Surf Fishing for Halibut 101
So you want to catch halibut from the surf?......
Well so do a lot of people!
That said, it's a good thing that you are interested in it, and I hope you find this enlightening!
What this article is and aims to do:
This article is meant to be a very solid introduction to catching halibut from the surf. It is not meant to be the be all end all surf halibut writeup. My hope is that by reading this, you can get to the point where you can consistently catch halibut from the beach if you never fished for them before.
I'll state right now that I am not a halibut expert. I consider myself to be on the better part of decent. The title of expert or master belongs to several other guys who you will figure out by their reports, and the guys who figured out how to catch a lot of halibut from the sand in the first place. To name some of them (in alphabetical order), bones, Jerry G, Raymond from Fishing25, Sinjin Kim, and Wingnut. There are definitely others that aren't publicly visible, but I've never had the chance to talk/email with them. All of these guys listed have helped me (and many others) quite a bit, and deserve a lot of appreciation for teaching people to catch halibut from the surf! Thanks guys!
Back to the article!
Also known as Paralichthys californicus, halibut are one of the most pursued game fish by SoCal surf fishermen for a few reasons. Namely, they will readily strike artificial lures, grow relatively large, put up a good fight, and taste delicious!
The legal size is 22 inches, so anything shorter has to go back. Bring a measuring tape and you're good to go. Also, the concentration of halibut below legal size, aka pancakes or shorties, will be greater than that of legals in the surf. Don't be disappointed if you catch 20 shorts before you get your first legal! You are doing the right thing, so keep at it and the legal will show up soon. That being said, certain techniques will catch more legals than shorts by virtue, and this conveniently leads us to the gear and lure breakdown.
Halibut fishing can be divided into two main styles: Reaction bait fishing with jerkbaits, and finesse fishing with soft plastics. The gear for each along with technique follows:
Jerkbait rod: I currently use a 7'6" Phenix X-12 Crankbait rod because I personally like the extra casting distance and greater power it gives. I used to use a 7' X-10 and caught a lot of fish on it including my personal best 28.5in, so as long as you have a moderate or mod-fast rod to prevent the hooks from tearing out you're good to go. I chose Phenixs for the high quality at the price point, but there are a lot of choices if you move up or down in price. Just look at crankbait rods rated for 10lb-20lb or 8-17lb and 1/4oz-1oz.
Jerkbait Reel: Keep in mind you're looking for a slow and steady retrieve with your LC, and the 5:1 does that best. You can crank at a normal speed, and the lure will move at just the right pace. Round or low profile, your preference. Don't worry about raw power. Modern round and low profile reels from Daiwa, Abu Garcia, and Shimano are plenty powerful in any gear ratio. You might want to upgrade the drags on the older Daiwas to Carbontex, but that's about it. I use a Daiwa Luna, but go with a reel that fits your budget. 7:1 is an option too, but I don't see the point. I've used them and it's fun to have warp speed, but 5:1 makes it easier to maintain the correct speed.
Jerkbait Line: 12lb-14lb mono/fluoro or 50lb-65lb braid. Any name brand line is good. Fluoro/Mono/Braid have different applications, so figure out what you want. Braid makes the jerkbaits run shallower, no stretch, and great pulling power to muscle fish away from kelp and rocks, but is expensive initially. It lasts a long time though. Fluoro makes them run deeper and has little stretch, but can get really expensive since you have to replace it after a few trips. Mono stretches so the hooks probably won't pull out, and it's really cheap. Line visibility doesn't matter to halibut on the reaction baits, so that's why I didn't mention it. Most guys use mono or fluoro with good results. If I could afford it, I would always spool up with Seaguar Invis-X, but I generally go with Izorline XXX or P-Line CXX since I can cheaply change them often.
Reaction lures: The Lucky Craft Flash Minnow 110 (aka the LC) is by and large the most popular and IMO effective jerkbait out there. It has a great action when slow rolled, and comes in lots of colors for you tackle addicts. Most of the colors will catch fish, but it's always a smart idea to stick to ones that mimic baitfish. The gold standard was Metallic Sardine, but Zebra Sardine, American Shad, and Aurora Black are some good ones to pick up too. A few other hardbaits to experiment with if you don't want to drop the bills on the LCs are the Rapala XR-10 and Daiwa DB Minnows. All jerkbaits should be retrieved slow and steady. That is all. Simple, but very effective. Maybe throw in a twitch or speed up the retrieve once in a while too to see if the halibut want it like that. There are other jerkbaits you can use for more specialized techniques, but since this is an introduction I won't get into that.
