Halibut fishing is open year-round, but when summertime rolls around on the California coast it’s definitely trophy season. Every year when summer blesses us with warm weather and rising water temperatures the halibut will travel out of the depths to spawn in shallower water. It’s during this time that you’re going to have the best chance of hooking up a nice slab to take home. This window of prime time will extend from summer all the way until early fall, giving you plenty of opportunities to target these awesome predators.
Halibut Limits and Regulations (California)
Important! Be sure to check your local Department of Fish and Wildlife for rules and regulations as they may vary by state.
- Season: Open year-round
- Daily Bag & Possession: Three fish north of Point Sur, Monterey County and five fish south of Point Sur, Monterey County
- Size Limit: Minimum 22” total length
- Methods of Take: When fishing, no more than one line with two hooks attached may be used. A harpoon, gaff or net can all be used to assist in landing the fish as long as it was legally caught.
Prespawn and spawning halibut will usually be found in depths of 80 feet up to as shallow as 25 feet of water. Halibut fishing is done so close to shore that often times an expensive ocean boat is actually not necessary. Kayaks or rental boats are more than capable of chasing halibut in the shallows, giving everyone a great opportunity to fish.
Within that 80ft-25ft range what you’re looking for is sandy beds perfect for halibut to hide in and ambush their prey. When looking for good halibut spots you want them to be free of rock or other structure if possible. If you find yourself still getting hung up or catching a lot of rockfish it’s time to move out of the area you’re fishing.
Before you start trolling or drifting over large areas of sand definitely take the time to check the direction of swell where you are going to fish. While swell effects every coastline differently, find out how it affects your fishery specifically. For example I fish in Monterey and Santa Cruz, California and the most common swell direction is a N or a NW swell. Any time a S swell is prominent in my area, the groundfish fishing is never great. Too much swell can also alter how the fish will be biting that day so try to fish calmer days.
Live Bait is Key: Squid & Baitfish
I can’t stress enough how crucial fresh bait is for catching halibut. These fish are notorious for being picky eaters and having the right bait will be the difference between limiting out or catching only a few.
Even if you have to fish for bait the night before or spend a few hours before halibut fishing catching bait, it will be well worth the extra time. Live squid is quite difficult to get your hands on, but you can easily catch live baitfish such as sardines, mackerel and smelt with a Sabiki Rig.
Make sure to periodically check your bait and swap out dead ones but save them just in case you run out of live swimmers. I always let the halibut tell me what they want to eat and find myself constantly cycling my assortment of baits until I find the one that works. For example, this past summer I found that I was getting more bites on Spanish Mackerel compared to Greenback Mackerel during a trip. The process of catching bait and figuring out which one works is difficult, but once you get those two aspects tuned in you are almost guaranteed a fish.
Fresh Dead Squid
Everyone is used to buying boxes or bags of frozen squid at a marina or tackle shop. When was the last time you’ve seen a bag of fresh dead squid only a day old that has never been frozen? To acquire squid this fresh you’ll have to do some searching.
Squid are similar to halibut and spawn in the summer, and during this time commercial squid boats have a field day jigging them up to sell. When all this bait is passing through the marina each day you can find random freelancers or tackle shops selling fresh squid in the area.
This past summer the rate in the Santa Cruz Harbor was about $20 for a gallon freezer bag – definitely bang for your buck. The nice part about bait this fresh is that you can freeze it after the trip and use it next time.
Tray Bait for Halibut: Get What You Pay For
If live bait is not an option, tray bait is your next best bet. Your local tackle shop should have a decent selection of tray baits including mackerel, anchovies, and herring. Paying extra for tray bait over typical bags is well worth the quality. Most tray baits are arranged straighter, vacuum-sealed and some are even cured, helping them stay on your hook longer. The straighter profile of the bait helps it to drift without twisting, reducing line tangles and other hassles.
