KODIAK — It’s one thing for the halibut to be moving shallower now, but another altogether to find them. We’re catching ours here and there in the shallows, but it will take more time for their numbers to build in the usual hotspots.
How shallow am I talking about?
Our shallowest so far has come from 30 feet of water. The next shallowest connected at 50 feet, and the remainder have been scattered all over the chart in deeper water. The big point is that we’re catching them now. But the real question is how to improve your odds when looking for scattered halibut.
Frankly, we haven’t caught one so far while anchored. It just hasn’t been fruitful to sit in one place and wait for the halibut to come to us. We have to go looking for them and cover a lot of bottom to collide with their scattered numbers. I’ll say more shortly about improving your odds while anchored, but for the moment let’s talk more about moving around to find your halibut.
So, all we’ve caught so far have been grabbed while we were trolling. Sure, we’ve been looking for king salmon at the time and found a halibut instead. But with a comfortable supply of the kings in the freezer, it’s time for us to focus on halibut.
How are we going to do that?
We’re likely to keep on trolling, but in places more likely to produce halibut than kings. The spots have pretty regular gravel bottoms, so it’s easy to set the depth of our downriggers and troll without worrying about snags.
There’s a secret to trolling for halibut though, and it has more to do with the halibut than your trolling gear and methods. Everyone thinks of halibut as bottom feeders, but in truth they’re active predators. If baitfish passes by overhead, they’re more likely to go up in the water column to get it than to lay on bottom and hope a victim swims within reach.
The key is the bait passing over their heads. To connect with halibut while trolling, we look for bait schools over the bottom that likely to hold even scattered halibut. If the bait is anywhere within easy reach of the bottom, the halibut are likely to be up at their depth rather than playing suction cup on the bottom. In our experience, it works best to set our lines to pass under the schools of bait.
If we’re not seeing bait schools but suspect the halibut are on hand, we’ll run our gear 10’ off the bottom. If there are bait schools with their bottoms within about 30’ of bottom, we adjust our gear higher in the water to hit the bottom of the schools.
Drifting for halibut is out next strategy, especially on days when we get sick of the sound of our outboard. Especially on calm days it’s great to shut down and let the boat move slowly across promising bottom with jigging rods In hand, or with a bit of a breeze for more movement, even in rod holders.
Metal jigs, whether darts or rubber tails, work fine if you want to be active rather than sit and daydream with a bait on bottom, but in recent years we’ve mostly moved away from them to hoochies on 3-way swivels with 3’ leaders to the hoochie and 2’ leaders to the weights.
They work as well as conventional jigs for actively jigging up and down with the rod, but they work 100% better with a still rod while drifting, whether in your hands or a rod holder. Halibut just can’t seem to resist the form of a baitfish swimming along innocently a couple of feet off bottom with no jigging action at all.
Of course we’re “sweetening” our hoochies just as we do with jigs. Strips cut from herring fillets and dangled from the hook inside the hoochie work well, but they stay on the hook best if you toughen them a little with salt.
Through lots of experimenting we’ve found that gel-type scents squirted into the cavity of the hoochie work as well for halibut while cutting down on the incidental species that are so quick to hit herring. We mostly use both the squirt of scent and the herring strip because it gives us the best of both worlds. In fact we want some of those incidental species for the table, but the hoochies will continue to fish due to the gel if the herring is stolen. On a lazy day of drifting, it’s more relaxing not to reel up and rebait after each missed hit!
It’s not all rest and relaxation for the boat driver if you want the best odds of connecting with halibut while drifting. Keep an eye on your fish finder, and any time you drift over a school of bait within about 30’ of the bottom, treat it just as you would while trolling. Instruct everyone on board to reel up their lines as much as needed to hit the bottom of the bait school and leave them there until you’ve drifted past before sending them back to the bottom.
We vary the weights used with hoochie rigs depending on the speed of our drift. The goal is to keep the lines more or less directly below the boat so the weights tap bottom now and then to assure your depth. If the angle of your lines gets as high as 30 degrees, it’s a sign you need more weight. The extra weight will not only help you tend bottom while drifting, it will also help you more accurately judge how much to reel in to hit the bottom of passing bait schools.
What if you prefer anchoring and soaking bait or jigging? How do you go about helping the halibut come to you rather than chasing all over the place looking for them?
Especially when the winds and currents are simply too strong for easily keeping our jigs or hoochie rigs below the boat, we resort to anchoring in what we judge is the most likely spot for halibut. But I am short on the patience needed for sitting in one spot all day waiting and hoping for a little action.
Fortunately, chum works very well for halibut, provided you can get it to the bottom more or less right under your boat. The easy solution is to clip a chum bag to your downrigger and send it to the bottom so that no matter how your boat swings, the chum stays right with you and near your lines.
If you don’t have downriggers try attaching a chum bag to the top of your anchor chain. But you have to recognize that with more scope out for your anchor and with erratic winds moving the boat around, your gear won’t spend much time in the plume of scent trailing down-current from your chum bag.
The magic word in using chum is the “plume” I just referenced. The smell from your chum will be carried with the current, and it takes time for halibut to stumble across it, then follow to the source.
I figure on at least an hour of sitting over a chum bag before the first halibut arrives. But thankfully they usually arrive faster and faster after the first one.
If after a couple of hours of tending a scent plume you still haven’t connected, change locations and freshen your chum while you’re at it. There’s another reason for not waiting longer than a couple of hours, because especially later in the summer the skates and even the dogfish sharks can take over on longer soaks.
If you haven’t connected with halibut yet, rest assured that they’re on their way. If your king supply is still scanty, trolling may still be the best way to connect with both.
If you’d like to improve your odds halibut further, try drifting or anchoring over a chum bag. Just be aware that as you start raising your jigs or hoochies to meet the bait schools, your halibut fishing might be interrupted by kings.
We call that mooching, and I’ll write more about that in a future column.