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Understanding Halibut

Atlantic Halibut, Charter Boats, Halibut, Flounder & Fluke, Pacific Halibut, Saltwater Fish Species, Saltwater Fishing, Saltwater Fishing Tips, Saltwater Tackle Articles, Tackle Tips & How To's

Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, the planets line up the seas lay down and the fish happen to share the same acre of water you’ve chosen to drop the anchor in. For those who’ve fished offshore Alaska more than a handful of times you know that these days can be magical, “red letter” days indeed for that almanac constantly being etched into your mind.

What is it? The tide, the temperature, the moon? No, in all reality, it’s Karma. The fish gods are smiling. You’re living right. You’ve paid your dues and, you’ve also studied a little bit.

This was one of those days. My ex-boss from a past life and his entire family had just flown 3000 miles, driven another couple hundred and sunk a pretty penny into a week’s stay at a high-end lodge. All this to “experience” Alaska and all that she has to offer.

One of those offerings happened to be spending a day with me on the North Gulf Coast waters off Seward in hopes of still be trying new halibut recipes in February. And although the tide was right, the temperature was right, and the moon was right, we had more than just that going for us today.

We had Karma. We had good vibes, achievable expectations, and attitudes that whispered “fun” more than “fish”. We had a boatload of people who instinctively thought fish but understood that the other f-word “fun” was what the trip was all about.

Graciously, the day before, my friends/clients had been put on a number of trophy rainbows in the upper stretch of a little stream to the west called the Kenai. The day before that, a couple of nice kings in the lower portion of the same river fell prey to this little group. This relieved a little pressure and now they were ready to concentrate on some white meat.

Running out of Resurrection Bay some 35 miles with nary a two-foot swell between the harbor and the Chiswell Islands we felt a little invincible. It almost felt TOO good to be true, “Something has to give” was the unsaid emotion passed between captain and mate. The weather forecast sounded reasonable on the 6am VHF broadcast, however putting all your stock in that mechanical voice can prove frustrating if not disastrous.
We found our spot and leading into the ‘Halibut 101’ spiel that is as much a part of our morning as coffee and muffins, I spooled a pound and a half of lead to the bottom. Attached to the cannon ball was a circle hook run through the lower jaw and nose of yesterday’s salmon head now resting 230 feet down.

Meanwhile, I rationalized my personal theory of halibut behavior and the consequential human behavior necessary to bring the two together. “There are really only two rules out here,” I began.

Rule #1) Let ‘em eat. When bait fishing, we generally use circle hooks as referenced above. There is a reason why the commercial longliners use these hooks… the halibut hook themselves by swimming away with the bait in their mouths and STAY hooked, for the most part. There isn’t much hook setting going on here, let the halibut bite and bite and bite, then when there is steady pressure on the line simply start reeling.

Rule #2) No slack in the line while you’re reeling in. Short, steady strokes on the rod and reeling at the same speed you drop the rod tip for your next lift is crucial. The hook will stay planted as long as you have upward pressure on it, a slack or falling line will increase your odds of coming up with nothing but a chewed up bait. If you have hooked a fish on a jig, Rule #2 is even more important as a lead-headed “J” hook will almost certainly fall out as soon as pressure is released.

Aside from being where the fish are, these are the two essential elements in traditional baitfishing for halibut. Most people figure it out very fast since after a half dozen or so “bait-check’s” from 200 to 300 feet the reeling arm starts to burn a bit. It’s much more satisfying to end a good crank-up looking down at a brown camouflaged back than a swinging hook.
With this said, we shortly had baits soaking all around and no sooner than we set the last line down the rod tip started ticking. Immediately one of the sons lunged for the rod. “Wait, wait, wait slow down,” I managed to say in a soft, controlled tone without sounding like I was giving orders. Halibut aren’t notoriously shy but do sometimes spook if they feel something on the other end of the line.

“Remember, let’em eat, hold the rod steady but don’t try to set the hook,” this said just as the rod was almost pulled out of the young man’s hand. “OK, now just lean back and start reeling. Pump up, reel down, pump up, reel down.” A minute later he was in the groove and had a good feel for the “steadiness” required to bring up a nice halibut.
We landed the 40-pounder when it reached the surface and Lesson 1 was complete. We had had a captive audience in the other family members cheering (and jeering) on the first to hook-up and they had all paid attention. Nine more halibut hit the deck that morning before we headed back inside the bay to chase some salmon around.
For those who are chasing your own halibut around and either don’t have or don’t want the luxury of a charter taking you to the “honey hole”, the following is a crash course in understanding your quarry.

BUT 101
Aside from migrating to shallower, coastal waters in Spring and Summer, Halibut, or “Buts” as they are so affectionately called, live a life cycle that is almost in paradox to salmon. Halibut spawn in the dead of winter off the continental shelf in depths of up to 3600 feet, but normally in the range of 600 to 1,500 feet. A barn-door can produce up to 4 million eggs (hence the release photos seen here) which hatch in two weeks and drift in the deep ocean current.
Biologists feel that these depths provide a safer environment for the drifting eggs and growing larvae which are susceptible to being slurped up by any passing critter. The bigger the halibut grow the higher in the water column they venture until finally making it to the richer waters off the coast.
Yes, it is true that halibut start life like any other fish, they swim upright and have eyes on either side of their head. When they reach about and inch in length, the left eye migrates to the “right” side of the head and they lose color on the left, or what is now the bottom of their body. The top of their body can change color to adjust to their environment, the darker the ocean floor, the darker their skin.

