Question: What’s the best eating fish we have here in Northern California? King salmon? Nope. Cold water trout? Not even close! Mahi Mahi from Bullards Bar Reservoir? (old joke) Nah! Sixty-pound baby heron-eating brown trout from Mentiroso Lake? No! How about lingcod? Wrong again! Of course, this is very subjective, but I feel that you just can’t beat fresh halibut. Ohhh yeeaa!
We’re talking California halibut here, not Pacific halibut (the kind you get up in Alaska). California halibut range from Baja up to southern Oregon. They’re much smaller than the barn door-sized Pacifics that can weigh up to 400 pounds, but who the heck needs a truck load of fillets the size of a pool table, anyway? Use a heavy bass rod or a steelhead stick here and our flatties will give you all the fight you want. California ‘butts typically average about 10 pounds, but they can get into the high 30’s and, sometimes, the low 40’s.
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So, where do you catch these guys? Well, the closest spot to the foothills is San Francisco Bay. You can also catch them out of Dillon Beach, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Eureka and Southern California, but those will all take you a lot longer to get to. The drive down to Berkeley Marina really isn’t all that bad and the fishing there is usually worth the effort. June is one of the better months to go after halibut in the bay. You can drag your own boat down there and do well, but my suggestion is to hop aboard a party boat and let the experts show you how it’s done the first time.
According to a buddy of mine, James Smith, who skippers the party boat Happy Hooker, some of the best early summer halibut fishing takes place in 5 to 35 feet of water along sandy bottoms. Spots like the Berkeley Flats, the Alameda Rockwall, Candlestick Point and the flats near both the Oakland and San Francisco International airports are some of his favorites. He says that halibut will seek out drop-offs, shelves and high spots on the bottom — these are areas that the fish use to ambush their prey.
Speaking of prey, the main menu item for the bay’s halibut this time of year is anchovies, so that’s what you’re going to want to use for bait. If you can’t obtain ‘chovies, shiner perch and sardines will suffice. One phrase pretty much sums it all up when talking about live bait: The fresher, the better. When picking a bait out of the tank, look for the most lively one — baits with red noses, tattered fins and missing scales won’t work nearly as well.
For halibut drift fishing, Smith rigs up with a three-way swivel and a 6- to 10-inch weight dropper tied to one eye and a 36-inch leader with a 1/0 or 2/0 live bait hook tied to the other eye. The amount of weight needed depends on things like water depth, tides and wind, but 4- to 8-ounce cannonball or torpedo sinkers will cover most situations. Once rigged up, the sinker and bait are dropped to the bottom and the boat is allowed to drift with the current. The key is to keep the weight bouncing right on the sand, because halibut will rarely move up off the bottom to grab a meal. Smith says that, since halibut are an ambush-type fish, you don’t want to set the hook right away when you get a bite. “They’ll usually take the bait from the tail and slowly swallow it,” he says. “When you get bit, don’t pull back until the rod loads up with the weight of a fish.”
In June, the best fishing often takes place right at the start of the incoming tide and again at high water. Smith told me said that some tidal movement is good, but if it’s running too hard, the fish will bury themselves in the sand and not bite. On the other hand, slack water isn’t conducive to good halibut fishing either.
Once you’ve boated a halibut or two, it’s time for the really, really good part. You almost can’t go wrong preparing them any way. I prefer to barbecue halibut in foil with lemon, onion and garlic, but you can also bake it, broil it and bread & fry it. I’ve also been known to put it in fish tacos…yum! For something truly unique (and damn good, I might add), try smoking a halibut fillet. A-W-E-S-O-M-E!
For more information regarding halibut fishing in San Francisco Bay, contact James or Jim Smith of the Happy Hooker at (510) 223-5388. Private boats can launch and buy live bait at Berkeley Marina, (510) 849-2727.