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Coatal Halibut Bonanza

By Terry Wiest

(Originally Published in the May 2009 Issue of
NorthWest Sportsman's Magazine)

May signals the start of a truly world class fishery on the Washington Coast, it's Halibut time! Each year it seems more and more fisherman participate in this event, and each year our seasons and quota's get cut shorter. So, to best take advantage of what little time we have on the water, be prepared!

First of all, I have to say that the true expert on Halibut fishing is my friend and fellow Steelhead University Associate Todd Girtz. I've learned everything about Halibut fishing the Coast from Girtz and most the information in this article is a direct result of his expertise.

Most the halibut you'll hook will be in the 20 - 25lb range. Doesn't sound big, and for the most part they really aren't. The good thing about this fishery though is if you fish them right and hit the correct spots, you can be selective about which fish to actually keep. The first time I fished for Halibut, me and a buddy followed Girtz out to LaPush. First drop we had a double on within 2 or 3 minutes of hitting the 500ft plus bottom. We reeled up, gaffed the fish and put them in the box. Both about 25lb's they were nice fish. BUT, now we had just traveled 32 miles out and we're done! Girtz laughed and explained later that if we were more selective we could have released several in that weight class and kept fish in the 30 to 50lb range. DOH! But he sent me to the RockPile on the way back in and we quickly got our limit of Lings, then went near shore and got our limit of Sea Bass.

The next time I brought Girtz out on my 23' Shamrock. We hit the first spot and 3 of 4 of us hooked up instantly, while Girtz kept his gear down. Finally Girtz hooked up and we all 4 were reeling in. Funny thing is, Girtz had hooked up first, but left his gear down until he got a second fish on. Seriously, two halibut at once! Out of the 5 fish, we kept none. Being less experienced I thought at least two of them looked decent, but relying on Girtz's expertise we released all of them to continue fishing. That day we hooked over 30 halibut and the ones kept were from 40 to 60lbs. As a bonus we also kept several Lings that were 20 to 35lbs. After fishing with Girtz it truly opened up my eyes to how great this fishery is and was thankful to be able to watch and learn from an expert.

The Gear:

A good stout 6ft halibut rod is a must. We're fishing 300 to 800ft of water so this type of rod will give you the most leverage when bringing these great fish up from the deep. There are many to choose from including the Daiwa Beefstick for around $30 to the ultimate G. Loomis Halibut Rod at around $350. The reel is more important. If you can afford it, the Daiwa Seaborg SB750MT electric reel is optimal, but for most we don't get out enough for Halibut (mostly because of the short seasons) to justify the expense of about $850. A great manual reel is the Penn Senator 114H for around $125. A heavy duty cranking handle is a great add on feature that you'll appreciate after the first time you reel in from the great depth. Reels should be loaded with a minimum of 400 yards of 80lb PowerPro. This will allow you to fish the 500ft depths and if you should break off, which is generally at the cleat of your boat should you get stuck on bottom, you'll have enough line on the reel for another drop.

Halibut love bait. If there are not dogfish present bait works great. Horse Herring, Octopus, Salmon Belly's, Mackerel, Kelp Greenling, it doesn't matter, halibut will eat it up. Just Tie on a 5/0 three way swivel, use tuna cord for about a 16 inch double 12/0 Gamakatsu Hook leader, then a 4ft dropper to 24 to 48oz of lead. But, if dogfish are present you'll get worn out consistently reeling in 500ft of line just to discover a dogfish on the end. So for the most part I try to use a setup Girtz taught me and I truly believe it to be the most effective method out there.

From your mainline, tie on a 5/0 three way swivel. Again use tuna cord for leader. On the shorter leader, about 14 inches, tie on a 12/0 Big River Gamakatsu hook and attach a White Berkley Power Grub. Then tie a 4ft leader and attach a 24 to 48oz Norwegian Jig. Now you have enough weight to reach the bottom, but you have two different presentations and are legal (you're only allowed two hooks). If you don't have a Norwegian jig you can substitute a pipe jig. Using this setup it's possible to hook a double therefore the heavy duty gear.

An important factor is to use enough weight to keep your gear as straight up and down as possible. The PowerPro also helps because of the thin diameter, but with the current it's not always possible even with 48 ounces. To compensate for the current, use your kicker motor to back into the tide, just enough to keep your line vertical.

You'll want your presentation to hit bottom. Don't let it lay on the bottom but either from the swells or if the ocean's flat (yeah right), you'll want your presentation to hit the bottom on occasion. The pounding on the bottom will attract the halibut in the direction of your presentation. If you're too aggressive then chances are if a Ling is around it will beat the Halibut too it (which can be a good thing but check the regs to make sure you can retain Lings in the area you fish).

Where to Fish

Westport (MA 2) Getting more and more popular each year, but Westport still lacks the popularity of the other "prime" destinations. This year, with Hood Canal Bridge closing May 1, 2009 for a minimum of 6 weeks, Westport may see more pressure than in recent years. The main halibut grounds are 45 miles straight out 46.57 124.56. Hit the humps and ridges as they will seek these areas and wait for a meal to be sucked down to them. The halibut are generally a little larger average then LaPush or Neah Bay, but I haven't found them to be quite as abundant (limits are still the norm).

LaPush (MA 3) Probably my favorite of the traditional halibut grounds. LaPush has a closure to protect bottomfish and halibut. It's known as the "C Closure". If you don't want to travel as far, inside the "C" provides some great halibut fishing and it roughly 25 miles out 48.09 125.04. Most however travel to the southwest corner of the "C" and fish tight to the edge of the closure itself. This is approximately 32 miles out 47.59 125.17 . It's a must to put the coordinates for the closure into your GPS and save it as a route. The coordinates are available in the Washington Sportfishing Regulations or online at the WDFW site. If you fish within the closure boundaries YOU WILL get a ticket! The area definitely has one of the highest concentrations of Halibut but is not known for producing many fish over 60lbs.

Neah Bay (MA 4) The most diverse of the group and by far the most popular, Neah Bay provides many different areas to fish. From close inshore (Garbage Dump 48 25 124 41) to 40 miles out (Blue Dot 48.16 125.20) and places in between (Swift Sure the most popular 48.29 124.58), Neah Bay offers more places to fish and can accommodate a greater variety of experience levels. Neah Bay gives you the best chance to land a fish over 100lbs.

Not only one must be prepared how to fish for Halibut, but of utmost importance is being prepared for the big water. The weather can get nasty and it's not worth risking your life for any fish. Make sure and check the weather constantly. I have a basic rule that was taught to me by Girtz that I follow. It's called the 9ft rule. If swell height plus wind waves is greater than 9ft, I don't go.

Monitor your VHF, have a GPS and a backup GPS, and going out with other boats as a group is always a good idea. Remember this is big water and unfortunately we hear of tragedies every year.