There’s a new state record for shortraker rockfish in Alaska, and at one point in time the fish in question was probably a world record. The catch was about as big as the species gets, and likely much older than the man who caught it. And as often happens, the angler who caught it was trying to catch a different species.
Keith DeGraff was fishing on July 28 with his fiancée Betsey Wilson and three friends in Prince William Sound, about 42 miles from Whittier, Alaska. The party fished from the Salmon Shark, a vessel rented from Whittier Marine Charters. On the first drift, two of the five anglers aboard had their fish.
“I decided to hit another bump, and sure enough, I hooked up,” he recalled. “I was immediately disappointed, because the way it was fighting, it felt like a halibut.” Not that there’s anything wrong with halibut, but they are readily available in relatively shallow water. DeGraff was fishing 1,000 feet deep, targeting black cod.
“When we got it to the surface, I saw it was the biggest rockfish I’d ever seen,” he said. “We hooted, we hollered, and then we headed on for other kinds of fishing.”
Typically with rockfish, you’ll see and feel what seem like head shakes from a halibut, DeGraff explained. “With a thousand feet of line out, it can be hard to tell,” he said. “This one pulled drag. I got it up about 75 feet and he took 40 feet. I’m fishing on pretty big gear, so for a fish to pull drag, I knew it was a decent size, which made me think it was a halibut between 30 and 35 pounds.”
One of 33 rockfish species in Alaska, shortraker dwell 500 to 1,500 feet deep among boulders along the state’s continental shelf. The previous state record was 39.1 pounds, caught in 2013, by Henry Liebman of Seattle. That fish was later estimated to be more than 60 years old. According to NOAA Fisheries, rockfish are thought to be the longest-lived fish in the northeast Pacific, maxing out at 120 years.
The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world record shortraker rockfish weighed 44.1 pounds and was caught by Angelo Sciubba in 2017 near Glacier Bay National Park, several hundred miles southeast of Whittier.
DeGraff’s fish weighed an unofficial 48 pounds at the remote lodge where his party was staying. Because he wouldn’t have access to a certified scale for three days, DeGraff bled the fish. “I wasn’t going to taint the meat for the sake of a record,” he said.
His rockfish would not have qualified for an IGFA record anyway, because the rod was in a holder, and the IGFA requires rods to be held. But when DeGraff finally weighed it on a certified scale, with an Alaska Department of Fish and Game representative present, he got a reading of 42.4 pounds. Then, he received provisional paperwork establishing his new state record.
DeGraff caught the rockfish on a custom-built rod with an Avet 2-speed 3/0 reel spooled with 80-pound braid. The terminal tackle was three pounds of weight and an 18/0 circle hook tipped with pink salmon and herring. His rig was homemade, but the rest of the party was catching fish on lead jigs with J hooks and skirts from Kodiak Custom Fishing Tackle. That lure has accounted for most of DeGraff’s fish.
DeGraff isn’t an Alaska native, but he comes from a fishy place: Amityville, Long Island, New York. “I grew up on the Great South Bay,” he said. “I had a 13-foot Boston Whaler that caught more fish per inch of boat than most boats out there other than commercials.” DeGraff studied environmental science with concentrations in marine and fisheries biology at Stony Brook University. He moved to Anchorage and has been a for-hire charter captain since 2016.