By John Strange
10 years ago 99% of UK shore anglers had never even thought about setting out to catch a halibut. Yet here we are in 2016 and literally dozens of anglers have caught one, and many many dozens more have spent the majority of their week in Norway trying.
There’s not one single fish that you can catch on a regular basis from the shore in Norway that can put up a fight like a large halibut can, and that’s a fact. If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself connected to a halibut over 20lb you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. Add to this the fact that these fish can grow to in excess of 500lb and you begin to understand the combination of excitement and fear that grips hold of you when a halibut picks up your bait and makes it’s first run.
There’s no mistaking a halibut bite. You are sat there often just admiring the scenery, maybe contemplating whether you should put out a fresh bait when all hell breaks loose!
Pretty much every time you get one take your bait it runs, and if you’re not fishing with a slackened drag and your ratchet on you can say goodbye to your rod, tripod and whatever else is connected.
So lets start with suitable tackle and equipment that’s capable of taming fish up to and around 50lb. I’ll be honest, once they are bigger than 50lb you are at the mercy of lady luck, and no amount of stronger line is going to stop the fish running if it wants to.
You will need a good reel, and it needs a good smooth drag. It’s a huge benefit for the reel to have a loud ratchet. And the reel needs a decent capacity for line. Something along the lines of Daiwa “Slosh30” or Saltist 30 size is a good starting point. You can pay a lot more and go for a lever drag reel, which to be fair is much easier to adjust during the fight, but it’s not essential. You want to load the reel with a minimum of .40mm line, sometimes .45mm if fishing within 70 yards range into shallower water. You want a 10m 80lb shock leader tied with a Uni-Knot for rough ground or a Bimini for clear ground. Uni-knots prevent losing masses of mainline should you become snagged. They provide about 90% strength when tied correctly so the knot becomes the weak spot that’s needed over rough ground.
With rods you need something that has a lot of backbone, but that has a tip that can absorb heavy lunges. My personal favourites are the Zziplex Bullet Hi-Flex or the Century T900. An overly powerful rod will work against you in a hard fight, and too soft a rod will fold up and give you no steerage at close quarters.
Rigs need to be strong and simple. I like to use a minimum of 150lb on the snood, and usually make the whole rig from one piece of mono, rig body and snood. A simple pulley rig. I always use a rotten bottom regardless of venue. And the hook needs to be very strong. Varivas BMX 6/0 or 8/0 is a good value hook. The thicker mono helps prevent the halibut from biting through the snood, and also helps to prevent twisting which helps with presentation. You can add attracting beads to the snood, but it’s not always worth it.
The most important thing to do when setting out for a halibut session is to leave nothing to chance. Check everything is 100%, line, hooks etc. if there’s any weakness the fish will find them. Check everything every cast, your leader knot, your mainline, your hooks. Change anything that looks worn.
When it comes to fishing for halibut you can spend many frustrating days or even weeks without any success. Each mark has it’s own “golden hour” when the halibut are most likely to show. Indeed some marks you can almost set your watch by them feeding. So you could easily spend 10 hours sat on a good mark, and pack up fishless just before they are due to feed. Learning a halibut mark properly takes a lot of time and a lot of biteless hours. Having a local guide who knows where to fish and when to fish there is a massive benefit.
So lets now imagine you are sat on the right mark, and it’s counting down to feeding time. You need to be thinking ahead. Where are other anglers lines? Does everyone know what to do should somebody get a run? If we’re going to gaff the fish who’s confident that they can do so successfully. Do they know where to put the gaff to avoid damaging the fish incase you want to release it? What sort of ground am I fishing onto? Where are the snags? Is there a ledge close in? Am I fully versed in how to adjust my drag to roughly 1/3 of my line strength? When is it wise to increase this drag, and when is it wise to slacken off? All of these questions should be answered in your head before that halibut picks up your bait. Otherwise, frankly you run high risk of losing the fish. If you’re fishing with a guide he’ll be running you through all of the above whilst your driving to the mark. And reaffirming those answers whilst you are fishing. He’ll tell you where the snags are and where the fish will surface, so he’ll be there waiting with the gaff.
So everything is in place. Your bait is in the right spot. The reel is set with a loose drag and all you need is for that ratchet to scream off……
And off it goes!!!!
You need to pick up the rod and tighten down gradually. The fish normally hook themselves if the bait’s presented correctly. If they don’t connect you simply ease the drag back off and put the rod into the tripod and wait. If you’d of struck and started winding it would of made no difference to whether you connected, but would ensure you had spooked the fish and it wouldn’t come back. It’s all too easy to panic and strike. Simply pick up the rod and tighten down. You’ll know if the fish is on.
What normally happens next is the fish will make a powerful run. Unlike a big cod the halibut do not usually run for cover, they just run!! If that so happens to be the wrong side of a reef or a ledge than that’s just unlucky, but at the right mark you should have relatively clear ground in front of you. The run may only be 10 yards, it could be 50. But you’ll struggle to stop it unless it’s under 15lb, and even then it’s a struggle! When the fish decides it wants to stop it will. By now you should be confident that your drag is working correctly, and that you have a good hook hold. So now it’s a question of trying to get the fish to swim towards you. Presuming it isn’t 150lb and you can get it moving then you gently pump and wind so as not to panic the fish. You can often get the fish most of the way in, if not all in this stage. If the fish is over 20lb it’s likely to come in part of the way and then decide it doesn’t want to. Again let the drag do its work and use the rod to steer the fish if possible. Once it’s beaten the fish will appear on the surface, but again unlike a cod it’s not game over just yet! If it can be safely gaffed then do so, if not don’t stab at it. You’ll only make it cross!! This is when the drag needs to be slackened off a bit more, as you now have minimal line stretch working in your favour. The fish is very likely to take another dive and will surprise you with a powerful run straight to the bottom again. Don’t try to lock the drag or brake the spool with your thumb, you’ll lose the fish and damage your line/burn your thumb. This last dive normally signifies the end of the fight. Sometimes the fish goes to ground at the bottom of the ledge. This is where a rotten bottom can be a lifesaver. If it does go to ground be patient and let it swim out again. It normally does. Then you can finish the fight and bring the fish to the surface. You then gaff the fish so as not to damage its organs and slacken off the drag incase the fish falls from the gaff.
You can now take a couple of photos of your prize and weight the fish before either dispatching humanly it if it’s to be eaten, or returning it immediately.
Congratulations!! You’ve just caught your first halibut. Now hurry up and get a bait back out as it’s feeding time!!