The Best Bait and Lure Choices for Halibut in the Surf

Earlier this week, we covered where to fish for halibut in the surf. If you have yet to read that, I highly recommend that you do. Here is the link.

When it comes to halibut rigging, there are a variety of potential baits and lures that could help to entice that next halibut to bite. All of these fall into two general categories: bait (dead or alive) and artificials. First I will cover artificials because of the sheer amount of choices when it comes to fishing lures.

Jerkbaits

When it comes to lures and bait fishing for halibut the options are almost endless.  Without question, the most productive surf lures have been both the Lucky Craft Flash Minnow and Rapala SXR-10 Slash Baits.  These lures are the best cast out and retrieved with a stop-and-go motion.  They should be tied straight to your mainline or onto a short fluorocarbon leader.   

Sardine-colored Lucky Craft like this one can be deadly for halibut as well as a myriad of other gamefish from the surf. There is a number of ways and speeds to fish a jerkbait, realistically this in itself deserves a completely separate article based solely on technique. For the sake of this article, the biggest takeaway would be to experiment with speeds and pauses to see what entices a bite.

Luhr-Jenson Spoon

Spoons

The two most effective spoons for the surf have always been Luhr-Jensen’s silver Krocodile and the Acme Kastmaster. Talk about a lure that has stood the test of time, they’ve got unchanged in decades and are still responsible for so many landed gamefish. If you had to pick one lure to fish for the rest of your life the spoon would be it. These lures are easy to use and should be tied directly to your mainline.  A good size to use is one between 1/2oz and 1oz. 

A long fan casting pattern and a slow retrieve, with the lure bouncing across the bottom, seems to be the most effective presentation.  Fishing spoon lures at peak low tide will allow you to cast outside the surf line to offshore structures and holes.  Fish these lures at high tide and you can concentrate on the inshore trough where halibut hunt for food. 

Soft Plastics

Grubs and plastic lures also work great in both the open beach and near rocks for halibut.  There are a few styles of plastics that seem to work best in the surf.   

The first, known as a grub, is in the shape of a pollywog.  Most grubs in the 1 ½” to 3” range seem to work best.  Attach grubs to your line using a leadhead or the Carolina Rig (this rig will be covered near the end of the article).  Be sure to use a short leader in big surf and a longer leader in small surf.  Grubs work best when cast out in a fan pattern and retrieved slowly, using a stop and go motion across the bottom.  Be sure to use enough weight, as directed by the surf, surge and wind, to keep your bait in constant contact with the bottom.   If you want to add a little more attraction to your grub, GULP baits come with a scented additive that on the right day will even out fish bait.

3-5″ swimbaits rigged on weedless and underspin jigheads ranging from 1/4-1oz work best.

Plastic swimbaits are similar to grubs yet with a different action due to their boot tail in comparison to the curl of a grub. Swimbaits can be tied directly to your mainline.  Use a leadhead that matches the size of your bait and the current you will be fishing in.  Once again, remember to keep your bait in contact with the bottom and don’t be shy from dunking your plastics in “hot sauce” to attract and catch more fish. As far as color goes, if you ask 10 different people, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. There is one commonality that many can attest to ensuing a strike and that’s having a swimbait with an orange or red underbelly. The name of the game is really variety change up your presentation, color, depth and speed and narrow down on what the fish are keyed in on.

Nick Johnson with a personal best halibut caught on an A-rig
Nick Johnson with a 41″ halibut that he caught on an A-rig setup with swimbaits. Just about everything in the surf or bay will eat a swimbait.

Attractant

Yes, you read that right. Bill Varney has discovered that hot sauce works as a great fish attractant for soft baits in the surf. From Bill: “I place about two ounces of fish attractant in a small snack size zip bag.  My favorite fish attractant without question? Taco shop hot sauce!  I use two packets (can’t tell if I like Taco Bell® or Del Taco® the best).  Just dip your grub (or really any bait) into the sauce and cast it out.  Every few casts take a moment to reapply.  You’ll be amazed by how many more fish you catch with this simple addition.  Please believe me—it really works!” This is a hard idea to grasp and we need to do our due diligence and get with an ichthyologist to understand the inner workings on this, but one thing’s for sure if Bill says it works you’d better give it a chance.