Dropshotting brings you into a whole new world of stuff.
Dropshot/3in swimbait rod and reel: I use a Phenix 706M and Stradic 2500 and have never had any problems with them. Caught several legals with this setup, and the rod pulled them away from kelp and boiler rocks perfectly. No lack of power here. For generic specs, look at 7'-7'6 Medium power fast action dropshot rods rated 6-12lb and 1/8oz-1/2oz with a 2500 size spinning reel. Just make sure it has some backbone. 8lb fluorocarbon for your lure because this will make the dropshot lure swim a lot better. I've never used 10lb fluorocarbon to dropshot myself, but it's an option. Seaguar Invis-X or another mid range (ie $18-$20 a spool) fluorocarbon is what you want here. No Berkley Vanish!
Dropshot Lures: Stick with baitfish imitating plastics like Zoom Flukes or Super Flukes on a size 4, 2, or 2/0 straight shank hooks, and 2/0 or 4/0 offset wide gap hooks depending on how you rig it and the size of the bait. Berkley, Basstrix, and Bass Assassin make some good products too. Use the straight shank for threading the plastic on with the hook exposed, and the wide gaps if you are rigging it weedless. Conditions dictate which to use, but basically if there's a lot of junk in the water go weedless. Otherwise, thread the plastic on there with the hook exposed. Complete the rig with a 3/8oz dropshot weight set up just like you would for bass and you're set. The distance between the hook and weight depends on the conditions. If there's a lot of structure near the bottom (rocks/eelgrass) go with enough distance so the lure is suspending a little above that. If it's clear, 1ft-18in is fine. I try to never go longer than 2ft when I am fishing from shore unless I absolutely have to, but that's personal preference. Remember to experiment!
Other plastics work too, so try to see if you can find your own hot, new bait. Bounce it off the bottom and experiment with a fast or slow retrieve, letting it stay in one place for a little while, how much do you bounce it, how far, drag it for a while, and all around experiment to see what the fish want. For swimbaits, 3in Pearl or Big Hammers on a 1/4oz to 3/8oz lead head (big waves) with a slow wind on the bottom and occasional hop can knock them dead too.
The differences: As a basic rule of thumb, LCs will catch fewer but larger halibut than the dropshot rig. You do get tiny shorts attacking the LC or wide open LC bites, but those don't happen too often. Dropshotting is a lot more thorough, and halibut will bite the dropshot when they ignore the LC. This was demonstrated to me in early 2009 after I worked an area with an LC, and was about to move on when I saw something lying in the sand about 10yds away. I ran the LC by it a few times, and still nothing. I moved a closer and saw about a 3ft halibut lying there. It definitely didn't want my LC, but I tossed the dropshot rig in front of it and got a bite instantly! The line broke a minute later (I cranked down the drag), but it illustrates that you can miss big fish if you don't work an area with both techniques. A good way to work an area is to use the LC to pick off aggressive fish, and then dropshot the same area to find the rest of them. You can also just toss the LC, but realize that that can lead to the skunk.
Basically, go with what you like, but change it up if it's not working.
Halibut Weather: You can catch halibut when the weather is downright freezing in the middle of December, and when it's an beautiful beach day in August. Halibut will be in the shallow surf environment if the water is warm enough (high fifties to mid sixties seems to be good), there are baitfish present for them to feed on, if the waves are low enough for them to feed comfortably, and if there is structure for them to ambush prey from.
While the mentality of go fishing when you can is the one I follow most often, when I have the luxury of a number of days to fish on I'll choose the warmest. This is really about my comfort, but I've noticed that halibut like warmer weather when they come in shallow. A warming trend during the week can trigger halibut to feed shallow when they otherwise would be out deeper. Look for warming trends and you should be good to go. If you can't pick and choose when to fish, hit the beach anyways! You might be rewarded with a killer bite.
An interesting trend to note is that the while the quantity of halibut is lower in the winter months, the quality is much higher. You may only get 2 or 3 fish, but they will probably be legals while compared to the summer you could catch 10 or more fish in a day and they will probably be shorts.
Tides: Some spots are best at hightide and others are best at lowtide. Really. There is no "best" tide to fish for halibut because it all depends on where you are. This all goes back to experimenting (noticing a trend here?) to find what conditions are best for the particular spot you want to fish.
