While live bait drifting has always been a popular method for hooking California halibut from Baja to Oregon, trolling is really gaining a good following and its easy to see why: it allows you to cover lots of ground quickly and locate fish…plus, it’s deadly!
Here’s how to do it:
Getting Rigged Up
Most trollers drag some sort of natural bait — sardines, herring or anchovies — behind a flasher. Obviously, fresh bait is best, but frozen will also work. To rig up, a good place to start is to go with the rig used by Northern California charter boat skipper Jay Lopes of Right Hook Sportfishing. He runs runs a trap rig and dodger off a three-way swivel setup (though wire spreader bars can be used instead).
The foundation of his trolling rig is a heavy-duty 1/0 three-way swivel tied to his main line. To the second eye of the swivel, he’ll attach an 18- to 20-inch section of line for his weight dropper. The remaining eye of the swivel is dedicated to the leader.
“I like to run 24 to 26 inches of heavy 60-pound mono from my three-way to a 0/0 or 1/0 dodger,” he says. “The stiffer the line, the better so that everything stays straight. As far as dodger color goes, I use a lot of chartreuse and silver with fish scale tape inserts.”
Lopes notes that there are times when the halibut will bite the dodger instead of the bait, so if you keep getting strikes that don’t stick, look for teeth marks in your blade. In some situations, you may have to pull the dodger off so that the fish key in on the bait.
Behind the dodger, he’ll run 24 inches of 25- to 30-pound leader to the trap rig, which consists of a 1/0 single octopus hook snelled so that it will slide and then a fixed 1/0 treble at the end of the leader. Lopes runs the point of the forward (single) hook up through the chin and out the top of the head of the bait and then buries one point of the treble into the side of the ‘chovy on the lateral line, just aft of the dorsal fin. Putting a slight bend in the bait will give it a nice rolling action — and be sure to change baits often.
By the way, in addition to bait, there are also times when a straight hootchie will work wonders. In fact, commercial halibut trollers have been dragging rubber squid around for decades with great success.
Lopes likes to pound the bottom with his sinkers, and runs different sizes off the rods, depending on where in the boat they’re positioned. The rods straight of the stern get the lightest weights, while the stern corner rods get heavier lead and the ones off the sides get the beefiest sinkers. How much lead depends on location, depth and tides. Just make sure you’re hitting the sand!
Location & Tides
In general, the best halibut fishing in San Francisco Bay takes place on either side of the tide, as the water movement starts to slow down. Here, slower tides are better because the water stays cleaner.
You can catch halibut anywhere from 4 to 40 feet down, though 7 to 15 feet seems to be the area most people work. Look for sandy flats with structure — humps and/or drop-offs and troll 1 to 3 knots. Keep an eye on your graph for structure and bait balls but don’t expect to see too many flatties on screen — they simply don’t show up well.