Get Ready for Halibut

by Terry Rudnick, Washington Editor

Are you looking for the ultimate Northwest angling trophy? Many saltwater fishermen think that honor goes to the Pacific halibut. This heavyweight champ of the North Pacific commonly tips the scales at 35 pounds or more, and that's enough to test the skills and stamina of any angler.

Photo: TERRY RUDNICK

But 35 pounds is hardly the maximum size you can expect from these bruisers of the deep. They sometimes reach monstrous proportions, weighing in at 100, 150, even 200 pounds or more. Such fish are hooked every season around the Northwest. Some are landed, some are lost, but all provide the kind of fishing memories that last a lifetime.

If you're still dreaming about catching your first halibut, then it's time to get out and do something about it. The season is about to open, and the opportunities are many, both in the marine areas of Oregon and Washington and farther up the coast into British Columbia and Alaska.

Halibut were once considered a rare prize for Washington and Oregon anglers, but favorable ocean conditions have provided for more-or-less consistently good fishing over the past 15 years.

Places like Newport, Oregon, and Neah Bay, Washington, have been giving up phenomenal halibut catches since 1984, with large halibut charter fleets developing in both areas. A mix of charters and private boats also find worthwhile numbers of halibut in and around Port Angeles, Sekiu, La Push, Westport, Ilwaco, Garibaldi, Depoe Bay, Coos Bay and other saltwater ports throughout the Northwest.

The growth of our halibut fishery has pretty much coincided with a generally downward trend in saltwater salmon fishing, so halibut have in many ways filled an important gap for Northwest anglers. And it's easy to understand why these new "converts" to halibut fishing are excited about what they've found.

Not only is the Pacific halibut big, but it's also a tough, unpredictable fighter. Anglers who like to get the maximum fight out of their fish generally agree that the halibut ranks right up there with the best of the saltwater sport fish. Finding and hooking one is only half the battle; the real workout starts when you get one hooked and start cranking it toward the boat. These big bottom-dwellers get more than a little excited when you try to pull them up from the safety of their ocean-floor homes, and they don't come along peacefully. Many of them save their best for last, deciding to thrash the water's surface into a froth and make a fool out of you at boat side, just when you thought you had them whipped.

And, oh yes, in case you haven't heard, halibut also happen to be among the very best-eating fish that ever nestled up to a sprig of parsley and a lemon wedge, another fact of life that keeps the halibut high on the popularity charts.

Depending on where you fish for them, halibut may be caught on surprisingly light tackle or may require gear that will give you a tough workout even on days you don't hook any fish. In water of 150 feet or less, it's possible to take them on standard salmon tackle, even freshwater bass or walleye rods and reels. Shallow water allows you to fish light lures and light leads, which can be fished effectively on the lighter tackle; all you need is a little more time and a little luck to land them.

Many of the Northwest's top halibut areas, though, are in deep water, where you may find yourself fishing along a bottom that's 400, 500, even 600 feet beneath the surface. In these areas you may have to use sinkers or jigs of 24, 32, 40 ounces or heavier, and you simply must use heavy rods and reels to fish this kind of terminal tackle. A small levelwind reel won't hold enough line for you to even reach the bottom!

Tackle for deep-water halibut fishing usually includes a heavy-action boat rod of about seven feet and a revolving-spool reel big enough to hold at least 300 yards of 40- to 80-pound line. The new-technology lines of braided Spectra and other small-diameter materials -- such as Berkley's Gorilla Braid -- have proven to be excellent for this kind of deep-water halibut fishing, because they allow the smallest possible lure and sinker size along with low stretch for a good "feel" of the bottom and positive hook-setting.

Many halibut are caught on bait, with herring probably the top choice among most serious halibut anglers. Large, whole herring, a foot long or more, work best, and they should be fished with enough weight to keep them very close to the bottom. Some anglers prefer two hooks, tied in tandem, for fishing herring, but one hook is often just as effective. Thread it up through the nose of the bait twice, to form a loop that holds the bait in place on the leader, then lead the hook back toward the tail and bury it in the side of the herring. When I use one hook, I make it something in the size 7/0 to 10/0 range, and it's tied to monofilament leader of 40- to 60-pound-test.

