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Flushed out to sea

7/31/2008

If the mood strikes to hook into a barn door with fins, just keep driving until the road ends in Homer, Alaska.

This summer-fishing getaway on Kachemak Bay is home to the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby. Every year thousands of visitors to the Kenai Peninsula spend a few days searching the waters off the Gulf of Alaska for mammoth halibut that roam the deep.

"You can't go any farther than Homer," said Paula Frisinger, coordinator for the Derby.

Anglers can also walk away with money for catching one of the 100 tagged halibut that have been released back into the ocean. Six of those halibut are worth $10,000.

But all anglers who wish to participate must first purchase a $10 derby ticket, a portion of which pays for the prizes.

Someone should have first told this to Steve Merson of Ft. Atkinson, Wis., who landed a tagged halibut earlier this summer on his birthday, no less.

According to Frisinger, the captain of the boat asked Merson if he had bought a derby ticket.

"What derby?" was Merson's reply.

Out of curiosity, Merson brought the fish in to the derby center to find out how much the tag was worth.

"His face just dropped when we told him it was a $10,000 fish," Frisinger said.

A good-natured angler at heart, the birthday boy, Merson accepted the catch for what it was: nothing more than a big halibut. He was more concerned that his friends back home wouldn't believe what happened to him. A picture and a story in a local newpaper sealed his fate.

In the 17 years of the derby, there had never been a $10,000 fish caught by a derby angler. This year, lightning struck twice with the same outcome. Another anonymous angler landed a tagged fish and again, didn't first purchase a derby ticket.

Anglers can also win prizes for catching the biggest fish each month over the five months that the Derby runs. The biggest fish at the end of the year takes the jackpot prize, which often reaches totals of $30,000 to $50,000 by the end of the summer.

The current jackpot leader and holder of July's biggest fish is Jeff Pardi, who is relying on a little bit of luck to guide him to the big end-of-the-year jackpot prize.

According to local legend, eating the eyeball of a big halibut is good luck. An angler earlier in the year did it after landing a near 300-pound "barn door," so Pardi followed suit.

"These guys are die-hard fishermen," Frisinger said.

Apparently "die-hard" includes having a die-hard stomach to be able to consume such an unsavory dish.

All eyeballs aside, if your next road trip takes you to the end of the world in Homer, Alaska, just make sure you purchase a derby ticket.

The Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby runs until September 30. For more information, visit www.homerhalibutderby.com