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Fishing just for the halibut

* This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer.

A man who work as hard as John Jones deserves a fishing break every now and then. Jones, a burly man with sparkling eyes, gets to the Pork ‘n’ More every morning at 5 a.m. The restaurant, which he opened in 1984 after people remarked on his incredible barbecue, serves home-style food. As one customer said, “His fried chicken is better than my momma’s. And nobody’s is better than my momma’s.” Jones and Harry Fogle started fishing together at the Outer Banks back when they worked for the now-closed Talon factory. They’re going again Oct. 21 to surf fish for blues, redfish and flounder. The trip is supposed to last a week, “but we try to stretch it to eight days,” Jones said. Before his South Carolina trip, though, it was time to head north. “I’d always wanted to go to Alaska and catch a halibut. One day we were just sitting there talking about it, and Harry and I decided to go,” Jones said. Wes Hibbard and Larry Meeks completed the party. “We flew from Charlotte to Dallas, which seemed a bit out of the way to me, then on to Anchorage,” Jones said. It took them about 10 hours. Once they arrived in Anchorage, they rented a car and drove 100 miles to Sterling. “It was a long day,” he said. In Alaska, the sun didn’t set until 10:30 p.m., and it rose at 5 a.m. In June, a guide told them, it gets dusk-dark for only two hours. The weather while the four were there in late August was rainy and cool, with highs in the 50s. “It did get sunny one day and warmed up to 75,” Jones said, “then the people who live there complained it was too hot.” Jones was just as happy when it rained, since they seemed to catch more fish on the cool days.

The salmon fishing in the Kenai River was excellent, Jones said. With their guides, Solomon Sappah and his son, Terry, they caught plenty of the 10- to 15-pound fish using spinner bait, but each man could keep only two fish per day. The Sappahs cleaned, vacuum-packed and froze the catch for the group to bring home to South Carolina. Then it was on to hunt for halibut, which are the largest of all the flatfish. The first one Jones caught was their biggest -- 50 pounds, and almost as tall as he is. The boat, run by Butch “Wildman” Giles, went out into the bay over 110 feet of water.

“Wildman reminded us of the captain in ‘Jaws,’ ” Jones said. “He sure did work hard. Once we were anchored, he didn’t sit down again.” Halibut is harder to hook than salmon, Jones said. Once the fish snaps up the herring bait, you don’t set the hook like you do with other fish. “You just lie your rod down on the side of the boat, then start winding it in,” Jones said. During their eight-day trip, the four also did some sightseeing with a float plane ride over the Harding ice fields. During the ride they saw melting glaciers, Dall sheep on misty mountains, a river winding its way through a valley as a mother and baby grizzly bear scooped up salmon.

“There were miles and miles and miles of trees. “You can’t imagine how big the place is,” Jones said. The charters supplied the men with all the equipment they would need, but Jones did bring one reel and rod. He used them to do some river fishing in 40-degree water.

“We called that combat fishing,” Jones said. This wasn’t Jones’ first long-distance fishing expedition. Almost two years ago, he went on a trip to Costa Rica to catch sailfish and dolphin, “which put up a real fight.” He’s not sure where his next trip will be, but it may be to Florida or St. Simons Island to hunt down a tarpon.

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