Growing up just north of Santa Barbara, fishing for California halibut has been a part of my life since I was very young; there is no better sport fish to target throughout the year. Halibut have always been my father's favorite species to pursue, both for its prestige and more so for its succulent meat. He had me catching them at an early age, but it was not until my teenage years that I began to appreciate the tactics and knowledge it takes to catch these elusive and prestigious fish. To this day both my father and I love fishing for halibut; there is nothing more exciting than seeing a huge, brown beast come to color next to the boat. This is something that I hope everyone will get to experience in their lifetime, so here are some ideas to help you find your trophy.
The first step in catching a California halibut is to understand the fish. Halibut, sand dwelling fish that are masters of camouflage, lie in wait on sandy bottoms looking for the opportunity to ambush an unsuspecting meal. Although they prefer a sandy bottom, they may also be found in muddy and hard bottom areas such as gravel, clam, and sand dollar beds. Ranging from Magdalena Bay in Baja to British Columbia, they can be found from the shallowest beaches and bays to 500+ feet of water. They were once believed to a lazy feeder and scavenger, but they are actually aggressive predators. They mostly rely on ambush tactics; however, they have been observed jumping completely out of the water while chasing bait fish as well as using reefs and shoreline to collectively corner schools of bait fish while attacking with lightning speed. Although a large portion of their diet consists of sardines and anchovies, halibut are an opportunistic feeder that will eat anything within its range including mackerel, smelt, grunion, herring, perch, tom-cod, lizard fish, and squid. To setup for a deadly ambush they often use areas where their prey congregate such as reefs, rock plies, drop offs, kelp holdfasts, eel grass and even lobster traps. These reactionary predators highly rely on sight and vibration to hone in on their prey. In spring and fall the California halibut move into shallow water and bays to spawn, though actual spawning time depends on location and water temperatures. Halibut are not known to make extensive migrations.
With this knowledge, a strategy can put together to target these seemingly elusive fish. First and foremost, while fishing for halibut you must be on or near the bottom. Thorough knowledge of your local terrain will make you a more effective hunter; become familiar with reefs, kelp, eel grass, hard bottom, drop offs, and depressions where halibut like to lay in wait. In an unknown area it is best to fish in large sand patches or sandy beaches to avoid snags in reefs and kelp. Well placed sand patches next to structure or drop offs are fish havens and can hold multiple halibut throughout a single day. Many halibut are also taken from the open sandy areas found off many of California's shorelines; in these open areas there are no specific structures for the fish to congregate around so you never really know where they may be. This is the type of area that I so often target, wide open sand. So how do you find them? Cover ground! I have had very good success covering large areas of sand until I find a "zone" where the fish are congregating. I have found these zones to be very depth oriented; a difference in just 5 feet of water can make all the difference in where the fish are located. Many times the fish will seemingly be stacked on top of each other; once you find a hot zone the fishing can be spectacular! We will get back to this topic after we cover the basics.
Effective methods of halibut fishing include drifting, casting, and trolling using live bait, plastic lures, hard baits, and jigs. The most utilized method is drifting with live bait. Using the wind to push the kayak and cover ground, live bait is weighted to keep it near the bottom. There are many ways to set up live bait rig for halibut; the most common method is a sliding egg sinker and a swivel, just like a Carolina rig. Use a swivel on the main line to keep the egg sinker from sliding onto the 2-4 foot leader. Another method, and my favorite, is the Reverse Dropper Loop; a dropper loop is tied in the line in order to attach a torpedo sinker, leaving a 3 foot loose end to tie the hook. This set up gives a fixed amount of line between the hook and the sinkers so that the bait cannot swim far from the weight, keeping the bait in a small area ready for an easy ambush; for this reason I use short leader lengths of 3 feet or less. The other benefit of the dropper loop is that torpedo sinkers can be easily changed by pushing the "loop" through the ring of the sinker and then putting the sinker through the "loop". The amount of weight needed to stay on the bottom depends on the speed of the drift, the diameter your line, and the type of bait being used. For most situations, 2-6 oz will be enough to stay on the bottom.
