Halibut Fishing 101

Carefully Release Short CA Halibut

I’ve lived in the bay area most of my life and fished for just about every kind of fish the area has to offer. Halibut fishing is a favorite for me and is one I’m most successful at. I hope the information and ideas that follow will help those of you that are new to halibut fishing. By all means use the general information found on our great web site to get others’ point of view and information for this or any other type of fishing. A lot of good people and fishermen are just waiting to share their knowledge with you.

Our state’s bays and coastal waters have 2 species of halibut, the California halibut and the Pacific halibut. The California halibut is the most common and can be fished for in our waters the year round. From the states north coastal border to Pt. Sur, the limit is 3 per day and must be 22 inches or longer. From Pt. Sur to the states south coast border the limit is 5 per day, 22 inches or longer.
The Pacific Halibut has a limit of 1 per day for the entire states’ coastline and must be 32 inches long or longer. (season is from May 1 – Sept. 30). Be sure and check the DFG’s fishing regulations for all the rules for taking halibut.

The areas and methods used for halibut fishing are common knowledge for a lot of fishermen. If you’re new to fishing for them, here are some tips to help get you started. Also ask other fishermen you feel have knowledge that will help head you in the right direction.

Where to Fish

The areas that halibut are most likely to be found will be flat sandy bottom suitable for their spawning and with a food source. Inside the San Francisco bay, some of the ideal areas are Crissy Field, south side of Angel Island, the Berkeley Flats, mouth of Richardson Bay, from Hunters Point down to Coyote Point in 10 – 20 ft. of water. Water conditions are very important in the bay. Look for clear water with a minimal tidal flow. (2 or 3 feet from high to low is ideal).

Out in the ocean some good areas are: Seal Rocks, Bakers Beach, Muir Beach, and Stinson Beach. Also good are some of the beaches out of Pillar Point to the south. Surf conditions will have a lot to do with how deep you fish in the ocean, but usually you will fish from 18 – 30 feet.


Let’s deal a little with gear and equipment. A net should always be on your boat to bring in and to release undersize fish without harming them. However, a gaff is a good idea for fish you are sure are of legal length. A lot of fish are lost in netting because of hooks or weights catching in the net allowing the fish to break off before you can scoop it up.

A good choice of rods is a 6.5 to 7 foot rod suitable for 15 to 30 lb. line, with a fairly fast tip to show bites while drift fishing and to give action to your bait while trolling. A level wind reel is a good choice because you won’t be casting, whether trolling or drift fishing for halibut. A 20 to 30 lb. test line is good for trolling and 15 – 20 lb. for drifting.

If you’re drifting for halibut with live bait, your terminal tackle should consist of an in line banana sinker type weight. There should only be enough weight to keep your bait on the bottom. A 25 to 30 lb. mono leader 2.5 ft. to 3.5 ft. long is good, used with a 1/0 to 3/0 snelled octopus hook on the end when using live bait, anchovy, shiners or herring.

For drifting dead or frozen bait (anchovy or herring) use two, 1/0 or 3/0 octopus hooks on the same length leader, one hook tied on the end and one snelled on the leader line as a sliding hook, both facing the same direction. Both hooks should be placed in the bait with points facing the tail. Use small rubber bands 1/4 or 5/16 in diameter to keep gills from flaring out as the bait will be drifted tail first. At the tail, slip a couple of half hitches of the leader around the tail of your bait. A standard live bait rig with a 3-way swivel can also be used where drifting with the same hook setup as the inline weight (sinker) rig. In any case use only enough weight to keep your bait touching the bottom as you drift along.

If you’re trolling for halibut, here is a common method. Use a 3-way swivel attaching your fishing line to one eye, a sinker dropper line to the next eye and your leader line to the last eye. Or use a spreader bar in place of the 3-way swivel to keep the sinker dropper line from tangling with your leader.


Let’s deal with a single bait first. A good choice of baits for trolling is sardines, anchovies, shiners, or herring. You can use a rig called a trap, it’s very effective. The trap rig consists of a treble hook tied to the end of your leader and an octopus hook snelled to your leader, so it can slide to adjust to bait length. The treble hook is placed at the tail and the octopus hook adjusted to the length of the bait and placed in the head. Use 1/4″ small rubber bands around the shanks of the hooks to help keep them in place on the bait. To give this set up a little more action, place a flasher in the middle of your leader line.

Now let’s deal with multiple bait trolling. These baits will normally be artificial baits such as hootchies, swim baits and other plastic baits. You need to create a leader with short dropper lengths at equal distance on the leader to attach the baits to. This leader should be used with a 3-way swivel or a wire spreader and a dropper weighted line. Be sure and check the regulations to see how many inline baits can be used in the bay or in the ocean. Also be careful of the length of this rig. It becomes difficult to net or gaff a fish if the leader is very long. Netting is very difficult with this rig in any case.


Finally, let’s deal with presentation of the gear you’re using, whether trolling or drifting for halibut. Halibut are very predatory and territorial. They lay hidden on the bottom and ambush their prey as it swims or drifts by. They will attack anything that gets near their nest when they are spawning, even if they aren’t hungry. They congregate on the areas that they are feeding or spawning on, in clusters of several fish or more. As you fish an area and you get a strike or catch a fish, work that spot over several times until you’re satisfied you’re not going to get any more action. Then you can continue covering the area you’re drifting or trolling.


When trolling for halibut, you can put your rod in a holder, but pay very close attention to it. Sometimes after being hooked, a halibut will swim right along with your boat, and you won’t know it’s there if you didn’t see the strike. Check your bait often, and make sure its in good shape and free of mud and garbage. If you’re constantly picking up mud on your bait, either your weight line is too short or your leader line is too long. Work the bottom contours while trolling, trying to maintain the same depth. By maintaining the same depth as much as possible, repeated adjustment of how much line you have out will be reduced.

When trolling, the proper amount of line to let out will give action to your bait. This is accomplished by letting line out so your sinker can stick to the bottom. When it sticks to the bottom, it loads the rod up until the rod breaks the sinker free and springs your gear forward. Now the sinker sticks on the bottom again, resulting in a hopping action of your bait. When trolling it’s not necessary to set the hook, your trolling speed will do that for you. Trolling speed should be slow, from 2 miles to 2.7 miles per hour.
Drifting When drifting for halibut check your bait often, and keep it fresh and clean. It’s best to hold the rod in your hands when drifting. Because drifting is a slower presentation, it gives the fish more time to react to your bait. Often when drifting bait by a fish, the fish will lightly hold the bait in its lips until it decides it is something it wants to eat, before it swallows it. So as you drift along and you suspect a nibble, let your line free spool out until you think the fish is swallowing it, this will likely be a hard pulldown or a run. Now set the hook and fight your fish.

Make Your Own Spreader

You can make your own spreader. It’s a rigid wire device that is “L” shaped. The longer leg of the “L” is about 6-8″ long, and the shorter leg about 2″ long. There is an eye twisted in the wire at each end of the legs and an eye twisted at the corner of the “L.” Attach a weighted line to the short leg of the spreader, to the long leg the leader of whatever your trolling, and at the corner of the “L” your fishing line. A good rule of thumb is your weight line should be 1/4 the length of your bait leader line, if you’re using a single bait when trolling. If you’re using multiple baits on your leader line, such as hootchies, the ratio of weight line to leader length should be about 1 to 3. (check regulations for use of multiple hook baits for Halibut)