No, Tom Hellinger won’t be sharing his secret halibut spot anytime soon, though he does offer a hint.
“I can give you the coordinates,” says the 59-year-old Puget Sound angler who hooked a true barndoor late last month. “All the way on the bottom.”
But the Whidbey Island resident is sharing more details of his remarkable catch, a 6 1/2-plus-foot-long halibut estimated at between 254 and 265 pounds.
“It’s pretty humbling to catch a fish like that,” says Hellinger, who likened it to harvesting a trophy bull elk. “They’re pretty majestic.”
Though unofficial, the fish is within 25 to 35 pounds of the state record, caught out at Swiftsure Bank in the late 1980s.
“I was really blessed to be part of that and have my kids be there,” Hellinger adds.
They were out somewhere on the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sunday, May 27.
With his daughter Aleisha Hellinger, son Caleb Hellinger and fishing partner Luke Reid all angling off the back of the 24-foot Hewescraft, Hellinger went up to the bow.
“I told the kids I was going to catch the big one,” he says.
With him he took an Okuma SST halibut rod paired with a Tica reel he’d picked up on sale at a boat show and strung with 80-pound T.U.F. Line.
“The cheapest rod and reel on the boat,” Hellinger jokes in a salty three-minute video Aleisha shot.
With a whole black-label-sized herring and large pink squid on a 10/0 Gamakatsu off a spreader bar and nylon leader on the business end, he used 50 ounces of weight to keep the rig on bottom in 100-plus feet of water.
Hellinger says it was only about five minutes after he began fishing that the bait got the interest of something big.
“He set up hard on it,” Hellinger recalls. “He took 50 to 60 yards of line, just ripped it off. I had to thumb it to stop it, then set the hooks again.”
He says the fish felt solid, “like being hooked into a wall.”
Calling Caleb over, he handed the rod to him with some instructions.
“I’ve got a nice fish on, so work him nice and slow,” Hellinger counseled. “We’ll see what comes up.”
He said it took about 40 minutes for Caleb to bring the halibut up to the surface.
“It came up like the mothership — flat, flat as could be. Everybody had that ‘oh, my gosh’ moment. This is a barndoor.”
The initial attempt at getting a harpoon into the fish failed.
“The fish came out of the water immediately. I’ve never seen one do that. It did a 180 and ran down the side of the boat and snapped off the harpoon line,” Hellinger says.
He coached Caleb to let it run, but soon his son said he couldn’t fight it any longer and for his father to take the rod back.
“My pleasure,” Hellinger responded.
This has been a pretty good halibut season for the longtime employee of Freeland’s Nichols Brothers shipyard, with five between he, Aleisha and Reid — “five times more than usual.”
“I consider it fortunate to get one a season,” Hellinger says.
He says there have been some strings of years with none, and that with Washington’s tightly controlled fishery — with its preplanned and staggered retention days that don’t always align with good weather — he’d even been considering whether it was worthwhile any longer to chase them.
But now, with a big one on, Hellinger found a good spot along the gunnel and fought the seabeast for another 40 minutes, the fish’s movements telegraphing up the line and down the rod into his arms.
“It’s a different feel, like a magic carpet ride. When you hook up, you can feel that undulating swimming motion” that differentiates the flat-sided fish from others like large dogfish, he says.
Where the halibut had come up belly down the first time, now it rose head up as its fight waned.
They took another shot at it with the harpoon, and this time the halibut came at the boat.
“It was something else, like a whitewater event, waves coming over the gunnel,” he says.
As Reid and Caleb stood by with gaffs, Aleisha urged caution and encouragement from the boat’s roof as she took a video of the scene.
Both men then got good purchases with their meathooks, and with a three-count, they slid the halibut over the rails into the stern, where it thrashed blood over the white deck.
The celebrations began immediately with high fives, hugs, whoops of joy — and more than a little disbelief about what this was that they’d just fought out of the depths twice.
As they inspected the fish, Hellinger says they saw that his hook had bent to within 15 degrees of being straightened.
“If we hadn’t got him when we did …,” he says, recalling other hooks over the years that have cracked.
Hellinger admits to taking some flak on a Facebook page that he should have let the fish go. An article last year in the Peninsula Daily News by outdoor reporter Michael Carmen shows that that’s common whenever big halibut are landed here.
But this one also led a good, long life and was able to contribute to the gene pool multiple times over the decades.
Even as we’ll never know exactly how heavy Hellinger’s halibut was because of the impossibility of finding a certified scale during the back half of Memorial Day Weekend — a search detailed in the Whidbey News-Times, which broke the story of the catch — it is safe to say that based on standard length measurements for halibut, his single 78 3/4-inch-long fish accounted for more than 1% of the entire Puget Sound poundage landed over the May 11, 13, 25 and 27 openers, according to WDFW stats. It’s also more than 10 times as heavy as this season’s average flattie here.
Hellinger says its head weighed 42 pounds alone. The fish yielded 140 pounds of fillets, he told Q13, as well as 1 1/2 pounds of coveted halibut cheek meat.
“I was just really thankful and grateful,” Hellinger says. “You don’t really realize how rare that is. Big fish are rare. To be an hour from my home and catch something like that is special.”