When you have faith in a halibut spot you keep working it even when the action is slow and after most boats are gone. By early afternoon the bite started picking up. An incoming tide, minimal swell and gentle breeze helped us keep a steady drift in about 70-feet of water north of Rosarito Beach, Baja. The Coronado Islands loomed offshore, five miles to the west where a flotilla of sportfishing boats of all sizes and description may be found on any given day during the season. We were virtually alone and now catching fish almost non-stop. Our focus was on halibut and they get big here with 20-to 40-pound fish taken on a regular basis.
Using live anchovies for bait we had caught several keeper halibut to 20 pounds by 2 p.m. but we were constantly being interrupted by mackerel attacks, sand bass, sculpin, lizardfish, tomcod and occasional bonito. Everything it seems will eat an anchovy which can be frustrating when you are on a good halibut bite. Larger baits will reduce encounters with small scavenger fish so I dropped down a husky Pacific mackerel with a sliding egg sinker rig. “When you get bit with a big mackerel on the bottom you know its going to be a good fish even though you won’t get bit as often”, I frequently remind anglers who want to target big halibut. Big baits take patience.
I could feel the mackerel in its zig-zag swimming pattern near the bottom as the line would go taut and then slacken as the bait probed the limits of its tethered predicament. After awhile mackerel will tire and slow down. This one was now drifting straight with only occasional twitches transmitted up the line indicating it was still swimming but becoming an easy target for an opportunistic halibut. The line, held between my fingers with the reel in freespool, grew heavy as if I was snagged on the bottom. Releasing the line off the spool under light thumb pressure, I could feel some jolting movement and heavy pressure followed by light pressure. That was no bottom. I could envision a big halibut attacking the mackerel, seizing it, turning it to get a better hold until it settled down before attempting a head-first swallow. These feeding movements took several minutes until I felt solid, heavy resistance. The halibut must have engulfed the mac and was now settled on the bottom. I engaged the drag and cranked the reel handle steadily until the rod tip was virtually pulled down into the water and line started ripping off the spool under medium drag pressure. This fish didn’t want to come in easy, and once pried from the bottom, showed some power as it made a series of drag-pulling dives on the light tackle. Each dive became shorter as it tired and neared the surface. Onboard, the firmed-out, head-shaking halibut weighed 27 pounds. Soon, even the skeptics onboard were scrambling for a mackerel.
Later I spotted Don and Shirley Blackman of Blackman Boats in the area and radioed them. The fishing had been slow near the bullring (at Playas de Tijuana on the U.S. - Mexico border) and they had decided to try this area a few miles to the south. I suggested they use mackerel and a somewhat surprised response indicated they only had a couple of banged-up macs in the tank. Getting in my line of drift and using the mackerel, Shirley soon tied into a good fish. “Tony”, said Don over the radio moments later, “I think Shirley just landed a record halibut”, he concluded as they sped off for the weighmaster back in San Diego. The halibut registered at 32 pounds, 8 ounces and set a 20-pound line class IGFA world record for Shirley Blackman on June 26, 1983. Since then, we have caught many trophy; halibut using mackerel and other large baits.
Make no mistake, big halibut will eat tiny forage such as juvenile shrimp, crabs and small anchovies just like any other predator. The “big bait-big fish” theory just means that the big fish can eat the big bait because no one else has. That’s what is meant by targeting fish with big baits-smaller fish are selected out of this part of the food chain allowing adult or larger species of predatory gamefish to be afforded this feeding opportunity. On the other hand, smaller baits such as squid, are very attractive to many predators including juvenile to adult halibut so they are considered a universally top bait regardless of size. It’s important to remain flexible and don’t hesitate using an oddball or oversized bait for fear of being scoffed at. You just might come up with an winner.
