When you think of halibut, you think of the delicate, temperamental white fillet, baked in olive oil and served with brussels sprouts or asparagus. You may not think of the hulking, two-toned, bottom-dwelling flatfish that spawned your meal. Even if you are an experienced angler, it’s understandably difficult to reconcile such a creature with what’s on your plate. However, once you’ve fished for halibut you will discover a fascinating big fish that is as rewarding to angle as it is to eat.
What is a Halibut?
Halibut is the name given to flatfish in the Hippoglosus genus and Pleuronectidae family. The two main species of halibut that exist are the Atlantic halibut and Pacific halibut. There are several offshoots — California halibut and Alaskan halibut, for examples — but they all tend to fall under those two species.
You will know a halibut by the placement of its eyes and its color. Halibuts’ bodies are designed to travel sideways, both eyes placed on the upward-facing side. They are born with eyes on either side of the head, but as they mature one of the eyes moves to join the other. The top-side is also where the most pigmentation appears, generally a shade of dark brown to mimic the ocean floor, although there is some slight variation in color between the subspecies. The downward facing side remains light gray to white in color. This form of natural camouflage — known as countershading — gives onlookers from above the illusion of seafloor, and from below the illusion of skylight.
The body of a halibut is very compressed, like most flatfish, with an extended dorsal fin, a well-developed lateral line, symmetrical pelvic fin, and a concave-shaped tail. The mouth is also symmetrical, extending underneath the lower eye.
Halibut are among the largest bony fish in our waters. The Atlantic halibut is the largest flatfish in the Atlantic, and one of the largest of its kind in the world. The weight of the average catch is 15 to 20 lbs, but the longest Atlantic halibuts reach 15 feet, the heaviest over 700 pounds. The Pacific halibut is smaller, but not too far behind in mass; they reportedly grow up to 8 feet long and nearly 500 lbs.
Halibut are very resilient creatures. Both Atlantic and Pacific halibut have lifespans that can reach up to 50 years.
Where to Find a Halibut
Halibut are demersal fish — meaning they live and feed primarily along the floor of their waters. They swim near sand, mud, gravel, and rocks, some 50 to 2000 meters down. The average depth you can find halibut is around 200 to 300 feet. The depth changes between seasons. Colder temperatures prompt halibut to stay at ground level where temperatures hover between 37 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. They can be found along the fringes of underwater ledges or plateaus. They are found near break lines as well, where the slope forms an edge from which a halibut can swoop down unto their prey.
Atlantic halibut can be traced in Eastern and Western parts of the Atlantic. In the East, halibut reside in Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen in Norway, and the Barents Sea. To the West, Atlantic halibut are in many waterways between southwest Greenland and Labrador, Canada, as well as Virginia’s coastline. Pacific halibut reside on the North Pacific ocean’s continental shelf, as well as the Bering Sea. From Hokkaido, Japan to Baja California, Mexico, from the Gulf of Alaska to the British Columbia, halibut thrive.
Halibut are strong swimmers, and are known to travel long distances. The migration pattern of the halibut is clockwise, meaning they travel Northwest to Southeast away from their usual home waters. Through the winter months (November to March, respectfully), matured halibut travel to spawning grounds at depths between 183 to 457 meters (600 to 1500 feet). Halibut then emerge to shallower waters in the summer to feed.
How to Catch a Halibut
We’ve established that halibut live on lake and sea floors; your fishing methods must take this into account if you want to catch one.
Since they are so far below the surface of the water, we first suggest that you use GPS or analyze local marine charts to find those sought-after halibut holes. You could even bring a depth sounder to find the underwater plateau drop-off where halibut congregate and feed.
You will need the right bait. Herring and salmon will do the trick, the former live or cut, the latter cut or turned into chum. The list of what halibut will eat is long, and what will attract halibut just as long. You should expect a lot of trial and error as you test what bait and lure combinations your group of halibut respond to best. Luckily, there are still constants you anglers can rely on.
Your rig should have enough weight so that the bait reaches the bottom. When it does, you must remember to gently lift your bait up and down. Halibut hunt primarily by scent. Bobbing the bait this way releases its scent into the water, and creates vibrations that the halibut can sense.
Your scent trail is key in halibut fishing. This is maximized through the anchoring of your boat over a good halibut hole, the way in which your bait is cut and presented, as well as how often bait is replaced. Bait such as herring should be switched up every 20 minutes, reeling in one at a time to keep the scent trail intact.
