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For Homer's halibut derby, future won't depend on monster fish

Mike Campbell

Three months of nail biting ended for Chad Aldridge Friday night when the Soldotna angler learned that the 351-pound halibut he landed on Father’s Day won this year’s Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby.

Victory will mean a check of about $28,000 in Alaska’s richest fishing tournament, where the winner claims the bulk of the winnings.

Aldridge’s monster halibut will also mark the end of an era in the 26-year-old tournament.

No longer, say organizers, will the focus be on catching monster fish able to compete for the top prize. Those big barn-door halibut are all females. Celebrating the removal of big, productive females from the popluation has brought the derby some criticism, though halibut biologists note the few big fish harvested during the derby are a tiny fraction of the large nubmer of big halibut killed in off Alaska's coast each year.

Still, they derby fish are symbolic.

“Everybody wants the derby to get away from the big fish, so we’re doing it,” said Homer derby coordinator Paula Frisinger. “I think it’s time for a change.”

Donna Bondioli, one of a dozen locals on the derby’s organizing committee, said that group is still ironing out details as to exactly how the derby will operate next summer.

“But we’re going away from the big fish, period,” she said in a phone interview. “All we can do is keep plodding along, working toward the benefit of the recreational angler.”

Next year’s emphasis should be on catching tagged fish worth thousands of dollars, raffles and prizes for released fish, she said.

“Hopefully we’ll have a $50,000 tagged fish,” Bondioli said.

Next year’s fishing season remains a fuzzy image for Homer halibut anglers for several reasons.

Read more of Alaska Dispatch's halibut fisheries coverage

On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service announced it would reconsider a plan that would have cracked down on harvests for 2012 by cutting the current two-fish bag limit for anglers aboard charters to one in Area 3A. Area 3A includes Homer and other ports along the north Gulf of Alaska coasts.

Many charter operators had expressed fears they might be out of business next year with a one-fish limit. Many said they are already struggling to sell two-fish outings at $200 to $250 for the day. And cutting prices isn't a realistic option, many say, given fuel costs that have made it an expensive proposition just getting to the fishing grounds.

After receiving thousands of comments from Alaskans and out-of-state halibut anglers, NOAA backed off it's limit-cutting "catch-share plan," saying the public review had "raised a number of policy and technical issues.''

Whether those issues can be sorted out before the halibut season cranks up again next spring is unknown. But Bondioli expects the derby committee to devise a new set of rules within the next two months to run a derby sans monster fish.

“We’re trying to open up participation instead of focusing on the big fish,” she said. “I think it’ll increase our sales. We’re talking about a random $10,000 drawing open to people who don’t even go out and fish but who want to support the derby.”

Bondioli said she’s heard from some halibut charter captains unhappy about shifting the derby’s focus away from big fish.

“There are a few captains who define themselves that way, but more and more have moved away from chasing big fish to providing a good fishing experience, doing wildlife viewing and giving clients the simple joy of catching fish and feeding their family.

“Those are the things that bring repeat business back.”

While Aldridge’s winning fish was 73 pounds heavier than the 278-pounder that Jamie Olvera of Fairbanks caught last year to win, it was about $12,000 less valuable.

Homer derby ticket sales fell sharply over the last two months as questions about the future of the hailbut fishery  -– and the derby itself -- swirled.

By then, Aldridge, 32, was in already the top spot, nervously watching the derby’s leaderboard. His nerves took a hit when fellow Soldotna angler Chriss Ryherd landed one of the largest halibut ever caught in the month of September. He hauled in a 340-pounder on Sunday, only five days before the end of the derby.

Back in June, Aldridge was fishing near Seldovia when his big fish hit. The angler took about 45 minutes to crank it up to his 24-foot boat Seebee, encouraged by his father, Ronnie Aldridge.

“It was great to have him there to watch me bring the fish up,” Aldridge told the website, PeteThomasoutdoors. “He told me it was the biggest fish he had ever seen boated, and he has caught a lot of big halibut over the years.

Ronnie put the harpoon in the big fish to seal the deal for his son.

"It had the mouth the size of a basketball," Chad told the website. "It took three of us and it was all we could do to lift the fish up and in, and when we did it fell right on top of me."

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com.