An Outdoor View: Fishing for halibut

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion on May 23, 2003.

For years, most anglers fished for halibut in Southcentral waters with the same bait and technique: a chunk of herring on either a “c” hook or a “j” hook, fished on the bottom. Some still do. But many have learned that other baits and methods can be far more productive and a whole lot more fun.

If you think the halibut is just a scavenger that scrounges along the bottom, looking for a chunk of rotting herring with a hook inside, you might benefit by changing your way of thinking about this fish. It deserves more respect than you’ve been giving it.

The halibut is an aggressive, strong-swimming predator. It eats crabs, shrimp, herring and sandlance. It also can chase down and devour cod, pollock, greenling and even salmon. Although it probably spends most of its life on or near the bottom, the halibut often feeds at other depths, even near the surface.

When you realize that a halibut will eat just about anything it can get in its mouth, and that it will aggressively pursue prey, you will start to realize that there are many ways to catch this fish.

One method I’ve written about several times is jigging. Because halibut are predators, they will often go after a jig that looks like a wounded baitfish. I’ve caught halibut on just about every jig imaginable, including some I’ve made with 1/2-inch copper plumbing pipe. Of all the jigs, my favorite is the 5 1/2-ounce Crippled Herring. It’s heavy enough to fish down to about 150 feet — tide allowing — and light enough that it doesn’t wear you out after a few minutes of jigging. (I use a relatively light jigging outfit, a 7-foot rod and 50-pound-test Power-Pro line.) Other reasons I like this jig: It’s well made; it flutters like a falling, wounded baitfish on the “drop”; the hook seldom tangles in the line; it’s light enough to cast; it requires no bait; and being an imitation baitfish, it will catch most any fish around, including salmon, rockfish and lingcod.

When the bite is slow, all it takes to liven things up is to add a small piece of white halibut skin to the hook. Not so much that it kills the action, but just enough to add some scent. Incidentally, I crimp the barbs of the hooks on all my jigs. This makes it easy and quick to release fish, boots and people.

With other types of jigs, you can use big baits. With big baits, you don’t have to jig as much. The hook on a 16-ounce, soft-plastic “grub tail” is big enough to hold a herring fillet and a piece of squid, octopus or salmon-belly skin. I mention these latter for their staying power. When you’re fishing in deep water, you don’t want to have to keep checking your bait.

When halibut aren’t biting jigs, or when I want to rest for a while, I’ll switch to bait. My favorite bait rig is a 7/0 Gamakatsu “Octopus” hook, about 18 inches of 50-pound-test leader, a heavy-duty swivel between leader and line, and a sinker “slider” on the line. I use a whole herring, about 6 inches long. I thread the hook through its lower jaw and out its snout, then toward the tail, wrapping the leader around the top half of the body two or three times. The hook ends up just forward of the tail, with the bend and point exposed. When you snug up the leader, this rig naturally wants to roll a little. The movement is sensed by halibut and other predators, and they will come. A whole herring is hard for them to resist.

This rig requires more attention than a circle hook. The circle hook, which was designed for commercial long-line fishing, requires no help from the angler. The fish hooks itself. The Gamakatsu bait hook, on the other hand, is fished like the old “j” hook. The first time your rod-tip moves downward, you set the hook. There’s no waiting around for the fish to do it for you. One disadvantage of this rig is that the fish is likely to swallow the hook. Using larger size herring will increase the odds that you’ll catch larger halibut. If you’re after barn doors, use foot-long “horse” herring and larger hooks.

I hope the above tips for catching halibut will give you some ideas of your own. With this fish, no idea is too far out.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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