Other Natural Occurences: Under this umbrella fall two phenomenons that make halibut fishermen very happy: Grunion runs and the spawn. While grunion have an interesting history in their own right, all you as a halibut fisherman has to know about them is that a grunion run means hundreds of silver baitfish suddenly come to beach themselves at certain times of the year. Needless to say, halibut really like grunion, and it's usually a smart bet that a grunion run will bring very good surf fishing as halibut stack up in the shallows to feed. Opinions are split as to what's the best time to fish a grunion run (before/after/during). I'm personally an after kind of angler, but my friends that have fished during have racked up some impressive fish. Pick what works best for you, but be sure to fish around the time of grunion runs!
I mention the spawn because that's the traditional start of surf halibut season. Halibut spawn sometime in the spring (March/April), and the only time to know is to get out and fish. Halibut will start showing up in greater numbers in the shallows, and correspondingly you'll notice that you'll be catching more fish than you did in the winter months. Big fish come in shallow in greater numbers than usual to spawn, so be aware that you may catch or see some very large fish during this time.
Please let them go if you are fortunate enough to catch one!
Finding halibut: Find sandy areas with low waves, fan cast to structure, and you should feel that halibut headshake before long. Structure could be a rip current, a trough, a bowl, a kelp bed, boiler rocks, a jetty, or anything that alters the underwater landscape and creates ambush points for halibut. If you see bait boiling, cast to it! That screams predator fish. Birds are also a good indicator. How do you find these areas? Time on the beach. Walk your local beaches, and try to pin down a few areas that look like this. Don't be afraid to drive and walk a lot! Scouting areas at a minus tide is a good bet too if you want to see what the structure in the area looks like.
"But... what if I don't want to put in that effort" you might be saying to yourself? Well, you definitely aren't going to find your own honey hole loaded with fat legals that way, but if you feel like going somewhere that almost always holds halibut try the Long Beach area. It's really pressured, but it's ideal halibut habitat (sandy and low waves). The beach around the 72nd street jetty is where a lot of guys have caught their first halibut (me included), and you'll likely see other halibut hunters working the beach. It's a great place to learn and experiment with new techniques, so it's not a bad first spot. Once you get comfortable, you can move on to finding your own spots. You can catch halibut from shore from Santa Barbara county down to SD county, so go get them!
The Hookset: As soon as you feel a hit, set the hook HARD. Halibut have really tough mouths, so slam those hooks home. After the initial set though, don't use a lot of rod pumps like you would use on tuna. In case you didn't get a good set, short rod pumps will rip the hooks right out. This is more of a problem with the LC where you sometimes hook the fish outside the mouth on the head, or just get one treble hook in the jaw bone. With the dropshot and swimbait, you usually get a good lip hook. Just reel in quick and keep reeling until the fish takes drag, and lift up slowly and smoothly if the fish seems like it's stuck. Shorts you can bring to the beach in no time by just winding like crazy after you get bit.
Landing Halibut: Just pull small fish up onto the beach. With larger fish though, this can get tricky. If you think the fish is a legal, then you have two choices. The first is to beach the fish in time with the waves. Wait for a wave to come in, and back up the beach to pull the halibut up with the wave. Then rush down when it's stranded and lip grip it or tail grab it (they are slippery). The second option is if the fish is very large or not hooked well. Sometimes really big halibut just refuse to come in, or the fish only has one treble in it's mouth and it could toss the lure with a headshake when it's beached. Take your lip gripper, wade out to the halibut's approximate area, pull the fish under the water toward you by reeling or using your rod, and lip grip it. Make sure you have the strap around your hand, or else when the fish thrashes you could lose the tool and the fish! Then wade back to shore.
I caught one so now what: Tape it! Close the halibut's mouth, measure from the closed mouth to the end of the tail, make sure the tape is perfectly flat and visible, and snap a picture. If it's short, it goes back now. If it's 22in or bigger, you got yourself a legal! Use your pliers to avoid getting hooks in your hand when you free your lure. Halibut love shaking their heads and flopping when they are beached (thus spraying sand everywhere), and having LC hooks in your hand hurts a lot. Trust me. Use your pliers and lip gripping tool, and you should be fine. Avoid keeping tension on the line so the LC doesn't become a hooked missile if the halibut does a headshake and unhooks itself.
