sculpin

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Most folks didn’t notice that halibut season closed Dec. 31. For that matter, they probably weren’t even aware there’s a season for halibut.

Nonetheless, halibut fishing is closed the month of January to cover their spawning period.

It follows that opening day of the 2017 halibut season is Feb. 1.

Are you going out?

I kind of doubt it.

I’m betting you wouldn’t need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of people who will celebrate the day with a rod in their hands.

Halibut go deep in winter, even as the weather and boating conditions preclude much in the way of fishing effort.

It would take a large, seaworthy boat and a good weather day to allow fishing, much less the willingness to wrestle with sport fishing tackle in 600 feet or more of water.

But here’s the interesting part.

In recent years we’ve been finding our best summer halibut fishing in deeper and deeper water. 

This year we plan to start fishing deeper than ever in April or May, and not to move shallower until later than ever in spring, if at all.

Though you may have no intention at all of fishing for halibut in February, much less in March or April, I think there’s every reason to begin thinking about methods and locations for fishing deeper this summer.

Kodiak has been blessed in years past with shallow halibut fishing.

I’m aware of places around the range of the Pacific halibut where most folks never fish shallower than 300 feet, and many drop their lines as deep as 600 feet or deeper using weights as heavy as 5 pounds.

That’s a long way to send hooks to the bottom and with or without a fish on the line, it seems like even further back to the surface.

For many years here on Kodiak our “heavy” halibut weights and jigs were 16 ounces. In extremes of current we’d go up to 24 ounce jigs and 32 ounce weights, but that might happen only once every year or two.

For the most part we seldom used halibut weights or jigs heavier than 8 or 10 ounces or fished waters deeper than about 150 feet. Mostly we fished with weights and jigs in the 4-ounce range and waters consistently less than 100 feet.

But as I said, last year was different. We simply weren’t finding the halibut in our usual shallow spots. We didn’t find halibut consistently until we got into water at least 200 or 250 feet deep.

The two most important tackle changes in recent years for deep fishing have been the advent of braided fishing line and high-speed reels.

The old Dacron lines used in halibut fishing are really fat in comparison to the new lines. Monofilament of any weight is out of the question for deep fishing with heavy weights due to its stretch. Dacron overcomes the stretch problem, but it’s so fat that line drag in the currents is severe.

Modern braided line doesn’t stretch at all, yet it’s impossibly thin. To tell you how thin, the 80-pound versions are approximately the same thickness as 20-pound monofilament.

In my experience the new lines cut in half the amount of weight you need to reach bottom in deeper water. They also let you fish in stronger currents than ever before, greatly increasing your fishing time before and after slack tides.

They improve your chances to catch deep halibut by letting you keep your gear on bottom for longer periods. It also helps that you’re not having to work so hard to reel in each time.

Higher speed reels are also important. Old-style halibut reels had retrieve rates of around 3:1, meaning you only get three revolutions of the reel spool for each turn of the crank.  

The reels I prefer today have retrieve rates of 6:1 or even a little higher, allowing you to double the amount of line you retrieve with each turn of the crank.  That’s a huge factor when you have out 300 feet or more line.

Deep fishing is as much about rigging strategy as your choice of line and reel, however.

You want your gear to reach bottom as quickly as possible to limit the distance your boat drifts so your line is more or less straight up and down beneath the boat. The further your boat drifts while your gear is sinking, the greater the angle by the time the gear hits bottom.

Extra weight can certainly speed your gear’s descent, but that means you have to reel all that extra weight back to the surface.  

You can accomplish a higher sink rate by reducing the resistance of your gear. Cutting your bait size in half or smaller greatly cuts resistance and increases the speed at which it sinks.

But as a part of that, you don’t want to reel back to the surface to check your bait after every hit. It’s much better to concentrate on tougher baits. 

Herring is a terrific bait, but it’s soft. Usually it’s gone after a single hit. I prefer to use fish with tougher skin. 

My favorites are bellies from cod or pollock, with sculpin close behind if that’s what’s available. Bellies are tough and the meat is thin, so they stay on the hook well while still providing lots of scent.

If I feel like herring is the choice of the day, I’ll smear my bait with gel-type herring scent.

A triangular strip of tough belly about 5 inches long has almost no resistance in the water, yet has great action and sinks well.

I go one step further though in my efforts to keep my hooks on bottom as long as possible rather than reeling them up to check bait.

I do away with my halibut sinker entirely.

In its place I use a 16- or 24-ounce jig, above which I put a bait hook on a short stiff leader that won’t tangle. Going one step further, I put a 5- to 7-inch hoochie on the bait hook.

Even if my bait is gone, the combination of added gel scent and the shapes of the jig and the hoochie allow my gear to continue fishing.

In truth, the hoochie and jig allow me to use even smaller pieces of fish belly for bait, further cutting down on water resistance as the gear sinks toward bottom.

My standard piece of fish belly on jigs or hoochies in only about an inch wide at the top end and tapers to a point only a couple of inches behind.

The belly provides lots of smell and taste, but doesn’t slow the sink rate at all.

You’ll catch lots of other species while fishing deeply, but there’s a plus side to that even as you have to reel up lots more often. 

Some of those fish such as the cod, pollock and sculpin provide excellent fresh bait.

I’m hoping we don’t have to resort entirely to deeper halibut fishing this year, because I prefer to fish shallower and with lighter tackle.

But if I have to reach to 300 feet or deeper to connect reliably, I’ll be ready for it.

Give deep fishing some serious thought and tune your gear to be ready for it.

If this coming summer is anything like the last two, you and your freezer will be very glad you did.

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