Most experienced fishermen have an infamous "big fish" story or two - blurring the line between fact and fiction. But in the case of Phil Carlson and Tyler Dahlheimer, the tale of the 430-pound halibut that they landed in Alaska is no exaggeration. This is the ultimate "big fish" story and it is entirely true.
From pan fish to sea fish
This story has its origins in the Lake Osakis area where both Carlson, 28, and Dahlheimer, 23, got their start fishing sunfish and walleyes.
"In that area, [fishing] is a part of your past - it's a passion," said Dahlheimer, who met Carlson while the two were working at the Idlewilde Resort at the ages of 12 and 17, respectively. At the time, neither would have imagined finding themselves employed at the same fishing company, Angling Unlimited, in Sitka, Alaska in the near future.
Before graduating from pan to deep-sea fish, the two graduated from Osakis High School - Carlson in 2000 and Dahlheimer in 2005. Carlson went on to earn a degree in zoology from North Dakota State University (NDSU) and Dahlheimer completed his bachelor's degree in geography at the University of Minnesota - Duluth (UMD).
Carlson heard about Angling Unlimited for the first time from his sophomore roommate at NDSU. Before long he was working as a processor for the company. One year later he was a deckhand. Three years later he became a certified captain, a position he has held for the past five years.
When Dahlheimer ran into Dave Carlson - Phil's dad - four years ago and heard of his endeavor in Alaska, he decided that he would like to be a part of the same experience. He's been Carlson's deckhand ever since. Last fall he received his own captain's license.
The big catch
When the two rose at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of May 20, they were oblivious to the bounty the ocean had in store for them.
Other than the fact that this was the first group of clients for the fishing season, "it was just a normal day," according to Dahlheimer. Carlson added, "We had a lot of faith in the area, but we didn't do anything different from what we normally do each day."
The boat left the dock at 5 a.m. and embarked into seas roiling with six to eight foot waves. For four hours the group fished salmon. By 10 a.m. it was time to switch to halibut mode. Before long the clients had reeled in three fish about 50-pounds each - a good catch. Legally, they could only catch one more fish before calling it a day.
"The seas that day were not very nice. We wouldn't have stayed out very much longer," said Dahlheimer.
Then a client got a bite.
"Usually, when a big halibut bites you can tell," said Carlson. "There was nothing big about this bite. It seemed average."
The rod simply hung there, a sign that there was indeed something large on the end of the line.
Carlson was skeptical about what it could be. "At one point I said, 'I'm not so sure it's a halibut,' but Tyler just came back and said 'why can't you just accept the fact that it's just huge?' "
For the next nail-biting 45 minutes, the client painstakingly reeled in the monster.
"A fish like that is so big that they don't have energy. The only way you land it is because it is helping you on the way up with its tail movement. If at any time during the fight it had stopped moving, it never would have come," explained Carlson.
The large swells of the ocean also became a blessing, as the rising of the boat pulled up the weight on the line.
At last, the fish breached the surface. The crew was shocked by what they saw - the biggest halibut any of them had ever seen, 91.5 inches long, and apparently more than 300 pounds.
"I've heard stories from old captains of fish that size released or lost," said Carlson. "The biggest I'd seen prior was 330 pounds, and at that time, we figured there was no way that could ever be topped. We thought we would never see a fish like that again."
He was mistaken.
Landing a giant
The story of this fish was far from over, however, as the true challenge arose - how to get the fish in the boat. After breaching, the halibut took off again.
"We discussed briefly with the client whether or not he wanted to keep the fish," Carlson said. "He said it was the fish of a lifetime. We had to land this fish."
A halibut of that size could not be brought in live without risking severe damage to clients, crew and boat, according to Carlson.
As soon as the fish rose again, Dahlheimer grabbed the leader and Carlson shot the fish in the gill plate with a shotgun. It was a good shot, but not enough to kill the massive creature. The two men secured three gaffs before attempting to hoist it aboard.
Standing on the gunnel, they lifted with all their might as a wave brought it in the boat.
"You hear stories, but it's very rare that you even see a fish like that, let alone get it in the boat," said Carlson.
It wasn't until they brought the fish back to the dock that they realized the sheer accomplishment that catching that fish was.
The average size of an Alaskan halibut is 26 pounds. This fish weighed 430 - the largest fish ever caught by the company, and just 29 pounds off the Alaska state record.
"Everyone was so shell shocked," said Carlson. "We had to use an 8-foot stepladder to climb up to hang it."
Luckily, the extraordinary events leading up to the catch were caught on video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMJ6GIxfK9k), as well as in photographs to dispel the disbelief of any skeptics.
"Everything just came together," Dahlheimer said. "If one part of that story had gone a different way, that fish would have been gone."
This is one big fish story that these fishermen can proudly tell for years to come.