SEWARD, Alaska — David Rokser was pedaling his fishing kayak last week, trolling as he went along, hoping to catch a salmon or maybe a rockfish.
The Duluth native was on Resurrection Bay in the North Pacific Ocean, off Seward, Alaska, where he’s spending the summer at a mission that caters to merchant mariners.
“I was hoping for a salmon, but they really weren’t going at all. ... So I thought I’d try off the mouth of a river, maybe for a rockfish or something,’’ Rokser said.
First he tagged into a 40-pound skate, a sort of Alaskan version of a stingray, which was pretty exciting on its own. “It was only the second time I had the kayak out fishing,” Rokser said.
Then he tied on a 6-ounce blue and silver Diamond Assault jig, hoping to tag into something down deep, just off a shelf in over 100 feet of water.
The jig never hit bottom.
“The fish didn’t hit hard, but the jig just stopped. I set the hook and it didn’t budge. It was dead weight,” Rokser said.
That’s when Rokser’s epic battle on sea began. It would last for more than 2.5 hours. “I didn’t know what kind of fish I had on. For the first hour, it really didn’t move much at all. … I had the rod butt tucked under my arm and the rod resting on my leg,” he said.
The fish, whatever it was, was towing the kayak with Rokser in it. He’d end up more than half-mile from where the battle started. “After a while, I started making some progress. My whole kayak would move whenever he did a head shake,” Rokser said.
During the battle, Rokser used his cellphone and called a friend, recording the water and chatting.
“I still didn’t know what it was. … It was only when it came up along the kayak that I could see it was a halibut,” Rokser siad. “When it appeared out of the gloom it scared the crap out of me when I saw how big it was.”
Remember, Rokser had been fishing for salmon — silver cohos or maybe a humpback pink — with medium-heavy tackle and a reel spooled with 20-pound test monofilament line. Halibut gear is often stiff as a broom handle, with wire line of 100-pound test or more.
Rokser realized he was only 100 yards off shore, so he back-pedaled his Hobie Mirage Outback kayak to the nearest beach, jumped out in waist-deep water and eventually landed the fish on the rocks. He thought about releasing it, but the fish looked spent beyond any reviving. So he bonked it on the head and used a gaff hook to drag it up. Then he wondered how he’d get the monster home.
"I had a cooler, but it wasn’t nearly big enough for this fish,” Rokser said with a laugh. “So I used a couple of little bungies I had and strapped it to the back of the kayak. … I was about a half-mile from the car at that point.”
The fish measured 63 inches long. Charts estimated the weight at 127 pounds, “but the locals who saw it thought it was a little heavier than that,” Rokser said. He got some giant fillets off the fish — what many people consider one of the best tasting in the world.
That’s a big fish for a 72-inch-tall guy to catch out of a 12-foot kayak. It was the biggest fish he’d ever caught and his first halibut ever. His arms were still quivering the next day.
“My whole body aches still,” he said.
The summer in Seward has been cold and windy, Rokser noted, and he hasn’t had many chances to get the kayak out on the ocean. But Aug. 10, the day he caught the halibut, was in the mid-60s and calm. “I was out kayaking in a T-shirt. That’s pretty rare up here,” he said.
Rokser, 29, an intensive care unit nurse practitioner, said he moved to Alaska for the summer after working through the grueling COVID-19 pandemic. “I needed a mental break and Alaska sounded good,” he said.
He hopes to get out more often in the kayak through October, when he will leave Alaska, possibly for a stint in Africa. But he’s not likely to forget his Alaskan kayak battle with a halibut.
“It was a great day,” he said. “I had whales spouting near me. It was just an amazing experience. ... You feel very small in nature when you are in a kayak in ice-cold Pacific water, alone, surrounded by mountains, whales spouting and breaching around you … and you’re hooked into a 100-plus-pound fish.”