How To

Halibut Secrets Revealed

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A selection of halibut caught at Seward, Alaska.

A selection of halibut caught at Seward, Alaska.

While I really enjoy dining on salmon and Alaskan cod, my favorite ocean fish is halibut. The sweet, flaky white meat is nectar of the gods. There aren’t any halibut in New Mexico lakes and so I must hunt for it at the grocery store. It normally runs about $20 a pound in these parts, but occasionally they drop the price lower, and you know what happens then–I feast on my favorite fish and dream of the next time I can fish for them.

There are two species of halibut in the Pacific. Pacific halibut that get upwards of nine feet long and tip the scales at 700 pounds, and the smaller California halibut, which are found from Baja to British Columbia and in relatively shallow water. They normally run 15 pounds or less.

Pacific halibut are found along the coast from the Golden Gate to the North Pole in 100-400 feet of water. The season for fishing for Pacifics in California is May 1 to October 31, no minimum size and a limit of one per day. The north coast area from Shelter Cove to Eureka is generally hot. The fish don’t often get to the barn-door size that they do off Alaska, but they are plentiful and just as tasty. One-hundred pounders are caught every year in northern California waters.

In Washington, the Pacific halibut season is short. It begins in early May and there is a quota. In all marine areas open to halibut fishing, there is a one-fish daily catch limit and no minimum size restriction. Anglers must record their catch on a WDFW catch record card.

The Oregon season is also just a few days. Both states have quotas. Check the regulations.

The halibut fishery in British Columbia is open year-round with an annual limit of six fish.

Alaska is the ultimate place to go for Pacific halibut. The regulations are complicated: seasons and limits for guided charters and unguided seasons vary according to the region, so check ahead of time before you book your trip. The state record for recreational fishing is 459 pounds.

The smaller California halibut are a gift to fishermen. The season is open year-round. They are found from the Quillayute River in Washington to Baja California. California halibut come right into the shallows. These “mini-buts” show in San Francisco Bay and can be caught from piers and docks. The minimum size in California is 22 inches and the limit is five a day south of Point Sur and three per day north of Point Sur. They typically weigh six to 50 pounds, and taste just as good as their big Pacific brothers.

The Indians of the Pacific Northwest traditionally erected totem poles outside family lodges. Carved from trunk of a red cedar, a totem pole is a group of images of animals and fish stacked on top of each other that is a statement of species of animals that family has a special kinship relationship with. If John Beath of Monroe, Washington had a totem pole outside of his house, it surely would have to have a huge halibut on it, because this guy knows the king of flatfish like no one else.

A past president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, writer, photographer, and videographer, Beath is possessed by the halibut spirit. John has fished these huge flounders throughout their range, and has designed and sells just about every aspect of halibut tackle from the Brite Bite line to FAT Squid & Trophy Torch underwater lights, sounds, and killer lures for halibut and other game fish. He is also co-producer of the Underwater Secrets of Halibut, Lingcod & Rockfish DVD, which he made in his quest to find the best possible halibut fishing tackle.

When I’ve fished for halibut out of Homer, Alaska on a charter boat, we used salmon heads for bait. We did okay, but John says, “Yah that will work, because halibut are always hungry and will strike at just about anything they can find,” but his underwater video research and personal experience find that if you really want to catch halibut, you need to pay more attention to seducing them. California halibut, for example, he says, want live, moving bait–herring and anchovies. Dead bait will catch crabs and croakers, but generally not California halibut.

John Beath with a salmon.

John Beath with a salmon.

One method for catching California halibut from piers is casting with a lure resembling an anchovy or a squid or “trolling” by walking along the pier and jigging your bait up and down. To do this, you need to organize others to your way of thinking and set up a line of trollers walking the edge of the pier one after the other.

Big Pacific halibut hang out in deeper waters, 150-400 feet down. They like fresh fish; scent is a big factor in attracting them to the bait. John recommends Berkeley Gulp as an enticer. And yes, John has conjured up some special scents of his own that are also irresistible to the big flatsiders–including one that has the combined odors of squid, herring, octopus, shrimp, salmon, and crab.

