Slam! Slam! Slam! The rod tip hit the kayak rail repeatedly before doubling over yet again, as a solid California halibut tried to headshake the graphite rod out of my hands. “Breathe, calm down and don’t panic!” – I reminded myself, as the fish burned off another ten feet of spectra from my small inshore reel which was suddenly feeling like inadequate equipment for a fish of this size. When the fish slowed down and flattened out on the bottom, almost unwilling to budge, I could really sense the power of the beast that had just inhaled my live mackerel for breakfast.
That was my first big halibut from a kayak, and when I finally got her to the surface, I only had a small homemade gaff to use. I had no real gaff, no game-clip and no big net. I was forced to ask a nearby boat for some assistance, or possibly lose the fish. I sure learned my lesson that day on gear – always be prepared for the big one or you may get your heart broken!
The prized California halibut is an elusive but great tasting fish, one of the finest available in Southern California waters. They’re caught both recreationally and commercially from the Mexican border up into Central California.
The California halibut is a flatfish, and usually blends into the sea floor waiting for just the right moment to ambush its prey. They can swim surprisingly fast in small bursts, have a mouth full of sharp pointy teeth and strong jaws for holding prey. Though not getting as large as their northern cousins the Pacific halibut, the California halibut can reach weights of over 50 pounds.
They can be found literally anywhere in Southern California saltwater: from shallow and calm areas of seaside lagoons and bays, to rushing tidal flows under beachside bridges, to sand patches and hard-bottom areas around kelp beds, along sand and mud flats, and even along the steepest canyon drop offs of the open ocean.
I have caught halibut in ankle-deep water within the surf zone as they were up feeding with surf perch and corbina, and as far out as 120 feet deep feeding with rockfish and lingcod. Halibut actually can travel around a lot and tagging studies have shown that they are migratory. You should keep moving until you locate an area holding fish, then target that area by drifting with live bait.
The law actually requires that you keep a net handy to land fish and remember, the legal minimum size for a ‘keeper’ halibut in Southern California is 22 inches.
Ask a dozen fishermen and you may get a dozen different answers regarding the best methods to target halibut. From the most appropriate size of fishing tackle, to where to best target them, or the most effective lures and baits – there seems to be plenty of opinions, and options!
In this article I’ll provide some ideas to help narrow down the options for targeting and landing these popular and delicious flatfish.
MirageDrive® kayaks are the optimal vehicles for chasing California halibut because they are the perfect watercraft for either drifting or slow trolling. These two methods are by far the most popular ways to cover ground in search of halibut. Being bottom dwellers, often solitary and buried under the sand for cover, halibut are all but impossible to identify using electronics. This is where patience, persistence, and experience pay off.
If you haven’t fished for halibut before, the best ways to get started include reading fishing forums online, watching halibut fishing videos, or talking with experienced local fishermen. Get started in the right direction, literally, by doing research and taking hints at best areas to target. Halibut like to avoid rough water and swells, and the most consistent halibut fishing areas seem to be located either in the lee of coastal headlands or ‘points’, inside harbors, or in close proximity to harbors or piers.
If I had to name the best coastal Southern California beach areas to target halibut by county, they would be:
• Santa Barbara County: El Capitan beach, Goleta Beach, Ledbetter Beach, Stearn’s Wharf, East Beach, and Rincon.
• Ventura County: Ventura Pier, and the Santa Clara Rivermouth area.
• Los Angeles County: Malibu Pier area, Santa Monica Pier area, Hermosa Beach, and Torrance Beach, and Cabrillo Beach.
• Orange County: Long Beach, Sunset Beach, and River Jetties.
• San Diego County: Oceanside Pier and harbor area, San Onofre, Dana Point Harbor area, Torrey Pines Beach, Pacific Beach, Coronado, the San Diego Bay, and Imperial Beach.
Those hotspots consist of vast amounts of mixed reef/sand areas and sand flats. And when you have literally square miles of flat sandy bottom to cover, the fastest way locate halibut is using a slow trolling method called bounce-balling, a method of fishing which was originally adapted from anglers in central California who were trolling for salmon and regularly catching halibut as bycatch.
Bounce-balling consists of using a heavy cannonball weight of 8 to 16 ounces, with a three-way swivel and 24-inch leader baited with either a large live bait (mackerel, sardine, or squid) or a flasher/hoochie rig, both of which will attract the attention of hungry halibut by making noise, thumping, and sending out underwater vibrations. Halibut are not afraid of some flash and commotion, and the bounce ball rig is like a dinner bell for them, which triggers their feeding instinct.
Some of the best halibut fishing occurs during Spring and Summer months, when halibut can be found grouped in ‘spawning aggregations’. If you find one of these spawning areas, often many more halibut can be landed in short order.
For targeting larger halibut, I recommend slow trolling your bounce ball rig in 50 to 80 feet of water, especially around scattered rock, reef or near one of the artificial reefs in your area. This rig requires heavier tackle, with 50- to 80-pound braided line and a 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. I fish the Avet MX size reel and a heavier shorter rod with this rig. I pedal my Hobie Mirage Revolution 1 to 2 miles per hour keeping the weight in contact with the bottom, bouncing the weight along the bottom taking advantage of the motion of the ocean swells under my kayak.
Once you catch a halibut, you then have a target area that you’re confident holds fish. Continue covering that area by slow trolling in big circles or, switch gears and set up a halibut drift using live bait with lighter line to see if other halibut are hanging out. Drifting along with the current or an afternoon light breeze baited up with a live sardine, live smelt, mackerel or squid will do the trick. I like to use a 3-way swivel and 3- to 8-ounce torpedo sinker depending on depth, keeping the weight in general contact with the bottom. This rig is best fished with medium bass gear, like a 7-foot graphite rod and smaller, lighter inshore reel. I fish the Avet SX size reel here.
Keep working different depths until you have success, and then you may have found the right depth to concentrate on, and watch for schools of bait in the area on your sonar.
With individual fish identification almost impossible using your sonar, locating and targeting the schools of baitfish in the bottom part of the water column can be the next best thing.
Once you are hooked up with a halibut, set your drag to a medium-light setting, allowing the fish to make runs, and then reel slowly and methodically to avoid startling the fish. Once the halibut is nearing the surface keep the fish’s head underwater at all times, making sure to steer the fish head-first into the net. Be sure to have everything on your kayak secured in case the fish goes crazy, as larger halibut can be a handful in a kayak, though they may seem very docile until they feel the net, or get startled – then you’ll really need to watch out. So be ready.
And, do not just have a tiny gaff ready. Always keep a big game gaff and a tethered game clip handy – just in case!
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