Ask Bay Area saltwater enthusiasts what their favorite gamefish is and you’ll get several different answers. Some guys will point to the chinook salmon that traditionally roam the waters outside the Golden Gate. Others will name the voracious lingcod that lurk amongst coastal reefs. Still others will confide that it’s the hard charging striped bass that stack up both within San Francisco Bay and in the surf zone outside the gate that have a special place in their hearts.
King, lings and stripers are all wonderful gamefish that’s a given, but from a pragmatic standpoint none of these species deserve to be described as the Bay Area’s premier saltwater gamefish. Now I can already hear the salmon lovers and striper disciples crying foul, but what attributes should a gamefish poses to be considered the best?
First of all, the species should have strong fighting ability and the potential to attain hefty proportions. Secondly, the species should be accessible, meaning that a large percentage of anglers have the opportunity to target them. Thirdly, the fishing season for the species should be long. Finally, the species should provide topnotch table fare. So is there a Bay Area saltwater species that meets all these criteria? Absolutely! I’m talking about the robust population of California halibut that inhabit San Francisco Bay.
The halibut caught within the bay average 5 to 12 pounds and range up to and beyond 40. Halibut have a clumsy appearance, but they are capable of putting up a spirited fight and display bursts of lightening speed.
In terms of table fare, halibut have few rivals yielding firm white fillets that taste great whether baked, broiled or beer battered! Bay Area halibut are highly accessible since you can target them effectively from you own boat or from one of the bay’s numerous charter boats.
Because you’ll be fishing in the bay, weather is typically not a factor. This is a welcome contrast to fishing outside the gate, where wind and swells can keep you off the
water. Halibut can be taken in the bay all year long, but the prime time for targeting them begins in late April and extends through the end of October.
Trolling and drifting are the two basics approaches to catching Bay Area halibut. Trolling will generally put more fish in the box, but it is tough to match the adrenaline rush you feel when a halibut grabs your anchovy as you drift with light tackle.
Since live bait drifting is the standard approach employed on most charter and private boats let’s consider that method first. If you are fishing on a charter boat, they will supply live anchovies.
If you are fishing from a private boat you’ll need to purchase live bait. Live anchovies are available at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Another option is using shiner perch. You can buy live perch at various Bay Area bait shops or you can use a light spinning rod baited with bits of pile worm to catch your own around piers and other structure.
Perch are actually the best choice for the private boaters since they are much hardier than anchovies and also tend to draw strikes from larger halibut.
When I get out on the bay to drift for halibut I take along two outfits and I suggest you do the same. Your all around rod needs to be capable of handling sinkers up to 8 ounces. Since bites can be light you’ll want a sensitive stick, but it has to have the power in its lower section to lift a husky fish off the bottom.
Your second rod should be either a light bait casting or spinning outfit to use when the conditions allow you to use a light 1 or 2 ounce sinker. It is quite a thrill to land a good sized halibut on a steelhead or black bass rod.
The standard end tackle for live bait fishing is a three way rig. To construct a three way rig attach a 36 inch 25 pound fluorocarbon leader tipped with a 1, 1/0 or 2/0 live bait hook tied on a perfection loop to one eye of a three way swivel. Next connect a short light monofilament dropper to the second eye of the swivel.
Your sinker will be attached to this dropper. Since the dropper is made of line that is lighter than that used in the rest of the rig the sinker will pop off if you get snagged and you’ll only have to put on a new weight rather than a whole new rig. Your main line attaches to the third eye of the swivel.
When you’re ready to fish, pin a live bait on your hook through the tip of its nose. Put the rig in the water, lower it to the bottom, let out a few more feet of line and then engage the reel. As the boat drifts you want to feel the rig dragging across the bottom. Halibut lay on the bottom and ambush baitfish as they come by, so it is important to keep contact with the bottom. The rod slowly bending into a deep arch signals a bite. This indicates that a halibut has inhaled the bait and has gotten hooked. When that happens take the rod out of the holder and start working the reel.
Commercial anglers have been trolling for halibut for decades, but recently private boaters and a selected few charter operators have discovered the effectiveness of trolling. In my opinion trolling is not as fun as drifting, but you can often catch more fish trolling because more ground can be covered. For trolling you’ll need a beefy rod capable handling up to a 16 ounce sinker matched with a reel loaded with 65 pound braid.
To rig up, tie a three way swivel to the end of the main line. To one eye attach a short medium weight monofilament dropper. To the third eye tie in a 48 inch section of 30 pound leader material and then attach an 8 inch dodger. To the rear of the dodger attach another 36 inches of leader at the end of which you’ll attach your bait.
The most common trolling bait is a frozen anchovy known locally as a “popsicle” rigged with a pair of hooks or placed in one of the plastic bait rotators more commonly employed while trolling for salmon.
Fewer anglers use artificial lures, but they can be super effective. The best artificial is a white 4 inch swimtail grub with a blue hoochie over the top of it. Other offerings that work include 3 inch wobbling spoons or a 4 inch shallow running minnow plug.
No matter what offering you use the technique is the same. To the dropper attach a 6 to 16 once weight, depending on the current and depth of water and then free spool the rig out behind the boat. If your rig is not dragging across the bottom, you need more weight. The ideal speed for halibut trolling is between 1 and 3 miles per hour.
Since halibut face into the current you’ll want to maneuver the boat quartering across and slightly down current. This will help you maintain a low speed while presenting the bait in front of the fish. The strikes you get when trolling are not violent. The rod will simply bend over like it’s snagged. That’s your cue to pull it out of the holder and begin battling your prize.
San Francisco Bay covers a huge area and there are numerous locations that offer both drifters and trollers a good opportunity for success. Central bay locations such as Angel Island, Paradise Cay, Krissy Field and the Berkeley Flats provide the most consistent fishing throughout the season.
At times the South Bay plays host to hot halibut action. Top South Bay spots include the Alameda Rock Wall, the Oakland Airport, Candlestick Point and the area offshore of the Oyster Point Pier. To the north the lower portion of San Pablo Bay typically yields good fishing during the late summer and early fall months.
Whenever fishing in saltwater tides play a role in fishing strategy and to some extent dictate how good or bad the fishing will be. Halibut fishing certainly isn’t an exception to this rule. Halibut are sight feeders, meaning they utilize their vision to zero in on their prey. For this reason the clearer the water the better the fishing.
Within the bay the clearest water is found when tides are light. Typically halibut fishing is best during tides that feature less than three feet of movement, yet if the day you have time to fish features stronger tides, by all means go fishing. I’ve caught my share of halibut when the tide was absolutely ripping!