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The Halibut

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" Flat fish, with eyes distorted, square, ovoid, rhomboid, long, Some cased in mail, some slippery-backed, the feeble and the strong ;

Sedaned on poles, or dragged on hooks, or poured from tubs like water,

Gasp side by side, together piled, in one promiscuous slaughter."


That the halibut might be a game fish under certain conditions dawned upon me some years ago when hunting for the tuna off the Maine and New Hampshire coasts. My companion, a local fisherman of repute, had anchored the dory about six miles offshore, and standing upright, with a line to port and starboard, was "codding " after the approved method. Every few moments he would drop one line and haul vigorously on the other, and in due course of time " boat " a fine fish, during which operation I took the first line and so experienced some of the melancholy joys of the deep-water hand-liner. It was while relieving my companion in this way that I hooked something which bade fair to lift me out of the dory, then when I renewed my hold, the unknown jerked my arms into the water, whirling the dory about in the most spirited manner, so convincing me that I had hooked a ground shark that I was inclined to pass the line to the professional. But suddenly the fish began to rise and came to the surface nearly one hundred and fifty feet away, tossing the water into foam, following it by a dash around the boat that would have made the reputation of many a game fish.

" A halibut, I'll swan ! " exclaimed my companion, " and a sockdolliger."

Now every real angler knows what a " sockdolliger" is, and it is hardly necessary to refer to it; but for the benefit of the layman, the unfortunate who has never fished, I may say that the term applies to those remarkable fishes of gigantic, even heroic size which constitute the main subject of conversation among anglers in the out season. It is the fish that always escapes, the record-breaker; every angler has hooked it a score of times, but has never landed it, and if the truth were told, never expects to.

It will be seen that I was in a most fortunate and unconventional position. I had hooked the sockdolliger before a witness who had proclaimed it on the high seas, and I readily understood why he was so anxious to take the line, he wished the credit. His argument that it might be a fivehundred-pound fish, which would be valuable to him, and that he knew just how to manage "such critters," fell on deaf ears. I had chartered the craft and skipper, the sockdolliger was my prerogative, and I ordered the envious boatman to haul in the float anchor, and taking my place in the stern of the dory prepared to land the fish if it took all summer. It is unnecessary to go into the details of this experience, needless to say that the fish plunged to the bottom again ; it had come to the surface merely to " size me up," and had re-turned satisfied that it was merely a question of time with me. I had lifted sulking turtles on the Florida reef ; had toiled with the big sunfish, side on ; had labored with rays from the manta down ; and had lifted seeming tons of coral when fishing for red snappers in the Gulf ; but all these "sulkers" seemed combined in this mighty fish, which moved slowly on, taking line foot by foot with such regularity that I began to realize that it was tipping over the side of some submarine hill and going down into the deep valley of Despair. My boat-man lighted his pipe and asked me what I was going to do when the remaining fifty feet of line had disappeared. He was clearly in the sarcastic stage, and I retorted by suggesting that he take the oars and see what could be done. This stopped the run, and by the most heroic and muscle-rending labor I gained twenty feet on the line, then lay back while that awful weight dragged and surged and took the dory down deeper and deeper.

Any of your folks ever have shocks ?" sententiously asked my companion.

I ignored the suggestion and held back with desperation and hauled in vain; inch by inch, foot by foot, the fish took the line, and it gradually dawned upon me that the real fisherman was at the other end ; the sockdolliger had indeed" sized me up," and was playing me. It jerked my arms almost out, took the skin from my fingers ; it pulled me this way and that while ambling along, now stopping to hammer me with sturdy blows, then putting on a strain that nearly lifted me from my seat, and the iron entered my soul as I realized that I would have to ask for assistance. If I could only have gotten rid of the fish in some other way ! If a shark would only take it ; if the line would only break, or the hook but nothing of the kind happened, the sockdolliger was evidently enjoying itself, the season for man-fishing had opened well, and the anglers among the cod, haddock, lings, and halibuts were doubtless watching the sport with open-eyed admiration at the skill with which the game in a boat was being played and made miserable. The end was near. My "second wind" had come and gone, there was no hope in sight, and theoretically I began to look for a " soft place to fall." I believe this is the correct expression.

" How much did you say this fish is worth ?" I gasped, bracing my feet against the rail during a particularly heavy plunge.

" Why, I calculate a big fish like that's worth twenty dollars," was the reply.

" If that's the case, take the line," I said, to show my magnanimity.

" Oh, I don't want to spoil your sport," rejoined the boatman.

That's all right," said I, airily. " I've taken the freshness out of him." How I wished I had ! How I despised that sullen brute at the bottom of the sea !

The boatman deliberately knocked the ashes out of his pipe, rolled up his sleeves, looked around the points of the compass, and then taking his place by my side picked up the line, while I went forward, took the oars, and prepared to enjoy his agony. At that precise moment the boatman attempted to haul vigorously and broke the line. It was cowardly, but I could not resist remarking, " You don't seem to understand these big fish," to which there was no answer. The fisherman couldn't do it justice and stood silent, merely looking at me.

