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Halibut Fishing

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Fishing for Alaska Halibut

Halibut

Halibut

Identifying Features:  Pacific halibut are the heavyweights of Alaska's offshore waters.  The halibut is dark brown or dirty brown with irregular blotches on the top side.  The bottom side is bright or dirty white.  The Pacific halibut's body is elongated in shape, when compared to other members of the flounder family, with its width at about one third its length.   The scales are small.  The mouth is small, with well-developed teeth on both sides of the jaw.  Both eyes are on the top (brown) side.  The flesh is white, tasty, and well worth the time and effort.

Halibut Life:  A halibut's life begins in an upright position, with one eye on each side of the head, but during the first six months of a it's life, a halibut goes through an unusual change.  The fish's form begins to flatten, and its left eye migrates to its right side.  At this time a halibut begins to swim flat on its side along the ocean bottom.  Halibut are bottom dwellers, for the most part, feeding on fish, squid, crabs, clams, etc.  They are especially fond of salmon carcasses washed out into the saltwater during August and September.  Halibut are highly migratory; adult fish travel more than 2,000 miles.  Most halibut are caught at depths of 90-900 feet; the lowest recorded depth for a halibut is 3,600 feet.  Halibut grow slowly; fish estimated at 45 years of age have been recorded.  Females live longer than males, and are larger in size.  All trophy halibut are females; males rarely exceed 45 pounds.

Size:  Pacific halibut are large -- the largest of the flat fish.  Fish 9 feet in length and over 500 pounds have been recorded.  Any fish over 350 pounds is considered exceptionally large.  The average size of most halibut caught sport fishing is in the 20-50 pound range.  Hundred pound fish are very common, and fish over 250 pounds are caught every year.  The Alaska state record for sport-caught halibut is 450 pounds.

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Equipment For Halibut Fishing

If you're going to use a fishing charter to fish for halibut, they will more than likely provide you with the equipment and bait you'll need.  Ask about this when you make reservations for the charter. 

The "normal" halibut rod is a short, heavy action rod of between 5-6 feet in length.  Some people do use longer rods, but in my opinion, it's much more convenient to use a shorter rod on the boat.  Toward the high side of the price range are the Penn Tunasticks.  A graphite, or composite rod, is a good choice.  Make sure the rod you buy has roller line guides at the tip and next to the reel.  I'm using a Daiwa graphite rod now, but that's mostly because it was a birthday present.  Shakespeare makes an Uglystick in a similar configuration, which would probably be good too.  Most of these rods are thick and stiff, which is good for hauling up heavy fish, but not so good when it comes to feeling smaller bites way down at the end of your line.  One guy I go fishing with regularly uses an 8 foot heavy action salmon rod for halibut.  He can even feel when tiny crabs are biting at his bait.  The bad news for him is when a large halibut is hooked.  It takes him a long time to coax it up on 30 pound line and a completely flexed rod.  I'd recommend a 5-5.5 foot heavy action offshore rod over a longer rod any day.

A large capacity saltwater reel is a must.  Again, Penn makes some good ones, but so do other companies now.  I'm using a graphite Shimano reel.  Most people fish for halibut with anywhere from 60 to 120 pound Dacron line.

My preference is for 80 pound test Tufline.  Other brand names are available, but small diameter is definitely the way to go.  It's thinner than the "normal" braided lines, which is a big plus when the tide starts trying to pull your line and bait across the bottom.  This was demonstrated to me very graphically a few years ago.  I was using a normal Dacron line.  My buddy was using one of the newer (at that time) "small diameter" lines of the same weight.  We started fishing for halibut at slack tide and both had on 2 pounds of weight.  As the tide started moving, I couldn't keep my bait on the bottom.  I pulled it up and added another 2 pounds of weight.  I still couldn't keep it from bouncing along on the bottom, while my friend's bait was still sitting where he'd put it.  I'd put on a total of 6 pounds of weight to match what he was doing with 2 pounds.  The only difference was the small-diameter line he was using.  I was convinced.

