Be Ready for Subtle Bites
Sometimes, halibut smash drifted baits in a way that is impossible to miss. More often, however, bites are signaled by a subtle loading of the rod, as if something is just sitting on the bait. Watch your rod tip for changes as the lead weight bounces across the bottom. Many times, it’s just your bait or sinker momentarily catching. But this can also be the first indication you’ve got a customer. My family lives by the credo “swings are free,” so whenever this happens, we pick up the rod, wind down until we feel weight, and — if there’s a fish there — set the hook.
Slow-trolling dead baits with heavy sinkers — a technique commonly called “bounce balling” — has its advantages at times. Early in the season, when live bait isn’t readily available and the fish are spread out, trolling covers more water. Even when the live-bait bite is happening, it tends to stall for a few hours during slack tide. Again, trolling helps anglers cover ground and present their baits to more fish.
There’s no finesse to halibut trolling; it’s all about maintaining contact with bottom as you motor around at 1 to 2 knots. This means using a 12- to 24-ounce cannonball sinker attached to a three-way swivel by a two-foot dropper of heavy mono. Dead anchovies or herring are preferred (to reduce tangling), rigged to a 5-foot, 40-pound-test leader with a large dodger or flasher between the main line and the hook. Most anglers rig these baits with a treble “trap hook” to increase hookups. Tackle is fairly stout, with braided main line preferred to reduce resistance through the water and help maintain contact with the bottom. In addition to dead bait, many trollers succeed by pulling swimming plugs or plastic hoochies behind flashers.
Finishing the Fight
When you hook up a halibut in San Francisco Bay, it might be a 22-inch keeper or a 40-pound monster. It’s sometimes hard to tell right away. Telegraphed through a graphite rod, these unusually shaped fish often feel like dead weight, interrupted by periodic violent head shakes and short runs. The heavier the weight and the stronger the shakes, the more likely you’ve got a trophy ’but on the line. “Easy does it” works best with halibut; it’s often possible to plane these flatfish toward the surface without too much fuss. It’s when they see the boat that all hell breaks loose. Calm nerves and a steady hand with the waiting net or gaff win this critical endgame. This is easier said than done when you first see the dark, carpet-shaped outline of a trophy halibut looming through the silted water.
Back off the drag a bit and be ready for a last dive toward the bottom. Be patient, and take the fish when it’s laid out flat, just under the surface.
I promise that once you experience this fishery, you’ll be hooked — no buts about it.
San Francisco Bay Halibut
What: California halibut from 22-inch keepers to 40-pound barndoors
When: Peak fishing coincides with availability of live bait, usually beginning in May and running through summer. Trollers are able to catch some fish year-round.
Where: Accessible to private boaters launching from ramps and marinas throughout San Francisco Bay.
Who: Numerous party boats and six-pack charter operations are available throughout the Bay for those without a boat or for anyone who wants to learn the ropes. A good source of information is Bay Tackle Sporting Goods in El Cerrito (510-235-2032).
Limit: Daily bag and possession limit is three fish, measuring a minimum of 22 inches.