Halibut Trolling San Francisco Bay

When Bob first approached me to write this article, my first reaction was to tell you to troll a ten dollar bill in front of the counter of your local fish market. That’s a sure way to bring home the fish. He wouldn’t have any of that! So, I guess I need to get a little more serious about it. I don’t profess to be any kind of expert but have just done a lot of experimenting and trying different things over the last twenty or more years, and have settled on a few methods that work for me. I’m sure they will work for you. These fish tend to be pigs when it comes to eating weird stuff. I have caught them with a flasher in their mouth and nothing else! The hoochie was dangling free. It wouldn’t let go and I accommodated him by promptly gaffing his ass. As long as you don’t lift their head out of the water they tend to stay fairly calm. Another day off the Oakland airport a friend and I were trolling two baits on a spreader bar and I hooked what I thought was a nice fish. When my buddy reeled it up he had two legal fish on at the same time! Both were 25″ fish, and we landed both right in front of another friend’s boat that couldn’t seem to get bit that day. I caught hell from him on the radio that day.

I think trolling for halibut is a lot of fun and can be very productive. When the waters of the bay start to get clear and you are hearing that the bait is starting to show here and there, it’s time to start thinking about a trip. That usually will be around the second week of April. For me, that is a little early, but we have caught them that early when we’ve had a dry winter. Normally the first part of May is when we really start to see some better numbers. Again, it all depends how fast the water clears up. That is so crucial to successful trolling.

Tides and run off play a big factor in how fast the water muddies up. The bigger tides seems to mud up in the north bay faster than they do in the Alameda/Oakland airport area, and is one of the reasons I tend to stay in Alameda and Oakland/S.F. airport areas. The more flat tides that don’t have a big a change of water from high to low seem to cause less turbidity. If I were to pick a favorite tide it would have to be the two hours before the high tide and two hours after the high. Mainly because the water is at it’s clearest at that time. As the day goes on you do have to keep an eye on where the muddy water is and make adjustments in course to stay in the clearer water. Of course wind can play a factor in this too. Forcing you to run to more sheltered water where the water may be a bit clearer.

Tactics / Building Hardware

There are several methods that seem to work very well on the halibut. I’ll try and cover each as I go along. Trolling bait behind a flasher, day in day out, is pretty hard to beat. I like a nice, medium length fresh herring. Good tray bait is a plus. Keep them in a good cooler and try to keep them frozen all day if you can. I also like the biggest anchovy you can find. Some days, if there are several people on the boat, we’ll try both baits and see what the flavor of the day is. If one is getting bit better than the other we’ll all switch.

Rigs

To rig up a basic bait rig, I start off with a piece of 30 pound Mason leader about three feet long. I like their slick line because it makes snelling a hook very easy. It also is very abrasion resistant, as these fish have some pretty sharp teeth. I snell a small live bait hook on first using a # 2 Owner hook and leaving a tag end of about ten inches or so. This tag gives you a little working room to tie on a # 2 treble. I use a Palomar knot to attach the treble. This is the tricky part. You want the length from the live bait hook to the end of the treble to be about the length of an anchovy, a little longer for a herring. Now that you have torn your hands all to pieces tying these knots, make the overall length of the leader about two feet long. This is kind of like cooking–nothing has to be exact. Tie a loop knot in the line and you’re done.

Now if you really want to get fancy, you can add a bead in front of the live bait hook and use a little plastic “blade clevis” to attach spinner blades in front of your bait. They are used by walleye fisherman when they want to quick change blades. They just slide over the line. You can even add a second blade which can be very effective. Just use another bead to separate the blades. I like the silver willow blade style the best. Fisherman’s Warehouse carries a great selection of blades, but you can also get them at any bass shop.

The blade clevis I bought from Bass Pro. It is then attached to a Herring Dodger type flasher. I mostly use a size “0” with the silver prism tape. This is run with a sinker release the same as you would with salmon.