One problem with herring is that it gets soft in a hurry, so lost baits become a problem. When you're fishing 450 feet deep, lost baits are a real pain. To avoid the aggravation and lost fishing time of losing bait in deep water, some anglers prefer squid, octopus, even strips of halibut skin or fillets off smaller bottomfish.

Artificial lures are another option, both for deep water and shallow water. Halibut will hit several kinds of artificials just as readily as they'll take a fresh bait.

Pipe jigs, which are nothing more than short lengths of pipe filled with lead, are effective halibut-getters, and they're cheap and easy to make if you have a little copper tubing or other suitable raw materials lying around. Melt down old wheel weights and pour the molten lead into the pre-cut lengths of pipe or tubing, let it cool, then drill holes through them and use cotter pins to attach a couple of large treble hooks.

If you prefer a more sophisticated approach, you can buy any of a wide variety of slab-type metal jigs, all of which are very effective on halibut. My favorite is Luhr Jensen's Crippled Herring, but the Metzler Mooch-A-Jig, Point Wilson Dart, Deep Stinger, Bead Diamond Jig, and others are also good. Most are available in sizes ranging from under an ounce to 20 ounces or more. White is my favorite color jig, with chrome a fairly close second.

Leadhead jigs adorned with large plastic grubs or pork rind strips also take halibut. I like Kalin's Big 'Un Grub, which is a full 10 inches long and has a broad, lively tail that really seems to turn on hungry halibut. Depending on how deep you're fishing, you may get by with a leadhead as light as two or three ounces, or it may take one as heavy as two pounds! Again, solid white or other colors in combination with white have always works best in the places I fish halibut.

No story about halibut fishing would be complete without a warning about landing and subduing these tough fish. You may get away with netting or gaffing smaller fish -- under, say, 30 pounds or so -- but a good harpoon with a detachable head is the best way to secure larger fish. Most veteran halibut anglers tie several yards of heavy line to the harpoon head, connecting the other end of the line to a large buoy. When the harpoon is plunged through the fish, the harpoon head stays on the opposite side of its body, and it wears itself out fighting the buoy before anglers attempt to bring it aboard or tie it off to the side of the boat.

Cutting a halibut's gill arches, pounding it several times across the eyes, or combinations of these two strategies are recommended to help take the wind of any halibut's sails. Cutting the gills to allow lots of bleeding also makes for quality fillets when the fish reaches the dinner table.

Whatever strategy you use for getting control of your halibut and dispatching them, act quickly and decisively so that the fish doesn't have a chance to react. Turning a mad halibut loose in the bottom of a boat is the last thing you want to do!

NEW HALIBUT BOOK NOW AVAILABLE!

Anglers who are serious about halibut fishing, or who want to be, will be happy to know that the first book devoted exclusively to fishing for these saltwater monsters is now off the press. How to Catch Trophy Halibut contains over 350 pages of information on when, where and how to fish for these barn-door bottomfish from southern California to Alaska's Bering Sea.

Co-authored by Terry Rudnick, our Washington Editor to these pages, and the husband of Adele Batin, our Alaska Editor, the new book contains hundreds of tips on fishing bait, jigs, even artificial flies for this biggest of Northwest flatfish species. Every kind of halibut-fishing situation will be covered, from working the depths of the Continental Shelf to finding barn doors in shallow water. Also included are a complete photo guide to filleting your catch, information on freezing, packing and shipping halibut so they arrive home in the best possible condition, where and how to catch record-size halibut, recipes, even stories of epic battles with monster fish.

Individual chapters on Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California  include maps and complete where-to information on virtually every West Coast halibut hot spot.

Rudnick is also the author of Washington Fishing, released this spring by Foghorn Press and available in book stores and tackle outlets throughout the state.