While I follow the SWAT code and mainly CPR my legals (read reports in the Surf Fishing forum if you don't know what SWAT is!), you have to decide if you want to keep it or let it go. I recommend always releasing your personal best halibut (ie if you've only caught 20in fish and you get a 25in let it go). I've kept a few 22in-24in fish for dinner, so feel free to. The reason I stick with that slot is the larger fish are big breeding females, and to preserve the resource you want to let those go.
Handling the fish:
Lipping the halibut with your lip gripping tool is the best way to go, but the other good way to hold it is by the tail like my friend Big Steve here is doing. If its a bigger fish, hold it by the tail and use your other hand to support the body. The other main thing is to,
NEVER STICK YOUR HANDS IN THE GILLS OR GILL PLATE!
That seriously injures the fish because you are touching its gills (ie its lungs), and there is no good reason to do that to a fish you plan to release. Also, if you bring a net, don't bring the knotted nylon variety. This will destroy the fishes tail and allow an infection called tail rot to set in. That basically kills the fish, so don't do it. The halibut will thank you, and may just come back as a legal or your personal best later on.
Other Important Info:
Clean your reels after every trip. This means a complete tear down if they got wet or sand on them at all. Re-grease and Re-Oil EVERYTHING to keep it in top working order. At a minimum rinse your reels off in freshwater.
Scent your lures. It might make a difference. Uni Butter, Smelly Jelly, and Pro Cure are all good.
Buy a high quality lipping tool!
Halibut have very sharp teeth, and you do not want to stick your hand in there to grab the fish. Tools like the Lipper 26 or Boga Grip will allow you to safely handle any size halibut. Pliers are a must to remove hooks so your fingers don't get anywhere near the halibut teeth.
Carrying your gear: Also, you might be wondering how you carry your extra rod. The easiest is to buy a 3rd Grip Pole Holster. A 3rd Grip straps onto your leg and keeps your rod out of the way as you cast and fish.
Going along with carrying the rod, you can easily carry the rest of your gear with a small backpack or chest pack. A fishing vest works too, but I'm not really a fan of those. I think the basic backpack is more convenient. You can also stick your extra rod in your backpack for easy transport if you don't want a 3rd Grip.
A water proof Plano or Pelican case will keep your cell phone, camera, and wallet safe. Waterproof cameras are pretty affordable, so if you have the cash you might want to buy one.
More Useful Items:
Polarized sunglasses help a lot with spotting structure and fish, so bring yours. If not, buy a pair. They are worth it because of how they cut glare and let you see under the water. Even though it looks kind of lame, one of those straps that you put on your glasses to stop them from falling off is a good idea. I lost a pair of polarized prescription aviators this summer, so I bought one of the floating straps right after. It's already done its job. Definitely worth $10.
Don't wade out if it's dangerous (once waves start getting taller than you it's a good time to stop). Know your surroundings, like the location of underwater boilers that you can trip on. Have an escape route for when a rogue wave shows up. Know when to rush a wave and bounce over it, and know when retreat (ie RUN TO SHORE) is a perfectly valid option.
Check the water quality online at the beach you plan to fish. Most beaches have high bacteria levels after it rains (wait a week for it to clear up) or if they are near a river mouth. Don't risk an infection!
If you wear waders have a VERY sharp knife immediately accessible in case you get rolled by a wave or caught in a riptide, your waders fill up, and you need to cut them off to avoid drowning. God willing it never happens, but be prepared for it.
This argues for having friends with you at all times too, but that's not always possible. When you are by yourself and fishing remote areas, be especially careful and remember that help is not close by.
Always keep your personal safety in mind!
To use waders or not: You see a lot of guys in waders, and they do keep you warm and dry for the most part. I prefer wetsuits since I usually end up getting soaked (I like to wade out really far), and you don't have to worry about the wetsuit filling up with water. You get some weird looks walking around the beach in a wetsuit holding a fishing rod, but you're fishing so who cares! Waders do keep you dry if you don't wade out far in high surf... so for the vast majority of surf fisherman they are a good choice.
Since I don't wear waders, I can't offer too much personal experience into what to look for, but the rest of the SWAT guys (except for JerryG! Go boardshorts!) generally favor breathable, stocking foot waders (Hodgman and Simms). Reinforced knees are good if you can find them.
Also keep in mind your personal cold tolerance. I can comfortably run around in boardshorts with either a wetsuit jacket or rashguard from February to November. December and January see me wear a springsuit with wetsuit jacket on top.
Choose what is most comfortable for you.
