Habitat and conditions dictate lure and bait choices
BY GUNDY GUNDERSON
One of the most targeted species for Southern California bay, harbor and beach anglers is the halibut. It is a challenging gamefish that can be found in the shallows all along Southern California’s coastal waters making it one of saltwater’s most accessible gamefish. It is ideally suited for the shore fisherman and many of the best spots are accessible by foot, but inshore waters present many different habitats and structures that can hold halibut and each often demands a proper presentation. There are many ways to catch halibut and most are dictated by the habitat and conditions that the flat fish occupy.
There are never hard and fast rules in fishing. Tendencies are a better way to look at it. I like to approach halibut fishing in terms of where the fish tend to be in a particular habitat, what conditions prevail and what is the best way to make a presentation to the fish. The answers to these questions will dictate the best lure or bait approach.
I chose here to categorize general presentation by lure or bait choice. The lure or bait chosen often defines the presentation. Here are a selection of top lures and baits and the best ways to fish them.
Spoons are some of the most versatile lures in the arsenal. A spoon can be fished in a variety of ways. It also has a longer range than any other lure. In halibut fishing, range means covering water. The more water covered the more potential bites. Spoons are excellent search baits. There are many ways to fish spoons in a variety of situations.
Spoons shine when fishing bait concentrations or bait balls. The fluttering and dodging action of the lure will trigger an immediate strike from a halibut. The flatfish will shadow the bait using its camouflage to settle below the school or bait ball. The most aggressive strikes come in bait balls where the bait is actively being corralled and fed upon.
Spoons also work well slow rolled in the breakers, mimicking small baitfish. Slow rolling is a presentation where the lure is moved slowly, skirting along the bottom. In protected waters, spoons are very effective bounced along channel bottoms in the bays, harbors and lagoons. Good tide movement is key to find actively feeding fish.
Hard jerkbaits are some of the most popular lures and methods for taking halibut. Working hard jerkbaits is a power fishing technique that probes lots of water and draws strikes from aggressive fish. It is an excellent search bait meaning it is meant to fish fast and cover water. Hard jerkbaits are most often used on the open beaches where the surf zone is more dynamic with waves and tidal flow and the halibut are in the ambush mode. They also fish well in the bays, harbors and lagoons especially in channels and lagoon and harbor mouths where there is tidal flow. In calm waters, they can be fished successfully slower with more finesse.
A swimbait is one of the absolute best halibut baits in calmer water. Available in a wide variety of colors and sizes, these plastic baits can mimic a variety of forage items. They can also be fished with leadheads as light as an 1/8-ounce and ranging to 1 ½ ounces. This allows the lure to be fished at variety of depths in many different currents and conditions.
Calm water can be found in the surf zone with no wind and little swell or on beaches sheltered by breakwaters. Harbors, bays and lagoons also can be defined as calm waters ideal for swimbaits.
The lures are cast then cranked, with varying speeds, from quick to slowly dragged on the bottom. On the beaches, the fish will feed out of subtle holes, rips and trenches. They will also orient around jetties and piers or reefs. Sand patches near structure are always a good bet. In the protected waters of the harbors, bays and lagoons, tidal current is key as the fish will ambush prey in the channels, mouths of secondary channels, along docks, jetty rock, eel grass beds and bait receivers.
A soft jerkbait is another calm water bait. Soft jerkbaits shine in finesse situations like cooler water months, or periods of lesser tide swings, or just when they are in a negative mode. The dropshot rig is one of the most effective ways to fish these baits. Stick baits and Fluke baits are the most popular plastics fished on these rigs, but other shapes can also be effective. The sinker allows for the rig to be fished very slowly sometimes dead-sticked in the tidal current. A variety of sinkers can be used depending on depth and casting distance.
Soft jerkbaits can also be fished effectively on a darthead or bullet head. In this way the bait is jerked or popped mimicking a wounded baitfish. This is particularly effective in bait concentrations or bait balls but will provoke a halibut strike in almost all situations.
Not at the top of most anglers’s list, the ignominious grub is one of the best halibut lures in shallow water. Dragged slowly along a sandy bottom, the single tail’s subtle action draws strikes from halibut in almost any situation. It shines in calmer water where slower presentations draw subtle takes. Grubs are usually fished with a darthead. The key is to use just enough weight to get the lure to the bottom. This way it will fish on the drop and on the crawl and can also be fished on a drop-shot rig.
Grubs are at their best in the harbors, bays and lagoons. Most effective color patterns mimic smelt, and anchovy, but other colors that can be hot are white and clear red/flake. On the open beaches, grubs are effective when the waters are calm. They are deadly when fished in holes trenches and along jetty rock. They also get bit when cast into bait balls.
Fishing cut bait is a still-fishing technique meaning the angler is set up on a particular spot. He is not covering water to find fish but deploying a bait in a spot fish regularly transit or occupy. On an open beach, good spots include along a jetty, near a reef, under a pier, outside a trench, hole or rip. Usually, the best spots produce over time. In sheltered water, typical examples are a good channel opening, near a bait dock, at a harbor mouth, in a main channel, off a jetty or pier.
The top bait is a frozen anchovy. It can be fished whole, by half or just a chunk. Cut sardine also works well. A fresh frozen grunion is dynamite. It fishes like live bait. Whole or larger pieces can be trap-rigged for touchy biters. Although not as glamorous as lure fishing or even live bait fishing, cut or frozen bait is one of the most effective ways to take a halibut. The actual forage with its scent and feel, is a natural for the flatfish.
This is the most involved technique but maybe the most effective. It involves two parts. The first part is making or procuring the bait, the second is fishing it. The easiest and most common live bait is smelt, a halibut favorite. Smelt can be made in almost any inshore waters.
A Sabiki rig or an umbrella net are the best way to make them. Occasionally you can make a sardine when the schools are thick in the shallows. Other oddball baits you might make incidentally, and all good halibut baits, are shiner perch, seven-eleven perch, herring or barred surf perch. You will most likely make these guys when jigging off piers or along jetty rock or reef.
Some anglers buy a small scoop of live anchovies or sardines from the local harbor bait operation, then take the live baits to a favorite spot. The bait is usually held in an aerated bucket temporarily then transferred into a bait sled at the spot. These two live baits are an instant bite for a halibut. Trap rigging larger baits like sardines is common.
The second part is fishing the live bait and the still-fishing philosophy applies. You want to deploy these baits in spots where the fish reside or transit or are feeding. On the open beaches that would be along a jetty, sand near a reef, scattered stones, under a pier, outside a trench, hole or rip. The best spots are the ones that are closer in, as casts with a live bait are short and soft. In and around the harbors, bays and lagoons, the best spots include docks, piers, jetties, channels, holes, lagoon and bay mouths.
The key to finding success catching halibut is to identify the habitat and tailor the presentations to that habitat and prevailing conditions. It is understandable to grab a lure then go out and catch a fish on it. It sounds simple enough. But actually, you want to look at it another way, the habitat you fish and the conditions you fish in should dictate what lures or baits you can best deploy.