Winter Ocean Halibut Fishing
Anyone that lives in California and loves to fish dreads January 1st. Unlike most parts of the country our weather often allows us to fish in the winter but with the closure of rock fishing and dropping water temps finding something to target other than sand bass is often a struggle. That’s why I usually turn my attention to halibut fishing from Dec through March. Don’t get me wrong it’s still halibut fishing, that means some years I’ll go several trips between fish but some years, like this year, the fishing can be nothing short of phenomenal.
Unlike the spring fishery and summer fisheries where you will often find the fish in tight to the beach and nuanced light tackle presentations are a must, I almost exclusively target deeper water in the winter. I used two different methods to target halibut in deeper water. The first is deep water rock piles. The entire coast is littered with big boulders, reefs and hard bottom in 60’ -90’ depth range. These are great areas to target in the winter, especially if the fish aren’t stacked up in one particular area. When fishing structure, short concentrated drifts are key. You want to fish the sand/mud bottom directly adjacent to the structure. If you are drifting over the rock or reef itself you aren’t going to catch halibut. It’s often tough to forgo the sand bass and other assorted critters that will inhabit the reef/rocks but if your goal is to catch halibut you want your baits running in the sand along the edges of the hard bottom. These drifts are calculated and short. You want to try to hit each corner of the structure before moving on to the next piece. I usually don’t do this with other people on my boat because there is so much back and forth from drift to drift.
The other area to check out in the winter is deeper water flats in the 90’ to 140’ range that have a large consistent concentration of bait. This winter has seen the best halibut fishing in a LONG time and the majority of it has been centered on finding large quantities of mackerel, sardines and anchovies in a specific area and then drifting or bounce balling until you find the specific depth the fish are in. I’ve found that some of the best areas to check are big flats adjacent to canyons. The other option is to pick a depth and drive until you see a lot of life on the surface indicating bait or watching your meter and picking a spot where you are marking a lot of bait. It is important that bait has been in that area fairly consistently.
Drifting is the most common way to fish halibut, we’ll save bounce balling for another day. The problem with drifting is that you are to a large degree subject to the conditions you encounter. An ideal halibut drift is between .5 and 1 knot and pushes you straight up or down the beach at a targeted depth. Despite being at the mercy of the drift there are still some thing you can do to help improve conditions for yourself. If you have very little wind or current and you aren’t drifting don’t be afraid to bump the boat in and out of gear. This keep the baits moving and allows you to cover the ground you want to cover. Many times the drift is simple to fast to effectively fish. We deploy a large sea anchor on my boat when that is the case. I can often slow my drift down by a .5 knot this way. Once you do get a bite target that spot or depth several times. Flatties tend to congregate at a specific depth or area.
Regardless of bait type I like to fish three way swivels for halibut drifting, that being said I’ve caught plenty of fish with a simple dropper loop, especially with sardines as the bait as they can easily be swallowed whole. The key to me is to keep your bait close to but not directly on the bottom. If your bait is lying flat on the bottom only a fish you go directly over can see the bait. If the bait is up off the bottom 2’ it allows fish over a broader area to see the bait. I use 2’ section of 20lb mono to tie my sinker to the 3 way (that way if you get hung you only loose the lead), and then 5’ of 25lb, 30lb or 40lb fluorocarbon depending on the bait I’m fishing. The sinker dragging through the sand stirs up commotion and attracts fish with the bait following behind it. If you can find them I really love to use the chrome ball weights. They were a staple in the northeast fishing for fluke and I’ve found halibut love them just as much. They are expensive but I feel they make a difference. I’ll also stress this. Have several rigs tied up. Your time on the water is precious. That one extra drift you make because you had your tackle ready may be the one that makes your day.
There are two main live bait options while winter halibut fishing, mackerel and sardines. Mackerel being much larger and hardier baits can handle heavier line and bigger hooks and still be presented properly. I’ve tested this theory out several times fishing one rod with a single hooks and 20# fluro and another rod with 40# and a trap rig and I’ve seen absolutely no difference in the number of bites, but again only when fishing bigger mackerel and in deeper water. The key is that the bait must swim naturally. I rig up two sets of trap rigs before every trip a light and heavy version. My heavy version for fishing big macks consists of a 5/0 Gamkatsu Octopus hook snelled with a second piece of line to the 40# fluorocarbon. This allows the front hook to move and be adjusted to accommodate the size of the bait. I tie a size #2 Owner Stinger Treble at the back end. I’ve found these have a thinner wire and work better with the baits. My lighter rig for smaller mackerel and sardines is identical but utilizes 25 or 30# fluorocarbon with a 3/0 hook in front and a size #4 stinger treble on the back of the rig. I hook my mackerel through the bony portion of the mouth and then put the stinger under the back bone of the bait near the tail. For sardines I pin the hook through the nostrils and put the trip hook in the same place. You also must have some slack between the hooks to keep the baits from spinning. This set up keeps the bait upright and the hooks in place.
Some days the fish want bigger baits, some days they want sardines. I really like to try to start with both baits and see what gets bit better.
When I start to get a bite I really like to feed the fish. That doesn’t mean putting your reel in free spool and dropping the bait back that is the surest way to lose a fish. If you put slack in the line your weight will fall and the bait will simple fall out of the fishes mouth and slump to the bottom and I’ve found halibut will lose interest. Rather keeping the tension on the line consistent, drop your rod to the fish slowly. When everything comes tight and you can’t drop the bait back any more slowly wind till you feel the weight of the fish, wind through that weight and the hooks will set themselves. Once you’ve hooked a fish the key is turn the handle as slowly as possible with as little movement in the rod as possible. For whatever reason, (the same is true of other flatfish like Fluke on the East Coast), if you slowly turn the handle many times the fish will come up to the surface with little to no fight. If you are herky jerky with your motions or reel as fast as you can well hang on, this when halibut often spit hooks.
This year up and down the Southern California coast is experiencing some of the best ocean halibut fishing we’ve seen in many years. Some years you will go several trips without a bite, some years the fishing can be outstanding but regardless of how good the bite is halibut offer you something to fish for close to home that gets big and tastes great when you have very few other options.