Halibut has to be one of those bucket list fish for most fishers. There are a few species of halibut. They are the Alaskan Halibut, the Pacific Halibut and the California Halibut.
The first things you need to know while fishing for halibut are the ground rules. The most important thing to do is to check the DFG regulations for the waters you are fishing. For this article, we are talking about fishing in northern California. Specifically, California Halibut out of the San Francisco Bay Area.
California halibut is most commonly found in the Bay Area waters; and found all year. You can and will catch Pacific Halibut – check your DFG regulations for specifics. The limit for California Halibut is 3 per day and a minimum length of 22″ from the North Coastal Border to Pt. Sur. The limit for the Bay Area jumps from 3 a day to 5 a day, 22″ long, from the area of Pt. Sur to the Southern Coastal Border. Check with DFG to get all updated fishing regulations.
Where to Fish for Pacific Halibut
The best place to look for halibut in the Bay Area is a flat sandy bottom that is perfect for spawning; it also provides a stable food source. There are a lot of right spots within the bay, but water conditions are fundamental.
You want to look for clear skies with a minimal tidal flow (2 to 3 feet from high tide to low tide is ideal) and fishing in roughly 10-30 feet of water. At this depth means you can catch fish in the rain. Based on my experience, much of this article refers to fishing in the Bay Area of California. And, I would say more times than not, it has been raining every single time; including my annual spring trip.
Fishing Gear Needed to Catch Halibut
Now, the question is, what type of rod and reel do you need for a halibut fishing trip? I found the best rod to use, for bay area halibut fishing, is a rod somewhere in the 7′ – 7.5′ length and rated at 12-30lbs with a medium action tip. Don’t let this description confuse you; I am just saying you need a specific rod looking back on my experience.
If you were to hook a bat ray, a bigger halibut or striper, you would have a fabulous fight on your hands. A level winding reel is the best, solely for its convenience; however, any saltwater reel will work.
Remember, ALWAYS wash your gear off with fresh water after an ocean trip; especially if you want it to last for more than a year. You don’t need a line-counting reel; because you will be bouncing the weight off the bottom, needing to know depths isn’t as crucial with halibut fishing.
What type of terminal tackle to use when fishing for halibut all depends on whether you’re trolling or drift fishing. Check with local charters to see what they are using as you can mimic what is being used successfully. Let us focus on what type of terminal tackle to use when drifting or drift fishing for specifically.
When drift fishing for halibut, we use 20lb monofilament line with a 3′ fluorocarbon leader. We also tie the leader to a 3-way swivel while attaching one end to the main line of our rod and tying a 4oz. torpedo weight to the 3rd eye of the swivel; also known as a sinker dropper line. This technique creates a spreader.
For this trip, we used a 2/0 Circle Hook; however, a 1/0 will work just as well. Again, you can always call the local guides and see what gear they are using at the present moment. You can buy halibut setups at most bait and tackle stores and learn how to tie your rigs. Like everyone else in the universe today, you can always YouTube “knot tying” and get a lot of options.
Presentation of Live Bait
Getting your live bait on the hook correctly is very important when drift fishing for halibut; presentation is crucial. If the bait is not presented accurately for the halibut, you most likely will not get many bites, if any at all. So, make sure you support the head of the bait while you hook it through the outer tip of the bottom lip and up through the tip of the nose. If you are too far back when going through the nose, you may hit the brain and kill the bait. When fishing with live bait, it is vital to keep the bait alive for the best presentation possible. The general rule is to lightly pinch the gills with your thumb and middle finger while putting slight pressure on the top of its head – protecting its neck from breaking when getting the hook through the bottom lip and then the nose from underneath. These are baitfish and are fragile, so try to keep the bait in good shape when getting it hooked and into the water.
Proper Technique for Halibut Fishing
The technique is very important when fishing for halibut. First, there is drift fishing, which means the boat will drift with the current, and you will let your bait bounce off the bottom as you move over the halibut. This technique allows for your live bait to swim around in a somewhat natural state to entice a bite from what is a very predatory and aggressive fish – especially when spawning.
As said before, fishing is all about presentation. Not only is it important how you hook up your bait, but it’s important you have the right amount of line on your leader and the right amount of line on your sinker dropper line. If your leader is too long and your sinker line is too short, your bait will drag on the bottom and never present the right way to the halibut. Is your sinker is too long and your leader is too short, the leader and sinker may get entangled.
When halibut fishing, you want the weight to stick to the bottom, as it loads the rod up until the rod breaks the sinker free and springs your gear forward. Then, the sinker attaches on the bottom again, resulting in a hopping action. Some people will say you need to set the hook, but in my experience, when fishing this way, the halibut will most often grab the bait or swallow it whole. The jerking action of setting the hook will rip that bait right out of its mouth. In my opinion, as long as you are getting this rod action, you need to leave it in the pole holder. If for some reason, you aren’t getting this load up and spring forward action, you can help it out by feeding the weight into the sandy bottom, so the rod loads up and then it springs forward with the drift of the boat. This happens if you aren’t using a sinker big enough to get your bait to the bottom as the current gets stronger and you drift over deeper water. It can also happen if the current and the wind are moving in the same direction – pushing your line sideways. By feeding it to the bottom you can help it get down there more directly. If you have the rod in hand, you will feel the bite. Make sure you DO NOT set the hook; potentially ripping the bait out of the mouth. Reel in with a smooth action until the rod loads up and you feel the fight of the fish. When the rod is in the rod holder, you will see when the rhythmic bounce is interrupted by a bite.
At this point, I keep the rod in the holder and start to reel in with a smooth stroke. The design of the circle hook is to allow for this type of hook set. As you reel in the bait, the circle hook will position itself inside the mouth at the lip, curl in and set itself. That’s when your rod will slowly load up, and then the fish is hooked. At this point, the fight is on and no setting the hook is necessary. There were at least eight fish lost due to the person setting the hook and ripping the bait out of its mouth. Be patient, stay calm and let your gear do the work when drifting for halibut in the bay area.
Now you know what gear you need, what tackle to get, and what techniques to use. Be patient, understand it’s called fishing, not catching. When you do finally net a halibut – and you will – it will be another box marked off of the “bucket list” of fish.
1. Line of Halibut Caught
2. Big Halibut Caught by John
3. Monofilament Line
4. Big Halibut Off the California Coast
Chef Bobby is a Chef and Cookbook Author. He loves to share his knowledge of cooking and handling of fish with our community.