Jerry Saunders, 72, threads a herring onto a 3-inch hook and throws the bait over the side of his boat in Kachemak Bay near Homer, Alaska (pop. 3,946), hoping to catch another hefty, prize-winning Pacific halibut.
“I caught most of my big fish right here in these kelp beds,” says Saunders, of Chugiak, Alaska, who won first place and $37,000 in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby last year after landing a 358-pound fish in the Gulf of Alaska.
Established in 1986, the derby has become an annual tradition in Homer, the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World. Last year, fishermen purchased 15,000 tickets at $10 each to participate in the May through September contest. Winners in various categories will receive $180,000 in cash prizes this year.
With its large fishing fleet, protected harbor, fertile bay and link to Alaska’s limited road system, Homer has a reputation for producing boatloads of fishermen and halibut.
Last year, 20 percent of the 50 million pounds of halibut caught by commercial vessels in the Gulf of Alaska were landed in Homer. Sport fishermen who boarded boats in Homer caught another 2 million pounds of the flat, bottom-feeding fish, which can live to be 55 years old and grow to more than 400 pounds, though the average fish weighs 20 pounds.
“Homer is the most accessible, successful halibut port in the state,” says Cristy Fry, 48, who has harvested halibut and salmon commercially from Alaskan waters for 30 years.
Originally called Station Coal Point for the seams of coal mined and shipped from the north shore of Kachemak Bay in the late 1800s, Homer is recognized for its unique geographical feature, a 4.5-mile peninsula that juts into icy waters of the glacial-fed bay.
The peninsula—known as the Homer Spit—and town are named for Homer Pennock, a gold company con man who arrived in 1896 with a 50-man, one-woman crew. The town’s notorious namesake didn’t find any gold and only stayed about a year before moving on to the Klondike Gold Rush.
“He was a shady character and really never succeeded at anything, though he did give the town its name,” says Ryjil Christianson, 29, director of education for the Pratt Museum in Homer.
Today, Homer is a bustling fishing village that showcases the region’s native cultures, homesteader heritage and marine life at the Pratt Museum and the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center; commemorates its lost seaman at the Seafarers Memorial; and celebrates the day’s catch at the Salty Dawg Saloon, a pair of century-old log cabins on the Homer Spit that formerly housed a post office, grocery store and schoolhouse.
Homer is home to a summer fleet of 1,000 commercial, charter and pleasure boats docked at the harbor south of town, and hundreds of seasoned seamen and women who love to reminisce about days gone by.
“I caught my first fish in 1962,” recalls Wilma Williams, 83, whose father homesteaded in Homer in 1930, 29 years before Alaska became a state. “I set nets on McDonald Spit, across the bay. We were catching salmon for the cannery in Seldovia.”
In addition to salmon and halibut, fishermen in Homer pursue rockfish, lingcod and crab. Still, Homer is best known for its halibut, which are prized for their white meat and mild flavor, whether it’s baked, broiled, grilled, or breaded and deep-fried.
“If I’m going to catch a fish, I’d rather catch a halibut,” says Saunders, who spent much of the summer pursuing another enormous entry in the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby. “It’s good to eat.”