How to Catch Halibut blog by Tim Bouchard
Everyone wants to know how to catch halibut. There have been whole books written on this topic and years of trial and error by anglers. There is no one way, or perfect way to catch Alaskan halibut and there is no way I could tell you exactly the best method for your exact location. But there are certain techniques that work time after time, regardless of location. So, here is how to catch halibut…or at least, a starting point…
How to Catch Halibut: Bait Fishing for Halibut
Regarding rigging, almost every angler wants to catch halibut starts with a bait rig. Generally, a plain circle hook or a circle hook with some type of attractant like a hoochie, water-activated light, glow tube, or luminous corky, is the ticket. You name it, someone has probably tried it. I recommend starting with a size 16/0 circle hook. A 10-pound halibut can fit a 16/0 hook in its mouth and plenty of 200-plus-pound halibut have been landed on with 16/0 hooks. If you’re one to use big baits for big fish, you can jump up to the 20/0 size, but be aware the smaller ‘buts will peck away at the bait and the hook won’t fit in their mouths.
In the next article we will dive more into the actual rigs. But for now, let’s assume you went to your local tackle shop and got the coolest circle-hook rig halibut-catching machine. What the heck do you do with it? Put bait on it!
The most common halibut bait and the easiest to find is herring. It works great and it’s what we use most of the time. You can use a whole herring or cut it in half, depending on the size you have available locally. Take the piece and slide the hook in once, then turn it so you can slide the hook in a second time. This helps keep the bait on the hook.
Other options for bait when figuring out how to catch halibut are octopus and squid. Both are a natural food for halibut and work great. On slow days, I find squid to be a great bait. Octopus is nice because it is so tough, nothing will steal it off your hook. Placing a piece of octopus and herring on your hook will give you lots of scent and a piece of bait that will stay on.
To fish bait rigs, find your favorite spot to anchor up and drop your rig down a weight size that will make it to the bottom in the current, and stay there. If you are fishing inside Prince William Sound, a 1-pound weight will do. If you are fishing in Cook Inlet, you can expect to need one to four pounds of weight to stay on or near the bottom in high currents. Once you find bottom, reel two or three cranks to get your bait just off the bottom. You do not want it to be laying on the bottom. Even though halibut are bottom fish they are not always right on the bottom. Suspending your bait two to four feet off the bottom is best. Fish can see it and suspending your bait also keeps the scent trail moving.
When your rod starts bouncing from a fish hitting your bait, do not set the hook. Let it eat the bait, then slowly crank the reel. A circle hook is designed so the fish essentially hooks itself. As fish swim away with your bait, the circle hook will turn into the corner of its mouth and the fight will be on with a perfectly hooked fish.
Another method for how to catch halibut is jigging.
Jigging for Halibut
Jigging is my personal favorite technique for how to catch halibut. It is a very active technique. There are a large variety of jigs that we will go over in the next article. Here we will talk about how to jig for halibut.
You can either jig while on anchor or while you are drifting to catch halibut. On our charter boats in Valdez, most of the time we run four bait rods, while two people jig off the back of the boat. This gives you the best of both worlds; the fish can either take a bait or the jig.
If fishing on anchor, the general idea is to lift the jig moderately fast, then slowly drop it back down to the bottom. On the lift, don’t lift your rod much above eye level. You need to leave some room to set the hook if the fish hits at the top of your stroke.
To perfect the jig fishing technique to catch halibut you need to be keyed into the drop portion of the process. The fish will mostly likely hit the jig on the drop. On the drop, the jig is actively fluttering or swimming, looking like a wounded fish, which triggers predators to attack. Don’t drop so fast that you won’t be able to tell if there is a fish eating your jig. Drop your rod at about the same rate as the lure would naturally fall, with little or no slack in the line. If that lure stops like it is on the bottom before it should be…SET THE HOOK. That slack in the line is caused by the fish having the jig in its mouth, but they are not dumb so it only stays there until they figure out a chunk of lead doesn’t taste good.
With practice, you can even tell when your buddy is missing a fish by the slight slack created in the line when a fish inhales his jig. We spend many a day yelling, “Set the hook!” to novice jig anglers when catching halibut.
If you are drift fishing with this technique to catch halibut, be prepared to lose some lures. I recommend coming up off the bottom two or three cranks when jig fishing on the drift. Jig ten to fifteen times, then check the bottom and repeat. While drifting, if you try and hit bottom between every jig stroke you will hang up frequently, and lots of times never get back your jig.
How to Catch Halibut with a Chum Bag
Regardless of whether you are jigging or fishing bait, if you’re fishing on anchor, a chum bag added to a spare rod or on your anchor is a great way to help attract fish and catch halibut. Personally, I like to find where the fish are concentrated more than chum, but it is 100% personal preference.
Halibut are scent feeders. Anglers who wait in a good spot and put out a lot of scent with a chum bag have a great chance of attracting and catching halibut. Your chum bag can be filled with salmon parts, older herring from the day before, or any fish scraps plus commercially made scents such as those made by Pro-Cure Bait Scents and others. Then send it down to the bottom, ideally towards the bow of your boat, so it is away from the rods you are fishing and so the current brings the scent back toward the baits. In this way, halibut attracted to the chum bag and swimming up current toward it will likely find your baits as they move towards the chum bag.
Now you have a basic idea of how to catch halibut using the two main halibut fishing techniques. Next time, we will go over actual rigs and my recommendations on what to use to catch halibut. View all Saltwater Skills blog entries here.
Tim Bouchard wrote How to Catch Halibut as part of the Saltwater Skills blog series. Tim is an experienced captain and the owner of Valdez Outfitters in Valdez, AK. He can be reached at info@ValdezOutfitters.com.