How to win a Ford F-150 truck by catching a fish.

29th Dec 2017 by

To understand how this is possible you first have to understand the Alaskan people and their relationship with fishing. They love it, and you’d do very well to find an Alaskan that hasn’t wet a line at some point in their life. So, when I travelled to Alaska in 2016 I had my eyes on one very big prize.

The competition is known as The Halibut Derby and there are many prizes up for grabs but the F-150 was all I cared about. I was captivated by the thought of winning a big, massive truck by catching a fish.

The Halibut Derby is essentially a very convoluted and arduous raffle. Local companies sponsor prizes, fish are caught, tagged with a number that relates to a specific prize and then released back into the sea. Competitors having purchased a Derby Ticket then set sail aiming to catch one of the tagged fish. There is also a prize and a landing net full of esteem for the angler who catches the largest fish across the month-long season.

For those of you who don’t know much about the Halibut, I’m here to tell you that he is a member of the right-eyed flounder family. This means that he keeps his left side close to the seabed with both eyes on the right hand (upper) side. He is also the largest flatfish in the ocean with a world record 515lb behemoth being caught off the shores of Norway. The name Halibut is derived from haly (holy) and butte (flatfish), which coincidentally is what the Norwegian angler shouted when he saw his new record. Holy Flatfish!

I felt like an amateur boxer with his eyes on the Heavyweight Title of the World

I knew there was a lot of work to do so I grabbed a fishing rod and took to the road. This prize would need to be earned. I had a rough route in mind and my plan was to stop and practice my angling skills at any likely looking river or lake that I could find.

Driving in Alaska was a complete pleasure. The endless skies and long days. The incredible scenery and of course, the high like-li-hood of seeing some of the native wildlife. It’s also virtually impossible to get lost as there are so few roads.

I took Highway 1 north from Anchorage through Wasilla, Talkeetna and on to Denali. By this stage, I’d fished 2 lakes and 3 rivers catching the precise sum of zero fish. But this process was necessary if the big prize was to be mine.

I took a positive approach and likened this experience to some serious shadow boxing.

I chased the warmer weather illogically north to Fairbanks. Temperatures here are more closely aligned with local geography than the latitude. With another fish-less stop on the way, I decided that I needed a brief recovery period to assess my progress so far. Chena Hot Springs, the geothermally heated pools east of Fairbanks, provided a thoroughly relaxing day allowing me to recharge my batteries and figure out what to do next.

Feeling refreshed I headed straight to the local lake where I was rewarded with my first Alaskan fish. It was a tiny little trout, caught on a fly which I happily released none the worse for his experience. The fish was very small but highly significant. I also caught some Grayling, a fish that I’d never captured before. I was gaining momentum.

I’d now started sparring and was firmly on schedule for my first real fight.

The next stage of my development would be to take on a larger adversary. I chose the Salmon. These fish have an incredible life story. They are hatched in freshwater streams, typically at high latitudes. Maturation comes after a few years and they then proceed off on their grand tour of the sea. Having lived in the Pacific Ocean for 1 to 5 years they return to their place of birth, sometimes travelling thousands of kilometres, to spawn the next generation and die.

The Trump administrations decision to remove protections for Bristol Bay put the most valuable wild salmon fishery in the world at risk.

Being the studious individual that I am, my evenings were spent in local hostelries attempting to glean more information from the locals. The Salmon ran around the same time every year but this year they were late. The mood was one of incredulity with global warming the chief suspect. I also learnt that there are six different types of Salmon but the one I should be targetting was the Coho or ‘Silver’ Salmon. It is highly prized for its fighting spirit and juicy flesh. So much so that locals will put signs on the roadside indicating that the ‘Silvers are in’, luring anglers who will then spend money in their shops and bars.

I was headed south on Highway 3 just past Talkeetna when I saw them. The ‘Silvers were in’! I hadn’t even seen a Salmon at that point, let alone try to catch one. Abandoning my car next to several other vehicles by the roadside, I grabbed my fly rod and marched towards a tributary of the Susitna River. There were fishermen everywhere flicking flies into the frothy water. Unsure of the etiquette I headed downstream until I found a section of water that was currently unfished.

I stood back and scanned the water for any signs of Salmon. With the fast flowing, sometimes deep water they were difficult to spot, but they were there. The silvers were definitely in. As I mentioned previously, these fish are here to spawn and then die. The longer they spend in the river the more they physically deteriorate. They are fully aware of their ultimate fate so they know that feeding isn’t necessary. This makes them quite difficult to catch. It was with this knowledge that I chose a big white fluffy fly from my box which looked like nothing I’d ever seen in nature. Maybe I could tempt a fish out of curiosity?

I spotted a fish in the shallows, no more than a metre from the bank and decided to give it a go. I shocked myself by casting the cotton wool ball fly perfectly, dropping it right on the Salmons’ nose. I was even more shocked when the circa 10lb fish came up in the water and lunged towards the fly. I literally couldn’t believe it, my first cast at an Alaskan Salmon and before I could think anything else I made the classic error of striking too early, literally pulling the fly out of the fish’s gaping jaws.

This should have been my first real contest but I pulled out on the day of the fight.

I needed to regroup so once again I returned to the hostelries. Talkeetna’s Fairview Inn was a particular favorite with its Olde World charm and craft beers. I mostly asked one simple question: “Where is the best place to fish?”. It was surprising to me that the same answer came up time and time again… Cooper Landing.

