To long-time West Coast anglers, halibut fishing means 10-ton weights and power-trolling all the livelong day. Don’t believe it. For kayakers there are better ways.
Our sneaky little launch-anywhere boats are ideal halibut-catching craft. For starters, we’re not going anywhere fast and know it. We have no choice but to slow down and thoroughly fish a given area. It’s a tremendous advantage, because halibut are generally not far-ranging in the scope of a fishing session. Instead, groups of flatties collect along certain depth contours and structures. Find one, you’ve found many.
Then there are the nooks and crannies only the rare power boater visits—exclusive halibut fishing holes for kayak anglers. Sandy kelp edges and lanes are prime examples. They’re fine places to dangle a live sardine or work a plastic swimbait.
How about a surfin’ safari? Halibut come in tight to spawn in spring and then again in fall. Daring kayakers can get them just beyond the breaking surf. Better keep your head on a swivel!
Of course, kayak anglers can also venture into most places the power boat fleet fishes, from shallow bays to deeper water offshore. Just modify the techniques accordingly. Let’s take a closer look at targeting these tasty sportfish.
X Marks the Halibut
Halibut are ambush predators that hide themselves in the sand. They need structure too; that’s where the food is. Pay special attention to sandy patches up against rocks or around kelp, and watch for drop-offs that attract bait.
Because halibut tend to cluster in hot zones, work a single depth contour at a time. Once you find one, stay in the area.
One Fish, Many Baits
In California live bait is a mainstay, accounting for most halibut catches. Break out a fiver and buy it from a barge or jig up a bunch of mackerel. The basic live bait setup consists of a sliding sinker or three-way swivel, usually paired with a two-hook stinger or halibut rig. Many anglers feel halibut are touchy biters, and fish them with their reels in free spool. It needn’t be so. Use a treble for the tail hook and keep your reel engaged. Hook-ups will soar.
Fish live bait on the drift or a very slow troll and with as little weight as possible. Other natural baits fall more into the previously frozen variety, such as sardines or squid. Salmon bellies are an Alaska favorite.
Artificial baits work too, and they’re always available. Hungry halibut snap up plastic swimbaits and grubs worked slowly just above the bottom. In the shallows, try saltwater plugs. They’re great for covering distance.
The End Game
Once hooked, halibut aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. Fight them on a loose drag. As long as an angler doesn’t rush a contest, once at kayak-side they’ll often become docile. Keep them calm by leaving their heads in the water, even when gaffing and securing fish you plan to keep. ‘Butts are notorious for playing possum. Get landed fish safely secured below decks or tied off, because there’s no telling when one will go nuts. Halibut are all muscle; a large fish can do significant damage or even escape, and then it’s bye-bye fish dinner.
Battle with the Beast
Everything’s bigger in Alaska. Take Ketchikan Kayak Fishing guideHoward McKim, a mountain of a man. Before scoring a 400-pound salmon shark sleigh ride last year, he matched up with another sort of nigh-inconceivable whopper.
While fishing with salmon bellies across the Tongass Narrows in 2003, he hooked a monster. “I could hardly gain an inch on the sheer weight of this thing,” McKim said. An hour later, a huge shadowy form emerged beneath his ‘yak, far too big and dangerous to land solo. No problem; the burly frontiersman simply towed the beast two hours up-current, finally beaching his behemoth on a nearby island. It pegged the scale at 183 pounds. That’s a lot of fish sticks!
The West’s largest species of flatfish come in a couple of delicious flavors. The smaller California halibut ranges from Washington all the way down to southern Baja. The average kayak catch weighs in at 8 to 10 pounds. Anything over 30 is a serious fish. They max out at 70 pounds. The mighty Pacific halibut is another story. Most common from San Francisco north to Alaska, some of these “barn doors” reach a quarter ton. Hearty northerners go after the “chickens”—manageable and tasty 20- to 30-pounders.
Paul Lebowitz is a kayak fishing writer and the inaugural president of the KayakFishing Association of California.