Western South Dakota's Only Ranch Station

Meade County native hooks the big one at Homer Halibut Festival Derby

STURGIS, S.D. – This is a story about a ranch-raised girl – who fished some, but not overly so; who jokes she had to go all the way to Alaska to find a husband that wasn’t a relative; who first taught in country schools in Meade County at Lakeside near Owanka, Elms Spring and Hereford, and is still teaching after 25 years; who raised a family and who – over time – started to fish. A lot.

“I always kid that being a Gruble, and Mom was a Price, I had to go outside the state to marry someone. My husband grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. So I found somebody I wasn’t related to,” laughs Connie Johns of Black Hawk.

She recently won the first annual Homer Halibut Festival Derby that was coming back after a  four-year hiatus. Before that, as one of Alaska’s oldest fishing derbies, it had been held for 34 consecutive years. But things change. “Protecting the (halibut) resources and the pandemic led to the decision,” says Brad Anderson, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center.

“This is our third summer in Alaska,” said Connie. “It was cool to win the first derby coming back after it stopped three years ago.”

Interestingly enough, it was another Dakotan who won that last summer-long derby in 2019. Jason Schuler of Wahpeton, North Dakota, won with a 224.2-pound fish caught in July 2019. He pocketed $13,160.50 for his victory.

Now, instead of a summer-long event, the new version of the Derby lasts just 30 days. It was June 21st – Connie’s husband’s birthday (James is a retired Rapid City Police Chief and now serves as Meade County Chief Deputy Sheriff). On that day in Homer, Alaska (known as the Halibut Capital of the World) he encouraged her to buy a derby ticket. She argued it was his birthday – he should. But in the end, she did.

“My favorite is halibut fishing,” shares Connie. “The kids love salmon fishing but I prefer halibut. “Just being out in the ocean, seeing whales and sea otters, you don’t see that stuff in South Dakota.  And I have to say, I’m not an expert. I just like fishing. So, I’m glad I got the ticket and not him,” she laughed.

Listen to interview with Connie John

The Johns family from left, Connie, Brayden, James and Dayten. (Courtesy Photo)

Setting the stage of the catch, Connie said, “We were fishing in only 31 feet of water, which is shocking. After it was hooked, the fish surfaced on its own.  At first, they thought I caught a shark because the fish was swimming to the boat. But once it got closer, the fight was on. I had sore arms the next day.”

After the catch, the next thing was to get the massive fish into the boat.

“The fish weighed 143.2 pounds. That’s a big fish,” observes Connie. ”It didn’t take me that long to reel it in. But to get the harpoon and pull it into the boat – that took a little while.”

Connie explained the fish box on the boat was too small to fit her catch.  “So the question was, do we keep fishing or do we go in.  Thank goodness, we kept fishing because my son caught a 90 pounder which I’m sure would have placed in the derby but he didn’t have a ticket.”

That process was followed by getting the 143.2 pound fish (plus others catch) on land.

“We came back in at low tide. The dock – the fishing ramp – is very steep when it’s low tide.  We had my fish, my son’s 90 pound halibut and a couple other ones.   I was wondering how I was going to get the fish up the ramp but the kids helped.”

All the hard work was worth it. And the $2,160 winning check wasn’t bad either.

“I have to tell you. One of the favorite things,” said Connie, “is bringing that fish up and they hook it up. All of our fish were lined up there.  My son, like I said, had a 90 pounder too.  All the tourists came and took pictures.  I was famous for like five minutes.  That was fun.”

Over two days of fishing and after fileting, there were 220 pounds of halibut to bring home.

“We had to do some rearranging,” shares Connie.  “But we managed to get it all in the freezer. We’ve gone through quite a bit of it because everybody wants to come over for a fish fry.”

Connie sums up the whole experience.

“It was a fun, fun day. It was just luck. For me to have the derby ticket. Since it was my husband’s birthday, he really should have been the one.” She adds, “And I’m not a pro fisherman. It was just pure luck.

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