In 1974, Harry Harris and a few other fishermen at the Marina City Anglers Club in Marina del Rey decided to hold a halibut tournament.
Twenty-two guys signed up, someone won a prize for the biggest halibut, and the tournament was considered a huge success.
This weekend, the same tournament--now known as the Marina del Rey Anglers Halibut Derby--will gear up again. But the numbers are a little different. As of mid-week, more than 1,400 fishermen had registered.
Santa Monica Bay figures to look like an invasion site Saturday and Sunday, with more than 500 boats cruising favored halibut waters between Point Vicente and Point Dume. An early Saturday or Sunday morning jogger, on, say Topanga Beach, might look out on the water and think he’s been time-warped back to June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach.
Last year, when 720 fishermen participated, tournament officials reacted with disbelief. Now, they’re talking about using a computer to keep track next year, which, given the present growth rate, might reach 2,500.
“I’m trying to help my brothers run our building-supply business,” complained John Bourget, the tournament’s director. “But I’ve been working on this tournament during the day, coming home and handling entry forms until midnight. Next year, we’ll just have to have a salaried staff run it--it’s gotten too big.”
First prize this year is a seven-day stay for two at a world-class halibut fishing lodge, Whaler’s Cove, at Angoon, Alaska, a trip worth $3,400. In 1974, first place was worth a new rod and reel.
The tournament will start at 12:01 a.m. Saturday and end at 5 p.m. Sunday. Weigh-in will be at the 76 Union fuel dock on the east side of the Marina del Rey main channel. Some rules:
--All fishing is restricted to within five miles of shore, between Point Dume and Point Vicente.
--Fishermen must have entered the tournament and paid the $25 entry fee by Wednesday midnight.
--Fish can be weighed in both days but only a fisherman’s heaviest fish can be considered for a prize.
--Fishermen can fish from a private boat, party boat, pier or shore.
Second and third places in the tournament are worth $300 and $150 cash, plus fishing gear. Fourth- through 30th-place winners will get fishing gear.
Most of the money raised is directed to the Santa Monica Boys’ Club and the Venice Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs. Funds are also used to take underprivileged inner city youngsters on fishing trips.
How did all this get so big?
“You have to understand halibut fishermen to answer that,” said Harris, the tournament’s founder.
“I’m 70 and I’ve fished since I was 4 or 5. There’s something special about catching halibut. It’s a fish that hasn’t been glamorized a lot, but there’s a special skill involved.
“For one thing, you have to have the touch of a safecracker. There are saltwater fishermen and then there are halibut fishermen. Halibut have a very sensitive bite. It’s a purist thing, sort of like fly-fishing for trout.
“I think that’s the reason for the fantastic growth of the tournament--halibut fishermen never had a reason to get together until we started a tournament.
“One of the best things about halibut fishing is that you don’t need a big boat. You don’t need any boat, in fact.
“There will be people in this tournament fishing in trailerable bass boats that they’ve put in the water at the Marina del Rey launch ramps or from party boats out of Frenchy’s Sportfishing.”
“Look in the jar, they’re real small . . . no, you have to look closer than that.”
Kevin Herbinson, a Southern California Edison Company marine biologist, was showing a visitor a five-gallon laboratory jar at Edison’s marine lab in Redondo Beach. In the jar, he said, were thousands of tiny California halibut.
“No, I . . . oh, yeah, now I see them.”
The 2-week-old halibut were smaller than match heads. They were in constant motion, feeding on rotifers, tiny marine micro-organisms raised in the lab.
“Just-hatched halibut feed on their own yolk sack for four days,” Herbinson said. “On the fifth day, their mouth becomes functional and they begin eating. They’ll eat things like rotifers for the first three weeks, then move on to larger invertebrates, like brine shrimp.”
Tiny halibut look pretty much like any young ocean fish. But at 4 to 6 weeks of age, the most dominant feature begins to appear--one eye moves to the other side of its body.
Herbinson, research manager at the Edison lab, directs a staff of four biologists who are closely studying the life cycle of the California halibut. Edison uses ocean water for coolant at its Redondo Beach power plant and operates a research lab where halibut and other saltwater fish are studied.
One of the halibut project’s objectives is to determine if it’s economically feasible to raise significant numbers of California halibut in a hatchery environment, should California stocks of the fish ever go into a deep decline.
The California halibut, which seldom reaches a weight of 40 pounds, is a different species from the Pacific halibut, which grows to hundreds of pounds in Alaska waters.
“One of the toughest problems we had was identification,” said Steve Caddell, project manager.
“We learned early in the project that at the larval stage, the fantail sole looks almost exactly like a California halibut, even under a microscope. So we couldn’t really get started studying sea samples until we were certain we were studying the right fish.
“It took us six months, but we finally were able to discern extremely subtle differences in skin pigmentation in the larval stage.”
Caddell and his staff can induce halibut to spawn in the laboratory, but are nowhere near being able to do so continuously or in a hatchery environment.
“The spawns we’ve induced were in season and we feel we can do that consistently,” Caddell said. “We don’t know if we can do it all year around, and in terms of hatchery economics you need to be sure you can before you spend millions of dollars to build a hatchery.
“There are so many factors involved in halibut spawning that we still don’t know much about. We think California halibut start spawning in December and January and we’re pretty sure they stop spawning in May. We know a female might produce as many as two million eggs in a season.
“We’re not sure what the ideal water temperature is, whether the length of the day has much to do with it, what factor diet is . . . and we don’t know what an acceptable number of fish in a tank is for optimum spawning conditions.”
From a window on a 45,000-gallon tank, Herbinson watched adult halibut rise quickly from the tank’s sandy bottom and swallow their lunch--dead queenfish--in quick, single gulps.
Herbinson said: “By watching these lab fish eat, I’ve changed the way I fish for them. For one thing, I’ve gone to very light leaders, because as you can see here they see very clearly their food sinking down to them, so they must also clearly see fishing line. Also, the ocean floor where you’re fishing will have far more little, undersize halibut than legal size (22 inches) halibut.
“So a lot of what you feel in your rod when you’re trying to figure out when to set the hook might be a lot of little halibut on your bait. The big ones may take it a lot quicker than fishermen think.”
According to the Department of Fish and Game, California halibut catches were up dramatically in 1985. Citing recently released figures, the DFG said that more than 69,000 sport-caught halibut were landed last year in California, nearly twice the 1984 figure.
Rob Collins of the DFG monitors California halibut catches by both sport and commercial fishermen.
“We have data that suggests halibut are on 20-year cycles,” he said.
“There were peaks in the halibut catch by sport fishermen in the mid-1940s and mid-1960s, with low points in between. The commercial take in Southern California has been a steady 1.2 million pounds per year in California since 1981, which suggests to us the resource is in pretty good shape.”