Another halibut season is upon us, and it's a safe bet that dozens-perhaps
hundreds-of hefty flatties will be lost at the boat during the
next few months by anglers who weren't as prepared for halibut-fishing
success as they thought they were. The Pacific halibut may not
be the smartest fish in the sea, but it's one of the strongest
and toughest in this part of the country, and if you don't have
a battle plan for landing one or the equipment to carry out that
plan, this fish may just beat you up and leave you wondering who
really is the stupid one.
Let's face it, anglers down here in Washington, Oregon and northern
California may not get all that many chances to hook a halibut
during the course of our relatively short seasons, so when it
happens, why blow it? If you go to the trouble to put yourself
in the right place at the right time, with the right bait or lure,
to hook one of these sweet-eating trophies, you damn well better
be ready to show it who's boss when you get it to the surface
or all your previous efforts will be for naught. The bigger the
halibut, the more important it is to be prepared, but even a little
15-pounder can kick your butt if you don't know what to do when
you get it to the side of the boat.
One of the best things you can do to put most of the halibut
you hook into the boat is to choose your fishing buddies wisely
and never go halibut fishing without them. Murphy's Law dictates
that the one time you go fishing alone will be the day that you
hook the biggest, meanest halibut you've ever encountered, and
you won't have a chance, so don't ever fish alone. Unless you're
a really experienced halibut fisherman-or really lucky-the odds
are against you when you're going one-on-one with a 40- or 50-pound
hali that's in a foul mood because it's choking on a leadhead
jig and being yarded from its comfortable home in the depths up
into the glaring light of day. You want to have at least one other
person in your corner under those conditions.
Everyone in the boat needs to remember that, once a halibut is
hooked, they're a team, and they all need to be on the same wavelength.
When one guy hooks a fish, the others reel in as quickly as possible
and get ready to carry out whatever their role might be in the
events that are about to unfold. People who insist on continuing
to fish while you play your halibut could well cost you your fish,
either by tangling their lines with yours or by not being ready
to help out when their help is needed. Lots of things can go wrong
as a halibut comes to the surface, even if everyone's doing what
they should, so you really don't need some selfish jackass in
the boat who's going to add to the potential problems.
The best method of getting a halibut in the boat depends on a
number of variables, including the size and strength of the fish,
size and strength of the boat, size and strength of the people
aboard the boat, size and strength of the tackle being used, available
halibut-landing equipment, where and how well the fish is hooked
and the crew's experience at landing halibut.
Of all these variables, the only two that are really beyond your
control are the size and toughness of the fish at the end of your
line and how well it's hooked when it gets to the surface, and
the fact that they're beyond your control makes them the most
important in determining how you go about trying to land the fish.
That is to say, you have more options when it comes to latching
onto and controlling a smaller halibut, and there's a lot less
urgency in how and how quickly you do it if it's obvious that
the fish is well-hooked on tackle that's up to the challenge.
So let's start with the little guys. Chicken-size halibut of,
say, 20 pounds and under can be scooped out of the water in most
situations with a decent-size salmon net. As with salmon, lead
them into the net head-first and close the bag around them quickly
by pointing the net handle toward the sky. You have to be especially
careful with a net if you're using a spreader bar or teaser hook
above your main rig, because either of these may become entangled
in the mesh before the halibut is fully in the net, and that,
of course, can result in a lost fish. The only other potential
problem with netting a halibut is that a flopping, twisting halibut
and its sharp teeth may become so entangled in the net's mesh
that it takes five minutes to remove the fish from the net once
it's landed. Oh yes, and a halibut will also slime-up your net
pretty good, so be sure to rinse it thoroughly as soon as you're
done landing your fish.
A gaff is my weapon of choice for "mid-size" halibut of 20 to
50 pounds, and thousands of other Northwest halibut anglers seem
to share that preference. Choose your gaff wisely, though, and
learn how to use it right or you'll lose a lot more halibut than
you should with this highly effective piece of equipment.
The first thing you need to know about halibut gaffs is that
the category DOES NOT include hay hooks and those little straight-point
models with the 18-inch wooden handles. Both are designed to be
wielded with only one hand, and there's really no way to grip
them effectively with both hands, which means that if you are
lucky (or unlucky) enough to stick the point into a 40- or 50-pound
flattie, you can't control it when it starts to thrash and twist,
let alone lift it into the boat if and when the thrashing and
twisting subsides. And should you stick one of these undersize
gaffs into a larger fish, there's almost no chance the outcome
is going to be what you want it to be. Lots of halibut are mortally
wounded and lost by anglers using gaffs that are too small, and
relatively few are successfully boated.
You need a gaff with a handle of at least three feet to accommodate
two-hand use, and I prefer the traditional "hook" type gaff over
the straight-point models by a wide margin. Halibut have a tendency
to twist off the straight points, but if you keep some lift with
the hook-style gaff they tend to stay stuck. My halibut gaff is
an Aftco Taper-tip aluminum model with a four-foot handle and
three-inch hook throat (gap), and it's as strong and dependable
now as it was when I got it more than 20 years ago. I won't hesitate
to use it on halibut up to 60 pounds, and it has put dozens (maybe
hundreds) of good fish in the boat without ever failing me, even
though a few times I've hurried my "shot" and didn't stick the
point exactly where I should have.
Which brings us to the how-to part of gaffing a halibut. The
most important thing to remember is that you don't just haul off
and start swinging the gaff at your fish. That may be the best
way to knock one off the line but it's not the best way to put
fresh halibut in the fish box. I like to lay the hook across the
fish's back and sink the point home with a quick upward pull.
