BAIT RIGS FOR HALIBUT
By Terry Rudnick
Until a few years ago, whenever anyone asked me to pick an all-around
favorite halibut-fishing technique, I would quickly respond that
I like bouncing metal jigs along the bottom. Well, as I've gotten
older and body parts have started breaking down more often, I've
become much less a jigger and much more commonly a bait fisherman.
In fact, I don't think I've caught a halibut from Washington waters
on a metal jig in the past three or four years, maybe longer.
Let's face it, fishing halibut with bait is not only easier,
but often more effective than jigging, especially if you're fishing
the deeper waters where the largest concentrations of fish are
usually found along this section of the Pacific coast. But contrary
to what some anglers seem to think, catching halibut on bait-at
least, doing it consistently down here where big flatties aren't
littering the ocean bottom-is more than just threading a hunk
of meat onto a hook and lobbing it over the side. Fish the right
bait, the right way, at the right time, though, and you'll catch
more than your share of these trophy bottomfish.
Pacific halibut get their protein from a wide variety of sources.
Depending on location, time of year and size of the fish, their
menu includes shrimp, most species of crab, squid, octopus, flounder,
sole, sculpin, greenling, tomcod, Pacific cod, pollock, rockfish,
herring, anchovy, sand lance, salmon and smaller halibut, and
it's probably safe to guess that all of these have been used successfully
as halibut bait at one time or another. But some of the aforementioned
critters, or parts thereof, make better baits than others, and
some are certainly easier to get and/or easier to fish than the
So, let's look at some of the baits that catch halibut and how
they can be rigged and fished most effectively.
First, there are several ways to fish bait for halibut, no matter
what the bait might be. I usually fish it on a wire spreader,
because a spreader, at least for me, does the best job of keeping
the bait from tangling in my main line. There are other popular
rigs, such as the slider/parachute cord setup, but I get fewer
hang-ups with spreaders, so I stick with them. The key is to keep
the leader short; the nose of my bait is usually no more than
about 15 inches from the swivel on the long arm of the spreader.
I also use a foot-long dropper of 25- or 30-pound mono or light
wire between my sinker and the spreader, so that if I do hang
up, I usually lose only the cannon ball, not the entire rig.
anglers catch a lot of halibut on herring, not necessarily because
herring make great bait or because herring comprise the bulk of
your average halibut's diet, but because herring are readily available
and they're what most halibut anglers put on their hooks when
they go halibut fishing.
The most important thing to remember if you fish herring is that,
as fish bait goes, they're quite soft and delicate, so keeping
them on the hook is the biggest challenge. The deeper you fish
and the heavier tackle you need to fish those depths, the more
of a problem this presents, because soft baits that keep falling
off the hook result in a lot of wasted fishing time as you raise
and lower your gear to check your bait or unknowingly fish bare
hooks. Fresh herring are tougher and stay on the hook better than
the frozen stuff, so go that route whenever possible. If all you
can get are frozen herring, soak them in strong salt brine at
least 12 hours to toughen them up before fishing.
Use the biggest herring you can find-at least nine inches-because
they're going to show up better than the small stuff and even
a little 10-pound chicken halibut will have no problem inhaling
a bait that size.
Most halibut angler's fish their herring whole, and the majority
use a two-hook rig similar to what we often use for salmon. I
find it easier, though, to use a single hook with herring baits.
My favorite halibut hook is an Owner SSW Cutting Point in either
9/0 or 10/0, and I rig it by inserting it into the center of the
slit beneath the lower jaw and running it up through the snout,
looping around and running it through the same hole a second time,
then pulling enough leader through the snout to insert the hook
into the side of the bait midway between the dorsal fin and the
tail. Once the hook is seated, gently tighten the two loops of
leader at the front of the bait and it's ready to fish.