It was around dusk as I was heading south back towards Anchorage that something caught my eye by the side of the road. I was going roughly 90km/h so I couldn’t quite place it. But I definitely knew it was something. When it was safe to do so I turned the car around and drove back to the spot. There they were, I’d been looking out for these guys but so far hadn’t had any luck. Right by the side of the road in a ditch was an adult female Moose and two calves chomping away on some birch trees. There was nowhere safe to put the car so I had a brief moment observing them through my window. I got one very average photo before I had to return to my journey.

What incredible creatures, the largest in the deer family. I was told by a tour guide that they are exceptional swimmers and would often be seen crossing raging rapids without too much bother. I was so enthused with my sighting that I told the lady in the gas station 10 minutes down the road.

“Hi, I just saw a cow Moose with two calves by the side of the road!”

“Did you? Is that a photo?” she asked pointing to the phone in my hand.

“Yes. It’s a bit blurred, but aren’t they amazing?”

“Oh yeah, that’s Ethel with little Wyatt and Hazel.” she said matter of factly.

I left the gas lady to crush other travellers experiences continuing the long drive through Anchorage and then all the way around the Turnagain Arm before heading south to Cooper Landing. A bridge would have shortened the journey by some distance but it would also have lessened the experience. The Chugach National Forest is a stunning mountainous area in stark contrast to the plains further north. The drive along the water was innately hazardous as I couldn’t stop staring at the stunning surroundings.

I met my fishing guide at 6 am by the bridge on the Kenai River. Dave was an upstate New Yorker and his boat was capable of handling four anglers but today its use was solely mine. I needed some professional assistance to help me on the path to the title. Dave taught me lots of new techniques such as using small orange plastic beads for bait. These were designed to look exactly like Salmon eggs which are the staple diet of the Trout in the river. I caught plenty of fish including Whitefish and Dolly Varden, neither of which I’d captured before.

My first win, time for bigger challenge.

I was back on the Kenai with a different charter company. Dave was a thoroughly nice guy but today I was with Travis. Travis is ex-military and although it didn’t seem the day would be filled with light-hearted banter, I felt sure that if there were good fish in this river, Travis would have me catching them. And so it was. The action was non-stop as I caught Trout and more Pink Salmon (the least sought-after version) than I knew what to do with. I also hooked a couple of Silvers but tragically lost them at the boat.

Pink Salmon

I was feeling confident so I thought I’d head to Seward to check out the sea-fishing competition. I took a half-day charter to test the water and see if I was ready for the next stage. They were running a Salmon Derby here so I bought a ticket and boarded the boat. We headed out towards the freezing Resurrection Bay where we saw several whales breaching. I caught countless rockfish and my very first Silver! Sadly it wouldn’t have filled a small frying pan so was allowed to swim free.

When we returned to the harbour there was a bit of a commotion on the docks. All the other boats had arrived back and were weighing their catches. I manoeuvered my way towards the area of greatest interest and it became immediately apparent why there was such clamour. In a wheelbarrow by the weighing scales was the biggest fish I’d ever seen. It was a Halibut, all of 6ft long and after hoisting it on the scales was shown to weigh a huge 254lbs! That’s heavier than me!

Huge halibut

OK, forget the F-150, I’ll take one of those any day.

I’d now seen what I was aiming for. It was like watching my fierce rival defend his title. I was humbled but I knew I could do it, I just needed one more warm-up fight before I was ready. That would take place in the bountiful Homer, Alaska.

It was like watching my fierce rival defend his title.

I was on a Salmon fishing charter a few days later and the skipper was a phenom. He was so desperate for his patrons to catch fish that he was almost rude about it. He barked orders like a battlefield general which we discussed in small groups when he couldn’t hear us. I felt like my game, and more importantly, my luck was really starting to improve. We all reeled in tons of fish but it seemed like all the big ones wanted to be caught by me. There were small Halibut, Cod, a very good Silver Salmon and two massive King Salmon. The sport was electric as these fish jumped clear of the water many times before being netted. I was now full of confidence!

Tim Tunnicliff with a King Salmon

I was ready for my title shot. I booked a place on a full day charter, bought my ticket to the Halibut Derby and I was waiting for the first bell. That first bell came in the form of my alarm clock as I was shocked awake at 5:30 am. In hindsight, a skinful of beer and a late night probably wasn’t the best preparation but Homer’s amazing pub – The Salty Dawg was just too much fun.

I was ready for my title shot

I crawled towards the dock happy to see that the other five anglers on my charter were in a similar state of disrepair. We acknowledged each other with subtle nods as we boarded the boat, attempting not to show the pain. Our skipper informed us that it would be a 90-minute ride to the fishing grounds at which point we all retired to the couches in the back of the boat and slept the entire journey.

Now it was really time for the first bell, circle hooks were baited with crab and the lines went overboard. It took no more than 30 seconds for the first fish to be hooked, then another one, then another. It was a fish almost every cast for the first two hours. Even a small Halibut is a big fish so it was an exhausting experience. As each fish neared the surface, we peered into the depths to see if we could spot a winners tag but none appeared. We caught the odd bigger fish of maybe 60lbs but these were still relative babies.

Tim Tunnicliff with a Halibut

It had been an incredible run, I’d earned my shot at the title but had came up just short. It was the best two weeks fishing of my life and I can’t ever see it being surpassed. To win the Ford F-150 would have been pure excess.

The locations, the challenge, and the catching are only part of the experience. I also got to eat many of the fish that I caught as local restaurants were more than happy to do the cooking. However, I still had piles left over so I got them vacuum sealed, flash frozen and sent to friends that I would be visiting soon. I was therefore lucky enough to eat King Salmon at a tailgate party in Vancouver and Halibut at a pool party in LA!

I felt like the Champion of the World!

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