KODIAK — We had some interesting surprises on the water over the weekend. Most notably, the water was really warm. Wherever we went, the faithful little gauge on our fish finder continued to read 47 degrees!
That’s 7 or 8 degrees warmer than we’ve experienced in early May in years past.
We also saw a lot more bait in shallower water than I expect so early. Starting in 110’ to 120’ of water, scattered small bait schools extended all the way up to 20’ or so. I expect to run across herring here and there this early in the year, but herring make a distinctive image on a fish finder. And these weren’t herring schools. If I had to guess, I’d say they were needlefish or sand lance schools.
We were distracted by our pursuit of king salmon at the time, and in fact only had king gear on the boat. But the little voice in the back of my head was nagging me the whole time. Could the halibut be moving shallow early this year? There’s only one way to answer that question, and we fully intend to do so on our next venture.
The halibut gear is on the boat now! Disregarding depth, there are two things I look for when searching for halibut on their way from the depths to the shallows. I concentrate on locations with bait near the bottom, of course. With scattered small schools, there will be a lot of locations to test because the halibut are likely scattered, too.
I also pay attention to bottom type. Really rough, rugged bottom doesn’t tend to hold a lot of halibut. They’re certainly venture into the rough stuff with plenty of bait, but looking for halibut in the rock piles and reefs is a pretty low percentage affair until the bait is concentrated.
They also don’t appear to like muddy bottom. You’ll certainly be pestered by yellowfin sole on muddy bottoms, but the halibut seem to avoid it most of the time.
Once you learn what to look for it’s pretty easy to spot muddy bottom on your fish finder. Watch what’s happening below the bottom line on the screen. If there’s lots of color there and the darker areas look “thick,” that’s harder bottom. If it’s pretty blank down there and the bottom line looks thin, that’s a good sign of muddy bottom.
In between the two you’ll see indications of sand, gravel and rock, depending on the degree of extra “stuff” happening below the bottom line.
The differences occur because muddy bottom doesn’t reflect the signal from your transducer well. The more reflection from the bottom, the darker and thicker the signal will be from the bottom.
It varies with the fish finder brand and model, of course, but there’s another way to confirm bottom type without a fish finder; it’s useful when you have questions about your own fish finder.
Drop a heavy jig or weight to the bottom.
If it “sticks” and is hard to lift free of the bottom, that’s a pretty clear sign of mud.
You can also spot the difference between sand, gravel and rock based on the “sound” a jig makes when hitting bottom.
If it doesn’t stick, but doesn’t transmit sound back up your line it’s likely sand or fine gravel. If you sense a crunch, it’s gravel. And if you get a distinct “tink” when it hits bottom, that’s rock.
Why all the attention to bottom type, even if you can spot and avoid mud?
Because, in my experience, halibut seem to like the transition from one to another.
When I spot muddy bottom on my fish finder, I cruise along until the signal changes to sand or gravel. Halibut may not like the mud, but they’re prone to laying or cruising right along the edge of it. You’ll find the same thing in places where sand transitions to gravel and where gravel transitions to rock.
Because the halibut are fairly scattered as they move shallower, we tend to use a lot of jigs or more recently hoochies above weights.
That’s because we do more drifting than anchoring, and, in our experience, jigs and hoochies work better than bait on bottom while drifting.
When we decide to anchor on a particularly promising location, I play dirty.
I like to help the halibut find us.
We use chum bags or crab bait bags to put chum and scent on bottom directly below our boat. When given time for the scent plume to extend on the current, it’s surprisingly effective for drawing halibut right to you.
For years we simply attached the bags to the top of our anchor chain, but were fairly certain we only got brief visits by halibut as they passed under the boat and continued on to the chum bags further up the current.
All that changed once we put downriggers on the boat.
In truth we get more use out of our downriggers as “chum bag retrievers” than for actual trolling — they’re that effective.
Just clip a chum bag to your downrigger ball and send it to the bottom. When you get a halibut on a line, raise the bag a ways to get it out of the way.
If you have someone onboard who’s struggling with heavier weights on their rod, you can even go so far as attaching a line to your downrigger wire. Put a line clip on the wire 3’ or 4’ above the ball, then clip the unweighted line to that with about 10’ of line extending back from the clip.
It’s certainly an easy way to get lines on the bottom for halibut without all the extra weight in deeper water or strong currents.
While herring is a more or less standard bait for halibut, we usually do better with something else. In particular, we like to use chunks or strips of cod, pollack, sculpin or flounder, whichever we catch first.
We certainly use small pieces of herring to “sweeten” the hooks on our jigs or hoochies when we start the day. But the moment we catch something else, that gets filleted and swapped for the herring on the hook.
Even with a sweet tooth for herring, the local fresh fish is more in line with what the halibut are already feeding on and works better. It also stays on the hook lots longer than herring.
Though bait and chum can certainly help put fresh halibut in your freezer, we’ve found another important element.
Try scents on your baits, jigs and hoochies. Look at my jigs and most will have a little bit of yarn tied to the eye of the hook or the top ring on the jig. That’s to hold the scent. We also squirt it up inside our hoochies before adding bait. I even squirt it right onto bait chunks when fishing on bottom.
In our experience, the gel-type scents work best because they adhere longer to lures and baits. And, you can usually tell when they’re gone because the fishing falls off.
I’ll know more about halibut in the shallows soon. But my best guess is that you should probably do a little searching of your own!