This may be a cruel way to destroy one of sportfishing's most cherished myths, so I'll get it over quickly: Going to Alaska to fish for the wily and acrobatic salmon may be challenging, but the plain fact is that the angler who tries but does not catch a salmon in Alaska ranks right up there with the guy who tries but does not find a drunk in Times Square on New Year's Eve.
If you're after a real angling adventure in the 49th state, I have a suggestion. First, however, take this little test: Tie a 10-foot length of rope to your stoutest fishing rod, then haul a refrigerator onto the roof of your house, tie the rope around it, hold on to the fishing rod very tightly and shove the refrigerator off the roof.
If you went screaming past the gutter and slammed face-first into the patio...well, the king salmon run in Alaska begins about the first week in June and I suggest you book a reservation early. Those who were not yanked off the roof by the refrigerator might be ready to tangle with a Pacific halibut. I say "might" because it's possible you will come up against a halibut that outweighs a refrigerator, or even the Refrigerator, by 100 pounds. And when was the last time you encountered a side-by-side that was in the midst of a temper tantrum?
Early last summer, in the cold waters off Ketchikan in southeast Alaska, Larry Mascari of Los Angeles made the acquaintance of a Pacific halibut for the first time. The seas had been churned up by strong winds during the night before, and as Mascari braced his feet against the transom of Captain Jerry Engleman's 32-foot Chris-Craft, he could feel the surging swells lift his 16-ounce sinker off of the ocean floor 100 feet beneath him and then deposit it back onto the gravel. Up and down, bump. Up and down, bump. And down. And down.
The reason Mascari's sinker no longer rose along with the swells was that a halibut had flicked its wide bulk off the bottom and engulfed the 10-inch herring he was using for bait. Then, without fanfare, the fish returned to the bottom with its snack. Mascari's only indication that something had happened was that he no longer felt his sinker bouncing. Now, it's possible that the fish knew there was a stainless steel hook imbedded in its jaw. And it's even possible the fish knew the hook was secured to 60-pound-test monofilament line and that at the other end of the line was a strong man in a large boat. But if the halibut knew all that, and understood the implications, it showed no concern.
"Can't be a fish," Mascari said. "No way. It's a rock."
"It's a halibut," Captain Engleman said calmly. "Relax. This is going to take a while."
There was no silvery spray of ocean or screeching reel in the first few rounds of this brawl. A salmon responds to the bite of a hook by, in essence, losing it in a big way: leaping out of the water, shooting all over the place and wearing itself out. A big halibut responds like this: You want me, then move me, sucker!
For half an hour it was a tug-of-war, with Mascari hauling back on his custom-built rod with all of his strength. Once or twice he gained bits of line as he raised the fish's head from the gravel. But in a second the halibut would lay its head down again, tearing back that foot of line with a blast of power.
Eventually the strain, or maybe just annoyance, got to the fish, and it lifted off the bottom and took the fight into another dimension. Now the halibut began hauling back. Mascari's upper body was jerked downward by the repeated violent surges. He would straighten up, only to have the big fish drag him back into a semicrouch.