A fish tale blending equal parts of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and the classic “teach a man to fish” parable recently unwound in the Pacific Ocean near Neah Bay.
Leo Vergara, a 34-year-old Edmonds angler, achieved his fishing dream near Strawberry Rock in Makah Bay: He caught a halibut while sea kayaking.
Vergara’s catch was no chicken of the sea. He brought ashore a monster flatfish that eventually topped the scales at 124 pounds at Big Salmon Fishing Resort on May 14.
Vergara’s catch broke the record for largest halibut caught while kayak fishing in the lower 48 states, according to KayakFishMag.com.
His haul topped an 85-pound specimen caught in 2014 off Neah Bay by Bonney Lake’s Lee Landrum and an 82-pounder caught by Brad Hole of Ballard in 2013.
The funny thing is Vergara was motivated to catch his halibut by reading an account of Hole’s catch online as well as watching a video of Landrum’s exploits on YouTube.
“I was reading a blog about Brad Hole and how he caught an 80-pound halibut off Makah Bay and that’s what got me started,” Vergara said.
He poured over other kayak fishing videos on YouTube, eventually taking the plunge and buying a 12-foot Hobie Outback sit-top pedal kayak and taking lessons.
“No, I had no experience at all, I had never been on a boat in my life,” Vergara, a native of the landlocked Mexican state of Querétaro said.
“I took sea kayaking lessons. They teach you safety and how to navigate in the water.”
Vergara started fishing for lake trout, eventually working his way out to fish for salmon and set crab pots on Puget Sound, steadily building his skills and confidence for a Pacific Ocean session.
But an immigration-related trip to Mexico lasted longer than he bargained for and caused him to miss the short halibut season in 2015.
“I had to adjust my status, so I was in Mexico for three and a half months dealing with immigration and getting my green card last year,” Vergara said. “This year was my goal. I was so excited to get out there.”
But real life threatened to intervene.
“I just started my own business (ESC Remodel), and because I’m so busy, I didn’t know if I should take the time off,” Vergara said.
“But my wife said work will always be there. This is a life experience and one you won’t want to pass up.”
So off the Vergaras went for a weekend of camping and fishing with fellow members of Heroes on the Water’s NorthWest Chapter, a group that provides kayak fishing trips for injured veterans.
Vergara is not a veteran, but joined the chapter upon learning how to fish from a kayak.
“Our group was about 4 or 5 miles offshore, and I was using a Shimano one-piece rod and a Dakota 500 reel with 35-pound braided line and No. 9 hooks, like for salmon,” Vergara said.
“I was using a spreader bar with a 12-ounce weight rigged with trout.”
He said his Lowrance GPS wasn’t showing him too many blips, but did offer an image of a sandy bottom at 120 feet, an ideal habitat to snag a halibut.
Like most huge halibut stories, Vergara thought he had snagged the bottom with his setup.
“I was trolling slowly with the current, felt the line get stuck on the bottom, grabbed it with one hand and tried to pull up, but the line shook, so I thought, ‘Oh, this is a fish,’ and my adrenaline started pumping and I got all excited,” Vergara said.
He said he put both hands on the rod and reeled the fish up to 60 feet, but once there the halibut peeled line and swam back to 120 feet.
“My rod is bent all the way over like a C,” Vergara said.
“I was just hoping it wouldn’t snap and I’d lose the rod and the fish.”
Vergara tightened his drag and reeled the fish up next to his kayak.
“I called (group member) Rich Pargo on my radio and asked for help. But just as I put the radio down, the fish swam all the way down to 120 feet again,” Vergara said.
One more exhausting reeling session later, and Vergara had again brought the fish to the surface.
Fargo was there to advise Vergara on where to send the harpoon and Vergara said the harpoon strike was clean.
But the fun was just beginning for Vergara.
“The fish was getting crazy, and the buoy rope got tangled up with the harpoon and it ended up sending me overboard,” Vergara said.
“I had a dry suit on, so I wasn’t worried, but I tried to lift it up, but I was so tired. But I built this ladder out of rope, you leave it in there for safety, and I used that to flip the kayak.”
When he came back up to the surface, Fargo told Vergara the buoy was still attached to the fish.
The halibut pulled Vergara’s rod and reel from its tether, but the buoy kept bobbing and Vergara, now seated in his kayak, pedaled to the rope.
Vergara had lost his knife while capsized, so another fishing buddy stabbed the fish to try and kill it as quickly as possible.
“I managed to put my fish stringer on its mouth, and I’m holding it and dragging it, but it still keeps jumping,” Vergara said.
It took what seemed like an hour.
“John told me later I looked like I was riding a bull while holding the stringer.”
With help, Vergara maneuvered the monster on top of his kayak, with part of the tail hanging off the back.
“The front was all lifted up out of the water and I had 4 or 5 miles to pedal back,” Vergara said.
“We had seen big seals swimming around earlier, so that was my big fear, that one would come up and try to steal it.
“I was exhausted, so I just tried to get back as fast as I could.”
Word had spread via radio of a big fish coming to shore and a crowd gathered to welcome Vergara and the halibut.
After the fish was taken to Big Salmon to be weighed, it was returned to the campground, filleted, and a portion was cooked for the group’s dinner.
Vergara and his wife estimate that about 15 people also received halibut steaks as presents.
His adventure has him hooked for another fishing trip to Makah Bay.
“I will, I definitely will,” Vergara said.
“They give one more day this season that I can’t make it, but next halibut season I will go back and give it a try.”