This being a sockdolliger, it is an easy matter to estimate its weight, which was between five and six hundred pounds ; at least the great halibut of these waters (Hippoglossus hippoglossus, Linn.) is known to attain this weight, and so far as mere size and strength are concerned, ranks with the tarpon, tuna, the great South American arapaima, and other huge fishes. It was very evident that could a medium-sized fish be found and hooked in shallow water, it would afford no little sport. As to the actual maximum size of this fish, Nilsson reports one from the Swedish coast which weighed seven hundred and twenty pounds; and Gloucester fishermen have a record of one taken at New Ledge, sixty miles southeast of Portland, Maine, which weighed six hundred pounds. I was told at Boothbay, near which the Cunner Club, to which I was once " grand chummer," was wont to meet, that a dead halibut had been found which weighed nearly six hundred and forty pounds, which was the record fish of New England waters. One of the largest halibuts ever brought into Gloucester weighed but three hundred and eighty pounds, and many catches have been made of over three hundred and fifty pounds. The fish of this weight are over seven or eight feet in length, and from three and a half. to four feet in width, most difficult creatures to lift when the broad back is presented to the fisherman one hundred or more feet above.

On the North Pacific coast this fish is common, and is occasionally followed by Americans for sport. A friend who accompanied some Alaska fishermen offshore informed me that it was an exciting but very " damp pastime." The hook which these Indians use for halibut, one of which I have in my possession, is a most extraordinary object ; few who have seen it understood its nature, as it resembles a wooden god, half being the totem of the tribe, and the barbless hook being in the most impossible and out-of-the-way position.

If the capture of the great halibut is strenuous, there is one of the group which has afforded me all the gratification of a thoroughly game fish, for which reason is the flatfish, with "eyes dis torted," admitted to this honorable company of game fishes. The islands of Southern California lie, as a rule, parallel to the mainland coast, long mountain ranges, - recumbent sea-monsters from seven to twenty-five miles in length, lying at the surface twenty miles offshore ; and as the prevailing wind is from the west, they have a perfect lee on the eastern shore, a region of calms, while on the west other conditions hold. At Santa Catalina, on the south and west coast, the sea often beats wildly against abrupt cliffs, which in storms hurl it back with loud discordant sounds. Coming down this coast one day from the black sea-bass fishing-grounds, we sighted, well in the surf, a school of fishes of large size, tossing the water in air, striking heavy blows, and evidently playing havoc with the small fry which, in rows of gleaming silver, shot from the water. I was trolling with a fifteen-ounce greenheart rod seven and a half feet long, hoping to pick up a stray white sea-bass ; hence, was ready for the sport, and while I reeled in, the boatman backed into the surf as far as safety permitted, and held the boat head on to the not high seas, shooting ahead when they threatened to break, to drop back when they passed, allowing me to drop my small bait directly in the storm centre along-shore. On the instant came the strike, and as the light boat went careening over a breaking sea, I hooked the fish and presently was playing it from a fairly smooth vantage ground. My boatman suggested large rock-bass, but I was positive I had seen a flat tail waved in the air, and my inference was correct as a halibut came fluttering along the surface with a curious undulating movement for a moment, as though led by a line; then realizing that it was hooked, it plunged down and ran away with my line while the reel made wild music, ran away so effectually that I thought it would be exhausted, dashing by the kelp bed, disdaining this refuge which the black sea-bass always affects, and swimming for open water to make a splendid play, surging on the line that hissed like a knife as it cut the surface now deep in the heart of the waters, rising with a singular bounding motion to encircle the boat, and as suddenly plunge down to sulk in angry protest and apparently present its broad surface against the rod, making the turning of the reel almost an impossibility.

Slowly the boatman rowed out of the surf, and if this fish could have been played in water as shallow as that familiar to the salmon angler, where its rushes would have been off instead of down, it would have commended itself to the ardent lover of purely game fishes. For fifteen minutes it fought me, and until I brought it within eyesight, my boatman insisted that it was a yellowtail one of the most powerful and hardest fighting of all fishes ; but it was a halibut, one of the despised flounder tribe which appeal to the digestion but not to an appetite whetted for sport. This gamy creature redoubled its fighting as it saw the boat, repeatedly broke away, and when gaffed was making a flying rush around the boat after various attempts to hold it ; and when finally held, its white belly blazing in the sun-light, beat the water with powerful blows, and literally hurled watery defiance in our faces. When the boatman held the fish up, that I might observe its fine proportions, it was evident that it was built for such work and was an animated resistant. The fish, which was the bastard halibut, Paralichthys californicus, weighed between fifty and sixty pounds, was three and a half feet in length, a fine specimen of this genus common about the islands, though rarely caught of this size, possibly because bottom-fishing is seldom indulged in here except by professional fishermen on the so-called grouper banks. At Catalina Harbor, a California fjord, Empire Landing, and a few localities on the west coast, it can always be found. At San Clemente, twenty miles to the southwest, it is also common, and it is also taken at Coronado, in the bay, at La Jolla, San Juan, Monterey, in fact anywhere alongshore where shallow and protected water is found. The young fishes, when lying on the sandy bottom, so simulate it that it is almost impossible to distinguish them. I have taken them from the beach with an eight-ounce split bamboo, and found the sport enjoyable.

Of all fishes this group is perhaps the quaint-est. When young they swim upright, as do others, but as they grow they fall over and lie flat, the lower side turning white as the pigment is found unnecessary, and then comes a change which, in its seeming impossibility, equals the most improbable fish story. The under eye be-gins to move, literally starts upon its travels, differing some in the various species in route and method of procedure, but moving, nevertheless, passing around in some, directly through the head in others, until in the adult fish we find both eyes on top, having travelled around from the left to the right side. I am indebted to Dr. Alexander Agassiz for a drawing showing the various stages of this remarkable journey of an eye. Nearly all these fishes commend themselves to the epicure, the English sole, California sand dab, the New England turbot, the summer flounder, and many more being extremely valuable. The halibut of the Northwest coast has a pronounced economic value, and the " Halibut Express " from Vancouver to Boston is suggestive that the eastern coast cannot supply the demand.

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