Freedom is in the Freezer
Subsistence Fishing for Halibut
Walt hauls in the line by hand. He’s a big guy, with a strong back. Tobben sits at the stern, expertly coiling the line into a plastic tub. My job is to collect the snaps, leaders, and hooks into a bucket. While Joe drives the boat, he and I peer over the side into Kachemak Bay. A pale turquoise-green shape moves through the water and a collective burst of excitement passes through the crew. After getting skunked several trips in a row, this is the first fish we’ve seen. Joe grabs the gaff hook, and together he and Walt haul a monster halibut into the boat. It knocks them off their feet. Measuring 59 inches long, the little chart in the back of the tide book tells us this fish weighs 103 pounds!
We aren’t on a halibut charter, and we don’t have fishing rods. As rural residents of Alaska, we’re eligible to fish for halibut with a Subsistence Halibut Registration Certificate, or SHARC. We aim to fill our freezers, and although we’re not allowed to sell our catch, we can share with whomever we want. And we do — spreading halibut around the community the way others have shared salmon or berries with us.
Early this morning, before the sun had risen over the mountains, we set a ground line. It’s afternoon now, so the line we’re pulling has been soaking for about eight hours. Sometimes we do the opposite, setting the line in the afternoon and pulling it in the morning, but then it’s hard to sleep at night. We dream of giant halibut, swimming in the dark, taking the bait, getting hooked, working themselves free, swimming back again.
Fishing like this is a bit like setting snares or a trap-line. I could tell you where our favorite spots are, how deep the water is, whether there’s kelp or not, and what kind of bait we use, but I won’t. I’ll follow Walt’s example: when asked where he goes fishing, he says, “The ocean.”
Our monster fish is female, as are almost all halibut larger than a hundred pounds. We probably should have thrown her back, but we didn’t have any fish in the freezer yet, and you don’t want to throw back the first one you catch — you might not catch any more. We really prefer the ones our friend Chris calls “gentlemen fish,” males that weigh about thirty pounds. They take much less effort to handle, are easier to fillet, and have nice, tender meat.
None of this would happen if I didn’t have a friend with a boat, fuel, gear, bait, and the willingness to take me along. I try to be a good deckhand and remember to bring in the fenders. I mess around with the bait, help pull the line, and, if we’re lucky, fetch the cart at the marina, and fillet and skin the fish. I slosh buckets of seawater to rinse the fish blood and slime off the boat, sluice down the cleaning station, and fend off the gulls, crows, and otters. Back at Joe’s, he cuts the fillets into meal-sized pieces, while I wrap them in plastic cling film, vacuum-seal the packages, and with a Sharpie write, “Halibut 2017.”
My freezer now has twenty-nine packages of halibut; somewhere in the Midwest the street value would be at least $400. Add three quarts of halibut stock, potatoes from the garden, and a stack of firewood, and I might be able to get through the winter without spending much money. A freezer full of fish is a kind of freedom, wealth beyond measure. I have an absurd fondness and tenderness toward these creatures: this is what respect and reverence for food feels like when you get it directly from the source.
We drive the boat back toward Seldovia Harbor and home. Three big halibut weigh down the bow. The high-latitude sun shines on Mt. Iliamna, Elephant Rock, and the mountains of the southern Kenai Peninsula. Life doesn’t get much better than this. The diesel engine is loud, but over its hum I can hear Joe say, “Thank you, halibut gods and goddesses!"