When you attach the bait, if you can get a small rubber band around the mouth of the bait, it will make it troll a little better. Run the live bait through the mouth. The treble should be sunk in the bait with one of the hooks as close to the tail as you can go without putting a bend in the bait, and rubber banded to the body. This same leader will work on the spreader bar if you choose to troll two baits, one on each side of the bar.

Dropper Line

When you hook up your weight to the sinker release you need to build a dropper line. It is simply a line that you attach to the weight that allows you to hit the bottom with the weight, but not drag your rig on the bottom. I make a big loop in a piece of fairly heavy line that will go through the eye of the weight and over the weight .Then pull it tight. The other end also has a loop that goes in the release. I used the heavier line because it is a little stiffer and goes in easier. This dropper should be about 18 “long. I generally use a pound and a quarter lead ball which will keep you on the bottom in most situations .Up to 30 foot depth with 15 pound line shouldn’t be a problem. Be sure and set the release at the hardest setting so you don’t drop your weight on weeds or other debris. This same release and dropper set up will work on the spreader bar.

Rods

Here’s one that is pretty much your choice. I use a 7 foot medium action rod. Some people like a faster action rod. It just needs to be able to drag a pound or more around on the bottom all day. I think the medium works best. When you drop your line in the water, let it down slowly so you don’t get any tangles. Let it down until it bangs the bottom. Wait a second and let some more out if it doesn’t continue to hit the bottom. When it’s bouncing steady you are fishing. Keep an eye on the depth finder, making adjustments as the depth changes. You need to keep that ball bouncing on the bottom. If the depth hasn’t changed and your weight isn’t bouncing you probably have picked up some weeds. Check it fairly often .It is important to keep it clean. Early in the season there isn’t a lot of weed growth yet and you can sometimes troll for long periods without collecting any weeds. Later on towards the warmer months, weed growth really takes off and it makes more work for us trollers.

Lures

There are times when a lure will do the job when nothing else will. If you are having one of those days where your bait isn’t the best or you just want to try something different, try using lures. Some of the most productive are: Hoochies and Rebel type lures, floating type and there are tons of variations

Let’s talk about hoochies first. These are the same type you would use for salmon. Generally I’ll troll these on a spreader bar. They also can be trolled behind a flasher but are more commonly used on the bar by the halibut guys.

They are put together in every imaginable color, using all the tinsel and inserts plus adding long tails to match the general color of the hoochie. One big difference in the salmon and halibut hoochie is the use of corks to help the hoochie float. The cork needs to be big enough to achieve this. I get a cork of about ¾” across the top and tapering down to about a ½” wide. Drill a small hole through it to slide the line through with the narrow end towards the hoochie. I paint them in greens and blues, sometimes white. You can add glitter to them to add a little more flash. Or you can use something a little more exotic.

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Darrel Kuhn, who I think is one of the best and most innovative halibut fishermen in the bay area, came up with an idea to use a kid’s jump rope to install the cork inside of. These jump ropes came in sections about 1 ½” long and 5/8″ I.D. He took them apart and got these nice precut tube sections. They were perfect for hoochies! You had to make a cork to fit and they came is all kinds of cool colors, lime green, blue, silver and purple. All the colors we used the most. It wasn’t long before there was a run on every toy store in town. All these ratty old halibut guys buying kids jump ropes. I still see them out there for sale. One of these ropes has enough sections for you and your friends to make a bunch of hoochies.

We have even been known to add a large spin n glo steelhead spinner in front of the hoochies. To finish off the hoochies, add a nice long tail in a color that matches your creation. It is now going to have an overall length of about 8 “. These are fun because you build them yourself and you are only limited by your imagination.

Rebel type lures

I have had pretty good success with the floating style of lure. These are the 7″ long size approximately. I like the green back-silver side, blue back-silver side the best , in that order. You may be trolling along and see a lot of small jacksmelt skittering on the water. You might drop a spreader bar down with one of each color on about a 2 foot leader. Use a loop knot on the lure and the leader end. Troll as you would all the other tackle. I use loop knots on everything .You are using heavier line so there isn’t much danger of breaking it and it gives your lure better action.