Fish smorgasbord odor helps, but if you are really serious about catching halibut, John says that you need to also put some light right above the bait, especially UV light. Three to four times as many fish will come to your bait when lights announce it. His research with underwater cameras proves this.

We think about sound as spooking fish. Not halibut, according to John. Halibut lateral lines pick up vibrations out of the water, and they go to where it’s happening. Underwater, sound travels 11 times farther than above water, and it is five times as loud. At the least, raise your bait off the bottom and then let it bang down with a thud. Some folks use an old spoon hitched to a metal spread bar, so that when you bounce the lure, the spoon hits the metal spreader bar. In his studies, John finds that four times as many halibut come to sounds as lines with no sound or light.

So, the key to catching halibut is to use attractions that reach every sense–sight, smell, sound, and lateral line.

Most party boats use pieces of fish for halibut bait. John says that he prefers to use lures, jigs that resemble squid, and candlefish. And for seasoning, add a small piece of smelly bait for odor, or some killer scents. Drop your offering until it hits bottom. Pull it up six feet or so, and then it drop down and hit the bottom again. Using his techniques in some of his favorite places, John says he has caught as many 60 halibut in three hours. His biggest Pacific is 325 pounds, which was seven feet and one-inch long. His most exciting catch, however, he says, was a 100-pounder on a 10-pound test line.

While Pacific halibut live all along the coast, John’s favorite waters are Port Alexander out of Sitka, where he recommends the Laughing Raven Lodge. And, if you really want action and calm waters, John swears by Kodiak Island, where he has caught 100-pound halibut and 50-pound salmon within 10 minutes of the dock, and in protected waters. A place to find current reports on what’s biting in Alaska is at AlaskaFishingReports.net.

You will find many halibut recipes (all well as all the latest news and tips on halibut) at John’s website.

There are many different ways to cook a halibut, but basically John advises three things to always come up with succulent halibut fillets on your plate.

  1. Bleed the fish when it’s alive. If it’s a big one, bleeding starts when you shoot the fish as it swims beside the boat. Otherwise, cut out the gill rakers, and make an incision right behind the eye when he comes on board to drain blood.
  2. Fillet your fish, do not cut through the spine. Spinal fluid alters the taste. And, remove the dark streaks in the flesh next to the spine, which are fat.
  3. There are many ways to cook a halibut, but above all, don’t overcook. If the recipe calls for 350’ at 20 minutes, pump the heat up to 400’ and cook it for 12-15 minutes. If you going to error in cooking a halibut fillet, error on the side of less, John maintains.

Halibut are also found in northern waters in the Atlantic. An old Norwegian trick to insure an outstanding taste is to soak fillets overnight in buttermilk, which John says will remove any fishy taste.

In Homer, if you hook a 300-pound-plus halibut, they encourage you to take its picture and let it go. John says that while a huge female may have a lot of eggs, the eggs often are not as fertile on the big ones. Gravid females in the 50- to 100-pound range will have more fertile eggs. However, when you release a 300-pound-plus halibut, just think of all the other people who can catch that fish and the stories they will have to tell as a result.

Incidentally, if you do keep a big one they are definitely edible, but the 30 to 50 pounders are especially good, he says with relish.

There are two ways that I became enchanted by halibut. The first was catching one. You feel something like a bulldog take hold of your line and the tug of war begins. When it’s finally up to the surface, the flat fish looks and is huge. The second is to be in Seward and go to the Seward Brewing Company Bar and Grill on Main Street and order the beer batter halibut basket–chunky pieces about the size of golf balls that are sent from heaven.

On my bulletin board hangs one of those huge halibut hooks that reminds me of the last time I was in Seward and I got a couple of those wonderful Pacific halibut to bring home. Just looking at that hook reminds me of my hopes and dreams of making it up there again sometime soon. And while the fish always taste so good, isn’t it the hope, the dreams, and the stories that are ultimately the best food for the soul?

Featured image copyright iStockPhoto/NetaDegany, image of John Beath courtesy John Beath

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