Twitch Baits

“Twitch” or drop shot baits are made of the same material as plastic baits but require different rigging.  Look in your local tackle shop for Basstrix and Gulp products.   

Rig the twitch bait with either a small 1/8th leadhead (or Mustad Power Lock Plus weighted hook) and tie it directly to your line.  You may also rig it using the drop shot method. 

The drop shot rig is simply a sinker on the very bottom of your line and a loop 12” – 24” up your line for the hook and bait.  When using the drop shot rig, don’t tie the lure directly to your loop.  Run the line through the hook’s eye and allow the lure to slide freely on the loop in your line.  This will give the bait a much more natural look and help you to entice more fish to bite. 

Berkley Powerbait Jerk Shad

Twitch baits work best when they are cast out and retrieved slowly using a stop and go, then twitch motion.  When using the drop shot rig try to find the lightest sinker you can use and still stay on the bottom.  This will help to reduce the number of snags and tangles in the rocks.   Look for lure colors that reflect what the fish are eating and feel free to use the “hot sauce” on these baits too. 

Colors

When fishing artificials, picking the right color and ‘matching the hatch’ is essential. This means finding the colors that imitate what the halibut have been eating.  Sardine, anchovy, green, brown and oranges have always worked, along with stark white which probably resembles squid that halibut scoop up from the bottom.  

Lucky Craft CIF Flash Minnow in Super Glow MS Sexy Smelt.

Carolina Rig

A very successful rig for Halibut that can work with both bait and lures is the Carolina Rig. This rig can be used to fish grubs and similar plastics, a fly, or live/dead bait. Carolina rigging consists of a sliding egg sinker, bead, swivel, 18”-36” leader and a hook.  In small surf a ½ ounce egg sinker works well.  In bigger surf or when fishing in the wind, use a 1-ounce or heavier sinker to keep your bait on the bottom.   

I like to use a black swivel, a clear bead and a fluorocarbon leader.  In small surf my leader may be as long as 36.”   In large surf always use a shorter leader (12”-18) to be sure your bait stays in contact with the bottom.    

Use a conventional “J” hook.  Make sure it’s sharp and made of thin black wire.  The most important part of the rig is the hook, so be sure your hooks are new, in good condition and very sharp.  Some good hook choices include split shot, mosquito and octopus hooks in sizes 1, 2 and 4. 

Fly Fishing

Fly fishing has always been productive in the surf.  But the skill, equipment and work needed to be productive using a fly outfit has kept most anglers from picking up the fly rod and heading down to the sand. 

By using a fly presented on the Carolina Rig, it is easy to use both spinning and conventional reels.  The most effective surf fly is the Clauser minnow that mimics a small grunion or smelt in the surf.   

The most effective surf fly is the Clauser minnow that mimics a small grunion or smelt in the surf.

For the Clauser minnow, red, lime, olive green and chartreuse with white have always been productive colors.  Apply “hot sauce” to the fly and fan cast the bait past the surf line.  Using a slow retrieve, pull the fly across the bottom in areas near structure and rocky out-croppings. 

Live and Dead Bait

There are many types of live bait locally available for use when targeting halibut in the surf.  Live, fresh dead or unfrozen sardine, anchovy, smelt and grunion all work well in the surf.  Additionally, strip mussel lip, threaded on the hook like a worm, is natural bait for halibut and seems to work well when the bite is tough. 

Sardine

Use either a spinning or conventional outfit for the Carolina Rig.  I like to hook my baits (anchovy, sardine, smelt, grunion) through the bottom and top lip with my hook to be sure they swim correctly and give the most natural presentation.  Fishing with natural bait requires a much slower retrieve and periods of stop and start that allow the lazy halibut to catch up with their next meal. 

Both anchovy and sardines can be purchased at your local tackle shop or quality fish market.  Smelt and grunion can be caught by anglers and kept alive or fresh dead for bait.  You’ll find smelt near docks, inlets and inside local harbors.  They can be caught with a bait-catching rig or with breadcrumbs.  Grunion can only be caught by hand during a grunion run at your local beach—but be careful, as there are specific times they are not allowed to be collected. 

There are many methods for targeting halibut in the surf.  So take some of the tips from what you’ve read today and add your own ideas—That way you’ll be guaranteed to discover the best technique to catch halibut at your favorite beach.