Halibut migrate towards shallower water while feeding on plankton the first year of their lives. After that, they eat krill-like organisms until they reach about 3-years and then begin feeding like the “Buts” we know and love. They become rather voracious, especially during summer months where they’ll eat almost anything that moves… or doesn’t.
Small fish, squid, crabs, clams, you name it, and they’ll eat it. The bigger the halibut grow, the bigger their menu gets. I’ve pulled many a yelloweye (full-grown) out of a large halibut’s paunch. Whole salmon, king crab, smaller halibut, we’ve seen it all.
Female halibut grow faster and larger than the males, almost all fish of 80 pounds or so are females. Most females reach sexual maturity around age 8 while the males don’t get frisky until about 11 years. The vast majority of halibut taken in the sport fishery are 5-15 years old.

X’s and O’s
Now, by digesting a little of this halibutology you can put the assimilated knowledge to practical use. First, you need to think like a But.
Without the benefit of a remote controlled submarine and camera, we’re at the mercy of the much generalized marine charts produced by NOAA with their soundings and little “G’s”, “S’s”, “Sh’s”, etc. By studying the charts it is possible to pick up trends in the ocean floor by only to an extent. The only way to be precise is to explore and document your own “Back 40”.
I have personally parked as close as humanly possible to a “G” in the Gulf coast waters only to find a rockpile (not all bad) or even mud (worse) where I was told there would be gravel. If the ocean floor was mapped precisely we probably wouldn’t have any fish left. So, you take the bad with the good.
Overcoming this technological shortfall takes patience, practice, and many, many days of exploration. Use the charts for what they are best intended; identify ridges, ranges, and plateaus. Use this information to define bottomfish travel routes, eddies in the current, public rest areas and places where bait will tend to be pushed or most concentrated.
The lee-side of a major outcropping is a likely neighborhood for fish on union break. Both bait and predators will more likely be in this zone during a major tidal exchange than say on the wide expanses of a plateau where they may have to work for a living.
Remember the “path of least resistance” theory, during a blizzard would you rather be on the treeless artic slope or nestled in the woods behind a nice hill. There is truth in the fact that anglers catch more halibut just before, during, and just after a tide change. Not only does your bait stay down better, the fish are more active because they aren’t fighting the tide, they’re using it.
Some of those who prefer to fish the plateaus like fishing the middle of the tide better. This holds credence because the tide will certainly disperse your scent trail quicker and you will be “fishing” more water. A halibut needs only to cross the trail and will likely be turning upstream to find the source, the pot at the end of the rainbow so to speak.

Another very likely region to find good concentrations of butfish is in a valley between two ridges. Generally speaking, the valley needs to have at least some floor (it shouldn’t be ALL sloping mountain) so that the fish have a little holding room. This is one of my favorite zones and produces well under almost all tidal conditions.
Anchoring in these valleys requires clever planning and you need to take into account wind, tide, current and water depth and adjust your drop accordingly. Both anchor scope and fishing line angle (current vs. weight) play critical roles as your bait need to be in the zone. Drift fishing can work well here but it’s recommended for experienced anglers willing to constantly maintain their rigs to avoid hanging up and/or fishing too far off the bottom.
If you are charter fishing, you shouldn’t have to worry about a thing as the vessel ought to be equipped the correct gear. Private anglers will need stout, short stand-up rods normally between 5-6 feet long with substantial star-drag reels loaded up with 50 to 130 pound braid or spectra line.

The Future
The sport, charter and commercial halibut industries are in a bit of turmoil these days. As is the case with most good things these days, various factions are fighting for and against assorted rules, allotments and quotas.
The resource (halibut) is governed by an international alliance of agencies given the handle “North Pacific Halibut Commission”. They lay down the law and provide a blueprint for management in the various states and provinces.
Lately, one of the largest controversies is the commercial vs. sport allotment. The Sport Fish Division of Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently conducted a study titled “Economic Significance of Sportfishing in Alaska Project – 2007”.
The purpose of the study is to provide reasonably precise and up-to-date information on the economic contributions of sport angler spending to the Alaska economy. It is an economic significance study that will estimate the total expenditures associated with sport fishing in Alaska in 2007, as well as estimates of the total direct, indirect and induced economic effects of angler spending.
With any luck, this project will result in a recommendation that sport and charter anglers aren’t left in the cold (no pun intended) when it comes to dividing up this renewable resource. What’s best for the people of Alaska, should be what happens for the people of Alaska.

Captain T.A. “Tat” Tatterson has over twenty five years experience fishing the salt and fresh waters of Alaska. He operates charter boats in Seward, Alaska; San Jose del Cabo, Mexico; and Panama. He can be reached via email at or on his websites at:; or

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