Fishing Techniques for Catching California Halibut

California Halibut, not to be mistaken for their larger counterparts the Pacific Halibut, are a species of flatfish found along the coast and islands off California. Many anglers are drawn to targeting California Halibut as they are arguably some of the best in terms of table-fare and they can be caught here year-round. During the cooler winter months, fishing for halibut consists of targeting deeper water spots, but as spring and early summer roll around these fish move into shallower waters to spawn. This is when the bite tends to pick up and big scores of flatties are possible. This article will outline some of the proven rigs and techniques utilized here in Southern California for catching California Halibut.  

Beautiful California Halibut caught aboard the Lex Sea – Photo courtesy of Sekas Sportfishing  

Rod and Reel Setups 

When drifting live baits for California Halibut, the rod and reel setup is straightforward. A medium sized lever drag or star drag reel paired with a 7- or 8-foot rod in the 20–30-pound line class with a lighter sensitive tip will get the job done. Load up the reel with 50lb braid, a short topshot of 20 or 30-pound monofilament, and then tie on your drifting rig of choice. When drifting live baits on a private boat, I like to use angled rod holder inserts which aid in getting the line out away from the side of the boat.  

Angled rod holder inserts like this one is great to use when drift fishing, as they keep your rod parallel to the water and line out away from the side of the boat.

If fishing artificial lures, I like to run a Shimano Tranx 400HG paired with an 8 ½ foot casting rod. Using a baitcaster makes it a lot easier and enjoyable when working a swimbait or other artificial near the bottom. Like the drifting setup, I have the Tranx 400HG filled with 50lb braid but then tie on a short leader of 20 or 30-pound fluorocarbon. Similar 400 sized reels like a Daiwa Lexa 400 work great for this application. If you fish for other species here in Southern California, you most likely have an adequate setup laying around in your garage to fish California Halibut.   

Large California Halibut on the big bass gear – Photo courtesy of Bight Sportfishing 

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The Trap Rig 

When it comes to fishing for California Halibut, drifting with live bait is the go-to method. One of the most common rigs used to drift live fin bait for California Halibut is the Trap Rig. The Trap Rig consists of a leader with your standard J hook in front and stinger treble hook on the back, which is then tied onto a 3-way swivel. Tied onto one of the other remaining swivels, is another leader to loop or tie on an appropriately sized sinker. When rigging up the leader to attach my sinker, I like to utilize a loop knot such as a Spider Hitch or Surgeons Loop. Using a loop knot provides the ability to quickly change out and increase the size of my weight if my line is scoping out due to a faster drift. If current is lacking and you find yourself not drifting as much, do not be afraid to bump the boat in and out of gear as you want to keep the bait moving. The Trap Rig is an effective technique when drifting live bait such as sardines and mackerel near the bottom. While a big California Halibut will certainly engulf a sardine or small mackerel, I have seen many instances where baits are brought up absolutely thrashed by halibut teeth near the tail end of the bait. This is when having a stinger hook pinned onto the rear of the bait can result in a boated halibut rather than a missed opportunity.  

Live Squid 

When it comes to live bait fishing, it is hard to compete with live or fresh dead squid. While not as easily acquired as the typical fin bait that is loaded up in bait barges, live squid is a sure-fire bait used to catch yellowtail, white seabass, and our species of topic, the California Halibut. One of the methods to fishing a live squid for halibut is using a traditional dropper loop style rig. Simply tie a loop a few feet above the end of your line utilizing a Spider Hitch or Dropper Loop. This loop is then used to connect a size 4/0 or 5/0 J hook, and then attach an appropriately sized sinker to the end of your main line. This is one of the more popular methods used among sport boats and is an excellent way to fish a live squid for halibut. Another technique, which is primarily used for fishing for white seabass at the islands, is using the Leadhead Squid Rig . This rig can certainly be used for catching halibut when casted out towards the edge of structure and slowly retrieved or worked near the bottom where halibut wait to ambush their prey. When working the leadhead squid rig, it is important to note that you do not need to be directly on the bottom as halibut will leave the ocean floor higher than you would expect to chase down their next meal. I have also witnessed a heavy yo-yo jig with a couple live squid pinned on the treble get absolutely smashed by a legal halibut when fishing for seabass. It was not the intended target but no one can complain about a nice halibut bycatch.  

The best kind of bycatch when fishing for white seabass – Photo courtesy of Sekas Sportfishing 


If you are not into bait fishing, you are in luck because there are many artificial baits that can be used to entice a California Halibut. Tube baits, grubs, spoons, swimbaits, and suspending jerkbaits can all be used with great success. When it comes to shallow water fishing for these flatfish, working an artificial near the bottom can be a great way to change things up from live bait fishing. A great time to fish artificials for inshore or island halibut are when these fish move into shallower water towards the end of Spring, where it is easier to get those lighter swimbaits or lures into their zone. Like fishing the leadhead squid rig, slow rolling artificials near the bottom around structure produces the best results, as California Halibut are opportunistic feeders. On clear water days I have seen halibut follow a lure for quite some time before committing to engulf their prey, thus avoid burning that lure back to the boat, as a big flatty might not be far behind.  

This California Halibut’s last meal was the Lucky Craft Flash Minnow 

Fighting the Fish

California Halibut are not the hardest fighting fish along the coast and islands, but they make up for it with their excellent tasting white meat. There are a few key tips to remember if you are lucky enough to have one of these flatfish on the end of your line. The first is to keep a slow steady wind until the fish is near the surface and within gaff or net range. After hooking into halibut, they tend to peel off a short run or two towards the bottom and then add in the occasional headshake when coming up to the surface. Avoid pumping the rod when fighting halibut as this tends to result in lost fish more often than not. Another key item to remember is that once these fish hit the deck, they tend to go nuts. Be ready to decommission that legal halibut before or as soon as it is boated, as a big fish can do some serious damage or worse, cause injuries.  

Size large California Halibut welcomed aboard– Photo courtesy of Sekas Sportfishing  

These are just a few rigs and methods used to catch California Halibut along the coast and outer islands. As of late, the halibut bite off our coast has been very good and should continue through the summer months. Now is the time to give one of these methods a shot and test your luck at some shallow water halibut fishing before the offshore scene picks up.  

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