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April 08, 2013

San Francisco Halibut Fishing

Top tactics for San Francisco Bay halibut.

San Francisco Bay provides great fishing action in the shadow of one of the world’s great cities, making the halibut fishery and others available to a huge number of fishermen, right in their own backyard. Click though the images in the gallery for some impressive halibut catches.

Barndoor. Doormat. Flatty. These and other popular nicknames for California halibut draw a mental picture of a fish that, for the most part, lies around doing nothing. 

Anglers who regularly target the halibut of San Francisco Bay know better. Although halibut do spend much of their lives lying on the bottom like manhole covers, they do become active and hunt. And like any predator, they do their hunting where conditions best suit their bottom-hugging lifestyle. 

Finding halibut in the vast expanse that is San Francisco Bay can be a challenge. Much of the bay is soft-mud bottom in depths from 10 to 35 feet, which means that it’s all good halibut habitat. Well-known areas such as the Berkeley Flats, Treasure Island, the Alameda Rockwall, Paradise, Crissy Field and others are popular for both party and private boats, and when word of a bite gets out, it’s usually not hard to follow the fleet.

Get in the Zone

There are many times, however, when the fish are spread out, and it’s hard to find any organized bite. This is when private-boat anglers have an edge with their ability to explore and seek out small pockets of fish. Edge is the operative term here, because halibut often feed along some sort of transition zone or edge. Anywhere two types of habitat intersect — hard bottom and soft, shallow, and deep rocks and sand — provides conditions for these ambush feeders to sneak-attack their prey. Many of the common halibut grounds provide some sort of edge like this, whether it’s a shipping-channel ledge, bottom depression, or an abrupt change in depth or bottom composition like that found at Southampton Shoals. Astute anglers can use their charts, echo sounder, and their own eyes to find many other fishy areas where tidal movement, currents, and eddies help bring food to hunting halibut. Bridge abutments, jetties, pier pilings and rocky points are just a few visible signs that can indicate a transition zone worth investigating.

Time It Right

Halibut can be caught year-around in the bay, but it’s the influx of anchovies that really gets things going. This usually begins in May and lasts through summer. A little Internet research or a visit to a local tackle shop can dial you in with the where, when and how of the recent bite. 

Water movement puts halibut in a feeding mood. However, the bay’s extreme tides often provide too much of a good thing and muddy up the water. For this reason, anglers focus on “halibut tides,” planning trips on days with minimal tidal swings. 

Live-Bait Presentation

Most summer halibut fishing is drift-fishing live bait — ­usually anchovies — over productive bottom. Halibut can also be caught on shiner perch, small smelt, mudsuckers and other self-caught baits. The favored terminal rig is designed to keep the bait near (but not right on) the bottom as the boat moves along with the wind or current. We like to use a three-way swivel with a one-foot dropper for the sinker. Terminating this dropper with a snap allows for fast weight changes and makes it easy to remove the lead when running from spot to spot. Round sinkers up to 8 ounces cover most depths and conditions, and are less likely than other shapes to stick in the soft bay mud.

A 3- to 4-foot leader of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon and a light-wire live-bait hook — tied with a perfection loop —complete the drift rig. Hook size should be matched to the size of the bait, usually ranging from a No. 2 to 2/0. Hooking anchovies through the bottom jaw and out the top keeps the bait’s mouth closed and prevents the bait from fouling.