Targeting S.F. Bay Halibut With Live Bait

Written By: Cal Kellogg, June 24, 2014
Species: Halibut

Targeting S.F. Bay Halibut With Live Bait
Targeting S.F. Bay Halibut With Live Bait Targeting S.F. Bay Halibut With Live Bait

After an absence of a couple years, big numbers of halibut are once again holding within the confines of San Francisco Bay. With live bait in the form of live anchovies widely available, live bait drifters are landing halibut ranging up to 35 pounds. Here’s how to catch them…

All things considered, halibut drifting is pretty forgiving in terms of the type of tackle employed. I’ve seen guys catch fish while using hefty rods that would be more at home on a tuna boat. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen anglers such as the Fish Sniffer’s own Dan Bacher bag handsome flatties on light spinning rods that seemed best suited for trout fishing. 

When I head out on a charter boat and halibut drifting is on the menu, I typically bring along a pair of rods. One rod, an 8 foot Lamiglas X 80 HC, mated with an Abu Garcia 7000 Big Game reel loaded with 65 pound test Spiderwire Ultracast line, is the one that gets the most use. It features a soft sensitive fast action tip that quickly yields to middle and but sections that provide exceptional power.

My second rod is a lightweight outfit that is used strictly for “finesse fishing.” Your finesse rod could be either a spinning or casting stick. My finesse setup often consists of a 7 foot Lamiglas XC 703 rod teamed with the an Abu Garcia Revo spooled with 30 pound braid.

Whether you choose a spinning or baitcasting outfit for your finesse rig, it needs to be capable of handling 1 to 2 ounce sinkers, but you should also be capable of casting it a fair distance with only a couple of large split shot or a medium heavy rubber core sinker for weight. This is important when boiling stripers show up and you need to make a cast with minimal weight to get your bait to the feeding fish.

The standard terminal tackle used for live bait drifting consists of a 3 way swivel with a 36 inch 25 pound monofilament leader tipped with a 1, 1/0 or 2/0 live bait hook tied on a perfection loop connected to one of the swivel’s eyes. To the second eye a short dropper of 10 pound mono is attached with either a loop or cheap snap on the other end. Your sinker is attached to the dropper. The dropper is made of light line, such that in the event you should snag it will break before your leader or main line. That way you’ll only loose the sinker.

Live bait rigs are available at most ports and tackle shops that cater to saltwater anglers, but it is a simple matter to tie your own and that is what I recommend. I’ve been tying my own leaders for as long as I can remember and I think it offers distinct advantages.

First of all I can make use of fresh premium quality abrasion resistant monofilament. Secondly, I use only the highest quality hooks from Owner and Gamakatsu. Finally, tying my own leaders allows me to tweak them for special situations.

Okay, we are now on the boat, be it a private vessel or a charter craft with 30 other anglers aboard. Your rods both have leaders on them and it’s time to fish. The first thing to do is attach an appropriate weight. With the weigh in place, the next step is to pick out a bait. You want a healthy bait that is lively, with all its scales attached.

Gripping the bait lightly, take your hook and pin it up through the anchovy’s lower jaw and out through the tip of the nose. Don’t go too deep or you’ll hit the little guy’s brain. There are several different ways to hook live baits depending on how you want them to swim, but the way I’ve described is used most often and best for most situations. 

With your bait in place, ease the rig into the water and lower it to the bottom slowly to avoid tangling the leader. When you feel the leader hit the bottom, engage the reel and get ready for action. They typical bite off a halibut looks and feels a lot like a snag. One second the rig is dragging freely across the bottom and the next thing you know the tip of your rod begins to draw down.

When halibut hit in this manner it is seldom necessary to set the hook. They simply gulp down the bait and the movement of the boat draws the hook into their mouth. When this happens all you need to do is begin working the reel and focus on keeping the line tight.

There are times when halibut don’t bite as aggressively as we’d like them to. At times when halibut are finicky it takes some technique to hook them. You’ll know when they are playing hard to get because they will grab the bait by the tail and the movement of the boat will pull the bait away from them before they get the hook into their mouth. The result will be baits that come back to the boat sporting tooth marks and damaged tails.

When halibut are biting aggressively, you can put your rod in a holder and wait for it to double over, signaling that a fish has been hooked. When they are tentatively grabbing the bait by the tail, you need to hold your rod and play out the bites you get.

In general when halibut are hitting tentatively the bite will start out with a few light taps. When you feel those taps, drop the reel into free spool or open your spinning reel’s bail. You want to feed out line while thumbing the spool. You don’t want a bunch of slack to develop. You simply want to release line at the same pace the boat is drifting. This way the rig will lie on the bottom, giving the halibut time to swallow the bait. Typically a 15 to 20 count will give them all the time they need.

Once you hook a halibut there is a trick to playing them for maximum success. Some guys feel the weight of the halibut and really want to go to work on them by pumping up the rod and reeling down to bust them off the bottom. This is the worst thing you can do. Halibut are extremely powerful fish that are capable of wild lightening fast bursts of speed. If they bolt away while aside the boat a number of things can happen and none of them are good!

The proper technique when fighting a halibut is to keep the rod level with the boat’s rail and allow its tip to keep the line tight and cushion any head shaking as you steadily work the reel. When using this approach the hooked fish will almost always glide right up to the surface and the waiting net. If the deckhand is busy and doesn’t arrive next to you before the halibut appears, don’t allow its head to break the surface. Instead, let it hang aside the boat. Amazingly, the fish will usually set in the water column until the net or gaff arrives.

When the wind is light and the drift is slow you can usually hook more fish by breaking out your light rod. If you are fishing on a charter boat the number of folks aboard also dictates whether you can utilize your light gear. When a charter boat is crowded, the skipper usually instructs everyone to use fairly heavy sinkers in the 4 to 8 ounce range to avoid tangled lines. But if the crowd is fairly small and space is plentiful, they have no problem with you employing light tackle.

In situations when I can go light I like to employ a long line approach. To do this you want to be on the side of the boat where the drift causes your line to angle off away from the boat rather than going beneath it. In most situations, you only want to have out enough line to keep your rig on the bottom.

However, when long lining I like to use 2 ounces of weight or less and let my rig trail from 100 to 150 feet behind the boat. Generally this approach will hook more fish than standard drifting with the bait right beneath the boat, especially if the water is shallow.



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