How and Where to Catch Trophy Halibut From 80 to 400 Pounds

by Christopher Batin

Alaska halibut fishing is skyrocketing in popularity among residents and non-residents alike. Why? In both cases the answer is the same: culinary investment. Halibut is not only a prime eating fish, but they're huge! A two-fish limit can fill your and your neighbor's freezer with enough of the flaky, white meat to last the entire year. When you consider that halibut sells for about $4 a pound, it's no wonder that many anglers are finding that a day trip for halibut more than pays for itself. And of course catching fish that can reach weights of 400-plus pounds is fun.

Non-residents anglers are cashing in on the halibut in droves. They delight in taking home several hundred pounds of prime, boneless fillets for BBQs, family outings, or just to give away to friends as a memento of their Alaskan fishing adventure. These are anglers who typically have spent a week or more at a "full-service" lodge, and rather than take home a cooler-full of rainbow or salmon, they opt for the tastier halibut.

Author with a nice "eating size" Alaskan halibut and a bonus rockfish

PHOTO: ADELE BATIN

Predictions indicate that halibut fishing this year (1996) will be not much different than it has been the last two years. This means anglers will again have excellent opportunities for catching big halibut.

Where to Find Halibut

According to Dave Nelson, sportfish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, halibut movements are seasonal in nature. The fish move into the shallow water areas to feed on the abundant marine life. In mid-July, the fish move out into deeper water, and in August, another minor migration takes place into the shallow water areas. Nelson speculates that halibut feed on the salmon carcasses that are being washed out to sea.

Many local anglers consider Homer sportfish biologist Nick Dudiak to be one of the most knowledgeable halibut experts in the area. "My boss says I spend too much time out on the water," he said, a trait indicative of any true sportfishing researcher.

Dudiak says that after the Homer charter boats have hammered the fish in local nearby waters, many boats will head out to the larger islands off the Kenai Peninsula. Some of the most popular islands include Elizabeth, Chugach, Pearl, Flat and Barren. "Halibut there are not subjected to fishing pressure," he said. "The long ride out is often worth the extra hour it may take."

While it's possible to catch large fish close to Homer, your chances for success are a tad better if you charter a boat to the islands. When booking a trip, specifically request what the charter operators refer to as a "long range" trip. Prices on these longer trips are from $25 to $50 more, depending on length of trip and operator. Since the boats have to tangle with Alaska's notorious Shelikof Strait, this type of trip is best left to skilled seamen or charter skippers.

For the do-it-yourself angler with a car-topper or small boat, there are numerous areas close to shore where you can fish for halibut.

"Out in the middle of the inlet, off Stariski Creek, is a popular area for halibut," Dudiak said. "The Deep Creek Wayside is where most anglers launch their craft, either from the sandy beach or via boat ramp" (launching is done at high tide only). "At high tide, you can also launch from the mouth of the Ninilchik River."

A bit more primitive is the unimproved launch at the Anchor River. Be sure you have a 4WD and are familiar with the tidal fluctuations for that day.

"There's lots of structure off the Anchor Point area and Stariski Tower area," Dudiak said. "Anglers should look for rock ledges and trenches, drop-offs, and underwater pinnacles. It's important to fish variations of structure, not only in bottom topography, but also composition. Halibut like muddy/sandy bottoms, as well as the cobble and rocky areas.

How to Catch Halibut

Like many marine species, halibut are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will inhale whatever is edible. However, our experience has been that for optimum success, anglers should match the forage items for the area fished. Biological studies show that predatory species are often prey selective, meaning if crabs are the predominant item in an area, and halibut have been feeding on them, and the crabs have hit a sweet tooth, halibut will continue to search out crabs. Knowing such food items are tasty, they are not as cautious when taking a crab-colored lure as they might be when mouthing an uncommon bait.

Even though this is generally an exception rather than a rule, too many times we have used fluorescent orange jigs bounced along the bottom (many crabs are orange) and out fished anglers using herring. Structure also serves a purpose in attracting and holding the major components of a food chain. Crabs attract juvenile cod and Pollock, which attract halibut. Structure also creates rip currents, which dislodge and disorient baitfish from their hiding or holding areas, making them susceptible to feeding halibut.

Halibut Rig

The slip-sinker rig is the most popular terminal rig for halibut. This rig consists of a 4/0 to 10/0 hook crimped to a 20-to 30-inch length of mono or wire-strand leader. Tie on a 300-pound test barrel swivel. Slip onto the mainline of 80 to300-pound test Dacron a pyramid or teardrop sinker from 20 to 40 ounces. The slip-sinker rig allows you to sense the slightest strike, and doesn't alarm the fish when it inhales the bait, as the line passes through the eye of the weight.

Many anglers prefer using circle hooks, especially if they are catching and releasing fish. The trick here is to allow the fish at least 5 to 15 seconds to orient the bait in its mouth. If you want to keep fish, chances are you're better off using the J-hooks, especially if you are prone to setting the hook quickly.

Anchoring is the most effective technique to use once halibut are located. Anchoring allows the bait to work out its scent down current, attracting halibut for some distance. Being a predatory bottom feeder, halibut have keen olfactory nerves. Most effective baits include herring, squid, and octopus.

Commercial charters usually carry only herring. Anglers might consider purchasing some squid or octopus at a local store. Use the bait as a "scent teaser." Run the bait up the line, above the herring. If the halibut does manage to strip the hook, the octopus or squid, which is extremely difficult for the fish to steal, will keep your rig attractive to fish for perhaps a second go-around. It's worth the investment.

Once a halibut follows the scent into an area, its sense of sight takes over. Dudiak believes that hootchie or plastic skirts on a baited hook give the angler an added advantage.

"Whether you use scent or bait, the plastic hootchie will pick up and hold that scent for a period of time. Thus, if the halibut steals the bait, the skirt will have enough fish oil on it to draw another strike. Without the skirt, the angler would be fishing a bare hook.

Under certain conditions, Dudiak also likes to use various types of leadhead jigs and octopus imitations. He uses flashy spoon-type jigs decorated with fluorescent or iridescent green, chartreuse or blue tape, fished in an erratic manner directly over bottom. Most fish can detect greens and blues from the color spectrum much easier than other colors.

To catch halibut on a regular basis, Dudiak believes the lure must have vibration, visual appeal and scent. He's had very good success fishing a large spinner/hootchie combo off a lead weight. When baited with the herring/hootchie combo mentioned earlier, the rig pulsates along bottom, and big halibut "really smash it," Dudiak said.

When I first tried the new Kevlar lines for halibut, I wasn't too impressed. My attitude changed completely when the folks at Safariland convinced me to try their newly released SpiderWire for a season. This line will revolutionize how Alaskans fish for halibut. This is new technology and you better believe the company's saying, "With SpiderWire, you always get the fish, the lure and the stump they snagged on. You hook it. You own it. Nothing gets away." Believe it. You either lose your rod and reel, the fish gives up, or you go overboard. Originally designed for the bass and freshwater fishing market, we were among the first to try it in Alaska under saltwater applications. The results were, and still are, outstanding.

Chris Batin and Terry Rudnick are authors of the 368-page, just-released book, "How to Catch Trophy Halibut, which covers trophy halibut fishing in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. Copies are available for $24.95 plus $3 postage and handling.

We also suggest, to enjoy Cooking Halibut Alaska Style, a further reference.

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