When I landed in Alaska on an August evening a few years ago, the sun was still high in the sky and would be for most of the night. I was on this trip with a small group of family and our plans were to RV up the one main highway in Alaska and cut over to Canada before coming back into the state to fish.
The first week of our adventure was full of rolling hills of different shades of green, sporadically overcast by low clouds. Occasionally we’d spot a distant bear or a soaring bird. But it wasn’t until that second week in Alaska that we were on the bottom coast, waking up at 7 a.m. in Homer to jump on a boat to fish halibut. What I didn’t know was that my appreciation for fish would grow after catching my own.
Out on the water I got to experience different wildlife: the tails of whales slipping above the water and otters on their backs holding hands.
Growing up with only older brothers did nothing for my fishing skills, but luckily halibut fishing is as easy as dropping a heavy line to hit the floor of the water and waiting for one to bite. Yet easy as it was, I remember the guy next to me shooting me a glare as if it was my fault his line managed to wrap around mine.
The limit of our catch for the day was two halibut, and we were out on the water two days. We ended up with four halibut.
Halibut aren’t pretty. They’re flat with both eyes on one side of the body. Green on its top side and white on the bottom, the fish didn’t do much for my appetite. But then I watched how the helpers on the boat, who were no older than 17, unhooked the halibut for the fishermen on the boat, killed the fish and later as the boat sped for the docks, sliced the fish guts and bones out of the fish with such ease I couldn’t help but be fascinated.
I even got to hold a halibut heart as it continued to beat outside of the body it once inhabited.
Before this trip, eating fish wasn’t a common thing in my family. It just wasn’t a popular dish with my parents. After pulling up my own two halibut that first day of fishing, two more the next, and watching the process of what came after, I suddenly cared a lot more for what happened to the meat of the fish once we packed it up and shipped it to Texas.
I went from fishing because my uncle had signed me up, to fishing because it made me care a lot more about the animal. And that only grew when we left Homer and made our way to the bank of the Susitna River. For the next three days we would be waking at 5 a.m. to fish for salmon. Our limit was three salmon per day.
After the first day, I wanted to quit. Not only did waking up at 5 a.m. feel just about terrible, I was so cold on the river I ended up in two pairs of pants, in all the sweaters I brought, plus a rain jacket, pants and boots. I was still cold.
I continued with it and was glad in the end to have done so. Salmon fishing required a little more skill than halibut and I often found myself as the last person on our little boat who hadn’t caught their limit. Cast, wait, reel in, re-bait, cast again. It was a process. I caught a few zombie salmon, which are salmon that are literally rotting to death and yes they are in fact very creepy to have on your line.
But feeling that light tug on the rod and reeling in a fighting fish is more satisfying than I thought it would be. I understand now why it is a popular pastime.
We would finish up around noon or 1 p.m. and our river guide would take the salmon and slice away at it before we headed back to our RV.
The week went by quickly and by the time we were waiting on the plane to come back to Houston, I smelled as if I was a fish because I wore all my clothes out on the river. Somehow we managed to fly our box of fish to Houston and it was still safe to eat once we got there (the Houston airport doesn’t have a freezer to keep things like this).
We had more halibut and salmon then we knew what to do with, but we gifted some away. When we would cook the pieces at home, I found that I held a deeper appreciation for the fish, much like how many hunters feel about the animals they shoot. It’s a type of honoring that I think everyone should understand if they eat animals.