Halibut Trolling Techniques
The Bounce Ball Rig
Ball bouncing is the number one method to troll for halibut. Bounce ball rigs can either be purchased or easily made at home yourself. This setup is composed of:
- 3-Way Swivel
- Cannonball Sinker (1.5lb-2lb)
- Flasher/Dodger Size 0
- Plastic Beads (slides inside of hoochie)
- Octopus Hook
- 25-30lb Fluoro Leader (for hoochie)
- 30-50lb Mono Leader (for cannonball sinker)
Assembling The Bounce Ball Rig
- Attach the main line to one part of the 3-way swivel.
- Attach 2-3 feet of leader to another arm of the swivel and end with your cannonball sinker.
- Attach another 18-24” leader to the last arm of the 3-way swivel and prepare your hoochie before tying it on the end.
- If the hoochie doesn’t have an opening at the top, cut a bit off the top so a hole is present. Then slide your plastic bead inside coming up from the skirt.
- Slide the leader line through the hoochie and attach two Octopus hooks, tying them 2-3” from each other using a Snell Knot.
Fishing the Bounce Ball Rig
You should match the hook size to the bait you are trolling, and Owner hooks have personally been my reliable brand but Gamakatsu and other hooks are great as well. I typically use 50-60lb monofilament line or steel leader to connect my cannonball sinker, and when it comes to the leader leading to the flasher and hoochie most people use mono/fluoro ranging from 25-45lb test.
Speed is key while trolling for halibut, but there are a few factors to consider. Swell and wind intensity are two major factors that will affect your trolling speed depending on the situation. In my personal experience, slower is better when trolling for halibut and my rule of thumb is to have your cannonball weight lift of the ocean bottom and slam back down in the sand about 3-4 times per minute. This is a great way to cover a lot of ground in early spawn before swarms of halibut find there way to shallow water.
Drifting Bait for Halibut
This drift rig is commonly known as the 3-Way Rig used for many other species. With this rig you can drift live bait or tray bait effectively. It’s a simplified version of the bounce ball rig, consisting of an octopus hook and stinger treble hook at the end of the leader instead of a flasher and hoochie.
- 3-Way Swivel
- Octopus Hook
- Stinger Treble hook
- Drift Ball Weight (2-8oz. depending on current, depth & wind)
- 25-30lb Fluoro Leader
The key to fishing this technique is keeping your weight on the bottom at all times. Making contact with the bottom is going to keep your bait in the strike zone and while drifting over sand you do not have to worry about breaking off or snagging. If you are having a problem keeping your rig on the bottom simply replace your weight for a heavier one.
Live Bait Rig (Carolina Rig)
This rig is simply a bulkier Carolina/Sliding Sinker rig. This is by far my favorite way to fish for halibut or any type of bottom fish for that matter. Making a live bait rig is easy, all you need is:
- Torpedo Weight 4-8oz.
- Sinker Slide
- Power Swivel
- Octopus Hook
- 20-30lb Fluoro Leader (18-36”)
Assembling the Live Bait Rig
- Place the sinker slide on the main line before tying the power swivel and clip your torpedo weight onto the sinker slide.
- Tie your 2-3 feet of leader from the swivel and end with your Octopus hook.
- Hook your live bait from the bottom lip and come out through the top lip between the nostrils. This will keep the mouth closed giving your bait a healthier appearance.
- Maintain Bottom Contact: It’s important that your weight is constantly touching the sea floor, slowly sliding along. This ensures that you are staying in the strike zone.
- Be patient: Halibut fishing is not simple. Expect to put in a few hours searching for fish each trip.
- Don’t Set Hook Immediately: Instead of setting hook immediately, wait for your rod to load up and reel into it instead. This way you won’t rip the bait out of the halibut’s mouth.
- Don’t Pump Your Rod: Fighting most big game involves lifting up and reeling down, but halibut have a violent head shake that can throw slack in your line with that method. Steadily crank them in, it’s the best way to keep proper line tension all the way through.
- Landing Your Fish: After the halibut is gaffed, un-gaff it straight into the cooler or club the fish while it’s on the gaff. Halibut are strong and can flop overboard if you have low rails, trust me I’ve almost lost a few fish over the rails of my Boston Whaler before.
I hope this helped you gain a better understanding of how to troll and drift for halibut. Please comment if you have any other tips, tricks and suggestions as everyone does things a little differently. Hope you guys whack them! Tight lines.