Traditional halibut fishermen drift live bait while their reels are in free spool, when a halibut bites, they "feed" the bait to it by letting out line. They then engage the drag and set the hook. I do not agree with this method. A halibut is an aggressive feeder that inhales bait with lightning speed, and if it does not like what it has bitten it can spit it out just as fast. I most often fish with the reel in gear; when a bite is detected, quickly reel in the slack. Continue reeling until you feel the rod load up with the weight of the fish. At this point you can set the hook if you must; however, if your hooks are sharp it will hook itself, you are better off just reeling to maintain pressure on the fish. If you miss the hook up, stop reeling and wait for a couple of seconds to see if it returns. If it does not, drop the reel into free spool and let the bait fall to the bottom and sit in one place; the halibut may return for it, or you might have lost your bait in the first attack. I have caught more fish on the kayak using live bait than any other method, including my biggest halibut which was caught on a dropper looped Spanish mackerel.
Lures are another effective method of catching halibut. Plastics, hard baits, and jigs will entice a halibut to bite. In shallow waters crank baits can be deadly. Halibut really seem to like skinny minnow type lures; they don't appear to be picky as long as the lure wiggles well and stays near the bottom. Deep diving lures, such as the Yozuri Crystal Minnow DD and the Berkley Frenzy Minnow, will catch many halibut if cast or trolled so that they occasionally kiss the sandy bottom. The lures that work the best are the ones that stay near the bottom maximizing the amount of time in the strike zone. Swimbaits and their predecessor, the twin tail Scampi, have also taken a considerable amount of trophy fish. If weighted properly and bounced or cranked along the bottom they will certainly entice a bite, especially if adorned with a strip of squid or even whole bait. Plastics in the 3.5-6 inch range are commonly used with lead heads from 0.5-3 oz, depending on the depth you are fishing. My favorite setup is a 5 inch MC Swimbait on a 1.5 oz lead head with eyes. This combination works well in 25-100 feet of water as long as you are not drifting too quickly. Using this lure, I once caught a 12 and 20 pound halibut on back to back casts. Of course fishing next to any sand found adjacent to a structure will be effective, but casting this lure down a drop off and cranking it back up it, while re-dropping every 3-6 cranks has proven to be deadly for me.
Finally, there are jigs and the one lure often overlooked but effective for catching large halibut, a Bucktail or Striper jig. Bucktail have an enticing profile, hold bait scents well, and stay near the bottom easily, but most importantly halibut like them. Just like with plastics, adding a strip of squid or bait can increase bites, as can adding a grub or Scampi tail. Bucktails also work very well when dropped straight down near the bottom and dead-sticked in a rod holder, allowing the rocking of the boat to impart a bobbing action on the lure.
Fishing for halibut does not require high tech or expensive gear, but a few small details will greatly increase the amount of fish you will catch. First, your reel should have smooth drags. Halibut are not intense fighters, but smooth drags will help to keep fish hooked while they shake their head and take short fast runs. Smooth drags are also very important for my next suggestion: use SPECTRA as the mainline. Its lack of stretch and low diameter is ideal for this kind of fishing and far more effective than monofilament. It will allow you to feel every bite and let you use less weight to stay down near the bottom. In addition, a level wind reel will do wonders for casting Spectra by laying the line nicely on the reel during the retrieve as well as minimizing the contact of your skin and the line, reducing the cuts and abrasions Spectra may cause. My preference for casting with Spectra is a Calcutta 400 spooled with 300 yards of 30 pound Power Pro on an 8 foot graphite rod, rated for 12-25 pounds, with a medium/fast action. On the kayak I have caught more halibut on this set up than any other.
The next tip is to always use high quality swivels, leader material, and hooks. A ball bearing swivel between the Spectra and your leader will greatly reduce line twists from spinning lures, bait, and bass. Always use high quality monofilament leader material such as Maxima or a co-polymers line like the Yozuri Hybrid; pure fluorocarbon line abrades too easily. Contrary to what many believe, I have never found halibut to be line shy and have been bitten off by their sharp teeth while using 25 pound line. I would highly recommend using at least 15 pound leader in shallow water and at least 20 pound in deeper water; better yet, use 25 or 30 pound leader. Only limit yourself to a line test that you will be able to brake off if you become snagged. Depending on the stability of your kayak, and your experience, this will be 15-30 pound line. Trust me, they WILL bite it and when you hook a trophy you will not loose the battle to their sharp teeth. This will also aid in releasing sub-legal halibut as they can be pulled to the kayak by the heavy leader without the need of a net to retrieve your hook or lure. Please handle the shorts with care so that they can become trophies some day!
