Halibut

Pacific Halibut are one of the most sought-after fish in Alaska. Growing to sizes exceeding 500 pounds, they are tenacious fighters and make excellent table fare. Catching halibut is not difficult; the challenge is in locating suitable habitat. Of course in charter fishing, you rely on the experience of your crew to do that for you. If you're on your own, study your charts to locate gravel or muddy bottom that is relatively flat. During the months of July and August, you can find fish within a mile or less of shore, especially off the mouths of salmon streams, where they await the outflow of spawned-out salmon carcasses and the baitfish that feed on them.

halibut caught in Icy Straits, Alaska

Most people believe that halibut spend all their time on the bottom. This is not true; halibut are found where the food is located, and sometimes may be suspended in the water column, or even near the surface. Use a depth finder to determine where the fish are located, and lower your offering to that zone for the best results.

The average halibut taken by sport anglers in Alaska ranges between 15 and 40 pounds, with fish up to 100 pounds a regular occurance. Fish over 150 are relatively rare, making up about 8-10% of the sport catch.

Gear

Use a rod and reel setup capable of handling fish over 100 pounds. Most charters use stand-up gear suitable for fish up to 100 pounds. For private anglers or those who prefer to bring their own gear aboard a charter, select stand-up gear in the 30-50 pound class. Rods with roller tip guides are fine for standard braided dacron line or heavy monofilament, however rollers should be avoided if you're fishing the newer super braid lines. These thinner lines can work their way between the roller and the roller spindle, and become frayed and broken. If you're using super braid, go with ceramic guides instead, and plan on replacing them as they become worn. Rod lengths in the 6' to 6.5' length are ideal for putting the appropriate amount of leverage on the fish. Your rod should have a gimbal end and a rubber cap to cover it in case you are not using a fighting belt. Some anglers prefer to use a fighting belt or harness for big fish, and they are certainly an advantage. Most charter boats supply them, but you should ask about this. You are of course welcome to bring your own.

Lever drag reels are excellent for halibut fishing, because they offer convenient fine drag adjustment in the process of fighting your fish. Halibut rarely make explosive runs like tuna or billfish do, but they  occasionally dive for deep water and you need to be able to slow them down. Finally, you can't beat a two speed reel for halibut fishing; gear down for that heavier fish, and shift into high for reeling up from the depths to change out for fresh bait. Some of the higher-end two speed reels pick up 35 inches of line (or more) per crank. If you plan to use a fighting harness, your reel must have lugs to which you can clip your harness setup.

Super braid line has all but taken over the halibut sport fishery. It has a very thin profile that's ideal in preventing "sinker creep" that occurs during heavy tide changes, where conventional braided dacron is pulled off the bottom by the current. This is especially significant at depths over 200 feet, and can make or break your ability to fish during certain phases of the tide. Go with line iin the 80# - 100# range. Because of the high cost of super braid line (it can cost close to $100 to fill a large spool), some anglers load the reel with a partial load of regular braided dacron, and a top shot of 100 yards or so of super braid to save money. In cases of very clear water where fish may be leader shy, a monofilament top shot is sometimes used, however this is not usually necessary and it does contribute to drag issues in heavy current.

A Word About Colors

The term "Selective Light Absorption" describes the fact that colors fade undewater. The first to go is red, which loses its intensity almost immediately under water. By the time it reaches ten feet, it is no longer red, and eventually fades to black at depth.Chart showing the absorption of colors underwaterOrange and yellow are next, followed by other "cooler" colors, until, somewhere around 30 feet, everything fades to hues of green, blue, violet, gray and black. Even white takes on a grayish tint. Ultraviolet light, found after violet on the color spectrum, is invisible to human eyes, but apparently readily visible to fish. It appears that neon colors, when struck by invisible ultraviolet light, tend to "glow" or "flouresce" at depth. Therefore a selection of neon colors should be considered for deepwater fishing. Since rubber "scampi" jigs are usually fished on or near the bottom, red or orange will accomplish little of benefit. Black is better, but should be reserved for shallow water (30' or so), or for clear water or situations where fish are likely to silhouette your offering against light penetrating from the surface. Note that in very clear water, there may be less than 1% of the available light at 300 feet than there is at the surface. Therefore a light-colored lure is likely to attract more attention than a darker one.

Regardless of the other colors in your tackle box, always include a selection of white scampi jigs. They are visible at just about any depth and is a natural color found on many baitfish. Most charterboats offer rods rigged with various colors. Go for the white jig, you can't go wrong.

Note that the use of artificial light near the terminal end of your line is growing in popularity, and is proven to help you catch more fish. This is particularly true of ultraviolet lights. Lights come in various sizes and are secured to your line in the vicinity of your lure or bait. These lights are not only an attractant, they can restore natural colors to your offering.