Footwear: I cannot stress this one enough. If you have boot foot waders, then you already have your shoes. If you have stocking foots, then wear booties (dive booties or surf booties) over them and you're set. For everybody else, you're in the same boat I am. I still am looking for the perfect pair of surf/wading shoes to do this, and will let you know when I find them. The best ones so far are the Simms sandals (most grippy on rocks) and the cheap surf shoes you find at Target (don't rub feet raw). I have thrashed my feet enough times to know. They're the bottom two pairs in the picture.
You may be wondering why I am not saying barefoot, and that's because there's too much stuff out there. Sting rays, broken glass, needles, and really sharp rocks are all over our beaches. Good footwear will protect you. You can go barefoot on some beaches, but footwear is generally a good idea.
I sincerely hope that this has helped you learn more about catching halibut from the beach. It's my favorite form of surf fishing, and I like sharing what I've learned with others. Feel free to PM me if you have any questions, and please comment on this article with suggestions or your own experiences.
Post up some reports with your halibut catches from the beach! That's why you brought the camera!
Marc aka bsp
Last edited by Wingnut; 11-30-2012 at 07:08 PM.
Reason: Editing title.
Added a some more info! I'll get pix up soon.
Just an interesting fact. I saved this as a word document, and it took up 6 full pages and a little bit. Wonder how long it will be when I add pix.
Last edited by bsp; 12-28-2009 at 09:31 PM.
Thanks for the guide. I could sure use this!
Excellent write up Marc... you have learned well.
The Force is strong in you...
FB, glad it helped!
Arthur, coming from you those words mean a lot. Thank you for helping me reach the point where I could write this article.
Also, as I was adding a few things (organized better+few more sections), I found that FNN's post count limit is 20,000 characters. Didn't know this would be so long. I'll see tomorrow if it lets me add pictures.
Last edited by bsp; 12-28-2009 at 09:32 PM.
The bit about your waders filling up with water and drowning is incorrect if you don't mind me saying. It is a myth. Your waders will fill up with water and then you will just be neutrally buoyant, because the water in the waders and outside is the same weight. It will just be hard for you to walk around out of the water because it will be really heavy after, but you won't be dragged under or anything.
Did you just add that about the waders? I don't remember reading it before, but I read it now.
Just want to clear something up...
"Then rush down when it's stranded and lip it or tail grab it (they are slippery)."
When he says "lip it" I'm assuming he means using a lip grip tool. DON'T stick your fingers in its mouth if it's a bigger halibut. I'd say with anything over 16" you're asking for trouble. I tried to lip a legal sized halibut with my hand once, and right after I grabbed it, I noticed a bunch of sharp pointy white teeth. As soon as I noticed those, it clamped down onto my thumb and after I got it off (which took about 10 seconds) I was bleeding for about 30 minutes. Halibut have VERY powerful jaws.
You are correct about being neutral, but you want to be buoyant. When you get rolled by a rogue set and you suddenly find yourself underwater in about 8' and keep getting knocked around, or if you trip on a large rock and get slapped by wave thus falling, neutral buoyancy is very bad. It means you have to exert much more energy to stay afloat. Also, if you get knocked down and get pulled by a riptide, you don't want to be swimming with waders. Cutting your waders free and becoming positively buoyant increases your chances of survival.
Originally Posted by Fire Ball
The risk isn't a major one if you have neoprene waders because they are buoyant, and it's unlikely the waders will get filled up with well fitting waders and a waist belt. Still, you really don't want to underestimate the risk. People have drowned in all the situations I described above without waders, and I bet more would if they didn't have slight positive buoyancy helping them out.
I added that in there because I personally believe a lot of guys don't have as much respect for the ocean as they should. A little warning informs them, and if they are aware of the risk they can deal with it in the rare even it happens.
Thanks for the comment though! Like I said, I do appreciate any and all feedback.
gavin, I'll clarify that and add grip. I use lip grip everywhere else, so I don't know why I forgot there. After seeing what about a 30in halibut did to Wingnut's hand, I wouldn't forget about their teeth . Thank you for finding that potentially harmful typo!
Last edited by bsp; 12-28-2009 at 10:49 PM.
Yes, swimming against a current with waders is bad. The water in the waders is neutrally buoyant, but you are still positively buoyant, because you are wearing the wader, right? It is just like having normal water around you. I don't know about other waders, but mine just have velcro straps so they are easy to take off. Probably easier than cutting! Good guide nonetheless, but I don't recommend the knife.
Originally Posted by bsp