Pay close attention to the tip of your fishing rod; it will bounce up and down once the halibut has taken the bait. Stay calm, careful not to set the hook too early. Instead, wait for the halibut to swallow, because yanking the hook before that will just cause the hook to slip out. Once you think your prey has swallowed, that’s when you can set the hook into the halibut’s hard jaw. Reel it in with steady hands and line, until the halibut reaches the surface. Have your gaff or harpoon ready, and be prepared to fight to get your catch subdued. It may take a few tries, but once you get the hang of gaffing your catch in just the right spot, you will feel unstoppable.
Best Bait for Halibut
Halibut eat nearly anything that can fit in their mouths, but some constants of their diet include octopus, cod, pollock, hake, sculpin, herring, sand lance, crabs and other crustaceans, clams, all manner of ground-fish, and especially salmon. You can use smaller fish as whole live bait, but halibut also respond well to cut bait and chum. Cut bait in the form of steaks and fillets work well, since those cuts release more scent into the water. Above all, salmon seems to attract the most attention. The freshest and bloodiest chum — including the head, collar, and guts of salmon from previous fishing trips — makes excellent bait.
In addition to the bait on your hook, increase your chances of getting a bite by infusing liquid bait scent on your tackle, especially the plastic lures.
All you will have to do is periodically lift and drop your bait. The halibut will smell it, sense its movement, and swoop in.
Best Tackle for Halibut
There exists tackle made specifically for halibuts and other flatfish species. We’ll start with hooks: We recommend a round-shaped halibut hook, a staple for this kind of quarry. Circle hooks and j-hooks work well, but serve different purposes. A circle hook is best if you are sport fishing and not looking to keep your catches, while a j-hook will stay in the mouth once set—great if you are playing for keeps. That isn’t to say a circle hook can’t serve the same purpose a j-hook can’t; once a circle hook is set you seldom lose your halibut. Nevertheless, circle hooks more often than not wedge themselves in the corner of the fish’s mouth, making it easier to remove should you intend to release. For all hooks, make sure they are very sharp.
When out looking for the right fishing rod, you will want to pick up a robust 6 to 7 foot halibut rod. Get one that is made for halibut fishing, strong, balanced, but easy to wield. Some use sturgeon rods, but those are best as a back-up option. Whichever you seek, look for a rod with a double action reel, as well.
Your line must be strong enough to hold your bulky bottom-feeder, so we suggest braided nylon lines rated at 60 lbs or higher.
Regarding lures, there are endless possibilities here. It’s not known what lures consistently work best. Our suggestion is to simply know your halibut holes, taking note of what worked recently, but be ready to switch lure colors or types if necessary. You could even combine lures with live bait or bait scents.
The Value of Halibut
Halibut is a favorite among seafood lovers because of its affinity to different flavor combinations and cooking techniques. Halibut is also packed with nutritional value. It is extremely low in fat, yet high in several B vitamins, vitamin D, and selenium. It can be baked, fried, grilled, and boiled with ease, once you understand the way it behaves. Halibut dries out fast because of its lack of fat. No matter how you cook it, it is best served as soon as it is done.
Halibut has served as a primary seafood source for Alaskan Natives, Indigenous Canadian groups, and Pacific native groups for quite some time. Halibut fishing continues to fuel economies in these areas. They are also very coveted sport fishing quarry, with more and more halibut enthusiasts getting in on the action each year.
Pacific halibut are well regulated by the International Pacific Halibut Commission to maintain the desired yield of halibut each year. Since halibut don’t reproduce until they are around eight years old, commercially captured fish before this age would stunt the reproductive cycle. Luckily, the IPHC steps in to prevent this. The Atlantic population of halibut has shrunk to dangerous levels, unfortunately, giving the corresponding conservation commission a lot of work to do. In 2008, the population size had gotten so low, the species was nearly declared endangered, and consumers and sport fishers alike are cautioned to stay away from Atlantic halibut. The halibut you eat for dinner, therefore, is most likely Pacific.
Halibut are amazing bottom-dwelling flatfish that provide the excitement an angler needs on the water. Set your sights on a (preferably Pacific) halibut hole and have a blast.
Also, check out How to Catch a Sheepshead.