Bait selection is important to successful halibut fishing. “Matching the hatch” is as good a strategy for halibut as for Sierra trout so it’s valuable to know what forage is in the area that halibut may be focusing on. Some baits, such as anchovies and sardines, may be readily available from the commercial bait receivers that supply the sportfishing fleet while others such as squid or mackerel may need to be caught by the angler. An excellent bait in one area may be ineffective further along the coast so constant experimentation is often worthwhile. With all the variables in mind, if I had a choice of what baits to use for a halibut trip, these would be my Top Ten Baits for Halibut:
1. Squid. The common market squid is often referred to as a “candy” bait for many gamefish including halibut. Squid possess many good attributes that make them a top bait. They are very prolific with immense schools congregating at offshore islands and deepwater canyons nearshore during the winter and spring. Squid are soft-bodied which makes hook penetration easier when taken by a predator. They are very versatile and whole dead or cut squid can be nearly as effective as live squid at times.
When the squid are “in” everything shows up including white seabass, blue sharks, kelp bass, bat rays, giant (black) sea bass, yellowtail and a myriad of bottom-feeders such as halibut. When halibut feed on squid they may act more aggressive than normal and pursue them in the upper water column if the squid suspend near the surface. Halibut will chase down squid like a yellowtail and at times can be spotted cruising the surface by alert anglers. It is still a good bet to keep your bait on the bottom using a sliding egg sinker or dropper loop rig.
The only drawback to squid is getting them. Squid are fairly delicate creatures and they don’t live very long in bait receivers. Sportboats usually must acquire the bait themselves, or if fortunate to be near a commercial squid boat, may be able to purchase a supply of “squirters” for the days fishing. Squid and nighttime go together so be prepared for longer periods of time spent on the water. Acquiring squid is almost an art form but it is essentially based on putting out a bright light(s) on dark moon phases to attract the squid to the boat, and either catch them with specialized squid jigs with reverse spikes or grapples or netting them if they “float” close enough to the boat.
2. Queenfish. This small member of the croaker family is sometimes misidentified as a herring. Queenfish have a soft body with bright silver scales on the lower half of their body that flash like a beacon to a hungry halibut. The dorsal area is bluish but may appear brown from topsides in a bait receiver. They are the most important “brown bait” that will sometimes be mixed in a load of anchovies or sardines when the net boats are hauling from shallow areas. In Santa Monica Bay some of the commercial bait boats will make an effort to keep a supply of queenfish for sale when they appear in good numbers. When you go halibut fishing anywhere from Southern California ports always ask the receiver workers if they have any brown bait and they may be able to get you a scoop by netting deeper in the receiver. Brown baits usually hug the bottom of the receiver. A tip is always welcome for the extra effort and such courtesies will help create a good relationship which will be a long term benefit for you.
Queenfish congregate around piers, pilings, navigation markers, moored boats and other structures from late spring through summer in most bay areas. They can be caught with live anchovies, small spoons such as the krocodile, four-fly rigs and cut-bait. Daybreak is a good time to catch them as they may scatter by mid-day. Queenfish also school in shallow sandy areas off beaches but they are more difficult to catch in open areas.
Queenfish are a sluggish bait and whether live or dead will attract halibut. They have a large mouth so when drifting with a dead bait keep the mouth closed by inserting the hook through the lower jaw and up through the snout. This will keep the mouth from opening causing the bait to spin. It’s a good general rule when using most dead baits.
An effective rig for big halibut is a Scampi/Queenfish combo. Use a No.105 clear gold flake Scampi or similar leadhead jig with twin plastic tails about five inches in length. Cut about two-thirds of the tails off. With a 5/0 hook size pin the queenfish mouth closed as described above and position the bait so that the plastic tails cover its head. When drifted on the bottom this bait set-up will flash and flutter better than a live queenfish and has accounted for many trophy-size halibut. The queenfish can be stored frozen for this method and used as needed throughout the season.
3. Anchovy. As troublesome as anchovies are because everything that swims or crawls seems to eat them, they are still a good choice for halibut. Of the seven IGFA world record halibut landed on my boat, six of them fell for an anchovy. A “greenie” anchovy with lots of slime and about four to five inches long is a winning bait. They are the ones that zip-around in the bait tank avoiding your scoop net. Avoid blue-back or blackish baits that appear sluggish and have missing scales or bloody noses even though they may be larger baits.
