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Spearfishing Techniques- Halibut
HOW TO HUNT HALIBUT or
California Halibut Hunting Techniques 101
Originally published in Spearfishing Magazine, 2006
Trophies can be hunted and trophies can be married. Most divers who are underwater hunters have the problem that the trophies we are blessed enough to land on land, and beneath the sea, seem to get into shoving matches back home around the mantel. I got that suffocating feeling again (like you need to come up for air) when she looked up at me. She sat on the couch doing her nails. No matter how hard I scrubbed and washed the fish scent from my fingers, the scratch-n-sniff still came up fish positive. Her gaze turned into a lance. Some of my friends may criticize me as I slide toward middle age- about my dedication to my job; the fact I’m not as skinny as I used to be in my mid thirties. Angelyne doesn’t seem to think so; or, so I imagine. I keep seeing her in the AMPM in Malibu at four in the morning. She keeps smiling at me. Hell, maybe she smiles at everybody. We’re both hunting after something it seems, but as I sip my coffee and zap my pre-dive burrito I realize that my quarry is much easier to get at. They’re neatly tucked under the sand, only two or three hundred feet off the nearby beach. She’s assaulting the mounds and mountains of Hollywood. We all have our illusions of grandeur. Like Angelyne, I hunt to kill. But, I HUNT HALIBUT!!
Now my wife is Brazilian and like all great women she sends me out into the jungle every morning to procure sustenance for my tribe, and is pleased when the fridge is full. She prefers Brazilian barbecue, famous for giant spits of carved beef, but I never come home with ducks or venison. I like slippery things that stack well in a ninety gallon cooler. If I let you in on a few of my secrets, you will promise to keep your sources to yourself. You will be successful; and, if you end up sleeping on the couch because you show up at midnight smelling like fish slime, urine, and sweat, then you will know my council has aided your underwater life, if damning your terrestrial one
Halibut hunting takes a lot of time to develop because it’s more about being on a mission for that one species. It’s also all about your eyes. You have to see through their chameleon-like defenses. You have to pay some dues. It’s about being able to see the sand clearly from the surface as you swim. If the visibility is twenty-five feet then go deeper and farther out into twenty five feet of water. Choose your terrain well. Don’t think you’re increasing your odds by doing repetitive deep dives for them. Scour. It’s better to move into shallow water. Stick to eight to twenty foot depths and cover as much terrain as possible, zigzagging all over the reef. If you can’t see sand clearly from the surface then move to a different area. The greatest halibut hunters are gonzo swimmers who put in miles of covering, and staring at, beach sand. Stick with it, year after year. Your eyes will start to adjust. The sand flats will open up before you. You’ll see angel sharks, loads of bat rays, sting rays, shovel nose sharks, and the prized California Halibut. If you live in Northern California, you might encounter the bigger Pacific Halibut. Train your eyes at first. It may take a couple of seasons until you get the visual of them on the sand. They’ve always been there, and in greater numbers than you’ve imagined. You just never saw them. You have to invest in what might at first seem a boring pastime of staring at sand before it all clicks for you.
Secondly, you have to concentrate on terrain and “location, location, location.” Look for the halibut habitat in eel grass beds, big sandy pits that look like satellite dishes, sand sidewalks that form where the reef is broken in two by fissures and near the surf zone where waves break. Avoid large open stretches of sand with no rocks. Stick to where the eel grass beds meet up with the sand. Cruise these green-white perimeters-areas where the sand meets the rocks, creating dips for them to lay in. In many ways they are like river fish; they like to hold behind structure to keep out of the current. The surf is the current they use to their advantage. While baitfish fight the surge, the halibut are well positioned to spring up and jaw their favorite candy-sardines, jacksmelt, mackerel, and squid. Most of the time you’ll find butts in three to four feet of water out to twenty feet. Of course, they’re in sixty feet of water too; but, do you want to spend your whole morning freediving to fifty feet and cruising the sand for a few seconds? So when the viz opens up to twenty feet, get out and cruise long stretches so the beach. Explore. Focus on points, surf breaks, jetties, deep coves, any place where the coastline makes abrupt angles. Avoid open beaches with no rocks or structure. If it’s just sand, sand, sand, then move on .
One thing most underwater hunters don’t realize is that they have to work as hard as they can not to spook the fish, especially in other ways than sound or sight. Especially with bass, you have to be quiet; but, how many divers imagine that fish can’t smell?? Remember, your “brand new” wetsuit smells exactly like a “brand new wetsuit.” You wash your gear with shampoo to please Kathy, your girlfriend, YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A SKUNK IN YOUR BOAT!! If your suit’s too tight and you juice up your booty with conditioner to get it on, then YOU ARE BLOWING IT!!
Take the stringer of fish you’ve just speared and throw them in your ice chest with a couple bags of ice and some water. Halibut are great because they are so slimy and toadlike. Now, throw in your wetsuit, hood, boots, gloves, and lycra and mix well. Keep putting in some ice overnight to keep your catch fresh into the next day. Gut them first. Fillet your fish the next day. Pull your suit out and give it one to three good plunges in a trash can of fresh water. Hang to dry on a tree or balcony, taking care to place it out of the way of alley cats, ants, possums, and your girlfriend (or boyfriend for you hard core honeys). Your suit and your fishing luck will age like fine wine as they get fishier. Your wife may want to boot you out of the house, but life is not perfect, especially not terrestrial life. If a deer can smell you from three hundred yards, how come halibut (not just white seabass) can’t smell you as you crisscross over their heads for an hour?
Lastly, the shot. Most of the time you will see something in the sand and dive down a bit to take a closer look, if you’re not sure about it. Other times you’ll see them clearly- either lying on top of the sand or with just a dusting of sand over them. Once you’re positive it’s a legal size halibut, not a ray or skate, don’t wait. You should always be swimming with your spear pointed out in front and ready. Shoot as soon as you’re sure it’s a big butt. With 25-35 pound females, don’t think she doesn’t see you just because she seems buried in the sand. Pull the trigger!! Shoot from whatever angle you’re lined up on. Don’t circle around thinking you’ll get a better shot from behind. Many, many times you can play them with your reel or float line if they are somewhat belly-shot. Halibut are tough and hold a spear well. Normally when they spook off the sand they got that one to two second jump on you. Forty pounders don’t come easy. If you see you haven’t got off a great shot, then dive after them as soon as possible and pin them to the sand or reef. Euro guns are light and great for halibut.
There you have it. All my trade secrets; but, like a coy young lady, I have held many fruits back. You now know the most important things about halibut hunting. If you are traveling to Cali remember you don’t need a boat to land trophy butts. There are forty pounders 100 yards off the beach in Malibu. I have never speared a flatfish on scuba. My best is 80 legal fish in one calendar year; but, as I wistfully look back on those days, and at my receding hairline and beer belly, I will wax positively cryptic. Shhh! Now…. This is my best secret so far…..
YOU CAN BUTTER YOUR TOAST WITH HALIBUTTER!! Forget white seabass and yellowtail. Too ephemeral and too seasonal. Train for those species with something you can sink your spear into 365 days a year. Those slimy toads that lay flat on the sand are more prevalent than you think.
40lber speared at Dume b4 the closure
To learn more about halibut hunting and California Halibut hunting techniques and tips see Raw Haibut on youtube. Legacy film made in 2007.