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San Diego Halibut Bender – A SoCal Fishing Report

While everyone was out chasing the big bluefin out on the banks around the full moon, I decided to stick to my roots and take advantage of the halibut spawn in San Diego bay. After chasing around those big bluefin both at work and on private boats, I figured it would be a good idea to change things up a bit and target something different. Fishing bluefin almost every day does get old at some point, and it is nice to take a break from the long run and strenuous hours offshore. In this case, my decision was wise and I was rewarded with the best halibut fishing I have ever seen in San Diego bay.

Bay fishingThe week before, I had a day off and took my girlfriend Audrey fishing in the bay on Friday afternoon. We fished the rising tide from about 2 pm to sundown for an array of species including spotted bay bass, halibut and WSB. I was very impressed with the amount of life in the bay and the warm temperatures the incoming south swell was bringing. The bait volume within the bay was astonishing. Breezing schools of anchovy hatchlings, jacksmelt and tons of mackerel were taking advantage of the all you can eat buffet. Little did I know, there was an upcoming grunion run around the full moon and it would disprove most of my halibut fishing theories I had developed over the years.

bait bargeMonday, July 10th, I told my fishing buddy Nate Lindsay about my bay fishing excursion from the week before and he was enthusiastic to go, so we loaded up the boat and headed down to the single lane, nightmare launch ramp aka Shelter Island. After waiting in a short line, we launched the boat at 2 pm and headed straight for the bait barge. My good friend Kirk Larocco on the barge gave us a few swings of some perfect sardines for our halibut rigs, and off we went to our first spot. At first the fishing was slow, so I decided to explore some new water out by Zuniga Jetty where I saw a lot of birds working bait. Everything looked great out there, but our efforts at this new zone weren’t rewarded. As the tide began to rise, we decided to hit our spots that have produced for us in the past, but it wasn’t until about 6 pm when we really started catching some fish as the tide slacked out. I was so accustomed to fishing a stronger current from an incoming tide for halibut because most of my best days revolved around those conditions during a smaller moon phase. I rarely fished halibut on a full moon, let alone around a slack tide. But the bite and the conditions started to make sense as the night went on. Halibut are flat and therefore its not easy for them to hunt in a ripping current.

halibut fishingOnce again, we were off to a new spot and as I metered around, I saw something I had never seen before. My typical halibut spot is either a channel edge or a shoal where the water comes up from deep to shallow, and as I started to watch the depth rise I noticed a ball of bait with fish marks all around it in the column. I thought to myself, are those halibut swimming that high up in the column? They sure were, and after dropping our rigs to the bottom and drifting up the shoal, it was game on.

Our first drift consisted of a double on smaller grade fish, so we decided to drift over it again. I’ve always believed in the theory, where there is one halibut, there are more, especially during spawning season. These fish stack on top of each other like it’s a bed, and if there is enough bait to keep them busy, they will stay.

bay fishingThe second drift consisted of another double and Nate pulled up a legal fish and into the kill bag it went. There was no way we were leaving this spot because every bait that hit the bottom got bit, and every time you looked into the water there was bait being pushed up all the way to the surface. Drift after drift, we were bit every time and after 4 or 5 drifts, I got a bite from a good one in the rod holder. I picked up the rod and felt a few good headshakes and started winding. The fish came up to color and I told Nate to grab the gaff and as he looked over the side he said “OH MY!!!” He stuck the fish and threw it on the deck and it began to go ballistic. With a few whacks to the head with the end of the gaff, we secured the 12-pound fish and proceeded to pop another drift for a few more. Again, we were bit. My mind was blown; I had never seen anything like it. Wide open halibut fishing with zero bycatch was a dream come true, considering all the time I’ve put in on the bay fishing for halibut only to get my bait slurped up by a spotted pain in the a#$, lizardfish or bat rays. I was finally rewarded, and Nate and I proceeded to fish this spot till sundown for close to 30 fish (mostly 18-21-inches) and 2 legals then called it a day. But it wasn’t over yet…

The next day I woke up, called Nate and told him we should give it another shot that night. Same time, same place. So that afternoon, we drove down to Squidco for some more terminal tackle and fluorocarbon and headed to my house to pre-rig our rods and some halibut leaders so we didn’t have to do it on the water. After getting set up, once again we were off to the launch ramp. This time we brought my girlfriend Audrey along for some good luck and another rod in the water to increase our chances!

inshore fishingWe went straight to the barge for bait and then back to our spot to start drifting. Two baits down, we were bit. I still couldn’t believe that the same spot was producing two days in a row. Nate and I both pulled up legals and we went for another drift. This time, we put 3 baits down and I handed one rod to Audrey. I got bit, Nate gets bit and Audrey is still hanging in there. Nate and I pull up a couple shorts and Audrey decides to wind up to check her bait. Little did she know, she was bit. As soon as she started winding line starts screaming off the reel and Nate and I knew she had a good one. All by herself, she winds and winds till the fish comes up to color and its even bigger than my previous from yesterday. I stuck a gaff in it and Nate and I were pretty much tripping out at this point on how big of a fish was and how unbelievable our success had been at this spot over the course of two days.