Some people let the fish do its thing for a few seconds before
bringing it aboard or trying to subdue it over the water, but
my approach is to get it headed into the boat as soon as I sink
the gaff. With smaller fish the sticking and the boating can be
done in one motion, but the bigger ones may require a second effort.
My philosophy is that the longer a halibut is in the water, the
more opportunity it has to twist or tear off the gaff and disappear.
Unlike some halibut anglers, I don't gaff a halibut in the head.
If you go for a head shot and miss, you might knock a fish off
the hook or break the line. What's more, a halibut can use the
full length of its body for leverage when it's gaffed too close
to one end or the other, so you eliminate some of its strength
when you gaff it closer to the center of its body. I try to sink
the point a few inches behind the back of the gill cover, something
like one-third of the way back from the tip of the nose. I shoot
for the back side, not the belly side, because there's a lot more
flesh to hold the gaff. Sure, you put a small slice through prime
fillet, but that's much better than hooking into the thin belly
wall and watching your halibut twist and tear off the gaff half-way
between the water and the gunwale.
Some people use a flying gaff for halibut, but if I'm going to
have a good-size fish at the end of a tether, I'd rather have
a harpoon head at the end of that tether than a gaff hook. If
you allow the rope to go slack with a flying gaff, a halibut could
shake the hook, but there's no chance of that with a harpoon line
running through its body.
Harpooning is the preferred landing method for larger halibut,
because it lets you get a line on the fish without having to try
to gain immediate control and slug it out nose-to-nose with a
ticked-off fish that may be as big as your are! A properly rigged
harpoon will quickly do the job of tiring a halibut without much
danger of bodily harm to the angler and crew.
As with gaffing, I don't like to harpoon a halibut in the head
for fear of hitting the line or jarring the hook loose. I go for
the body, preferably a few inches behind the head, and I try to
come close to the halibut's lateral line without hitting it. If
you nail the lateral line straight-on you're also going to hit
the spine, and with a large fish that spine is tick enough to
prevent the harpoon head from going all the way through the body.
That's bad, because you need the head to go all the way through
the fish so that it toggles open and doesn't pull back out through
the entry hole. If you're going to harpoon a halibut, rear back
and do it with authority to be sure the point goes completely
through, or risk killing and losing a trophy fish.
Whether your harpoon head is the long, thin type made of stainless
steel or the traditional spearhead type made of brass, it will
have a short length of stainless, braded wire attached to it,
and you should have at least 12 feet of three-eighths to half-inch
nylon line tied to the end of the wire. Some people tie or braid
a loop into the end of the line and either hang on to it after
harpooning a halibut or tie it off to a boat cleat, but I recommend
against both of those strategies. Being at one end of a rope with
a big, angry halibut at the other end can get you hurt, wet or
both, and if you tie off to the boat there's no give when a surging
fish reaches the end of the tether. Lines break, cleats get pulled
out, and fish break loose to die slowly, so I advise against that
Instead, tie a large, inflatable buoy to the end of your harpoon
line and let the fish run with it after you plunge the harpoon
home. The buoy may disappear for a few seconds, but towing it
around will quickly tire the fish, and you can then use the harpoon
line to retrieve it and start getting it under control. I use
the size A-2 (15.5-inch diameter) Polyform buoy for this kind
of work, but if you're targeting big fish, especially in Alaska,
you might go up a size to the A-3 (18.5-inch diameter).
Once they have control of a halibut with the harpoon line, many
anglers will cut or tear a gill arch or make a cut in the soft
tissue behind the gill cover to bleed out their halibut while
it's still in the water. You should, of course, bleed any halibut
you're going to keep, and doing it while the fish is still in
the water makes for a much cleaner boat and begins sapping the
fish's strength before you have to deal with it on deck.
Shooting is an option if you want to dispatch a really large
halibut before you bring it into the boat, but you want to be
sure to make your shot count. A halibut's brain is located just
behind the dorsal-side (left) eye, and that's where you want to
place the shot. If you hit close to the brain you'll probably
stun the fish, which might be enough, but if you hit the brain
most halibut will die instantly. Be ready to get a gaff into your
fish or get a line around its tail immediately, because it's likely
to sink soon after being shot.
If you net, gaff or harpoon a halibut and bring it onboard while
it's still strong and lively, as I usually do, it's essential
that you get control of it immediately. I like to keep a gaffed
halibut on the hook while one of my fishing partners gives it
a hickory shampoo with one solid rap behind the eyes. I want to
stun it but not kill it, because the next step is make a deep
cut into the tissue right behind a gill cover to get it bleeding.
If the fish is cooperating we make a second cut just above the
tail, all the way through the spine, to both immobilize it somewhat
and help it bleed out even more thoroughly. Smaller halibut will
then go into the fish box to bleed out and die, but larger ones
will be tied into the "U" position (head and tail tied together
so that the body forms a U shape) and lashed to a cleat for as
long as an hour before they go into the box. If I haven't already
made the tail cut, I'll do that after the fish is U'd up. The
job of getting a halibut in the U position, by the way, is easiest
if you use a meat hook or very large fish hook tied to about six
feet of quarter-inch or three-eighths-inch cord. Just stick the
hook into a corner of its mouth, throw a loop around the tail
and draw both ends up as close together as you can get them before
making a couple more tail wraps and tying off the cord.
Remember to keep your halibut as cool as possible, especially
those fish you catch early in the day. I like to keep a few blocks
of ice in my fish box, especially when the weather is warm, but
early in the year you can get by just fine by keeping them in
the shade and/or covering them with damp burlap. Avoid dragging
halibut around in the water, because surface temperatures alongside
your hull are much warmer than you think, and you may have spoiled
fillets by the time your fishing day is over.