MONTAGUE ISLAND – Until Thursday morning, the biggest fish U.S. Army PFC Evan Langer had ever hooked was an 18 1/2-inch bass.
Then he found himself staring over the stern of the F/V Legend into the maw of a Gulf of Alaska monster with Saltwater Safari Company skipper Bob Candopoulos shouting instructions in his ear:
“Pump up. Reel down. Pump up. Reel down. Not to hard. Easy now. You got him.”
Only minutes earlier Candopoulos had set the anchor for the 53-foot boot just off this island blocking the entrance to Prince William Sound. It was a cool but glorious morning with the Gulf seas unusually smooth and sun breaking through the high clouds to light the snows still clinging to the Kenai Mountains on the horizon.
About a dozen servicemen and one woman out for the day as guests of Candopoulos were relishing the weather. So, too, about 200 more service personnel being hosted by a good share of Seward charter businesses and one that had motored in from Chenega Bay in the Sound just be part of the day’s festivities.
None of them could have hoped for better weather.
On the three-hour run out to the fishing grounds from Seward, however, Candopoulos observed that the “Armed Services Combat Fishing Tournament” he and Keith Manternach, the owner of Specialty Auto and Truck in Anchorage started in 2007 as a benefit for servicemen stationed in Alaska has never been weathered out.
Maybe it’s a karma thing.
Now in its 10th year, the tournament is the biggest of its kind in the country. It grew from two Saltwater Safari boats and 60 servicemen the first year to most of the charter operations in Seward and more than 200 servicemen this year.
The 25-year-old Langer was of the big winners. A guy whose previous fishing experience was, in his words “all small panfish mainly”, he ended the day with a limit of two halibut, the biggest of which came in at 89.8 pounds.
Langer’s first of the day catch pretty much fired up the Army and Air Force personnel aboard the Legend, though the fishing didn’t fully live up to the high bar set by the former Wisconsin resident now stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The next fish was a 73.2-pound halibut, but after that the catch settled down into a more near-normal range of 15- to 40-pounds.
There certainly wasn’t anyone complaining, however. Nearly all of the servicemen collected a limit of two fish before heading off to an evening banquet and prize drawing for mystery fish. Where once a prize was given for the biggest fish, there is now a drawing from a hat full of paper slips on which are written the weights of one halibut per angler.
Twenty lucky winners in this lottery get to pick from among a variety of donated prizes or go for cash. The top cash prize this year was $1,000 for the winner of the first weight pulled from the hat.
Some, however, might have gotten their biggest prize paid in halibut flesh. The largest fish on the day weighed 108.6 pounds, and there were a fair number over 50 pounds. With fresh halibut today going at $6 t $7 per pound dockside or $17 or $18 per pound retail when headed and gutted, those fish are worth from $300 to $1200, depending on how you value them.
But what the tournament is really about, Candopoulos said, is giving servicemen a chance to get out on the water to relax, unwind and sometimes reconnect.
Aboard the Legend, he recalled sitting at the banquet after the very first derby with a soldier who’d won a Purple Heart. After a Coast Guardsman was called to get a prize, the soldier asked Candopolous to confirm the Coast Guardsman’s name and then went over to talk to the man.
As it turned out, Candopoulos said, the Coast Guardsman had previously been an Army medic in Afghanistan who saved the soldier’s life.
“He held his finger in that guys jugular vein for 45 minutes to keep him from bleeding to death,” Candopoulos said. “And here they are all these years later they meet in Seward at a friggin’ fishing tournament.”
For that, said Manternach, the Seward business community and the many volunteers who turn out to help deserve a special thanks for making the event a reality. So, too, for a long list of donors who donated gear or cash for the drawings, added Candopoulus.
And how did the serviceman feel about it?
“It got me out here,” Langer said. “It got me out of work today. It got me a pretty big fish.”