• Restructuring famed halibut derby from big moms to tagged fish nets great results for Homer Chamber
By Naomi Klouda
Moving away from an emphasis on the long-lived big halibut apparently is proving that people just want to catch fish, at least so far as the Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby shows.
It’s a banner year for winners of caught tagged fish, said Paula Frisinger, derby coordinator. With another 11 days left of the derby, 29 have caught tagged fish. Anglers have caught this year’s tagged fish and prior years tagged halibut, as well.
“Little fish win big, too, is what most people are saying,” Frisinger said. “We don’t tell people how to fish, we just wait to see what they catch. There are always going to be anglers who want to catch the halibut of a lifetime, just depends on their luck and not everyone wants a big fish, so it really is an individual adventure.”
Derby ticket sales are up, which spells good news for the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, since the derby is a major source of funding for the organization.
Chamber Executive Director Jim Lavrakas estimates they will have 14,500 tickets at $10 each by the end of the derby.
“It seems like we have a lot of sales due to the fact the derby has been known for so many years and that is what they do, not expecting anything in return, but they are excited if they happen to catch a tagged fish,” Frisinger said. “People are more aware of those tagged fish since quite a few tagged fish have been caught with no derby ticket.
Some anglers throw the halibut back because they didn’t have a derby ticket. They do this in order to give someone else a chance, Frisinger said.
When people bring in a tagged fish from another year, they get $100 in Homer Bucks, which can be redeemed for merchandise in Homer stores. Anything from a piece of art to a new halibut rod.
A few people brought Frisinger a tag – minus the fish. For their trouble, they are rewarded with a derby hat.
The Chamber switched to the tagged fish concept in order to help preserve the big females, who reproduce hundreds of young halibut in their lifetimes.
Former Chamber Director Monte Davis and the board of directors devised the changes, with sponsorships from GCI of $50,000 and a truck from Kendall Ford. Everyone who catches a tagged fish, for that matter, wins cash. The smallest amount is $250.
Lavrakas, who served on the board and helped make the changes two years ago, said the move has gone well.
“The angler has to bring the fish with the tag intact into our derby headquarters so the catch can be certified,” he said. Frisinger keeps a list of the tag numbers and the names of the people associated with the fish. Some 100 fish were tagged and released last spring.
“But we don’t cross reference the tag numbers with the prize until after the derby ends,” Lavrakas said. That’s a move that increases the suspense for all who caught tagged fish. “Our great charter skippers have bought into the changes and their clients have been very happy that there are many more chances to win big.
The chamber still gives out a ‘Jackpot’ halibut prize, which we estimate this year may be worth over $21,000 for the angler who catches the largest halibut,” he said. The chamber estimates it will have sold 14,500 derby tickets, to date. The big fish number to beat is a 236-pounder caught by Gene Jones of Bellevue, Iowa on July 25 with Capt. David Bayes aboard Central Charters’ Grand Aleutian.
Fisherman have until 9 p.m. Sept. 15 to keep trying for the tagged fish as well.
“Ticket sales are up from last year and overall, I think it has been a great derby season,” Frisinger said. “One thing I hear is ‘what did I win?’ So, if anything I think people would like to know what they won without waiting until the derby is over. Most anglers are excited just to get to go fishing and being on the water and away from work.”
The largest halibut ever caught for the derby was landed in 1996 and weighed 376 pounds.
• 2007: 162 pounds caught by Titus Teriong of Portland, Ore. Second and third place weighed155 pounds and 151 pounds.
• 2008: 348 pounder caught by Jeff Pardi of San Rafael, Calif.
Second and third place were 271 and 226
• 2009: 358 by Jerry Saunders of Chugiak – two others 340 and 331 that year.
• 2010: 273 caught by Mark Hilts of Grand Rapids, Minn. Next two place holders were 257 and 224.
• 2011: 350.8 pounder by Chad Aldridge – Sterling
• 2012: James Peeples of Chico, Calif., was the jackpot winner with a 323.2-pound halibut.
• 2013: So far, a 236 pounder caught by Gene Jones of Bellevue, Iowa is in the running. Also, 29 others have caught tagged fish and will win cash prizes to be announced in October.
Last year, fishermen complained about mushy halibut. They found jelly soft flesh, even after cooking it, in malnourished fish. But this year, not so much, according to the late August fishing report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The report acknowledged halibut catching has slowed, but the fish are healthy and fat.
Anglers are reporting success using herring or squid with circle hooks. Fish and Game sampled fish that landed in the Homer harbor over the past week, finding they averaged 18.4 pounds in a range of 5-79 pounds.
“The Department has received few reports of ‘mushy’ halibut this season. The flesh of these fish is very soft or flabby, sometimes with pockets of jelly-like tissue, and fish are mushy after being cooked,” the report stated. “Experience during years of high prevalence of this condition (1998, 2005, 2011-12) shows that the incidence of these fish can be high for anglers fishing certain locales, so if you catch a fish that feels flabby or does not look as robust and rounded as a healthy halibut should, release it immediately unharmed and consider moving to a different area to avoid these fish. Department research on this condition is ongoing.”
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