The violent head shakes and solid resistance left no doubt. We had hooked a big California halibut. As my son, Joshua, slowly eased the fish upward, its mottled-brown topside appearing like an apparition in the depths, its impressive size left me temporarily frozen in amazement.
“Get the gaff,” Joshua shouted, snapping me back to the job at hand. By the time I returned to the gunwale, the large ’but was within striking range, and I sank the gaff. As the 33-pounder came aboard, our celebration began.
This species of halibut represents one of the most prized targets for anglers along the coast of California from Point Arena to Point Loma. Though not reaching the immense proportions of Pacific (aka Alaskan) halibut, the California halibut grows to 40 pounds or more, with the California state record (set in 2011) now holding at 67 pounds, 4 ounces.
One of the most effective techniques to emerge in recent years for catching this species is a trolling method known as bounce-balling.
“It’s not really new,” says Santa Barbara Harbor-based Capt. David Bacon, who targets big halibut for guests aboard his 28-foot Wave Walker, with his daughter, Capt. Tiffany Vague, as mate. “Commercial fishermen found out about it accidentally years ago.”
Salmon trollers along the California coast found that their lines near the bottom were hooking a fair number of halibut, according to Bacon. “So some trollers started targeting halibut, and that’s how the technique developed,” he explains. Bacon perfected his techniques while fishing with commercial trollers more than 20 years ago, and then later adapted the same methods to his recreational charters.
“While it takes practice to get it right, there is no technique more consistently effective for catching big California halibut than bounce-balling,” says Bacon, who has caught a number of fish in the 30-pound range, as well as halibut approaching 40 pounds.
Bounce-balling is an orchestrated blend of boat speed and the amount of line you have out that results in the ball bouncing on the bottom two to three times per minute, according to Bacon. While no one has interviewed a halibut on the subject, the reasoning holds that the occasional thump of the weight in sand or mud attracts attention of nearby flatfish, which then follow the pulsating dodger to investigate. Spying the lure swimming tantalizingly behind, it pounces on the easy meal.
Bacon hesitates when it comes to specifying trolling speed. “Boat speed can be affected by wind or current, but it’s really the lure speed through the water that’s critical,” he explains. “I look at the rod-tip action to tell me if boat speed is correct.”
With conventional outfits spooled with 50-pound braid positioned in the gunwale rod holders, Bacon interprets the state of the trolling rigs. “If the tips of the seven-foot rods pulsate smoothly, the dodger is swimming correctly side to side, and if I see the tip spring upward every 20 to 30 seconds, I know the weight is bouncing on the bottom at the correct intervals,” he says.
Generally speaking, speeds range from 11/2 to 21/2 knots, depending on the size of the dodger and lure, says Bacon. “Think in terms of walking speed.”
The amount of line out also plays into this. You want just enough to bounce on the bottom occasionally. Too much line leaves the weight dragging along the bottom, evidenced by the rod tip jerking up and down erratically. On Wave Walker, first mate Vague continually monitors and adjusts lines, usually two, to keep the rigs in the strike zone. Communication between the mate and captain becomes critical as they coordinate their efforts.