There is a lure that is made by the Norman Lure Company that looks almost exactly like a Rebel except for the finish. The number is BF-141 sunshine gel coat. I have used them for a long time and they work extremely well. The finish makes the difference. They have glitter all over them and look pretty ridiculous. But the halibut love them. Mine have teeth marks all over them. Don’t hesitate to try any floating style lure on the spreader bar.

Trolling speed

Trolling speeds are another important part of the process. I have caught them at some very high speeds before but find that a speed of 2.5 to 3.0 mph is about right. They aren’t the lazy sluggish fish that you might think. We have been trolling salmon off the beaches in HMB and caught them 5 or more feet off the bottom. If they are hungry they will chase it down. Traveling against the current may cause you to let more line out or slow down a bit to stay bouncing.

Chart plotters

If you are fortunate enough to own a chart plotter, they can be a big help in fishing certain areas. If you have been lucky in an area hopefully you marked that area in your GPS, you will want to go back over that area again. This should be an automatic reaction to a hookup .Mark it, get the rod in hand and stop the boat. Some areas like San Bruno Shoals are much easier fished if you know what the water depth is in front of you. You can pick a line with the same water depth and stay on it, not having to raise and lower your line all the time.

Landing Halibut

I personally like to stick them with a gaff. Lot’s of people only net them and have had great success. I have had these escape artists come out of the net too many times and get away so I gaff them. First, try not to lift their head out of the water. They usually are pretty calm if you don’t. If the fish is even remotely close to a shaker I lift them out by the leader. If they fall off in the process in my mind they’re too small and should be let go anyway. It is rare to lose them when you gaff them. This is strictly my own opinion though.

A word of caution: these fish will bite you! And they don’t let go easily. Be careful around those chompers. Close the lid and latch it because they will sometimes go crazy and knock the lid open as much as a half hour or more after you caught them.

Areas

There are many areas that hold halibut most of the late spring and through the summer months. Some of my favorites are the flats right outside the San Leandro channel markers and on out in front of the Oakland airport. This area is generally around 12 to 16 feet deep and is fairly free of weeds. The depth remains pretty consistent so it’s easy to fish for the beginner.

San Bruno Shoal is another good area. It roughly runs just on the north side of the San Mateo Bridge and ends at about the end of the Oakland airport runways. It is best fished going up and down the bay and not cross ways. The water depth varies anywhere between 30 feet on the edges on the S.F. side to 6 or 7 feet directly on top of it. The fish can be anywhere on the shoal. You have to wander around at different depths until you find them.

Bay Farm Island is just above the Oakland airport. It features some scattered weeds in the shallow areas and can hold fish. Don’t forget to look around the ferry channel while over there.

“A” buoy in Alameda is another area to look at while fishing this side of the bay. It is another flat bottom that is a little deeper. Sometimes there is quite a bit of bait in the area.
Alameda rock wall area can be a very good too. It has a nice sandy bottom and accounts for lot’s of fish every year.

Oyster point is a good area to look at. It is especially good if the wind has kicked up and made the water muddy in your other spots across the bay. It sometimes can have a lot of weeds later in the year. It also tends to hold bait in the area.

S.F. airport area: First off, when fishing here, do not go inside the buoys the Coast Guard has put up since 9/11. They run parallel to the runways. You will get a visit from some very irate guys with guns. Same goes for the Oakland Airport. This area features a good flat bottom that depths change very slowly, and is relatively free of weeds and holds good numbers of fish. This holds true all the way down to Coyote Point.

Coyote Point can be an ace in the hole. Just outside the channel markers is a rocky bottom that can hold fish. It usually gets pretty weedy later in the year when the water starts to warm. The fish seem to lie on the rocks and come up with a very light yellowish brown color sometimes. I believe a camouflage to match the colors of the rocky bottom.

I know this has become a pretty long article and I apologize for that. I also apologize to all the halibut that I’m sure are going to hit the deck because of this .I hope this at least helps you get started. Please experiment around with these techniques and share them with your friends .These are just some of the things that have worked for me and if we all share we’ll all become better fisherman.

Terry Lewis