When I can find fish that are larger and/or tougher than herring,
I'll use them for halibut bait, too. The best choices are tomcod,
small pollock, sole, flounder, small greenling and large shiner
perch, but I've used a number of other species when the pickin's
were slim. If the baitfish is under about 10 inches, I'll rig
it exactly as I would a herring, using the single hook. With larger
baits, I'll usually go to the tandem-hook rig, and tie the leader
on the spot so that I can match the distance between the hooks
to the length of the bait. The front hook goes in just back of
the tip of the lower jaw and out through the snout; the trailing
hook in and out of the skin on the side of the bait, just ahead
of the tail. I'll use my 10/0 SSW hooks with baits up to about
12 inches, but will go larger with bigger baits, up to size 16/0.
Before I forget to mention it, I use J-hooks for all my halibut
fishing, no circle hooks. Circle hooks are fine if you have the
patience to let them work the way they're supposed to, but I'm
a hook-setter, so circle hooks aren't for me. Most of the people
I've seen using circle hooks also seem to be hook-setters, and
should be using J-hooks, but the more fish they fail to hook the
better the fishing for the rest of us, so it's fine by me.
If I'm not fishing whole fish for halibut bait, I'm usually using
salmon bellies. A nine- to 12-inch belly strip from a Coho is
my favorite, and, like whole baitfish, I'll use a single hook
with smaller strips and tandem hooks with larger ones. If I'm
single-hooking a belly strip, I'll cut a small hole near the front
end and loop the hook through twice, as I would with a whole herring,
then pull the hook back and seat it in the skin side of the strip
about two-thirds of the way back.
Another way to use a strip of salmon belly is as a teaser a couple
of feet above the main bait or even above a leadhead or metal
jig. The teaser is a short length of heavy mono-I like 60-pound
Berkley Big Game-with a single 7/0 to 9/0 hook at the end of it,
tied to the in-line swivel connecting my braid to a heavy shock
leader. Sometimes I'll hang a six-inch plastic grub on the teaser
hook, but it's also a good place for a five- to six-inch strip
of salmon belly. I always save two or three dozen pink salmon
bellies for this purpose every odd-numbered year.
Squid also can be an effective halibut bait. They can be fished
several ways, but I either hook them fore and aft with a pair
of 8/0 or 9/0 SSW's and run them behind a spreader or run the
hook of a leadhead jig through them from tip to tentacles and
bounce them along the bottom like a plastic grub. If you fish
squid on a leadhead, use a zip-tie or two to secure the bait high
on the shank of the hook.
Earlier I mentioned several other critters upon which halibut
feed, including octopus, crab and shrimp, and although I've caught
halibut with these three items in their stomachs, I've never caught
a halibut using any of the three. Last year I pulled a 16-inch
length of octopus tentacle from the throat of a 20-pound halibut
I'd just boated, but later fished it until it pretty much disintegrated
without even a tap. As for crab, I haven't yet figured out a way
to rig them so that they didn't tangle and roll up in the leader.
And shrimp, well, they're just too good on the table to use as
Although halibut are often opportunistic feeders that take what
happens by within striking distance, I think you increase your
odds of coaxing them into action if you offer them a bait that
represents something they're already munching on regularly. The
higher percentage of their diet that particular item comprises,
the more important it might be to match it. In other words, if
sand lance is the entree de jour, as it probably would be early
in the spring somewhere like Middle or Hein Bank, you might want
to be fishing sand lance, anchovy or small herring there. I also
think that the more plentiful the food supply, the more important
it could be to match it, although you may not be able to determine
that while you're fishing. One way to at least get an idea is
to check stomach contents of every fish you catch.
One last word on bait: take good care of it. Halibut have pretty
impressive appetites and at times will inhale most anything that
looks like it might make a decent meal, but yellow, freezer-burnt
herring or brown, mushy salmon bellies won't appeal to them as
well as fresh bait will. Halibut use their noses as well as their
other senses to find food, so offer them something that smells
the way it should. Fresh bait is always the best bait, and every
bite of halibut bait that goes into my freezer is first vacuum-sealed.