Halibut Rig

The picture above is of my preferred terminal tackle for halibut.  It uses two hooks, each attached by 200 pound wire leader material to two 3-way swivels.  At the top a snap swivel from my main line is attached to the top of a 3-way swivel.  At the bottom is large snap swivel, which is where the weight is attached.  I also attach the hooks on swivels too, so that I can change hooks from large circle hooks to j-hooks.  These swivels are the kind that you can rotate the hook into, rather than a snap swivel.  The wire leaders that attach to the hooks have surgical tubing over them to help keep them from tangling around the other wire leader materiel used in this setup.  With the weight resting, or gently bouncing on the bottom, the bottom hook rests out away from the weight on the sea bottom.  The tide action helps move the bait out from the weight.  The top hook is suspended just a short distance above the bottom, and is harder for small crabs, etc., to reach and nibble on.  I get two chances at a fish that may steal a bait.  I also get the opportunity for a double-header, a halibut on each hook, which happens quite often when a school of small to mid-sized halibut is in the area.  

Other terminal tackle is available: other rigs, jigs, lures and hooked leaders.  Pre-tied "halibut leaders", with single hooks on either wire or mono, are available at local department and sporting goods stores.  Some people use a sliding weight on their main line.  This may have advantages, but I haven't experimented with it.  Of all the tackle available, I'd recommend herring on leadered hooks with enough weight to keep it on the bottom.  The setup pictured above is what I'll use just about every time.  If they won't hit a bait like herring, they're either not there, or they won't bite anything.  (If you want to try something else while your halibut fishing, that's great.  But be sure to also bring herring and a hooked leader rig -- this is a proven producer.)  As with salmon rigs, I prefer to make my own.  I use 120-200 pound wire leader material crimped onto large swivels, and attach large Gamakatsu circle hooks (or J-hooks).  If you're making your own as a copy of the setup pictured above, don't forget to slide on the surgical tubing before crimping that portion of the leader, and make it strong.  It's no time to find out how weak your leaders are when a huge halibut is on the line.

Circle hooks are the norm for halibut.  A fish that is hooked will not get itself off of a circle hook.  It's harder for you to unhook them too.  If you find yourself releasing a lot of fish and having a busy day, consider using j-hooks, or crimping down the barbs on a set of your hooks.

My main line is normally tied onto a 3-4 foot coated 120 lb. wire leader.  This leader is then attached to the top 3-way swivel of the terminal tackle pictured above.  I use this additional leader for several reasons.  The bottom where you'll be fishing is often rocky, and this extra wire leader helps protect the line.  Also, I don't need to tie anything on the boat.  The 3-foot leader is already on my rod.  I just snap on the halibut rig pictured above, put on some bait, and start fishing.  If I need to change something, I don't have to cut my line and retie; I just snap it off and replace it.  When I'm pulling up smaller halibut, I can grab, pull, and control the fish by the wire leader.  I can see the wire leader well ahead of the time I can see the fish; it's an indicator that I'm getting the fish up to the surface.  Well, you get the point...  Using the coated wire leader above my hook setup is a habit, but don't consider it mandatory.

The standard halibut bait is herring.  Get them large.  It sometimes seems like the larger the bait, the larger the halibut.  Eight to ten inch herring will do nicely.  Make sure the herring is firmly attached to the hook.  Crabs and small fish will often try to nibble at the bait.  Other baits also work well.  Squid, pieces of cod or other fish, will get results too.  In most cases, herring is the easiest bait to find, and it works.

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Techniques For Halibut

Halibut fishing is not so much a big battle, as it is in just lifting the fish to the surface.  Big halibut are called "barn doors" and that's how they feel.  It's just a big weight, that sometimes shakes, and sometimes heads itself back down to the bottom after you've hauled it up part of the way.

Hooking a halibut sometimes feels like you've snagged something.  Sometimes they don't move or fight or even try to swim back down to the bottom at all.  It's just a matter of hauling the fish up to the surface.  Since you'll be fishing in 100-200 or more feet of water, it can take a while to get them up.  Some fish do thrash around a bit, and a normal reaction to being hooked is for a halibut to swim back down to the bottom after you've pulled it up a bit.  The rare halibut will take off along the bottom after it's been hooked.  I had a big halibut do that to me once.  It took off and swam at high speed for several seconds.  I hauled it back toward me and up.  It lurched itself back into action and headed back for the bottom.  We were in 150 feet of water at the time.  I'd pull it up over half way to the surface, and it would decide to head back down, and then out across the bottom at high speed.  My drag was at maximum but it seemed as if it was doing nothing, even with the rod bent over like a horseshoe.  It did this 11 times before I finally got the fish to the surface.  That halibut weighed around 125 pounds.  I've caught bigger halibut, but that was the best fight one has given me so far.  Another time, I was fishing with a friend who hooked a legitimate monster 300+ pound halibut.  It took him almost 20 minutes to get it to the surface, but that was more because of the weight than from any big fight put up by the fish.  Once the halibut was at the surface, it looked more like an island than a fish next to the boat.  We were alone in a 16 foot boat at the time, and this halibut was half the length of the boat!  