The Northern anchovy is a mainstay of the live bait industry and are common year-round. They will migrate from shallow beach areas to deep water at times but are considered a resident species. Anchovies are filter feeders and have large mouths designed to engulf large volumes of water that is “filtered” for plankton that are ingested. Anchovies are delicate and can be easily damaged if handled carelessly. They also do well in captivity and actually grow stronger in bait receivers if fed and cared for properly. These “cured” baits are preferred by the long range fleet because they travel well. When local fishing pressure is light the anchovies will remain in the receivers longer and the survivors will usually be stronger baits than those found during the peak fishing season when bait turnover is high.
Effective bait rigs for anchovies is the sliding egg sinker and dropper loop terminals. Fresh-dead anchovies are on a par with live bait when it comes to a bottom-feeding halibut. At times a dead anchovy will be swallowed quicker and more aggressively than a frisky live bait, so don’t pass up a good looking dead anchovy on the bottom of the tank.
4. Sardine. The Pacific sardine is currently in a cycle of abundance and has been available only within the last decade or so after a long disappearance locally. The sardine, like the anchovy , is a filter feeder with plankton its primary forage. Sardines will also take small feathers and small cut baits after chumming with a can of cat food or ground chum. This is a common method to “make bait’ in remote areas such as Bahia de San Quintín in Northern Baja. Thankfully, the bait receivers serving Southern California are usually well-supplied with sardines.
Anglers need to be very selective when using sardines for halibut. Look for the medium four-to six-inch specimens that are greenish, slimy and squirming in the hand. These are “race horse” sardines and are a top halibut attractor. The larger blue-back sardines tend to be sluggish with dry bodies and missing scales. Halibut will often grab and reject these latter baits as if they taste bitter. These poor-quality baits are commonly retrieved with halibut bite marks on the body indicating that there is something wrong with the bait (or impatient angler).
5. Pacific Mackerel. This wide-ranging baitfish is common from Southern California to Baja. In warm water years they may migrate as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. The Pacific mackerel is usually seven-to twelve inches in length and is a strong swimmer. They have distinguishing dark green or blue wavy lines above the lateral line with a metallic sheen over the entire body. Larger specimens reach 15 inches or more and these “salami” mackerel are quite sporting on light tackle.
Pacific mackerel may be available in your local bait receiver at times. More often, anglers need to catch them independently. Mackerel are often found in deeper parts of bays, around bait receivers or close to lighted structures such as docks at night. If you don't want to spend time “making bait” mackerel can often be caught on the “grounds” while fishing for halibut if you keep a surface bait out. Mackerel are aggressive feeders and will readily take spoons, plastic tail jigs, four-fly bait rigs and live anchovies.
Mackerel up to 12 or 13 inches will be a morsel to a big halibut. A strong mackerel can be slowed down by trimming its tail fins and will be easier for a halibut to catch. Even smaller halibut get excited when they see a big meal cruising by. I’ve often had five-to ten-pound halibut grab and rip big mackerel all the way to the surface with little hope of swallowing such a large bait whole. Trophy-class halibut exceeding 30 pounds will ambush a drifted mackerel and surprisingly make an easy meal of it when they may completely ignore smaller baits such as anchovy. Using a live or fresh-dead mackerel for halibut will test your patience because fewer fish will take a whole mackerel — but they will be bigger fish as the payoff.
6. Pacific Jack Mackerel. The jack mackerel, sometimes called Spanish mackerel, is not a mackerel but a member of the jack family along with yellowtail. Jacks are usually most available during the summer and may be sold from commercial bait receivers. More often they are caught by anglers near off-shore kelp paddies, kelp beds, islands and at times in deep harbors or around bait receivers using the same fishing techniques used for Pacific mackerel.
Jack mackerel have large eyes and an iridescent green body, sometimes with a bluish tone, with a silvery belly. They are a hardy bait and will keep well in a bait tank for weeks if fed and with a constant water flow. Jacks may be found in small, fragmented schools around harbor structure or large schools in open water where they can be netted by commercial bait haulers. They are usually slightly smaller than the Pacific mackerel and may average six-to ten-inches in length. Jack mackerel are not plentiful but large halibut seem to recognize a good meal when they see one and will aggressively pursue a jack given the opportunity.
