait. In many parts of Alaska the best bait for halibut consists simply of salmon guts or their heads. The old saying, no Guts, no glory means everything to successful Sitka halibut anglers.

Leaving Sitka behind in our wake, Foy pointed the bow of the 25-foot C-hawk toward our first salmon stop of the morning, St. Lazaria Island. Within seconds of setting our rods on the downriggers, Joe jumped to attention when a Coho cleared the water off the port quarter. Joe's first Coho in Alaska sped from side to side giving him a taste of "average-sized" sub teen Coho.

With the first of many Coho safely in the net, Travis explained the abundance of Coho in Sitka. With two hatcheries nearby, each claiming a return of a million fish, the generous sport limit of six Coho each, per day, keeps anglers smiling from port to starboard. Add prized king salmon and the ever-present, over-abundant pesky pink salmon to the mix and you've got a world-class salmon fishery within a couple hours flight of Seattle. Yes, I say pesky pink salmon for many millions of reasons, each of which has scaly fins, soft mouths and appetites to rival a starving teenage boy.

Sometime between my fourth or fifth Coho and Joe's near limit, I asked Travis if we could take a break from catching salmon in favor of our true priority - big butts! Travis nodded his head willingly and reached for his book of hotspots. His fishy fingers quickly pushed the right buttons on the boat's GPS, which gave him the proper direction to his can't miss locale.

Within minutes of leaving the productive trolling grounds between St. Lazaria Island and Cape Edgecumbe, Travis and Foy set the anchor in 305-feet of water on a rocky bottom. Joe used one of Foy's rod, equipped with 80-pound test Spectra, 12-ounces of lead and a sharp circle hook with fresh Coho guts firmly attached. I grabbed my light rod and reel sporting a sharp hook, 8-ounces of lead and a dose of guts as well.

While sitting at anchor our rods temporarily rested peacefully in rod holders pointing east like missiles waiting to launch. Our first battle began with Joe's rod announcing the arrival of the first "gutsy" halibut. We bantered back and forth, me poking fun at Joe's progress and the rod poking fun at his mid section. With the rhythm of a stout rod and fine-tuned reel, Joe hoisted his butt out of bed, {a name used by anglers to describe where halibut live}, to the side of the boat, where Travis quickly "shark-hooked" his smallish 40-plus pounder.

It didn't take a watchful eye to signal my first withdrawal from this obviously abundant bank. Just like tellers accepting deposits, {fish guts on a hook}, Joe and I offered many deposits, most of which included healthy, 50-plus pound dividends of the fishy kind. We both enjoyed playing customer at this bank of butts.

A steady flow of finned fillets kept our arms and attitudes pumped. What we didn't want to keep we released to allow for future dividends, i.e., pounds. My only butt aboard weighed a mere 40- pounds but, when considering my line it didn't seem bad.

Joe's second keeper dug the rod butt into his belly with force. My laugh of the situation muted as my rod wilted toward the water. "This is it...the big one has arrived," I gleefully yelled. Without a doubt, this had to be the biggest butt I'd ever had on any line, let alone 10-pound test. My battle stretched muscles and time. Muscling the rod didn't help. This fish went where it wanted - directly toward Joe's 80-pound line which held an equal sized fish.

Seconds after the two lines met, a crisp snap from my line echoed disaster followed by a thump as my butt, {aka backside} hit the deck with failure. Travis had indeed brought me to a place where my line was no match for most of the halibut. Never having been to heaven, I couldn't help but think this could be it - the place where dreams are dared and trophies taken.

"Okay, give me one of your rods and reels and put the biggest Coho head from our day's catch on my hook," I pleaded. Travis knifed through a 17-pound Coho's head, splitting it in half to fit perfectly on the hook. It would take a monster to inhale this massive bait.

This brainy bait spiraled toward the bottom, sending a scent cloud with its mass. Could it be the same fish I just lost that quickly inhaled the bait, I wondered? The trick with circle hooks is to let the fish have the bait - a task easier said than done. I couldn't wait to grab the rod and feel the power of whatever could eat bait of gigantic proportion. Upon grabbing the rod and feeling the power 305-feet away, I knew I'd hooked the largest halibut of my life.

Joe encouraged my progress, with shouts of "hurry up and quit show boating." Slowly and steadily, I worked the halibut toward my rod tip, sweating every inch of the way. Travis explained how we'd subdue this beast once it came to the surface. His landing method included a huge shark hook placed in the thick part of the fish's lip which is tied to a rope attached to a cleat on the transom.

With Travis poised at the stern with his shark hook ready, a muddy-colored shadow appeared from the abyss. The shear size of the fish made us gasp. In all my life I'd never seen a halibut this large in person and thankfully, on the end of my line.

Expertly, Travis leaned over and secured the shark hook into the jaws of my seven foot long fish. The war began at that moment. Water flew in all directions as the fish's mass plummeted downward, breaking the shark hook's line on the way. Luckily my line didn't break which prompted me to secretly thank God for smooth drags and high tech lines.

My aching arms, back and even smile engaged the fish's strength. This time however, we all knew the size of the prize. A constant pressure followed by a steady winch of the reel again brought the fish to the surface. This time Travis and Joe manhandled the mighty beast with gaff hooks while I soared over the transom to secure a tight tail rope. In the process I cracked two ribs on the 325-pounder..."Butt" the price was worth a fish-of-a-lifetime.

Sitka's close proximity to the Continental Shelf makes it pulse with halibut like blood in a vein. This main artery of the Pacific Ocean provides opportunity for halibut anglers to get their blood circulating when they come to Sitka's famous banks.

Each year Sitka anglers catch several dozen monster halibut over 200-pounds according to Travis and Tom Jones, owner of T & L Meats & Seafoods. "Sitka is by far the best place for halibut in southeast Alaska," Jones says with a smile.

For more information about Sitka or to book a trip with Cascade Inn & Boat Charters, call them at, 1-800-532-0908. Don't forget to ask about banking hours!