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As Homer halibut derby ends, emphasis on tagged fish, not monsters, is paying off

Naomi KloudaHomer Tribune
With about a week left in perhaps Alaska's richest fishing derby, 29 anglers have caught tagged fish out of Homer. They're worth at least $250 -- with one worth $50,000. Steven Betts / flickr

Moving away from an emphasis on the heavyweight, long-lived, big halibut apparently is proving that people just want to catch fish, at least in the Homer Halibut Jackpot Derby.

It’s a banner year for catching tagged fish that could mean a big payoff, said Paula Frisinger, derby coordinator. With about a week left in perhaps Alaska's richest fishing derby, 29 anglers have caught tagged fish.

“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. That just depends on their luck, and not everyone wants a big fish, so it really is an individual adventure.”

Derby ticket sales are up this year, good news for the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center, which uses derby receipts as its major source of funding. Chamber Executive Director Jim Lavrakas estimates 14,500 tickets at $10 apiece will be sold 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 (anglers) 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 without a derby ticket throw the halibut back 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.

Previously, the biggest fish won virtually the entire pot in a winner-take-all derby. Homer's Chamber of Commerce switched to the tagged fish concept to help preserve big females, who produce hundreds of young halibut -- or more -- 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 wins at least $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 before the derby started. “But we don’t cross reference the tag numbers with the prize until after the derby ends,” Lavrakas said, to increase the suspense for anyone who lands a tagged fish.

The chamber still gives out a “Jackpot” prize to the angler catching the largest halibut , which Lavrakas estimates may be worth more than $21,000 this year. The big fish 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 try and beat it – or land a tagged fish.

“Ticket sales are up from last year and overall, I think it has been a great derby season,” Frisinger said. “One thing I hear (from anglers landing a tagged fish) 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.  But 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.

Not mushy

Last year, fishermen complained halibut caught out of Homer sometimes seemed mushy, even after cooking. There are fewer reports of mushy halibut this year, according to the late August fishing report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“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,” 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 as a healthy halibut should, release it immediately unharmed and consider moving to a different area. Department research on this condition is ongoing.”

The report acknowledged halibut catching has slowed late in the season, 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 to 79 pounds.

Naomi Klouda writes for The Homer Tribune, where the preceding report was first published. Used with permission.