Big Fish

Jim Nelson of Rapid City, top, sits on his son's shoulder, Dr. Damon Nelson, as they compare themselves to the 499-pound halibut that Damon Nelson caught in Alaska last month.

In the classic 1975 movie, Jaws, Sheriff Brody (played by the late Roy Scheider), upon seeing the great white shark after which the movie is named, uttered one of the more memorable quotes in the history of cinema.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

That notable phrase would have been apropos for Dr. Damon Nelson, a 42-year-old, Spearfish High School and University of South Dakota medical school graduate, who caught a 499-pound halibut while fishing with his father, Jim Nelson of Rapid City, during a recent fishing trip in Ugak Bay off Kodiak Island in Alaska.

And while a bigger boat was not needed, the giant halibut was so large that the railing of the 40-foot fishing boat had to be removed before the giant halibut could be hauled on board.

The epic adventure, a fishing story that will be oft told in the Nelson households for years to come, occurred on Aug. 17 while the Nelsons were enjoying a fishing excursion guided by Brian Peterson out of Ugak Bay Lodge.

The Nelsons along with four other men — Matt Byram, Brian Barnes, Courtenay Klein and Matt Werby — who were in the fourth day of the five-day fishing trip. A day that hadn’t gone particularly well up to that point with only a few rockfish and a salmon to show for a long day on the water.

“We didn’t think we were going to come home with much,” Jim Nelson, a retired miner from Homestake Mine, said when interview on Tuesday. “We had been out since about six in the morning, and I’m guessing it was around three or four o’clock when we caught the fish. We were kind of heading back toward the lodge.”

And then, as Damon worked a presentation of herring and sculpin on 80-pound test line at a depth of 155 feet — ironically some 100 yards from where a 450-pound halibut had been caught in 1996 according to Peterson — good fortune struck.

“I was kind of in the middle of the boat working on bringing it in while the captain and my friends were at the railing,” Dr. Damon Nelson, a 42-year old physician was quoted as saying in the Aug. 24 edition of the Anchorage Daily News “My dad took video as it came to the surface and his first words were, ‘Oh my God!’ It was a mix of fear and elation. I couldn’t tell what it was — is it a halibut or is it a great white shark?”

Once hooked, it took nearly 45 minutes to get the halibut boat-side, and another 45 minutes to get it aboard.

“We knew right away it was a big because he really had to struggle to pull it in,” Jim Nelson said. “Though not how big until we got it right up towards the boat. It looked like a four-by-eight sheet of plywood being pulled up.”

So large was the fish that it was necessary to shoot and harpoon the halibut before removing the railing to get the fish on board.

“It was an absolute nightmare when we figured out how large it was,” Damon Nelson stated in the Anchorage Daily News article. “Eventually after some MacGyvering, we were able to get it into the boat. I had no idea till this trip that fish occasionally had to be shot to get them into the boat. I thought, ‘Really? You have to shoot them?’ Now I know why. I’m a fairly novice fisherman. I was the least experienced of anybody on the boat, so I had both the most shock and the least appreciation of the magnitude and size of that thing.”

Though Nelson’s catch doesn’t qualify as a record since it was not weighed — the lodge didn’t have a big enough scale, and the 499-pound guesstimate of weight was based upon the 96-inch length, 84 inches girth, and 18-inch thickness of the giant fish — that fact won’t take away from a likely once in a lifetime experience for Damon and Jim Nelson

“In fact, this is about Damon’s third time of fishing. Some people fish all their life for something like this and this was his third time out. It was the greatest trip I’ve ever been on. And this one is going to do us for a day or two, I think,” Jim Nelson said, summing up their amazing day on the water. “After he caught this one, we fished a while longer and I told him I’ve got to catch a dang whale to match that.”

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