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May 02, 2012

Channel Islands Halibut

Huge halibut are on the rise off California’s Channel Islands. Here’s how to fish for them.

When the focus switches to halibut, some skippers like to drift-fish to cover more ground. While halibut will aggressively chase prey at times, they more often lie in ambush on the bottom, moving no more than a body length to intercept and inhale a bait. Drifting puts the bait in front of more halibut. At the height of the season, about half of the fish are caught while drift-fishing, says Thompson.

While Cavanaugh often drifts in shallower water — around 24 feet deep — close to the islands, drifting the squid grounds in deeper water usually produces bigger fish. “We will catch fish up to about 25 pounds close to the beach, but we find halibut twice that size out deeper,” he says.

Fighting a Flatty
Most California halibut are hooked over featureless bottom, and the fish themselves don’t make long runs, though they are known to uncork short bursts of speed during a fight.

More characteristically, they may suck themselves into the sand after inhaling the bait or use the current against their broad flanks to resist capture. They can also swim backward and may shake their gaping, toothy maw violently.

Fighting a flatty is a balancing act between maintaining even pressure and not crowding the fish too much, says Cavanaugh. Use a relatively light drag to let the halibut make a run if it wants to. Don’t pump. It will make the fish want to shake its head, and with so many sharp teeth, it can saw through the line.

If you do it right, the fish won’t even realize it is near the surface and may even come up vertically and virtually motionless. Don’t lift the fish above the surface, or it may panic and start to thrash about. This is why a loose drag is critical. As the fish nears the surface, have crew standing by with a gaff to take the fish. Once it’s aboard, laying it white side up will help keep it from getting too wild.

Southern California anglers have their fingers crossed for another record-setting season on halibut in the waters off the Channel Islands. Focus on the squid grounds, and you might be successful on even bigger ’buts this year.


What: Big California halibut.

When: May through July.

Where: Squid spawning grounds off Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands (outside the marine protected areas).

Who: Boating anglers with reliable craft from 23 feet up, as well as passenger-boat anglers. Here are three top passenger-boat captains who fish the Channel Islands.

Channel Islands Harbor
Capt. Joe Villareal

Ventura Harbor
Capt. Pat Cavanaugh
Pacific Dawn

Channel Islands Harbor
Capt. Frank Ursitti
Ranger 85

Cavanaugh and Thompson prefer different setups. Thompson likes an 8-foot Calstar 196-8 rod with light monofilament line, 15- to 20-pound-test. Cavanaugh, on the other hand, recommends a 9- to 10-foot rod with 50-pound braided line. A small lever-drag reel such as the Avet SX works well, says Thompson.

Both agree that the bite from a halibut is subtle, and that’s Cavanaugh’s rationale for using braided line. “You can feel the fish slurp down a squid even at the end of a long cast,” he explains. Thompson says experience has taught him to recognize the slight bump of a halibut bite even when he’s fishing with monofilament.

Rods: 8- to 10-foot medium-action rods.

Reels: Lever-drag reels, such as the Avet SX or Okuma Cedros 10S.

Lines: 50-pound-test coated braid or 15- to 20-pound-test monofilament.

Baits and Rigs: Live or fresh-dead opalescent squid, fished one or two at a time on a hook.

Terminal Rigs: Lead-heads, 11⁄2 to 21⁄2 ounces, and dropper loops with 6/0 to 8/0 Owner Aki Twist hooks and 5- to 10-ounce torpedo sinkers.