Terminal Gear

Circle hooks are preferred for bait fishing, because they result in fewer lost fish. Essentially a circle hook wraps itself around the fish's jaw and requires no hook-set by the angler. Owner makes some of the best big-game circle hooks in the business, and they never need sharpening. Gamakatsu is a good choice as well.  Some anglers still prefer J-hooks, and of course most jigs use J-hooks. Bring a file to keep your J-hooks sharp. Hook size is somewhat controversial and made more complicated by the wide variety of sizes of halibut you are likely to encounter. Bring along a range of sizes from 5/0 up to 12/0 or so and you'll be covered in most cases. For a good description of how circle hooks work, together with a discussion of do's and dont's, check out this video from Owner Hooks.

The most common jigs used for halibut fishing include both metal jigs and rubber curly-tail jigs with lead heads. The metal jigs usually employ treble hooks and are easily snagged in the rocks, so anglers must be careful to reel up a few cranks before jigging. The Diamond Jig and the Viking jig are both popular metal jigs for halibut. Both are available in chrome or nickel plating, which gives them a long life in the tackle box. Perhaps the most productive metal "slab" jig is Luhr Jensen's "Crippled Herring". Available in a variety of sizes, the Crippled Herring has accounted for many full fish boxes in Alaska. If you only bring one type of jig, this is the one. Use either the chrome, pearl white, or brilliant silver hologram color schemes for the best flexibility at light-absorbing depths.

Curly-tail jigs are very effective for halibut. If you are in doubt as to color, stick with white as it is almost always a winner. See our section on color absorption on our general Saltwater Fishing page for details on other colors. Curly tail jigs are available in double or single tail versions, with the nod going to the single tail types. These are much more durable than the double tails; the tail is thicker and is not as easily torn off by fish, and you get the same action.

Wire leaders, while not essential, are ideal in rocky bottom areas or on the off chance you might encounter a toothy ling cod. Go with braided stainless leaders coated with nylon. The length should be eighteen inches or longer, and you should have good quality ball-bearing swivels at each end. Sampo makes some of the best ball bearing swivels on the market.

For bait fishing, rig your line with a sliding sinker clip on your main line, and a corkscrew-type swivel at the end of you main line. The corkscrew swivels are much stronger than clip-style swivels. Your leader can be attached directly to the swivel. Jig fishermen can forego the sinker slider and simply thread the jig eye to the swivel. Of course if a leader is used for jig fishing, thread the leader to the swivel and the jig to the other end of the leader. If you are changing out from jigs to bait and back multiple times a day, you might consider leaving the sinker slider attached to your main line and simply clipping the weight off when you put the jig on.

The Halibut Fisherman's Tackle Box

  • Extra-large scampi-type jig tails (2 white, 1 black)
  • Medium scampi-type jig tails (2 white, 1 black)
  • Jig heads w/ hook (2 ea. 8oz., 2 ea. 16oz.)
  • Diamond jigs; 10oz., 16oz. (2 each)
  • Kodiak Custom jigs (2 ea. 6oz., 10oz., 14oz., assorted colors)
  • Crippled Herring Jigs; Chrome or Pearl White color (4, assorted sizes)
  • Swivels, large corkscrew-type, 12 ea.
  • Circle hooks, assorted sizes 8/0 - 16/0, 12 ea.
  • J-hooks, size 8/0, 6 ea.
  • Braided wire leaders, 18" heavy-duty w/Sampo ball-bearing swivels, 6 ea.
  • Cannonball sinkers, 3 ea. 10oz., 16oz., 1.5lbs., 2lbs., 3lbs.
  • "Hoochie" plastic squid lures, 6ea. assorted colors in large sizes
  • Hook file / stone
  • Sabiki rigs for catching bait herring

Techniques

The two most common methods of boat-based halibut fishing involve drifting or anchoring. Drifting allows you to cover a large area and is perfect for prospecting, or for covering a larger area of suitable habitat. It is also preferred when the current is too strong for anchoring. But drift fishing with large numbers of anglers on board a charter boat can lead to tangled lines and lost fishing time. Consequently many charter operators prefer to either anchor or limit the number of lines in the water on a drift.

Anchoring is a very effective means of catching halibut. By remaining in the same location for an hour or two, a scent stream is formed from bait in the water, which draws fish from "downstream" as the tidal currents move through. You can enhance this effect by chumming, however chum tossed over the side may drift a while before it hits the bottom. Some anglers lower a mesh chum bag either on a weighted line, or attached to the anchor line. A fire brick soaked in herring oil can serve the same purpose of establishing a scent stream to attract fish. But nothing works better than actual bait on the bottom; these fish want to eat! Fill a paper bag with chopped bait and lower it over the side on a rod with a heavy sinker attached. When it hits the bottom, give the rod a jerk or two to tear the bag open and release the chum. This puts the bait on the bottom exactly where you are fishing.

