Halibut

 File photo.

Turning the calendar page to September is an important event for Kodiak freezers.

It signals the downslide to the end of fishing for the year and time for a serious accounting of what’s in your freezer and what’s not. There’s no sense continuing to line your shelves with salmon if you’ve already accumulated more than you’ll eat. The silver fishing may be great, but just how much more salmon do you need nestled among the pink, red, chum and king salmon?

Once again this year halibut fishing was a bit slow for most folks, and there’s less white meat than red in their freezers. Halibut fishing has certainly been better than last year. But lots of freezers are a little behind schedule in the halibut department.

The trouble is, halibut behavior and distributions starts changing in September, and they can get harder and harder to catch as the month passes.

The water has been unusually warm this year and that has certainly affected the fishing. But inevitably the water temperature will start to drop before the month is out.

As the water chills halibut will move deeper, and quickly. Even with the warmer water this year, I expect them to be at least twice as deep as they are now by the end of the month.

Over the decades I’ve noticed a pattern to the fishing as September progresses. After a long summer of hooks dragged through past them, halibut numbers are down, so there are fewer fish.

But halibut also act differently as the water temperature drops. For the first week or so they behave more or less as usual, even if their numbers are down. But as the temperature drops faster and faster, they seem to get restless. Even if they don’t start moving deeper right away, they certainly start moving around.

The good news for folks holding halibut rods is their restlessness seems to be aimed at finding more food. The baitfish schools are moving offshore, too, so there just might be less to eat and the halibut are just looking far and wide for another meal.

I’ve come to think that because starting in September, I see a lot more variety in halibut stomachs. They’ll certainly nosh on any herring or needlefish they can find, but those easy meals are swimming away and the halibut have to turn to other food sources before they, too, move deeper.

Sure, the halibut still relish the herring they stumble onto, even on a hook. But the point is they’re moving around in search of other foods, so you have to move with them in order to put your herring in front of them.

I change my strategy to match the mobile habits of halibut in September, both the way I operate our boat and what I use to catch halibut.

While we do a lot of anchoring earlier in the summer, my anchor locker stays mostly shut in September. I’m looking for scattered individual halibut or occasionally small schools, and there’s little point in sitting in one spot waiting for them to come to you.

Because we’re drift fishing, we have to play the winds and tides pretty carefully. If the boat is drifting too fast, it’s hard to keep hooks on or close to the bottom even with heavier weights or jigs.

Fine braided line helps you fish deeper with less weight, but inevitably you have to add more and more weight as boat movement increases due to winds or tidal currents.

But if you’ve ever done a lot of drift fishing, you’ve discovered just how hard it is to keep a chunk of herring on a hook. Halibut might love the stuff, but it has to stay on your hook to do any good.

I find that whole herring fished on a double hook “mooching” style rig stays on hooks a lot longer, and seems to catch lots more halibut than traditional chunked herring on a single circle hook.

The second hook on the rig does more than help hold the herring. I’ve tried single hooks and whole herring and ended up with lots of half herring and missed strikes. With the double hooks I miss lots fewer strikes. Helping confirm the point, almost all our halibut are hooked on that back hook.

You could certainly hang your herring leader behind the crescent- or trolling-sinker familiar to salmon anglers. But I find that problematic. You need to keep the herring close to bottom for best results even as currents build, but bouncing bottom with the setup results in a lot of bottom snags. If you try to skim bottom with the sinker, you inevitably end up with your rig far off bottom due to boat drift or currents.

My alternative works so well I should buy stock in a company that makes three-way swivels. I hang a leader 30 to 36 inches long off one leg of the swivel, then I adjust the length of my herring rig to something just short of that length, say 24 to 30 inches.

I can bounce bottom freely to help find bottom and keep the hooks there without fear of hanging up.

I make my own double hook rigs, and I’ve found it important to use heavier leaders than standard for salmon just to avoid tangles. I’ve settled on 100-pound mono and 7/0 to 9/0 hooks as just right for me.

You’ll be startled just how well that rig works when drifting for halibut. As your boat moves it along the bottom, the herring appears to swim quite naturally above bottom within easy sight and reach of the halibut. Any king salmon in the area seem to hold the same opinion of the rig as the halibut.

If lots of fish species other than halibut show an interest in your rig, there’s a good alternative to going through tray after tray of troll herring. I put a 5- to 7-inch hoochie on the rig, then use strips of herring within it. Often squirting a gel-type scent into the hoochie works as well as the herring without the need to rebait after missed hits. My favorite hoochie is the glow version, but it pays to try different colors, because army truck or cop car can work better some days.

If you prefer jigging, the change in feeding habits also means a shift in which jigs work best.

While I rely heavily on dart style jigs earlier in the summer, their effectiveness can diminish as September progresses. I have much better luck on rubber tail or scampi tail jigs in a variety of colors.

Perhaps due to the switch away from herring and needlefish, halibut seem to relish drab colors as September progresses. My favorites are root beer, motor oil and dark green. If those don’t produce a switch to glow often saves the day. For some reason, pink or orange can have their days, too, especially on gravel bottoms. I think the answer to that lies in what I find in the halibut stomachs on those trips. The halibut preferring pink or orange are almost always feeding on crabs.

Whatever you tie on the end of your line, the secret to September halibut is mobility. You have to keep moving to connect with the fish, and you’re only likely to find a few in any one location.

I set up the boat to drift through an area, and if that doesn’t produce I either shift deeper for another drift or leave the area completely in search of better fishing. If you start catching a few fish at a specific depth, that’s a good clue how deep to fish at your next stop.

If your freezer shelves are a little short on halibut, this may be the time to turn your back on silver salmon for a few days. The halibut are going to move deeper and scatter more with each passing day, and they’re going to become harder and harder to catch.

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