Bounce, bounce, bounce . . . slam! When it's springtime in Southern California, this can only be one of two things: Kobe Bryant taking off from the free-throw line for a rim-rattling dunk or another California halibut falling prey to the strange - yet strangely effective - fishing technique known as "bounce-balling."
Bounce-balling has become increasingly popular with anglers over the last several years, whether they're out to win one of the local halibut derbies or simply put some tasty fillets on the table. It was destined to happen, as word of this unorthodox yet highly effective method filtered down from the ranks of commercial hook-and-line halibut fishermen. After all, these pros make a living catching halibut - especially big halibut - day in and day out, in all kinds of conditions.
Even though the technique is far from the angling mainstream, more and more fishermen are bouncing away from the Mexican border to San Francisco Bay. "Bounce-balling is a great way to fish when there's no wind or current to help you drift," says Alan Toji, halibut angler extraordinaire and bounce-ball proponent, "primarily because it lets you cover a lot of ground." Toji, however, uses the technique under any conditions.
Although bounce-balling is known as an excellent big-fish technique, it's far from a "barndoor-or-nothing" proposition - it'll catch fish of all sizes. In fact, Toji notes that bounce-ball anglers actually hook more sub-legal (under 22 inches) and smaller keeper-sized fish than those who drift with live bait.
How the Ball Bounces
Bounce-balling is essentially a slow-trolling technique, adapted to target halibut as they lay on the mud bottom. By using specialized rigs and heavy sinkers, anglers are able to drag their baits or lures through the halibut's narrow strike zone in a way that elicits savage "reaction bites."
"This is definitely not finesse fishing," says Toji, referring to the flashy, bulky terminal rig and the heavy gear required to fish it, "but it is sure works." As the bounce-ball rig passes overhead - making a racket, kicking up puffs of mud and reflecting light in all directions - flatties can't help but take notice. Maybe it's like one of those gaudy neon road signs that scream "Eat Here!" Some anglers believe that all the commotion actually provokes these predators into a vicious attack. Whatever the reason, the result is usually the same - a feisty halibut on the end of the line.
The basic bounce-ball rig starts with a three-way swivel tied to the main line. To the bottom of the three-way, a 12- to 15-inch length of monofilament with a 1 1/2- to two-pound cannonball sinker is attached. The sinker should be tied on with 30-pound line so it will break off if it becomes snagged.
On the other end of the three-way, Toji recommends tying a four- to five-foot length of 40-pound monofilament with a six- to eight-inch chrome dodger.
Trailing from the dodger is a 12- to 15-inch length of 40-pound monofilament tied to a small, plastic "hoochie" squid or small, lipped swimming plug. Toji likes green/silver, blue/silver, chartreuse and "glow-in-the dark" hoochies in the 4 1/2-inch size. He suggests rigging these lures with a 3/0 or 4/0 octopus-style hook snelled to the leader. Some bounce-ballers like to rig their hoochies with a second trailing hook to increase their strike-to-hook-up ratio. Toji prefers a uni-knot for all connections other than the snelled hook, although other knots such as the Palomar, improved fisherman's knot or Trilene knot also work well.
Depending on local regulations, it may be legal to fish multiple hoochie squids on a single bounce-ball rig. While some anglers feel this gives them an advantage, the multiple squids can lead to tangles and snags.
When it comes to rods and reels, Toji and other bounce-ballers prefer a 6 1/2- to seven-foot rod rated for 30- to 40-pound test, matched with a Penn Jigmaster-sized reel. "I like to spool up with 50-pound braided line, because it helps me stay in touch with what's going on down there," Toji explains. Undoubtedly, the increased sensitivity and low stretch of braided line make it easier to feel the sinker bouncing along the bottom. For those who prefer monofilament, Toji suggests nothing lighter than 30-pound test.
This may seem like overkill to anglers accustomed to drift fishing with live bait, light-tipped graphite rods, small hooks and 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders, but it's necessary for several reasons. The heavy sinker and stout gear are needed to keep the lure and flashing attractor in contact with the bottom, which is where halibut do most of their feeding. Also, because the boat is moving, you need a heavy drag to make solid contact with the fish and overcome occasional hang-ups. Fortunately, since the fish are responding aggressively to sound, flash and movement, they're not typically line-shy.
As a variation on this method, I've had good success by slow trolling a lively, "trap-hooked" sardine or live squid, with or without the dodger. When fishing this way, there is no opportunity to drop the bait back to the fish; you have to hope that the halibut engulfs the whole bait - and the hooks - on its initial attack.
In order to succeed at bounce-balling, start by networking with other anglers, tackle shops and surfing the web to find out where along the coast the fish are holding and at what depth. After that, some experimenting will be required to find the payoff zone.
"I've caught fish both shallower and deeper, but I have my best success with bounce-balling in 45 to 80 feet of water," reveals Toji. He recommends beginning in 60 or 70 feet, then changing your depth up or down in ten-foot increments until you find the fish. Halibut often congregate at a particular depth, so it's a good idea to focus your efforts at the same depth once you start getting bites.
It's also important to be aware of bottom composition. Live-bait fishermen often target areas of sandy bottom interspersed with rocks, wrecks and other structure. These areas are indeed excellent habitat for halibut, but they are deadly on bounce-ball rigs.
"Bounce-balling definitely works better in areas with flat sand or mud bottom," advises Toji. "Otherwise, snags can be a hassle, and it can get pretty expensive to replace those rigs."
It's the skipper's job to keep the boat creeping along at one or two knots. Small outboard "kicker" motors are often employed to provide this slow, forward progress. If you don't have a kicker and your boat won't troll slowly enough, you can try deploying a drift anchor while under power or bumping your boat in and out of gear to reduce your speed. Because of the "hands-on" nature of this style of fishing, it is best for the skipper to concentrate on his boat-handing duties and leave the fishing to the crew.
Stay in Touch
To avoid tangles, do not lower the rig too quickly. Instead of dropping in free-spool, Toji suggests lowering your line in "pulls," as is practiced by downrigger fishermen who troll for salmon. The key, of course, is to maintain contact with the bottom by monitoring the depth and adjusting the amount of line you have out.
As you troll along, periodically bounce your sinker on the bottom by lifting and dropping the rod tip. This lets you know you're in the strike zone while also attracting the attention of halibut. The idea is that halibut pick up the sound and vibration of the sinker hitting the bottom, are drawn in by the kicked-up sand and mud, as well as the flashing dodger, then attack the fluttering hoochie as it goes by.
"There are times when bouncing the rig definitely creates more bites," says Toji. "But with almost two pounds of lead on the line, you're going to get tired." He says it's okay to put the rod in a holder, as long as you periodically check to make sure your rig is making contact with bottom.
"When you get a strike, don't set the hook," warns Toji. "When you see the rod load up, just crank until the fish is solidly hooked."
With all that hardware in the water, it's best to reel the fish in under steady pressure and with minimal pumping of the rod. I also like to back off the drag a little after the fish is off the bottom, as bigger halibut often shake their heads violently or make a last-ditch surge for the depths just as you're getting ready to gaff or net the fish. More often than not, this is when the hook will tear out, leaving you with a vacant look and a sad story about one that got away.
The next time you go after halibut, why not get the lead out and give this unusual technique a try? Once you discover how well it works, you'll be hooked forever, and bounce-balling will become a regular weapon in your halibut-fishing arsenal. Believe me, you'll have a ball.