7. Smelt. Two species of smelt are found in Southern California — the jacksmelt and topsmelt. These smelt have distinguishing anatomical differences for ichthyologists, but for anglers we’ll treat them the same. Smelt have thin bodies with green backs, silver undersides with a midline stripe and yellow color accents. The head and mouth are small and compressed. Smelt are closely related to the California grunion and they look similar. In fact, all three species are members of the silversides family and are not considered true smelt.
Smelt are usually not available in commercial bait receivers. Anglers can find them inshore all year in bays and around ocean piers. Smelt live around marina environments and are very easy to catch. Metal traps can be used to collect them overnight or they can be chummed with cat food and caught with four-fly bait rigs. Historically, when bait was unavailable at the receiver, collecting smelt was a fast, effective alternative to loading a bait tank. Smelt are strong, have good color and attract a variety of gamefish, including halibut.
8. Tomcod. Tomcod, or white croaker, have many aliases that can’t be printed here because they are considered bait-stealing pests by many anglers. Tomcod are predominantly silver-sided with brown back and yellowish fins. They have a big, hard head and underslung mouth but do not have the chin barbel that is found on its relatives, the yellowfin croaker and California corbina. Tomcod may be confused with the queenfish, especially when small, but the queenfish is a much better choice for halibut. Tomcod are considered a “hard” bait with rough scales and heavy bones that only occasionally will be taken by halibut. They are very abundant all year in the surf zone to about 100-feet depths along sandy beaches. They may drive anglers using small bait, such as anchovies, out of a halibut drift because tomcod will eat just about anything they can swallow.
9. Hoochie Skirt. You’re right, this is not a live natural bait but a piece of plastic that is proving to be very effective on local halibut. It is essentially a bounce-ball or mooching rig used for salmon that started catching lots of halibut in northern waters when it was worked in shallow depths where halibut congregate. The outfit is used with 30-pound medium tackle. Start by tying a three-way swivel on the main line. Tie six-feet of 30-pound line to the swivel and attach a rectangular chrome flasher followed by 12 to 18 inches of line tied to the five-inch hoochie skirt hook. This short connection is important so that the flasher can impart some movement to the straight-running hoochie. A strip of cut bait or small whole bait can be placed on the hook in the skirt for added attraction. The remaining ring on the swivel is used to attach a torpedo sinker (of at least eight ounces) to two-feet of 20-pound line. This line component is lighter so that it will break free if the sinker gets snagged on the bottom which will save the flasher rig.
Slow troll or bounce this rig on the bottom. Anglers must gauge speed and water depth to keep the hoochie in the bottom strike zone to be effective. You may have to increase sinker weight to one-pound or more to stay on the bottom. Hand hold the rod and when a halibut climbs on the jig give it some slack until heavy weight is felt before setting the hook.
10. Leadhead Plastic Tail. A good alternative to the hoochie rig is the plastic tail rig. Barry Brightenburg, owner of Fish Trap Lures, has experimented successfully with plastics that have taken several halibut to over 30 pounds. Using the terminal rig described above, substitute a four-inch plastic tail for the hoochie skirt. The only difference is that you can space the chrome flasher more than two-feet from the plastic tail because plastics have built-in swimming action whereas a normally straight-running hoochie needs the movement imparted by the flasher to be more effective. The top plastic tail color has been Rainbow Trout which has a green topsides, milky white belly and pink vein. The Anchovy pattern has also been productive.
BEST OF THE REST
The California halibut is an opportunistic feeder and oftentimes will take advantage of “whatever comes along”. Its menu has consisted of items such as lizardfish, freshwater crayfish (crawdads), pelagic red crab, octopus, grunion, a variety of clams and crabs, mudsuckers, pompano (butterfish), and even small sand bass struggling on the hook. Halibut can also be very selective and can frustrate anglers who don’t have the right kind of bait. Keep experimenting and if all else fails try these Top Ten Baits at the right time and place to entice a trophy halibut.
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The Roving Angler