Use fresh bait. Here is a list of the baits most commonly used for halibut fishing:

  • Herring. The most prolific baitfish in Alaska, herring are readily available in a wide variety of sizes up to eight and even ten inches in length. Most folks use frozen herring, however some boats are equipped with livewells and have the ability to catch live herring for bait. Whole large herring are typically rigged by hooking once through the body and then through the head.
  • Salmon heads, tails, and even entire carcasses are frequently used for halibut bait. Whole salmon carcasses can be rigged in the following way: Attach a length of braided halibut fishing line through a bait rigging needle. Run the bait needle through the top of the eye sockets of the salmon carcass, over the top of the head and back through the top of the eye sockets. Make three or four passes through the eye sockets in this way, then tie off the line. Run the point of your hook between the strands of line and the top of the fish's head, then twist the hook around five or six times to tighten it and leave the hook riding atop the head of the carcass, with the point of the hook facing forward. This leaves the hook completely exposed (instead of burying it in the salmon carcass). This, combined with the tendency of a halibut to swallow the carcass head-first, increases your chance of a hookup.
  • Pacific tomcod (microgadus proximus) are commonly caught by anglers fishing for halibut and other species, and are often cut up for bait. A cod's skin is very tough and is not easily stripped from your hook by a hungry fish. You can fish whole cod, fillets, or strips of flesh with the skin attached. Whole cod or cod carcasses can be rigged the same way you rig a salmon carcass.
  • Octopus is an excellent bait because it's tough and hard for a fish to rip from your hook. It's also a preferred forage for halibut. Anglers commonly bait up with a piece of octopus, and a herring. The herring provides an oily scent trail for fish to follow, and the octopus keeps them interested if the softer herring is stripped off the hook. Use a piece of tentacle, which trails enticingly from your hook.
  • Live bait. Alaska's waters are teeming with baitfish; the most abundant species is herring, which can be located, caught with light tackle and placed in a livewell until ready to fish. They can be drift-fished or dropped to depth with some weight. Either way, they are very effective for halibut, ling cod and rockfish. Look for large bait balls on your fish finder, or look for birds working the surface; this is where the herring will be. The typical setup for catching your own herring is a sabiki rig with five or six hooks and a weight on the end. Simply lower your line into the bait ball or until you feel a strike, and gently reel it back to the surface. Herring have soft mouths, so avoid the temptation to set the hook or reel quickly to the surface. You'll catch more bait if you let your hooks linger in the bait ball after hooking your first fish. Be careful when bringing your herring aboard; with five or six hooks flailing around it's easy to hook a fellow fisherman. Some anglers use special rods designed for sabiki rigs. These rods consist of a large-diameter hollow tube that allows one to reel the sabiki rig inside the rod, hiding the hooks to keep them from becoming snagged on other gear or fishermen when not in use. They work with any reel. Live herring can be rigged the same way you rig a salmon carcass.

Avoid using re-frozen herring for fishing; it's too soft and will come off your hook very easily. If you have left-over herring, cut it into chunks and use it for chum. Another bait to avoid is hooligan. Otherwise known as eulachon or "candlefish", these small fish migrate up many of Alaska's rivers to spawn in the spring and are actively fed upon by halibut. But they're nearly useless as bait because they are very soft and pull right off the hook.

Generally speaking, "the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish". Use a large bait. Large whole herring are available, and though many anglers will cut them in half, a larger bait is preferred if you are interested in big fish. Most charter boats don't supply octopus, so you'll have to bring your own; a small package is enough to last the whole day.

Begin by letting your line all the way out to the bottom, then reel it up two or three cranks. If the fish are on the bottom, they can see your bait better if it is above them (their eyes are on top of their body, looking up), and being a few cranks off the bottom reduces your chances of snags. Once your offering is "in the zone",  jig it up and down 3 to 4 feet, slowly. Let your sinker hit the bottom on occasion; the commotion can attract a fish. Another school of thought takes the opposite approach. This comes from the commercial halibut fishery, where lines are left flat on the bottom to soak for several hours. The idea here is to let your line all the way to the bottom, then pay out ten to fifteen feet of slack line, place the rod in a rod holder and don't touch it until a fish runs with it. If you're using a circle hook, by the time you notice line running out, the fish is already hooked. If you go this route, set the drag on your reel lightly so a fish can pull line out fairly easily, until you can grab the rod and deal with it.

The temptation is to set the hook as soon as a fish bites. This is not necessary if you're using the circle hook, as the fish hooks itself. When you feel a fish take your bait, avoid pulling back. Just wait until the fish swims off with it. The hook will wrap itself around the fish's jaw and you'll have him. Most halibut charters use circle hooks because they hook more fish than a J-hook. If you are using J-hooks, keep them sharp and be ready to set the hook as soon as you think the fish has your bait firmly in its mouth.

