Hefty halibut in running for top fish

As luck would have it, Mark Hilts had bought a $10 ticket in the annual Homer (Alaska) Halibut Derby before he went fishing on the morning of July 13.

Mark Hilts catches huge halibut
Mark Hilts (right) of Grand Rapids gives a thumbs-up for the 273.2-pound halibut he caught July 13 in the Homer (Alaska) Halibut Derby. He was fishing with charter captain Pete Karwowski (left) of Homer. Hilts is currently in first place in the summer-long fishing contest. (Photo by Homer Halibut Derby)

As luck would have it, Mark Hilts had bought a $10 ticket in the annual Homer (Alaska) Halibut Derby before he went fishing on the morning of July 13.

Hilts, 53, of Grand Rapids, caught the largest halibut of the season so far in the contest. It weighed 273.2 pounds and was 83 inches long. He could win more than $40,000 in the contest's jackpot, based on current ticket-sale projections, if his catch is the largest of the season. He could win another $1,000 if it's the largest for the month of July. The derby continues through the end of September.

Last year, a 354-pound halibut won the jackpot.

"But there have been years when a fish under 300 pounds has won it," said Hilts, a printer by trade.

His catch made the front page of the Sports section in the Anchorage Daily News on July 14.


Hilts and his girlfriend, Joelle Holsman, were aboard a charter boat called the Sorceress, run by Capt. Pete Karwowski. Several other anglers were also aboard.

"We caught one about 25 pounds right off the bat," Hilts said. "A couple other people were catching fish, too."

The big one hit about 10:30 a.m.

"I set the hook and could feel it was big," Hilts said. "The captain said, 'Are you stuck on the bottom?'"

Hilts told the captain he had a fish. The battle was on.

"I'd pull up, and drag would just go out," Hilts said.

He fought the fish for about 15 or 20 minutes on heavy tackle.

"The captain saw the rod tip bounce," Hilts said. "He told everyone else to reel up. He nonchalantly walked to the front of the boat. He came back and set a double-barreled .410 (shotgun) on the rail with two slugs.


"The deckmate was a 30-year-old kid from Georgia. It was his first year. He said, 'Oh, my god. I've never seen him bring two shells.'"

Hilts finally got a look at the fish when it was about 10 feet down. So did Holsman.

"I really didn't want it on board," Holsman said. "It looked like the size of a car."

"I got it up to the top," Hilts said. "(The captain) shot it. Then he shot it again."

The captain and deck hand, using a gaff hook, together heaved the fish aboard. The fish was too big for the boat's fish box, so they tied its head and tail together and set it in the corner.

"I pretty much quit fishing," Hilts said. "I was just kind of in awe."

The second-largest fish caught on the boat that day was between 25 and 30 pounds, Hilts said.

In contest standings, the second-place fish was a 255-pounder, and third was just over 250 pounds.


Back home, Hilts and Holsman have plenty of good eating ahead. Halibut is highly regarded for its flavor and texture. The two have plenty on hand -- a total of 181 pounds of fillets.

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