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Volume 14 Number 01  -  January 6, 2003
  by Capt. Jerry McGrath
The inscription on the photograph reads, “Thanks for the Big Butt! — Larry Csonka, TNN.” Butt refers to the 118-pound halibut the former fullback for the Miami Dolphins captured while filming his TNN Outdoors show during a week in May, 2001, at Elfin Cove, Alaska.
The photograph of the former 1973 Super Bowl MVP and his trophy is one of the first things guests notice as they arrive at Elfin Cove’s world-class fishing lodge — Tanaku Fishing Lodge. I was fortunate enough to be one of those guests during a week last July when my long-time dream of catching a giant halibut became a reality.
Elfin Cove is situated at the northern edge of what many refer to as the Alaskan Panhandle, and better known as the Inside Passage. The town of Elfin Cove, whose total winter population is less than 35 people, is situated on Chichagof Island, approximately 75 nautical miles WSW of Juneau, the state’s capital city.
Not far from well known Glacier Bay National Park, Elfin Cove was one of the first natural, safe harbors or “gunk holes” discovered by early sailors in the area. It has remained that way with little or no erosion difficulties. As a result, fishing lodges (there are over five besides Tanaku Lodge) have taken advantage of this uniquely beautiful and pristine location by offering fishing trips and adventures that can be beyond belief.
“How’s the fishing?” I asked one of the passengers on the Tanaku Too, one of
the lodge’s two 34-foot trawler-type Californias, as I proceeded to board the comfortable and well-equipped sportfishing vessel.
The two fishing gentlemen had gotten a beat on us by arriving at Elfin Cove the previous night and had convinced the skipper, Capt. Mike Nichols, to drift for halibut for a few hours until our mid-morning arrival.
“Check out the fishbox,” said John Wienclawski, as he lifted the cover and exposed three good-size fish. This immediately set me thinking about what a fabulous week my fishing partner, Don Bennett of Brookhaven, NY. and I were in for.
John and his father-in-law, John Carroll, both from Hampton Bays, NY caught Pacific halibut in the 50- to 70-pound range in only an hour and a half of fishing. So, with high expectations, we headed out to the fishing grounds and quickly agreed that the large “barndoor” halibut would be our main focus during our five-day stay. We preferred not to fish for the popular coho salmon and king salmon, since it was these fish that were used for halibut bait. Besides, the cohos were much like our common Long Island bluefish, while the kings compared somewhat to the ever-present striped bass.
It was hard to believe that less than 24 hours earlier we had been fighting for a parking spot at the congested and chaotic JFK International Airport. Now, after a majestic 45-minute floatplane ride from Juneau, we were sailing into the one of the world’s few remaining frontiers.
As we approached the first halibut hole, known as Middle Pass, a pair of bald eagles could be seen. They were perched among the cluster of dark evergreens which helped comprise one of the many magnificent fjords surrounding the area. As the boat came to a halt, a pair of orcas surfaced off of our bow. Our cameras clicked away so vigorously that we redefined the “Kodak moment.” What a beginning to a terrific adventure!
Surprisingly, the rest of the day was a pick by Alaskan fishing standards. One here, one there, with a few “chickens” released. The “chickens” are the 40-pound or less fish. By 4:30 p.m., the highlight was John Carroll’s 101-pound barndoor. This was my second visit to Elfin Cove, and I had yet to capture anything that had come close to 50 pounds, but I’d become a credible witness, though not an overly active participant.
I was beginning to think that the “whammy,” similar to slumps which baseball players go through, had been cast upon me. I had gotten three bites during the day and had blown all three chances by lifting my rig too soon. I concluded that the 14/0 circle hooks we rigged certainly were tricky to use and, by now, I was not entirely convinced that they were the best hooks. Suddenly, Capt. Mike announced that we would be making our last drift of the day, and that we still needed one more fish in order to reach our limit of eight on the day. The pessimistic side of me figured that I would have to wait until tomorrow to catch that big barndoor I so anxiously sought.
However, one minute into our drift through the 200 foot water depths, I felt a nudge on the end of my stand up rod. I heeded the captain’s instructions and let the fish “eat some meat.” My body was like an extension of a commercial longline. In other words, I did nothing. Halibut caught on longlines hook themselves. We, as anglers, must sacrifice everything that we have learned, especially our fluke catching techniques, and simply wait out the fish until it is literally pulling the rod and reel from our hands. That is exactly what happened. Between the hookup and the capture was a 15-minute blur. I knew that something very large was on the end of my line, but I felt that the way luck had been going, it might be a big skate or that some tragic hook or line mishap would occur. I somehow reeled with the energy seen commonly among 16-year-olds, not the frugal attempt of an overweight middle-aged male.
Fortunately, the captain and mate eventually stuck the gaff into the largest halibut I had ever seen. When the fish initially came over the rail, my thoughts were that I wouldn’t care if I did not catch another halibut for the rest of the week. My wish for a “barndoor” had been granted, and I even beat Larry Csonka. Back at the Tanaku Dock, the fish weighed 187 pounds.
Sounds pretty good, right? It was. Was it very big? Seven-foot long is big by many standards. However, in Alaska, many anglers have caught halibut of 300 pounds or more, and longliners regularly take 400 pounders each season. Some fish have even been recorded by commercial fisherman at more than 500 pounds.
For those interested, the IGFA rod and reel all-tackle record for Pacific halibut is 459 pounds. It was caught by Jack Tragis while fishing from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on June 11, 1996.
For the rest of the week we explored, discovered, and viewed much of Alaska, specifically the Cross Sound, the edges of the Gulf of Alaska and the encompassing Icy Strait.
At times, eagles showed up like seagulls, otters frolicked through the massive kelp beds, and watching sea lions forage for prey actually became commmonplace.
At Point Adolphus, which is approximately 25 miles from Elfin Cove, we watched humpbacks and killer whales as if they were performing for the cameras on the Discovery Channel. And, we caught more fish.
During the five-day fishing week, the four of us caught twenty-seven keeper halibut of 50 pounds or more and an equal amount of throwback “chickens.” Our quarry would later be filleted, vacuum sealed, frozen, and shipped on our plane ride home.
John Wienclawski managed to capture a 129-pound barndoor on our last day. Ironically, it was another “whistle fish,” caught on the final drift of our final day. We also managed to catch a respectful number of Pacific (gray) cod, rockfish, sculpin, lingcod, yellow-eyed red rockfish, and some silver and pink salmon.
Barndoor halibut are now permanently etched in my mind as one heck of an exciting and outrageous fish.
Memories of fishing at Elfin Cove are difficult to describe accurately since there is little to compare to with any experience in the Northeast.
The scenery is breathtaking, the wildlife is so plentiful, and the fish are so varied and different that one must be there to truly understand what an Alaskan fishing experience is all about.
Currently, I am planning my third trip to Tanaku for this July.
If you have a dream of catching barndoor halibut, I would suggest you give Elfin Cove a try.
You will not be disappointed.
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