Once your fish is hooked, the battle will consist of you pumping the rod tip up and reeling as you slowly drop the tip. By pumping and reeling, you will eventually bring the fish to the surface. With very large fish, this could take up to an hour or more. Be prepared for the fish to make a few dives as it becomes aware of the surface.

Jig fishing is similar to bait fishing, with the exception that you generally set the hook immediately upon feeling the fish. Most jigs use J-hooks which require a quick hook set, and constant pressure on the fish to avoid accidental releases. If you let your line go slack while fighting a fish taken on a jig, the head-shaking action of the fish together with the weight of the jig can cause the fish to become unhooked. So as you're fighting a jig-hooked fish, keep tension on your line as you lower it to reel. Some fish hit the jig as it falls too, so keep the line relatively tight while you're jigging or you'll miss these fish.

Landing Halibut

Halibut are very powerful for their size, and getting one into the boat presents a challenge that may involve gaffs, buoys, clubs, firearms and sheer muscle power. As the fish approaches the boat, ready your gaff and be prepared for the fish to run. Larger fish often make several runs before they are tired enough to be landed. In most cases one gaff is all you need, however with fish over 80 pounds, two or even three gaffs may be required. Gaff the fish in the head or just behind the collar area near the gills. Avoid sticking the fish in the cheek area, as this contains some of the best meat on the fish. If the fish is over 100 pounds, you should consider using a lance-type gaff with a slip-tip and a floating buoy with about ten feet of line. As soon as you spear the fish it will run, taking the tip of the gaff and the buoy with it. It is a rare fish that can submerge the buoy for more than ten minutes.

In some cases (particularly with large halibut) it may be necessary to kill the fish before bringing it aboard. A small-caliber handgun or a .410 shotgun is ideal for this purpose. The "Snake Charmer" .410 shotgun, made by Sporting Arms Mfg. has an 18" barrel and is made of stainless steel, making it an excellent choice. It's ideal for dispatching halibut, and can be operated with one hand. Place your shot in the fish's head, being careful to miss the cheek area, which contains some of the best meat on the fish. Use extreme caution handling a live halibut aboard you boat. They are very powerful and are more than capable of smashing gear and even breaking a fisherman's leg as they thrash about the boat. Subdue your fish immediately and get it into the fish box as soon as possible.

A Word About Large Halibut

Most halibut over 100 pounds are female. A growing trend in the sportfishing industry is to encourage release of these large spawners, to ensure the longevity of the fishery. These older fish have coarser flesh, and are more likely to be infested with worms and other parasites anyway. Smaller fish are often more desirable for the table because of their finer texture. Many anglers agree that the best halibut for table fare is a fish no larger than 100 pounds.

Kayak Fishing for Halibut

A growing sport in Alaska involves fishing from sit-atop ocean kayaks. These boats are specially rigged with rod holders, fish finders and other accoutrements necessary for fishing on the high seas. Because halibut are such powerful fish, they will tow your kayak a considerable distance before you bring the fish to the surface. If it's a large fish, your troubles may be just beginning, as halibut are very powerful and could capsize your boat. The easiest way to kill one in such circumstances is with a well-placed shot to the head with a firearm of some sort. In a kayak, a handgun is probably your best choice. Once a large halibut is killed from a kayak it is likely the trip is over. The boat may be unstable if you drape the fish across the deck; it's likely you'll end up towing the fish to shore instead.

Shore-Based Halibut Fishing

Halibut can be caught from shore in many areas of Alaska, particularly near river mouths later in the summer after salmon have spawned and their carcasses drift out to the ocean. Use long rods to hurl your offering far from shore. A sand spike and a bell allow hands-free fishing while alerting you when a fish takes the bait. Longer rods are also an advantage in getting your line over the surf; without them each wave will move your line and make it difficult to determine when a fish is biting.

Halibut Conservation in Alaska

For years, both the commercial and the sport fishing fleet have targeted large halibut in Alaska, to the exclusion of smaller fish that were usually tossed over the side. Since most halibut over 100# are female, selective targeting of larger fish over the years has had a detrimental effect on spawning success. As a result of years of selective harvest of larger fish, the "chickens" are now coming home to roost, so to speak, with the average commercial and sport harvest falling closer to 20# than in the previously-common 40#-80# range. Consequently, Alaska anglers are seeing greater restrictions in both sizes and quantities of halibut allowed in the daily bag limit. Educate yourself on the regulations in the area you plan to fish, and adhere to them carefully. It's not too late to turn Alaska's halibut fishery around, but it requires the combined efforts of both the commercial and sport harvest.

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