halibut fishingHer fish ended up tipping the scale at 18-pounds bled and despite our excitement, she really didn’t understand why were so stoked. I mean, that’s a pretty big fish for the bay, but coming from somebody who doesn’t fish much, she didn’t know. However, it was by far the biggest fish she’s ever caught in her life. After snapping a few pics, we were back at it again for more. Drift after drift, we were bent time and time again resulting in a few more legal fish until the sun pretty much went all the way down. We could barely see, but the next drop I got a really big bite as soon as my bait hit the bottom. I put the reel in gear and start winding into the fish. My rod doubled over like I had never seen before, but the fish didn’t take much drag. I kept winding and switched on my nav/deck lights so I could see better.

fishing reportsThe fish came up and I couldn’t believe my eyes.

It was a true doormat, and despite the lack of visibility, Nate stuck it perfectly in the head and dropped it on the deck. Of course, it went ballistic and started jumping in the air as we ran around the deck in excitement, chasing it so it doesn’t flop out. After securing the fish, it weighed out at just under 26-pounds bled and we couldn’t have been more stoked. It was our last fish of the night and we decided to head in. But once again, it wasn’t over yet…

Day 3, we decided to do it again. Same time, same place. We just couldn’t give up yet, not at least while they were still biting. We were on a bender, and we had to continue our quest for the elusive butt. We loaded the boat, hit the launch ramp, bait barge… blah blah blah. We ended up at the spot around 6:30 pm. These fish only bit at the bottom of the tide going up the past two days, so we timed it accordingly. The tide was turning at 7 that night and we were in place ready to go with only about an hour and a half to fish. I honestly think we could have anchored right on the spot if we wanted to, but we didn’t want to change up what was working. We popped our first drift, and what do you know? Halibut on!

Again and again, time after time, drift after drift, my mind was still blown; three days in a row and they were still biting.

We ended up with at least fifteen fish, of which two were just legal and two were of the 10-pound grade. We ran out of fishable light, so we headed back to the launch ramp.

flatfish fishingWe decided to hit it again early the next morning to finish out the last grunion run from that night. 4:30 am we were up and on the water by 5:30. Another tank of bait, and off to the spot we went. Unfortunately, it was not like the nighttime bite we hoped for. We pulled up a couple babies, and kept trying for a couple hours. An aluminum boat with two older guys pulled in with us and I watch them hang an easy 25-pound fish first drift just outside of us. Nate and I drove over and gave them a gaff because they were struggling to net this fish. They ended up not needing the gaff and somehow managed to get it in the net. We were stoked for them and it gave us more motivation to keep at it. After multiple drifts and different approaches, we weren’t rewarded. Therefore, we headed down to a new zone to find breezing bait getting pushed out of the water in about 10-feet of water. We dropped down a few baits and I fished a fly-lined sardine. Nate got bit after about 5 minutes on the halibut rig by a bigger fish. As it comes up to color we thought it was a huge corvina but as we got a closer look it turned out to be a white sea bass. I decided to scoop it up with the net due to the fact it was so close to legal size. Only one-inch short, we took a few pics of it and sent it back to its feasting grounds. It was cool to see a white sea bass of that size in the bay and it convinced us to pop a few more drifts before calling it quits.

fishing halibutJust like that, the “Halibut Bender” was over due to the fact I had to go back to work that night on the New Lo An. However, Nate went again that night with his Dad and brother with less than an hour to fish the slack tide before sundown and they ended up with an 11-pound fish and a 21-pound fish. I was shocked that they were still biting but stoked that they could stay on top of it while I was out on the big boat.

The 4 days we put in on the bay were beyond memorable, and would not have been possible without Audrey and Nate. In the three nights we fished, we put just over 100-pounds of halibut on the skiff fishing less than three hours each night. Not bad for $50 worth of gas and ice!

halibut reportsI am not complaining, and I am glad we have pictures to show for it. But I still don’t know why it was so good these three days. Was it the grunion run? Or could it have been the weeklong south swell pushing bait and fish deeper and deeper into the bay? The tides were also insanely large due to the full moon and allowed a lot more time for a slack current for the fish to hunt. Maybe all the factors combined were the driving force for these epic conditions? We will never know. However, I logged the conditions and I will most definitely apply these factors to future halibut fishing strategies. Next time you want to fish and can’t make the long run, or simply want to try something different, put some time in on the bay and you might get rewarded. There’s plenty of fish to be had, and when your strategy and conditions line up, you could go on a Halibut Bender too… Cya on the water!

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Jarred Davidson
Jarred grew up in Point Loma surfing, fishing, biking and spending his time outdoors with his dad and his friends. The bays of San Diego, lakes and st...