Epic North State Halibut Trip

posted in: Ocean and Bays, Reports | 0

Chasing new species is a part of fishing that I enjoy. Learning about a fish’s habits, tendencies, how they relate to structure is just part of the enjoyment. Although I spend a majority of my time fishing freshwater, I enjoy getting my kayak out in the salt as it allows me to continue to learn.

My brother Matthew lives on Humboldt Bay just south of Eureka, so despite my five hour distance from the coast, Matt’s place provides me a base of operations when I want to fish the ocean along the Humboldt County coast.

Matt Mayes had his hands full when a big bad Humboldt Bay halibut slammed his live sardine.
Matt Mayes had his hands full when a big bad Humboldt Bay halibut slammed his live sardine.

It also doesn’t hurt that Matt is just as fanatical about fishing as I am, and he’s always providing me updates on the saltwater bite in his area. When he called me mid-week to tell me about the lights-out California halibut fishing he was experiencing in Humboldt Bay, I was thrilled to give it a shot.

After a half day at work on Friday, I packed the gear and bombed across the state to Eureka. Before I knew it, Matt and I were pushing off the Eureka public boat ramp for an evening of fishing.

California halibut are a new species for me. I put in some half-hearted efforts for them over the years, but I was never really sure I was doing it right. Matt was gracious enough to give me the scoop on his recent success. It was surprisingly simple: a 1.5 to 3 ounce egg sinker in front of a swivel, followed by a 3-4 foot leader of 20 pound fluorocarbon and two snelled 3/0 octopus hooks.

Live sardines and anchovies were the baits of choice, and they were so thick in the harbor they blacked out our depth finder screens. It only took a few drops of the Sabiki rig just beyond the dock to fill up our bait buckets with feisty bait.

We pushed out into the channel and drifted with the incoming tide, with our baits hovered just above the bottom in the 15 to 25 foot zone. It was quiet at first, except for a small spiny dogfish caught by Matt. Then at 8:00pm, Matt’s on!

Matt soon boated the first halibut for the evening: a solid 33.5 incher. Awesome!

Seeing Matt’s fish really got my hopes up for a hookup of my own. I continued drifting east with the tide for another 20 minutes, and then my rod loaded up a bit and I felt a few little taps. I immediately pedaled into the current so I could stay on top of this mysterious biter and let him eat the bait.

After a few more seconds, I felt weight on the rod and I set into him. At first he just came up like a wet sock. Then out of nowhere, he peeled off on a quick run and started headshaking.

Halibut headshakes are weird! Very rapid and short, not like the big thump thump headshakes that you get from a salmon or steelhead. I fought him for several minutes before I could get him to boatside. When I slid him into the net, he went bonkers trying to flop out!

The fish knocked my depthfinder off its mount and sprayed water everywhere. I quickly bonked him several times over the head and pulled out a couple gill rakers to bleed him before I was brave enough to pull out my camera. My very first halibut clocked in at 32 inches!

Matt Mayes was all smiles after putting this impressive 33.5 inch Humboldt Bay halibut into his kayak.
Matt Mayes was all smiles after putting this impressive 33.5 inch Humboldt Bay halibut into his kayak.

The sun set behind the north spit and we were running out of daylight. A friend of ours (Eric) was fishing from his Malibu X-Factor kayak and had yet to hook a fish. But then I heard a short ZZZ ZZZ ZZZ of a reel’s drag being pulled in the darkness. I looked in Eric’s direction, and saw him struggling with a doubled-over rod.

“You hooked up man?” I hollered. “Yeah!” he hollered back.

I watched Eric bring a HOT fish up to the boat, slide it into the net…and then watched the fish immediately go bonkers and leap a full two feet out of the net! But Eric’s hooks held true, and the fish didn’t escape his second net job. Eric’s fish taped out to 35 inches and weighed over 17 pounds, a dandy!

Each of us scored 30+ inch halibut this evening, with the Big Fish being Eric’s 35 incher. What a great way to kick off my bonsai run to the coast!

With four awesome California halibut, Matt and Chris were rewarded mightily during the live bait adventure on Humboldt Bay.
With four awesome California halibut, Matt and Chris were rewarded mightily during the live bait adventure on Humboldt Bay.

Matt and I returned to the scene early Saturday morning. After the previous night’s success, we were very excited to do work on these flatfish. We started fishing at the bottom of an incoming tide, and the bite was very slow. Some by-catch came in to keep things interesting, such as this over-eager staghorn sculpin.

A couple of 12-inch brown rockfish showed up, surprisingly nice rockies for being so far in the bay.

And I had a fun 15-minute tussle with a bat ray that gulped a live anchovy.

As the tide continued to rise, the halibut bite started taking shape. Soon Matt landed a fish in the mid-20 inch range, then Eric landed one around the same size. Things were looking up!

Finally, at 0945, my second rod doubled over in the rod holder and I felt the same rapid-fashion headshakes I recognized from the previous night’s fish. Oh yeah, another halibut in the bag! This one taped out to 33 inches and 15 pounds.

Then at noon, I bagged my second fish for the day, a 27 incher on a live anchovy. Damn, 2/3 of the way towards a limit!

By this point, we wanted to cover some new ground. Matt moved shallow to where he’d been hooking a lot of large leopard sharks over the week. Before long, I saw Matt’s rod go bendo and he’s fighting a feisty fish that’s zipping around through the shallows.

“Probably a leopard,” Matt said as he started to horse the fish in.

Matt had caught several leopards fishing in the 10-15 foot depth range over the past week. A few seconds later, I hear “OHMYGOD IT’S A HUGE HALIBUT!”

I pedaled in for a closer look and spotted a windshield-sized brown oval circling around his kayak. Oh snap, he’s hooked into But-Zilla! After several tense minutes that included Matt’s Sabiki rod getting tangled with his net and him frantically trying to free it while also fighting the fish, Matt got it done and barely fit his fish into the net. He didn’t want to risk losing it OTW, so we immediately headed for the ramp to finish her off. Now THIS IS A FISH! The halibut taped out to 43 inches and over 29 pounds!

Matt was content with calling it a day at this point, but I convinced him to head back out with me to see if we could score limits. Unfortunately, the bite turned off for us and we couldn’t make it happen. We called it around 3:00pm and headed to Matt’s house to clean our haul. And what a haul it was!

I can’t thank Matt enough for getting me in on this bite and helping me score my first-ever halibut. Just the one on Friday made the 5-hour drive worthwhile, but to score two more AND to witness Matt score his Devil Fish of a CA halibut over 40 inches? Just awesome!