For 1998 (the most recently available data), Fisheries and Oceans Canada estimates that the sport catch reached nearly 840,000 pounds, which equates to more than 40,000 halibut for lucky anglers.
The explosion of success originates from a couple of factors. For one, more anglers have turned to targeting the immense slabs of the deep, and also, there are 62,000,000 pounds of halibut in B.C. waters. The huge 1987 cohort year supports a strong fishery for 'chickens' in the 25-pound range. Cohort is a term that refers to a "class" of fish, or a year's spawn, and 1987 was a bumper crop.
Halibut, of course, can grow much larger. Reaching a dressed weight of over 475 pounds for an adult female and an average 123 pounds for a male, halibut lay claim to being the largest saltwater sport species in the province. The larger females may carry upwards of 4,000,000 eggs, a huge number compared with the average salmon - 3,500 for a chunky coho.
Halibut inhabit a vast crescent of the Pacific from Japan northward to the Bering Sea and then south along the North American coast all the way to California. Add to this that halibut can withstand dramatic variations in water pressure, happily gliding blackened bottoms a mile deep, and one can easily comprehend how extensive an area their habitat covers.
Adult halibut migrate remarkable distances (up to 1,500 miles), arriving in onshore areas between May and September, although some reside in inland waters twelve months of the year.
The migratory and territorial natures of halibut combine with huge girths to produce a prime fishing target and the behavioral keys to catching them. Halibut concentrate on relatively small, well-defined banks accessible to well-equipped fishermen. Fast currents and rocky spires do not attract these fish.
Once ensconced on a rock pile or gravel bed they sort themselves by size, and, when one is lured from the depths, another will take its place. Accordingly, where you catch a halibut once, you will catch another. Often bigger fish locate at specific GPS marks. Hit "way point" twice at the time of a hookup to mark your location in this "by-satellite" fishery.
But let's get one thing clear. Halibut fishing is not for the under prepared. Fishing takes place in the open Pacific, and it's too dangerous a place to sally forth without a full range of electronics. This includes a depth sounder, two compasses, a VHF
, radar (for spotting those pesky freighters in the fog), GPS
(preferably one with a computer chip that shows your location in relation to shore), and a cellphone. Needless to say, load your transom with a reliable kicker.
Fishing the Halibut Hotspots
With so many of the "flatties" available, two methods of fishing have evolved over the years: spreader bars and bait and lead jigs with fluttery, rubbery, octopus skirts. In either case a stout 6' Penn Power fishing stick
and a saltwater Penn levelwind reel
with 900' capacity of 60- to 80-pound Spiderwire®
are a necessity.
Braided line is stronger and has a lower drag coefficient than comparable monofilament lines, the coefficient of the latter often preventing it from reaching the bottom. Spiderwire also has the advantage of zero stretch for strong hook setting.
Spreader bars (made of coat hanger wire), as the name implies, separate a 1 - 2 pound lead canonball from two feet of 60- to 80-pound monofilament, on the end of which is a 9/0 single Siwash hook or a circular hook as large as, yes, 16/0. The purpose of this set up is to separate the herring-baited hook from the mainline so it does not become tangled on its free fall to the bottom.
Lead jig fishing is the easier of the two methods. These 'lures' come with chromed weights of one to two pounds. On the top, an octopus sized six-inch hootchy skirt in white, green, yellow, purple, orange or black - combined with glow-in-the-dark elements (use a flashlight to charge the hootchies) - provide a visual cue of potential tastiness.
Most halibut fishing takes place in water 200 - 300' deep. At these depths, the bottom is dark. So the last element, that of scent, is vital to success. Fish attractant dolloped on your hootchy octopus or bait will double your catch. Halibut nasal capabilities are legendary. They will attack a canon ball with scent on it in preference to a piece of fresh bait three feet away.
With your rig at water level, flip the drag lever and let it rocket to the bottom in a complete free fall. When it hits, reel in five feet and jig slowly up and down with the hootchy octopus, or put the spreader bar rig in a rod holder.
The boat operator determines from his GPS and tide guide which way the tide is moving and puts the boat on the 'upstream' side of the previously established way point, thus drifting the boat across known fish producing structure. On the West Coast, if the tide is more than 2 knots or the line descends at an angle of less than 75 degrees , the boat is put in reverse to keep the lure on the bottom. Line drag is so important in these deep fisheries that it must be eliminated or you will not reach the halibut zone.
While the average halibut is 25 - 50 pounds, 100 pounders are not uncommon. Brace your feet at the moment of fish impact to prevent being pulled from the boat as the 'galloping' run of the halibut sings line out the guides. Be sure to keep your fingers off the line or they might get cut. Once the halibut has ingested your offering, a pump and reel battle ensues that every fisher of large bottom denizens knows well. This is a fight where the eyeballs grow red, the forehead becomes scrunched with veins and stalwart arms turn to spaghetti.
There is no respite from this battle. Do not rest by putting your rod tip on the gunwales; the rod will not flex enough and the hooks will rip free. Struggle with the beast until it hits the surface. Now the real work begins. Everyone who has fished halibut knows a tale or two about boats being ripped apart by a thrashing fish. Any fish up to 40 pounds should be gaffed in one smooth movement up and over the gunwale and down into the fish box. Sluice the pitching deck after each fish or you may not enjoy your unscheduled swim in the frigid, 40 - 50 degree Farenheit, Pacific Ocean.
With fish over 50 pounds (a daily occurrence) harpoon directly through the gill plate. The harpoon is attached to 50 feet of line and a pink Scotchman buoy which is tossed overboard and followed. Once the fish is subdued, then it's a hand-over-hand haul for all aboard until the fish is by the boat. Where allowed, shoot the halibut in the head with a shotgun or pistol. Alternatively, any fish over 100 pounds, should be hog-tied through the gills and a loop tied around the tail. Do not lift a 200-pound fish into the boat until it is dead. Legs and gear can get snapped in halibut death throes.
And just how good is BC halibut fishing? Well, I've been out on Swiftsure and La Perouse Banks out of Bamfield where two boats landed 36 halibut in two mornings, the largest being 83 pounds. I have landed halibut over 100 pounds and been on hand to help subdue a 250-pound hallie. So they're out there. In big numbers and big bulk.
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