High quality hooks can also make a big difference when bait fishing. A high quality J-style hook works the best with Spectra, and in a pinch even a treble hook will work; circle hooks are not appropriate for Spectra line. Circle hooks need a slow set to find the corner of the mouth; this is why you do NOT set the hook with a circle hook. Spectra has no stretch and thus gives almost instantaneous hook sets, it does not work well with this style hook. The size of J-style hook to use depends on the size of your bait. #1 or #2 hooks work for small baits like anchovies, 1/0 or 2/0 for medium size bait like sardines, 2/0 to 4/0 for larger size baits such as mackerel or squid. Hook fin baits through the nose, and squid through the tip of their mantle, in order to give them a natural look while being pulled through the water. Use high quality J-hooks and don't "feed" the bait to a biting fish, you will hook the fish in the mouth or lip every time.
Now that we have the basics, back to the secret of locating the "zone". As previously mentioned, the trick to finding halibut in an open sandy area is to cover ground and there is no better way to cover ground than trolling. This is a method of fishing for halibut that is often overlooked and underutilized. Trolling on the bottom will allow you to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time until you find a zone or pick off an individual fish. For live bait, the dropper loop set up discussed earlier works great for trolling; more weight is needed to keep the bait down as you paddle. While live bait works well for this application, lures can be even more effective. Here is the way to set it up: start with a heavy duty three-way swivel, attach your Spectra mainline to one ring and a 4-5 foot leader 25 or 30 pound to another, this is where you attach your favorite lure. The final ring of the three-way swivel is used to attach a 12-24 inch line for the sinker; the trick here is to use lighter line than the leader used from the three-way to the lure so that if the sinker snags, it can break off and hopefully save a precious lure. Save yourself some frustration by adding a snap swivel to the end of each line so that lures and sinkers can be easily changed. Next, you will need some heavy lead and to pick a good lure. The amount of weight used will depend on the depth at which you are fishing and the speed at which you are paddling. Sinkers for trolling will range from 4 ounces to one pound, yes, one pound, which will let you troll in and up to 90 feet of water. Spend time to find which lure works for you; remember that it does not need much, if any, weight nor does it need to be a deep diving lure. The three-way rig will keep your lure just above the bottom at all times, the lure just needs to have an appealing action. I would suggest trying very shallow diving minnow type crank baits that either float or suspends but the possibilities are endless. A good speed to troll is between 1 and 2 mph; keep the kayak moving and slowly drop the rig to the bottom to avoid tangling. This will take practice, but once you get it down it is very rewarding!
Halibut are literally the hardest fish I know to land on the kayak. They typically do not completely tire in the water but rather save the rest of their energy for when they are in the boat. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ANY HALIBUT, they are toothy creatures made of pure muscle! The key to landing them is to be prepared. While a good knife and a billy club will certainly help, a sharp gaff and a stringer/tether is a must! A dive clip like spear fisherman use will work well to tether your fish. Better yet, a thin diameter rope with a metal ring tied to one end and a stick or rod attached to the other will work great for stringing a fish through its mouth and out its gills with the rod, then through the metal ring. For a gaff I prefer one with at least 3 foot handle to better reach the fish as well as to better choose the right spot to gaff them. The most important part of gaffing is to place the gaff accurately just behind the head and hit them hard. It does not matter if you get them on the belly or shoulder side just long as you get them just behind the collar and get the gaff to penetrate all the way through,. When gaffed well in this area, halibut will lay completely paralyzed giving you the time needed to pull the fish NEXT to the kayak. Be certain to set your rod down in a secure location so that if the fish is lost you will not loose your rod. Now get a stringer through its mouth and out its gills ASAP! This process can be tricky with only one hand, but that is all you will have available since the other will be holding the fish on the gaff NEXT to the kayak. Try to be smooth in your actions and not ruff up the fish or damage its gills too much or it may just wake up! Your fish is not caught until it is tied securely to the kayak in some way. If you use a dive clip it should be tethered to the kayak, if you use a rope tie it directly to the kayak. A small dock cleat mounted to the kayak will provide a secure place to attach a rope, and it only takes one hand to do it. If it is a big fish, use two stringers if you have them, I do, as well as two gaffs for the trophies. The next job is to dispatch the fish BEFORE you bring it onto the kayak. The best way to do this is to cut the gills while it is still in the water and on both the gaff and the stringer. After they have stopped bleeding, and before you bring them aboard, give the big ones a few good thumps on the head. Bring them on board carefully; they still might come alive with a vengeance. Do not rush, be safe, and take care of that precious meat! Good luck, I hope you find your trophy.
Things to remember: