Halibut is one of the most rewarding fish to catch while surf fishing, and even beginners can manage to reel in one of these flat-yet-delicious sea creatures. Many people catch huge halibut offshore, but it is possible to catch halibut from the shoreline with the right tackle and equipment.
Halibut can be caught from the surf with a medium-action reel and rod. Halibut respond well to a wide variety of live or cut bait but will also strike artificial lures such as minnow baits or needlefish lures.
Halibut can be an intimidating fish, but there are fewer fish you can pull from the surf that will taste better on your dinner plate. Read on to find out more about how you can catch these bottom-dwelling predators and the most effective ways to find them.
Rules and Regulations for Halibut Fishing
The rules and regulations for halibut fishing depend largely on the area where you’re fishing.
On the Pacific Coast (California), the bag limit is three fish for all coastal locations north of Point Sur in Monterey County but is increased to five fish for all Pacific locations south of this point.
The size limitation is 22 inches minimum.
It should be noted that this bag limit for the California coast applies to the entire fishing party—any individual fisherman can only harvest one halibut per person.
Given the size of many halibut, however, one will likely be all you need.
For halibut fishing in Alaska, the bag limit is two fish per person of any size.
The bag limit for Alaska is a bit more lenient since lower human populations put less pressure on the local fisheries than in Pacific coastal halibut fisheries.
Bag limits for halibut are generally low because the catch rate for halibut is usually lower than with other types of pelagic or shoaling fish.
It’s not like with stripers where you’re likely to catch multiple fish in the same location in quick succession—chances are if you catch a halibut during your fishing session, it will be the only one.
Different Types of Halibut
Several different types of halibut are popular with game fishermen. In general, the halibut is a bottom-dwelling flatfish that comes in three distinct varieties:
- Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus)
- Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis)
The California halibut is actually not a true halibut in the Hippoglossus family, but rather is a type of flounder, a similar flatfish.
As well as the California halibut, there are also other kinds of flounder and turbot, which are referred to as “halibut” by fishermen. Here are a few of the other fish called “halibut” that is technically not a part of the halibut genus:
- Kamchatka flounder (arrowtooth halibut)
- Roundnose flounder (shotted halibut)
- Greenland turbot (Greenland halibut)
- Spotted halibut
- California flounder (California halibut)
- Olive flounder (bastard halibut)
- Indian spiny turbot (Indian halibut)
- Black pomfret (Australian halibut)
While the above fish aren’t technically halibut in the scientific sense, all of these flatfish can be caught with roughly the same surf fishing techniques as Atlantic and Pacific halibut, provided you have the right tackle, bait, and lures.
Atlantic Halibut as an Endangered Species
Unlike the Pacific and California halibut, the Atlantic halibut is considered an endangered species due to a low population level from previous decades of overfishing.
This is the result of the Atlantic halibut’s particularly slow reproduction and sexual maturity rates.
Because it is a protected species, Atlantic halibut can still be caught, but at reduced levels in comparison to their Pacific cousins.
Atlantic halibut catches are limited to one fish per boat per day. In Maine fisheries, boats are only allowed to take up to five halibut within a year.
The reason that Atlantic halibut is overfished is that it has historically been a very popular table fish in culinary circles.
The reason for the name is because halibut has traditionally been popular with Catholic populations on holy days where they are not permitted to eat meat and opt for fish instead.
Complete Guide to Surf Fish for Halibut
Surf fishing for halibut isn’t just about knowing what halibut like to eat or what parts of the world you can find them. It means knowing a little bit more about halibut behavior in order to stay a step ahead of them.
Where To Find And Catch Halibut
Halibut can be found in a variety of shoreline environments. Overall, because they are a fish that moves along the bottom of the ocean floor, they tend to prefer areas that are smooth and have a lot of sand or silt that will keep them from injuring themselves.
These are some of the surf environments where you’re likely to find halibut:
Tidal flats, or mudflats, are a type of coastal wetland biome where large stretches of shallow, muddy water are left during slack tide once the tide has receded.
Mangrove forests are a common kind of shoreline foliage in tidal flats. Halibut favorite these environments due to the amount of prey that can be extracted from the sediment once the tide has gone out.
Sand flats operate similarly to tidal flats, but rather than stretches of a muddy coastal bank, sand flats are a tidal biome that is created by exposed sand bars during outgoing tides.
Halibut also favorite sand flats because they are a good source of food, and the flat sandy ocean bottom in these coastal areas is a comfortable habitat for bottom-dwelling fish.
Like many other coastal fish, halibut can also be found not only in flat shoreline areas, but also along the edges of underwater structures such as rocky outcroppings, manmade jetties, shipwrecks, breakwaters, piers, and artificial reefs.
Like other coastal fish, halibut are attracted to these areas for the shelter they provide from rough currents and the source of food in the plentiful baitfish that frequent these same spots.
Because halibut are a bottom-dwelling fish that rests on the ocean floor, you’re more likely to find them in underwater areas where they can rest horizontally on a flat surface.
If the area where you’re casting is full of coral reefs and other vertical structures that crowd the ocean floor, you probably won’t get many bites (not from halibut, in any case).
If you can manage to cast past the heavy cover on the water’s surface, halibut can often be found resting in the sandy areas beneath a bed of kelp. Kelp beds are usually a better place to find large halibut offshore, rather than while surf fishing.
Shoreline cobble is a type of coastal environment that is comprised of boulders that have been broken down into a cobblestone shoreline sediment.
Halibut favorite these areas because they are a prolific habitat that supports man of the small crustaceans and other creatures that the halibut uses as a primary food source.
When Is The Best Time To Catch Halibut
Unlike many coastal fish that are targeted while surf fishing, which are targeted when the tides begin to go in or out and move baitfish, halibut are best caught between movements of the tide, when the tide is slack.
The main reason for this is that halibut hunt on the ocean floor, and strong currents during tidal movements.
It is difficult for a fisherman to both place his lure/bait and keep it as close to the ocean floor as possible, where it will be attractive to halibut specifically.
If a bait or lure isn’t kept near the ocean bottom, it is more likely that the fish caught will be some other species that occupy the middle of the water column.
Because of the slack tide, the best times of day to target halibut are typically from nine in the morning until around noon, and again in the afternoon from around three to six.
An angler looking for halibut should show up at their fishing location during the tide so that they can see where baitfish are most active and look for areas where the current is strong or other areas halibut might favor.
Gear and Set-up to Surf Fish for Halibut
The equipment used to surf fish for halibut is significantly different than the gear that is typically used for fishing for halibut offshore. This is because offshore halibut tend to get much larger than those caught in coastal waters.
For surf fishing halibut, a medium-action rod and reel is the best choice.
This is because you don’t want a rod that is so stiff and heavy you can’t feel a fish on the line, but a light surf rod and reel cannot usually handle the weight of repeatedly casting the heavy tackle required to surf fish off the ocean floor.
Along with your rod and reel, these are a few other pieces of equipment that you’ll need to surf fish for halibut:
The surf environment is a very abrasive environment for fishing line, and in the course of being reeled in or jigged in tidal currents, the kinds of lures used to catch halibut tend to twist the line.
The monofilament line is also vulnerable to being nicked or frayed. These line twists ultimately weaken the line and can cause it to break at the worst possible time.
A swivel can be a useful fishing tackle to avoid having the terminal tackle on a surf rod become twisted up while reeling it in, either due to the movement of the lure or the movement of the ocean currents.
Swivels act as a go-between the tackle tied onto the leader line and the mainline that is run through the fishing rod.
Swivels allow the tackle to swing around independently of the mainline, which reduces twisting.
Sinkers are terminal tackle used to weigh lures and bait to the ocean floor to put them in a halibut’s line of sight.
Pyramid sinkers are a popular surf fishing sinker because they maintain their placement better than a rounded sinker, which tends to shift in the current.
Circle hook or J hook
Circle hooks are a good option for halibut since they tend to cause less damage to the fish and can better facilitate a successful catch and release, but J-shaped hooks can also be used to catch halibut effectively.
Along with these essentials, it can also be useful to have along some extra fishing line, some needlenose pliers or hook removers, a landing net, and a gaff or harpoon (optional).
If you’re using live bait such as menhaden, you’ll also need some kind of live well or aerated bait bucket to keep your live bait fresh and alive while you fish.
Live Bait and Lures to Catch Halibut
Because halibut operate on both scent-based and sight-based predatory tactics to hunt down their prey, halibut can be caught using both scent-based and sight-based lures. For scent-based halibut fishing, live bait and cut bait work very well.
Live bait is used on the hook while it is still living, and the natural movements of the hooked and injured baitfish, shrimp, or squid act as the attracting factor that draws in the halibut to try and strike out at the wounded prey.
Hooked live bait works on both a sight and scent basis, because the live bait trails scent in the water while simultaneously attempting to free itself. Using live bait is like ringing a dinner bell.
Cut bait is dead bait that is cut into pieces, and the types of cut bait used are typically baitfish that are too large for the halibut to typically target.
These include types of bait such as mackerel guts or heads, cut squid, filets of herring, or raw/cooked shrimp.
Cut bait is a good way to use live bait that has prematurely expired and is also a good way to put a lot of scent in the water.
In general, cut bait is considered superior to the whole baitfish when using dead bait, since cutting the bait up releases more scent into the water. It can draw in predatory game fish from a larger radius.
Artificial Lures for Halibut
Along with live and cut baits, surf fishermen can also use artificial lures to target halibut.
The best lures for targeting halibut are those lures that emulate wounded baitfish and can be jigged along the bottom of the ocean floor or (in the case of a needlefish bait) reeled in smoothly to imitate a baitfish gliding close to the ocean floor.
Halibut is an ambush predator, and seeing an artificial baitfish gliding right above its concealed head is often too much temptation to resist.
Here are two types of artificial lures that are a good choice for halibut fishing:
Minnow baits or jerk baits are baits that are designed to be shaped and colored like a coastal baitfish, and anglers can choose minnow baits that most closely imitate the baitfish that are common in the waters they’re fishing for best results.
These lures are called jerk baits because fishermen jerk them along the ocean floor to mimic a wounded or dying baitfish.
Needlefish lures are similar to minnow baits in that they’re designed to look like the types of small fish that halibut will ambush strike from the ocean floor, but rather than designed to be jigged or jerked along, a needlefish bait glides smoothly through the water.
Use Drop shot rig
Dropshot rig probably the best for surf fishing halibut. This set-up is effective when fishing on the sandy bottom. In halibut fishing, these lures are weighted to move very near to the ocean floor. Fish mastery explained how to use this rig. Watch the video below.
Video credit. Fish Mastery
Halibut fishermen who fish offshore can chum the water, but obviously, surf fishermen can’t do this because it would create unsanitary and hazardous swimming conditions for recreational beachgoers.
Instead, those going after halibut from shore should look to scent-based lures and bait as a substitute.
Tactics to Catch Halibut (5 Tips and Tricks)
Halibut are slightly different in behavior than many other types of coastal fish targeted by surf anglers, so it’s important to know some specific tactics for battling these large flatfish should you be lucky enough to get one on the hook.
Here are a few tactics that might help you the next time you find yourself toe to toe with one of the ocean’s tastiest game fish:
Use a gaff.
Halibut is potentially a large, heavy fish. While they aren’t known for extensive battles on the line, they will try to bolt if pressed. As a result of this tendency, they can sometimes be difficult to land in the surf zone.
Using a gaff or harpoon to wound or immobilize the fish once you’ve determined it’s of a size that is legal to catch can help you subdue it enough to finish hauling it in.
Otherwise, smaller halibut can usually be handled without using a gaff.
Try a fighting belt.
Fighting belts are utility belts for anglers that they can use to support their rods while trying to reel in large or aggressive game fish during an extended fight.
Fighting belts are a good option if you’re surf fishing in an area where sharks or rays hunt alongside halibut, as you may end up with a bigger fight on your hands than you anticipated.
Work the edge of underwater structures.
Halibut, like the flat areas around underwater structures like jetties and shipwrecks, is a strong current in these areas acting to shepherd baitfish towards these ambush predators. This allows halibut to hunt while exerting the least amount of effort possible.
Consider the current.
Because halibut usually rest on the ocean floor and don’t really swim all that well in rough currents and surf in comparison to other fish, you’re not going to find them easily on days when the water is choppy, or there is a riptide.
Halibut and other demersal fish will hunker down during these turbulent times and wait for the slack tide to venture forth and migrate or forage, so be sure to wait for good conditions for best halibut fishing results.
Vary your casting based on your bait or lure.
Most lures or bait for halibut are jigged or hopped along the ocean floor in order to try and draw the halibut’s attention, but some lures are used with a smooth, even reel.
These are some tips that can help you land a halibut even if the conditions aren’t perfect for them. Using proper equipment (such as a gaff or fighting belt) along with knowing good locations and conditions to fish in is vital for finding halibut.
Minimum Size and Catch Limit
As noted in the “Rules and Regulations” section earlier in this guide in more particular detail, the minimum size and catch limits on halibut vary from species to species and from geographic location to geographic location.
Before going on a halibut fishing trip, be sure to check the regulations for your specific region to ensure compliance with game laws.
All fish that are not up to the minimum size has to be released, as do any halibut above and beyond a fisherman’s bag limit.
Best Season to Catch Halibut
Halibut fishing can be successfully conducted year-round, depending on where you’re fishing. Still, the best months for fishing halibut are from
April through May in the transition from late spring to early summer and again in October and November for the fall season.
Overall, if the surf and conditions are conducive to halibut fishing and the proper bait or lures are used, an angler has a chance to hook a halibut whenever they go out.
Because anglers who surf fish are usually fishing at dusk or in the early hours before dawn, this kind of fishing can be dangerous, especially in areas where the water is rough or the terrain is uneven. More than a few fishermen have lost their lives from
The safest way to go surf fishing is to go with another person. Not only does this provide needed help in the case of a medical emergency or an accident, but it is also easier to land large fish such as halibut or sharks with an extra set of hands tagging along to help haul it in.
Here are some general safety tips you should follow when surf fishing for halibut or any other type of coastal fish:
Do not turn your back on the water.
Rogue waves can spring up out of nowhere, and a fisherman who turns his back on the ocean to re-tie a line or fiddle with a piece of tackle can find himself flat on his back in the water before he knows it.
Do not surf fish in riptide conditions.
While strong shoreline currents are good fishing conditions for several species, it is a dangerous weather condition for surf fishing.
In strong currents, a person can have their feet swept out from under them in seconds. If caught by a riptide, a person can be swept hundreds of yards out to sea in minutes.
Don’t fish alone.
As mentioned above, fishing with a partner is the safest way to go. If you must fish alone, be sure to give someone a detailed breakdown of where you’re going fishing and what time you plan to be back.
That way, if you go missing, at least someone knows where to go looking for you and when they should start to worry.
Watch where you’re casting.
Every year beachgoers are injured by anglers on the beach who swing back for a cast without watching where they’re casting and accidentally hook an unfortunate bystander.
Before you swing your rod back, take a glance back, and make sure that nobody is standing behind you. (This is especially important in low light conditions when you might not see someone approaching in your peripheral vision.)
Bring a first aid kit and a cellphone.
You never know when you’re going to need to call for help, either for yourself or someone else. And since small cuts and other minor injuries such as getting finned are common while fishing, it can be a good idea to keep some first aid supplies on hand.
Do not fish if you hear thunder or see lightning.
Pop-up storms on the coast are common, but if you see lightning or hear thunder, you need to get off the beach.
Every year people are struck by lightning and killed on beaches. Lightning is one of the leading weather-related causes of death.
A handful of metallic fishing equipment is basically turning yourself into a lightning rod. Don’t do it.
Surf Fishing for Halibut is Fun and Tasty
Whether you manage to make a catch or not, surf fishing for halibut is one of the most rewarding types of surf fishing you can do. These large bottom dwellers make for an impressive catch, but they also make for a tasty grilled treat after the end of a long day in the surf.