A guide to halibut fishing in bay waters

By: George deVilbiss
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Halibut are one of the most prized eating fish around, and California is blessed with two species of these flatfish, the Pacific halibut and the smaller California halibut. To many anglers, they’re simply known as “butts.”


There are times throughout the year that San Francisco Bay is just outright choked with halibut, primarily the California variety. And when the bite is on, bay waters are choked with boats.


To fish for halibut, you’ve got one of two choices: ride a party boat where you’re pretty much shoulder-to-shoulder with other anglers, or haul your own boat down there and fish in relative comfort.


Many anglers are flat-out intimidated by San Francisco Bay. I’ve taken my boat down there numerous times, even when all I had was a 17-footer. On a good day, when the winds are calm, it’s nothing unusual to see even 12 to 14-foot aluminum boats out trying for halibut.


Surprisingly, most of the bay is shallow, perhaps 30-35 feet. The channels are deeper in order to accommodate the larger ships, but overall the bay just isn’t that deep.


I generally suggest that anglers go out the first time on a party boat. You’ll gain a great deal of knowledge about how and where to go to find these fish. From there, you can take your own boat to the bay and have a much better fishing experience.


Live bait will out-fish all other baits or lures for halibut. Before the bait receivers set up shop at the Berkeley docks, anglers had to go to the docks in San Francisco in order to get a load of live anchovy.


There are numerous launching areas in the Bay Area, such as at Emeryville, Berkeley, Richmond, Sausalito and Loch Lomond. However, if you launch anywhere other than Berkeley, you can have quite a run to get to the Berkeley “B” docks in order to pick up live bait.


Before the bait receivers were at Berkeley, I’d buy a bag or two of frozen anchovy and was successful using dead bait over live. While you can drag frozen anchovy on or near the bottom for halibut, stripers will wholly ignore a frozen, dead anchovy.


Live anchovies are tricky to keep alive once you get a scoop of them at the receivers. They must have a continuous flow of water pumping into and circulating in the tank. Without that constant flow and circulation, they die very rapidly.


I launch at the Berkeley launching ramp and from there, it’s only a short run to the bait receivers at the “B” docks. They open early and generally, by the time they do open, there’s a large line of boats waiting in line to get their scoop of anchovy.


Head out the bay and follow the old Berkeley Pier to the open waters of San Francisco Bay. From there, there are dozens of places to successfully fish for halibut.


Equipment-wise, all you need is the same fishing pole that you’d use for stripers. While there might be a very occasional “butt” over 30 pounds, most will run 6-10 pounds with a few 20-25, so it doesn’t take a real heavy duty rod.


There are very, very few snags in the bay waters so it doesn’t take a whole lot of equipment. I set up just as I would on a party boat: an eight-ounce weight off one side of a three-way swivel and the live bait hook purchased off the rack.


Your better tide will be one that’s slow moving and not a ripping, fast tide, with the latter being better for striped bass.


If you’re there for the first time and don’t know where to go, look around. See where most others are. The other boats are congregating in a particular region for a reason.


Some of the better areas, however, include Paradise Beach, located on the Marin County side just below the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Crissy Field that is along the San Francisco side near the Golden Gate Bridge, and around Angel Island.


You’ll hear about Berkeley Flats a lot. Get closer to Alcatraz Island, cut your motor and simply let the boat drift east, a drift that will easily take an hour or more. It’s a wide expanse of water and even with other boats in the area, there’s generally no problem with crowding.


Net a live anchovy. Bring the point of the hook under the jaw and have the hook come out near the nose of the anchovy. Drop the rig overboard and free spool to the bottom.


You can hold the rig and continuously feel bottom with the weight, or you can let out another 20-feet of line or so, put the rod in a rod holder and just sit back. All you’re going to do is drag the weight and bait across the muddy flats of the bay.

Halibut will hook themselves by grabbing that anchovy. When your rod doubles over, simply start reeling. They don’t give much of a battle until you get them to the surface and get ready to net them.


One real word of caution: do not get your fingers anywhere near their mouth. In order to get the hook out, use needle nosed pliers. These fish have a set of fangs that can and will do a lot of damage.


The limit on halibut is extremely generous as five are allowed in the daily bag limit. California halibut must be a minimum 16-3/4 inches to be kept.


Once back at the docks and you get your boat back on the trailer, there’s only one job left and that’s to completely and totally flush your boat and motor of the salt. There are wash downs at every launching area but generally they are so busy that you feel rushed and a full cleaning is never achieved.


I simply get back on the road and in my driveway, after I get home, do the full wash down, inside and out, the trailer, wheels and motor. Once the boat is properly taken care of, I then lay the fish out and get them filleted.


Filleting a halibut is extremely easy and quick. From each fish, you’ll get four fillets.

One side is dark brown and the other side is white. On either side, you’ll see a distinct line. With your fillet knife, cut straight down, and fillet off each half from that one side. When completed, simply flip the fish over and do the same thing with the opposite side. The darker side of the fish will yield considerably thicker fillets than the white side.


Now, just enjoy some of the seas’ greatest eating.


Any questions, comments or concerns, contact George at GeorgesColumn@AOL.COM.