Halibut are another exciting fish to catch in Sitka, Alaska. Of all flat fish, halibut are the largest, averaging about 25 to 35 pounds, but growing up to over 400 pounds. They are typically found on the bottom of the ocean in depths from 50 feet to over 600 feet.
Halibut are unique because they are born with an eye on each side of their head, and swim upright like salmon. At 6 months of age, one of the eyes migrates to the other side of the head. During this time, the side with the eye darkens to a dark green, while the underside remains white. At this point, it begins its characteristic flat fish form. Halibut will eat just about anything, and are often the top of the food chain in their ecosystem, although they do have some predators—mainly sea lions, and salmon sharks.
On a typical day, we’ll start out by fishing for salmon, then switch to halibut fishing. Sometimes we’ll fish classic halibut locations closer to shore, and other times we’ll head out to deep water. It all depends on timing and tides, weather, and client preference.
Halibut like gravel flats. They settle down on the gravel near rock outcrops, which are a good source of their food. So over the years, our experienced captains have found numerous gravel flats in our area that they use to fish for halibut.
We use short, heavy-duty halibut rods, commonly called “meat sticks.” We use Avet 2-speed reels with 80 lb. test non-stretch Spectra line, with two-pound leads to get the bait down to bottom of the ocean. The hooks we use are circle hooks, loaded with bait. For bait, we use salmon guts and gills along with horse herring, pollock, and pink salmon chunks. It’s a huge deluxe hors d’oeuvre for the bottom feeders.
Halibut have an excellent sense of smell, so we use that to our advantage by sending down these big baits to entice the halibut into our area. We call this “soaking for halibut.” Once the scent trail goes out, it may take an hour or more for our first halibut to strike. It pays to be patient when soaking for halibut, as the longer the bait sits down there, the better chances a big halibut will come along.
While soaking for halibut, we might catch other fish as well, such as delicious yellow-eye rockfish, ling cod, and other rockfish. Sometimes we catch unintended species—which we let go—such as ratfish, dog sharks, stingrays, turbot, and even octopus.
Our captains and deckhands will talk you through hooking a halibut when one is biting on your line. It’s important to be patient when you see your rod getting bent by halibut; take your time, and follow your crew’s instructions. There is a huge amount of bait on the hook, so we look for a good strong bend in the pole before we react, because that gives the halibut time to work the hook into the corner of its mouth.
Once you see a good bite, start reeling nice and slow. You don’t want to start out by reeling as fast as you can; you might pull the bait right out of its big mouth. So go slow and easy for a couple of cranks. If the halibut is not fully hooked, it won’t follow the bait out of its comfort zone. It will let it go and swim back to the bottom, to someone else’s bait.
If the pole stays bent, continue to reel the fish up without letting up on the pressure. Keep the pole bent, and don’t stop reeling. This is going to be your work out for the day. Reeling up a big halibut is tiring, and it’s not uncommon to need help, especially among the young and the elderly. Your deckhand will be happy to help you, or have someone else from your party help you get it up to the boat.
Every captain has their own style of landing a halibut. Some will shoot the fish with a small gauge shotgun, others will use a gaff. Your captain will instruct you on what you need to do when it comes time to land the fish. The most important thing is to not bring the halibut’s nose out of the water. If that happens, the halibut will react by flailing its head wildly. If it gets its head down and its tail up, it can power swim all the way back down to the bottom, which—if it’s a large halibut—is an impossible process to stop, and you’ll have to reel it all the way back up again.
Catching a nice halibut is a big thrill. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of catching many halibut over 50 lbs, and every one still gives me a thrill. Landing a big halibut is my favorite part of being a deckhand; it gets my adrenaline going every time. While soaking can get tedious at times, the rewards can be outstanding.
Written by Tom, Deckhand ~ Checkmate