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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Here in the northern half of the Golden State there are two basic approaches used for tempting California halibut, namely trolling and drifting. For decades the tried and true approach has been drifting with either live or dead baits, but recently trolling has come on strong as a reliable means of putting the tasty flat fish in the box.
With halibut fishing already underway in South San Francisco Bay and with reports of sturgeon anglers picking up keeper halibut while still fishing with shrimp baits up in San Pablo Bay, it looks as if we are on the verge of another superb halibut season within the bay and if things go as they have in past season the action along coastal beaches and bars should be excellent as well. This being the case let’s take an in depth look at how to drift and troll for halibut and contemplate the merits and drawbacks of both approaches.
More California halibut have been caught by anglers drifting live bait than by all other methods put together, yet as I alluded to earlier, for many years drifting was the only show in town. Now that trolling has become part of the halibut fishing scene there might just be a point in the future when drifters will have to take a back seat to trollers in terms of the numbers of fish caught, simply because trollers can efficiently cover much more ground than drifters can.
Never the less, drifting is still the method most often employed by charter boats, so I’ll begin with that method. 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. The rod’s soft tip coupled with the braided line I use provides me with all the sensitivity I need for detecting even the subtlest bites. The rod’s backbone gives it the ability to both handle sinkers that are up to 8 ounces in weight and to lift stubborn fish off the bottom.
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 for the 2008 season will consist of a 7 foot Lamiglas XC 703 rod teamed with the new Abu Garcia Inshore Revo spooled with 30 pound black Fireline. The Revo Inshore incorporates all the features that have combined to make the Revo the hottest baitcaster on the freshwater market, but with increased line capacity, a power cranking handle and other features that make it more appropriate for saltwater applications.
Weather 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. This is especially important if the sinker ends up getting snagged while you’re fighting a fish. Sure you’ll be out a sinker, but that fat halibut in the fish box will more than dull the pain!
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.
For example on the leaders I team with my light rod I prefer to use light wire red octopus hooks over standard live bait hooks. I firmly believe that the red hook results in more strikes and the light wire hook translates into a livelier stronger swimming anchovy. Finally, the light wire hook provides better penetration than a standard live bait hook when teamed with a light rod. You won’t find these hooks available on any commercially tied rigs.
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, but at times you will achieve better results by waiting longer. After you think you’ve fed out enough line, reengage the reel, allow the line to tighten and then set the hook.
Once you hook a halibut there is a trick to playing them for maximum success. Some guys feel the weigh 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.
If live bait isn’t available you can drift using frozen bait using the same approach and gear you’d use with live bait with one exception. When I’m drifting with dead baits I like to add a small stinger treble to my leader. I place the single hook through the baits nose just like I would when using live bait and place the treble in the baits back about a half inch from the tip of the tail. Using this method you’ll find that the majority of the halibut you hook will have the treble firmly imbedded in the roof of their mouth.
Now, given a choice, I prefer to drift for my halibut because to me this method is the most exciting. Yet, there is no question that private boaters and charter boaters that troll catch more fish than drifters.
Trolling requires heavier tackle than drifting. A halibut trolling stick has the same qualities as a salmon trolling rod that you’d use on a charter boat. A good trolling rod has a soft tip, plenty of back bone and is capable of handling at least a pound of weight. Many anglers troll effectively while using a reel spooled with monofilament line, but I prefer to employ 65 pound braided line.
The rig used for trolling is similar to the one used for drifting. It makes use of a 3 way swivel and a dropper where the sinker attaches, but the breaking weight of the dropper should be bumped up to 15 or 17 pound test. The leader section of the rig is longer than the leader on the live bait rig and looks like this. First a 48 inch section of 30 pound monofilament is attached to the three way. To the end of that section of line an 8 inch dodger is attached. To the rear of the dodger 24 to 36 inches of leader is attached and tipped with either a frozen baitfish or an artificial lure.
When using live bait it is wise to employ a two hook set up with a single hook pinned through the baits nose and a treble hook hanging loose near the baits tail.
Trollers achieve good results while pulling rigged dead baits, but they do nearly as well while pulling soft plastics such as hoochies rigged over swimtail grubs in various color combinations such as all white, blue/white, white/purple, white/green, red/yellow and all yellow.
Hoochie rigs should be armed with a pair of large octopus hooks. Some anglers use a special three way rig for fishing three hoochies at once. The leader section of their three way doesn’t make use of a dodger and is a total of 18 feet long, sporting a hoochie every 6 feet. When a fish is hooked on this rig the angler reels the sinker up to the rod tip and then grabs the leader, bringing the halibut to the last few feet to the boat using a hand over hand retrieve.
When halibut trolling you’ll want to use the lightest sinker possible to keep the rig on the bottom. Generally this means utilizing a round sinker that is between 6 and 16 ounces.
While halibut trolling the boat should be moving between 1 and 3 miles per hours. Halibut face into the current as they lay on the bottom, so the boat should be maneuvered across and down current such that the bait approaches the fish from the front. Often baits approaching from the rear will spook them and they’ll be too busy trying to escape to grab the lures or bait.
Hooking halibut while trolling requires no technique at all, since the boat does all the work. As you troll a nice bend will be pulled into the rod tip. When a halibut strikes and is hooked the rod will pull down hard. At this point take the rod out of the holder, begin working the reel and pull the fish up to the back of the boat for gaffing or netting.
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