To get back to "fishing techniques"... put on your herring and your weight, and drop the rig over the side.  Release your drag, and let it fall to the bottom.  Control the reel so that it doesn't spin out of control and tangle your line.  Do this with your thumb, or with a very light drag setting.  Slow but steady on the way down.  As soon as your weight hits the bottom, engage your drag and reel up a little.  Your weight should be gently bouncing up and down on the bottom, so that you can feel it.  If you can feel the bouncing, you'll be able to feel the bites.  If the sea's waves are making for a big bounce let out a little more line, so that the weight is on the bottom longer, but so that you can still feel it being lifted and tapping the bottom occasionally.  Then it's just a waiting game.  You can even put the rod down, with the line at the tight enough so that the rod tip flexes down a bit as the waves raise the boat.  You can visually see when a fish bites by the tip's action.  Stay within reach if you're putting down the rod.  

A bite from a halibut can seem more like a snag than a bite.  All of a sudden it feels like you've hooked the bottom and the weight isn't tapping up and down any more.  You pull, and nothing moves.  This may very well be a fish.  Other times it's a pronounced bite.  It's common to feel a quick tug as a halibut tries to pull off one of your baits.  That's one reason for using a two-hook setup.  Be ready for it, or another fish, to return for the other bait.  Sometimes a halibut just seems to grab the bait on the way by and hooks itself.  Then it's a matter of hauling the fish up.  Lift with the rod, reel on the way down.  If it's pulling out line and heading back for the bottom, just hold your rod up (and check your drag setting).  Once it reaches the bottom, a halibut will usually stop.  Then start hauling it back up again.  Eventually you'll get it to the surface for keeps.

If it's a fish of any size, once it's at the surface don't try to lift the halibut out of the water.  Big halibut should be shot, with a 22, a 410 shotgun, or even a .38, before being brought on board.  That's for sizeable fish of about 90-100 pounds or more.  (If in doubt, and it looks "big", shoot it before you bring it on board.)  Halibut are just about all muscle.  You'll notice that, and appreciate it, when it's time to clean one.  Big halibut can do damage to people and to boats if they're not killed before being brought on board.  Keep the fish steady and calm at the surface before it's shot.  They'll thrash a little when shot, but normally don't go anywhere.  Use a gaffing hook to pull it up.  On huge fish it's often necessary to use two or more people to get the fish on board.  (If you're on a small boat with a huge halibut, you can even tie it up alongside, through the gills and out the mouth, and then slowly haul it back to shore.)  A halibut charter's crew will handle all of the fish landing chores for you.

To recap: The idea is to get your bait down on the bottom, and to keep your line tight enough that you feel the bites.  If you can get the weight to gently raise and lower, tapping the bottom, you know that your line is tight enough and that the bait is on the bottom.  Wait for the bite, set the hook and haul it up.  There'll be days when you get a few bites all day, no matter where you go or what you do.  Other days you'll be hauling up fish, releasing them, re-baiting, the weight hits the bottom, and...another bite!

Good halibut spots in Southcentral Alaska?  Just offshore from Deep Creek (by Ninilchik), Seward, and Homer.  Off of Deep Creek, the water is fairly shallow: 100 feet plus or minus a bit, and you don't have to drive the boat as far to get to halibut.  If you're there at the right time, you can also troll for salmon near shore as the tide's coming in.  (See Calendar Page.)  The down side of Deep Creek is that you have to either have your boat launched from the beach, or wait for a high tide to use the boat ramp.  More halibut charters, and larger charter boats, operate out of Seward and Homer.  Both locations have docks and easier access for launching your own boat.  It can take a longer boat ride to get to your fishing spot, but the scenery is outstanding, as is the fishing.  Expect to fish deeper water, and expect to catch other types of fish as well.  All three of these are down on the Kenai Peninsula.  See the Maps Page for a closer look.

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