Where to Catch Halibut in the Surf

California halibut is one of the most sought-after fish in the surf.  They can be found on open beaches, near harbors, and inside bays almost all year long.  The most productive time for halibut is during their spawning phase, which begins in spring and lasts through fall. 

A non-migratory fish, the California halibut grows to over 70 pounds. The state record 67lb 3oz halibut was caught at Santa Rosa Island.  These fish live in a depth range between 2 and 100 feet.  In the winter, most halibut swim into deeper water to feed and prepare for winter storms.  In the spring, summer, and fall, halibut come into much shallower water both in the surf and just offshore, to feed and spawn.  A “legal” halibut is one measuring over 22 inches and is considered one of the most sought-after catches in the surf. 

Ricky Fischel BD Pro Contributor with a summertime, surf halibut.

Targeting halibut in the surf and bays can be very productive.  Some of my favorite places to fish for halibut are along the open beach, around jetties, and near estuaries and river mouths. 

Open beaches offer a challenge when looking to target halibut. When you reach the beach, find a high spot near the water’s edge and look up and down the beach for signs of fish.  Because surf fish congregate near areas of jumbled or foaming water, look for small riptides that form just offshore.  Another area to target is offshore structures including holes, kelp beds, and reefs.   Once you spot these areas, cast your bait or lure along the edge of a riptide, structure, or where rocks meet sand — this is where fish will be waiting to ambush bait. 

When you reach the beach, find a high spot near the water’s edge and look up and down the beach for signs of fish.

Halibut also congregate in the offshore troughs that are built just below the waves.  These troughs are easiest to find at low tide and run parallel to the beach.  One trough will form outside where the waves break farthest out from the beach, another trough will form where the waves break (during high tide) near the shore.  Cast over and drag your bait across these troughs to entice halibut to bite. 

Open beaches that have a rocky point adjacent to them are also great areas to target fish.  Find where the sand meets the rocks and fish along this area, halibut commonly lie in wait along these edges. 

Differences in the structure and make-up of the bottom are key areas to target halibut.

Jetties also offer some great opportunities to catch halibut.  The California coast is littered with man-made and natural jetties that provide structure and habitat for halibut.  As with open-beach fishing, it’s always smart to cast along the edge of the rock where it meets sand to find the fish, but there are some subtle differences to also look for when fishing along a jetty. 

When approaching the base of the jetty, where it meets the sand, look out to sea and make note of the direction of the approaching waves and swells.  If the waves are approaching the jetty from the right, a natural eddy will be generated on the jetty’s opposite side (left side).   If waves are coming from the left, an eddy will form on the jetty’s right side.   

Swell direction is imperative to note in locating eddies.

Eddies are much like a riptide and are characterized by swirling, foaming off-colored water.  Fish congregate in an eddy where moving water churns up bait and allows them to stay hidden while they wait to ambush food.  Once you find the eddy, fish along its edges and cast through the middle to find the fish.  Don’t be surprised when the tide or swell direction changes and the opposite side of the jetty become the best place to fish. 

Fish congregate in an eddy where moving water churns up bait and allows them to stay hidden while they wait to ambush food.

Estuaries and river mouths are almost always connected as a way for fish to run from warmer breeding grounds out into the open ocean.   

When approaching an estuary and river mouth area, use the same rule of observation as with jetties—determine the direction of the swell and current and how it affects water movement.  Unlike jetties, tide flow will have a much bigger effect on fishing the river mouth.  A high going to a low tide will pull water out of the estuary and toward the open ocean.  A low going to a high tide will push water and waves up into the estuary and change the direction and movement of fish.  

Again, look for the formation of eddies.  On an upcoming tide, an eddy may form just inside the river mouth.  As tides recede, an eddy may form just outside the river mouth in an area of open ocean.  This is where fish will congregate to lay in wait for food.  Fish your bait along this edge and allow it to be pulled by the tide and current into the strike zone.  Try to stay away from areas where the water is moving quickly as fish here will not be able to catch up with your bait. 

A river mouth coming into the surf can be a great place to locate halibut, fish the edges where still and fast-moving water connect.

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.