FAIRBANKS - Valdez fisher monger Bonnie Woods is a perennial contender in the annual Valdez Halibut Derby. She has finished third in the derby twice in the last 10 years, once in 2004 with a 258-pound flatfish and again in 2007 with a 274.5-pounder.
Woods books multiple charters each summer in hopes of hooking the big one that will net her the $15,000 first-place prize in the derby.
But this year when Woods goes halibut fishing in Valdez, she’s going to be hoping to catch the smallest fish she can, at least for the first of the two fish she’s allowed to keep.
With new federal regulations in effect this season that limit halibut charter customers in Southcentral Alaska to keeping one fish under 29 inches and one of any size rather than the traditional two of any size, Woods said she’s hoping her first fish is a small one.
“You put that little one in the box and the rest of the day you’re derby fishing,” Woods said.
The dilemma comes when the first fish an angler catches is a 30- or 40-pounder, which are longer than 29 inches but not necessarily consider a big halibut, certainly not big enough to win the derby. But that size of a fish is big enough to put a little meat in the freezer.
If it’s early in the day, does a fisherman elect to toss it back in hopes of catching a bigger fish later on? Or does he have the deck hand whack it in the head and throw it in the box to guarantee he goes home with some fish after spending $350 for a charter?
It’s a dilemma many charter customers are likely to face this summer, charter captain Randy Pyle of Lady Luck Charters said.
“You bring up a 30-pound fish; it’s tough to throw ’em back,” Pyle said. “A lot of people like to keep those fish because those are the type they want to eat.
“If they’re looking for a bigger fish that’s a turkey shoot on their part,” he said.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s length/weight conversion charts for halibut, a 30-pound halibut measures about 40 inches and yields about 20 pounds of halibut fillets. A 29-inch fish, meanwhile, weighs only about 10 pounds and yields about seven pounds of meat.
“A 29-inch fish is not a very big fish,” Pyle said.
Or as Woods said, “It’s a baby.”
The new regulations were adopted in March by the International Pacific Halibut Commission to cut the amount of fish caught by the Southcentral halibut charter fleet. The new limit, which has been referred to as a one-and-ahalf fish limit, applies to charter boats in Homer, Seward, Valdez and Whittier. What kind of effect the new regulations will have on Valdez’s charter fleet remains to be seen but it probably won’t be good, charter captains said.
A halibut charter in Valdez costs around $350, which is a significant chunk of change for what could be a small chunk of halibut, he said.
“I would think it’s going to effect us quite a bit,” Pyle said. “People are probably not going to want to pay that kind of money to go halibut fishing if they can basically keep one fish.” But fellow charter captain Dave Wiley, of Orion Charters, who is considered to be one of the top charter captains in Valdez, said the new regulation hasn’t affected his business much yet. “My bookings are about the same as they always are,” Wiley said. “I’m just about booked up for the year.” Most people are aware of the change in the bag limit, he said.
“Nobody’s called and said, ‘I don’t want to go because of that new regulation,’” Wiley said.
One thing that he has noticed with the new regulation in place, Wiley said, is that he’s been releasing a lot of fish in the 32- to 38-inch range because customers are hoping to hook a bigger one.
“I’ve been throwing away quite a few fish I probably would have kept otherwise,” he said.
The new regulation is a “pain in the butt,” as Pyle put it, for a few reasons. Not only is it ha The new regulations were adopted in March by the International Pacific Halibut Commission to cut the amount of fish caught by the Southcentral halibut charter fleet. The new limit, which has been referred to as a one-and-ahalf fish limit, applies to charter boats in Homer, Seward, Valdez and Whittier. What kind of effect the new regulations will have on Valdez’s charter fleet remains to be seen but it probably won’t be good, charter captains said.
rd to catch fish that are smaller than 29 inches but charter captains must now also retain the carcasses the fish their clients catch as proof size.
“It just seems like they’re making it harder and harder on charter boat guys,” Pyle said of federal regulators.
It remains to be seen what impact the new bag limit will have on the Valdez Halibut Derby, too. The annual derby, which carries a $15,000 first-place prize for the fisherman who catches the biggest halibut of the summer, got underway last Saturday and continues through Aug. 31.
“We’re sure hoping people still come fishing and come down to enjoy Valdez,” derby organizer Laurie Prax said.
Wiley started taking charters out a couple weeks ago but he said on Monday that he’s seen only one other charter boat on the water this year.
“Normally, there’s a lot more boats out,” he said.
The fishing has been good so far, with an average big fish of about 50 pounds, Wiley said. The biggest fish Wiley has brought on board is a 95-pounder.
A lot of people like to wait until July to go halibut fishing because ling cod season opens July 1, Pyle said. Chances are good that when you’re fishing for halibut you’ll end up catching some ling cod, the flesh of which is nearly as prized as halibut, he said.
“Right now the fishing is pretty good for halibut but people seem to wait (until July),” Pyle said. “It’s traditionally been that way.”
Pyle said he ran an ad in the News-Miner about three weeks offering a full-boat discount of $1,700 for six fishermen in May and June but he hasn’t had much interest.
“I don’t think I’ve got a call yet,” he said.
There was talk in Homer of charter boats offering half-day trips because of the new bag limit but that’s not feasible in Valdez, where boats have to travel farther to get to productive fishing areas.
“There’s no way; it’s a 60-mile trip one way for us,” Pyle said of the possibility of running half-day trips. “You can catch halibut anywhere but when you gotta catch numbers of halibut you gotta go where the halibut are at.”
Pyle said he’d like to think that restrictions placed on commercial and charter fishermen will result in an increase in the halibut biomass and that things will return to normal but he’s skeptical. The two fish of any size bag limit had been in place since 1975.
“I hope in the future it turns around but it seems like when they make rules like this they never go back the other way,” Pyle said. “They take it away and very rarely give it back.”
As for Woods, she still has her usual half dozen charter trips booked for the summer and she’s hoping to take advantage of the fact her son just got a new boat.
“I just love to fish,” she said.
Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.