Homer, Alaska -- 1999
The End of The Road
By Greg Niemann
It was the first time I'd fished out of Homer, Alaska, a small village on a 4.5 mile gravel bar called the Homer Spit that juts out into the bay. The town of about 5,000 hardy souls has several nicknames, including "A drinking village with a fishing problem." I would soon learn that that sobriquet extended beyond the local populace.
It's also called "the end of the road," referring to its location on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and the terminus of the Alaska Highway system. You run out of road at Homer. But I was there for its other name "The Halibut Fishing Capital of the World."
My buddy Michael and I headed out for halibut our first morning in town. Our charter boat was mostly used for commercial fishing and had large spools of line and netting taking up most of the fishing space. It was run by a red-bearded gregarious skipper named Steve who introduced us to a couple who would join us for the day.
"This here's Walter and his wife Louise who drove their rig all the way up here from Alabama," he said as we boarded on that cool windy morning, adding, "And we're all gonna catch some fish today, that is if it's calm enough to get out there."
Walter was a beefy, florid-faced man in his fifties, I'd guessed, and his bloodshot eyes told me that he was in no condition to be out on a boat. You could smell the booze trying to escape his over-indulgent body by forcing their way out his pores. His large gut hung over where I assumed a belt would be, and hung over also aptly described his condition.
He and Louise had just loaded a huge Styrofoam ice chest they'd taken out of their monstrous motor home, which I learned Louise had driven "all the way up here by her ownself."
But I was denied seeing its contents, just as I was denied seeing if Walter could keep his meals down, because once we got out past the breakwater, the cold wind whipped up waves so high that after a few minutes of up and down rocking, and very little forward motion, Steve was able to turn the vessel around an re-dock.
"Sorry, but we just can't get out there today. If you all can make it tomorrow, we'll give it a try then – no extra charge."
To avoid a day of sitting around the Homer Spit area, Michael and I rented a couple of salmon rods and gear, and drove up to the Kenai River where we joined others on the shore catching red (Chinook) salmon as they headed upriver to spawn.
The next morning found the Homer Spit awash in sunlight, calm skies, and a morning of promise.
The boarding routine was duplicated, even down to the Styrofoam cooler and an unsteady Walter. Once we cleared the breakwater and headed out, Walter whipped out a bottle of whiskey, which he proceeded to nip from all morning. Louise seemed to take it in stride. She appeared to be an enabler who's most likely spent half her life nurturing poor old Walter.
Michael, Steve and I declined the proffered nips and soon Walter was napping in the cabin. We got to the fishing grounds and eagerly set about to catch some halibut. And we were catching them all day. It was exciting. While Walter's snores seemed to rattle the cabin walls, we fished.
We got a hook-up almost every time we dropped the line. But most of them were small – for Alaska that is. I'd fished Sitka several times and while it appeared there were more halibut here, the ones in Sitka seemed larger.
We were constantly catching and releasing halibut, keeping only the largest ones. Most were in the 10-20 pound range, a good size fish anywhere else but Alaska. Even Louise came out and caught a few. Finally, when we were exhausted and our arms felt like spaghetti from winding up fish from the deep, Steve said "Whatya say guys, shall we give it about another ten minutes or so and head in?"
Somehow, Walter heard that and awoke from his slumber. He came out of the cabin and stood a moment at the door trying to focus on our activity. He looked wan and pale, but by god, he'd come to go fishing and that's just what he was going to do. He took two unsteady steps and fell – right on the ice chest, sending splinters of Styrofoam skittering in all directions. Ice cubes and a few beers rolled around the deck. Sandwiches in plastic baggies joined the mess swirling around our feet.
Louise quickly rescued those and sheepishly handed them out to all of us.
We ate the sandwiches while a still-drunk Walter reached for the rod his wife had been using. Steve was ready to head back to Homer but politely decided to oblige his paying customer by letting him wet a line before we left.
Bam! We all saw his rod immediately bend over almost double. Within seconds after dropping his line, Walter was hooked up to what seemed to be the strongest bite of the day. We all knew it was big and it took him time, but Walter brought the monster in. Michael and I were dumbfounded. We'd been catching fish all day, and each had our two fish limit of about our largest fish, maybe 25 pounders.
But Walter, oblivious to everything and with his only one cast, outshined us all. By length one can pretty well approximate the weight of a halibut. And this "barn door" looked to be five feet long – a 100 plus pound halibut!
Turns out it was 5'2", or 121 pounds.
If he remembered his day out of Homer, Walter had a pretty good story to tell the folks back home in Alabama. If not, well Louise could relate her husband's fishing prowess.
Besides a couple of "nice sized" halibut, Michael and I had our own story to tell – never did figure out what the moral was, though! Maybe something about drunks, luck, and destiny.