38" Surf Halibut - A Day in the Jungle
We woke up pretty early – early enough to get to the beach before low tide. The idea was to assess conditions and decide whether the beach we chose was actually fishable. With how bad the weather had been lately, I felt like I hadn’t had a proper lure surf fishing session in months. Thankfully, it was a beautiful Southern California morning. Joining me this session were two guys I always have a blast with, my brother Kaspar and our friend Jason. Off we went.
Arriving at the beach, conditions were reasonable. Not great (water was still cold), but good enough to give it a shot. Jason and I had our swimbaits ready, while Kaspar was ready to roll with mussels. Our main fishing spot was over a mile walk from the access point. This beach is pretty interesting; it has a bottleneck that usually isn’t too tricky to cross when the tide is low. Unfortunately, winter storms stripped away several feet of sand, so water levels were waist high even at low tide. Thankfully, we were able to cross over.
When we got to the spot, it was evident that there was a strong baitfish presence in the water. I had a bite casting right into the baitfish; it felt like a big California halibut. It didn’t stick. Jason and I began working a hole that was surrounded by kelp and reef, but was largely clean sandy bottom. We both hooked up within a couple of minutes. Calicos! His was big, over 19”.
I had five more bites in that hole but didn’t hook any of them. As is often the case, my target species was halibut. Though the session was still young, it was looking like one of those days with a lot of fish activity but not much to show for it. Jason and I decided to go check on Kaspar’s progress on bait and wait. Well, he hadn’t made much progress, just a couple of nibbles. Kaspar was trying some experimental setups so it wasn’t too surprising.
I noticed there was a small pool with mixed sand / reef bottom close to where he was standing. After a few casts with my swimbait, a 21” halibut bit and came in without much of a fuss. It was quickly released. Scanning the environment, nearby there were several nice lanes in which halibut could be waiting to ambush baitfish. Luckily, within a few minutes, I felt a solid thump. It was a pretty solid halibut – 25”. For some reason it didn’t do a single headshake, nor a single run. I didn’t complain.
The fish was released into a tidepool. The three of us watched it settle in there. There’s something oddly satisfying about watching a halibut swim- more than swimming it looks like it’s gliding through the water.
The day was beginning to really shape up. I caught a small rockfish a couple of hundred yards down the beach. Jason was catching calico after calico. He ended up with five - the biggest of which was this 20” beast.
The Battlestar XLS swimbait hook he was using definitely had a better hook-up to bite ratio than the VMC Drop Dead hook I was using. Jason always uses those hooks, and whether it’s his technique or the hooks themselves (probably a combination of the two), he turns most of his bites into catches.
Returning to the hole where I had earlier missed five bites in a row, the baitfish presence was still good. Overall, it was just beautiful, with sunlight reflecting off baitfish as they danced on the surface of the water. Having not fished that hole for two hours, I was ready to see if any game fish had moved in. I gently cast my swimbait out. A couple of seconds into the retrieve, I felt an aggressive strike. It was a cookie cutter calico, feisty for his size. After a quick release, I cast into the hole again - not a very far cast. Big thump.
We hadn’t yet caught a halibut in that hole. Still, early signs were that it was indeed a halibut. Then it began to run. Okay, that’s interesting. Then my drag started screaming. Okay, is this a white seabass? The run was powerful, but it didn’t have the erratic headshakes I associate with white seabass. Then it felt like I was snagged. Is this fish just that heavy? Then another powerful run. I started to think it was a humungous calico bass diving into the reef and repeatedly getting hung up on rocks. I was wrong.
After a few minutes of tug of war, it felt like I began to have the advantage. Somehow the fish was free of all obstacles, not wrapped around any kelp. Slowly, a big brown mass ascended to the surface. It was a halibut, the kind you dream of.
My fishing line (braid) was only rated to 20 pounds. This fish was over 20 pounds. I was not confident that I could pull this halibut out of the water onto the reef I was standing on without my braid snapping. So, I made an in-the-moment decision: I grabbed it by the gills. A new personal best.
From a distance, Jason saw me with the doormat. He ran over and took some pictures. I would estimate the depth that the halibut bit in was about five feet. It was just an incredible feeling. The only thing that dampened the mood was that this monster halibut was not going to survive. I comforted myself with the knowledge that we released every other fish this session, and I hadn’t taken home any halibut this year.
Kaspar caught up with us. He’d never seen a flatfish that big, so he was ecstatic. This halibut was just a tad longer than the 38” I caught in December, but it was thicker. This one was definitely more of a fighter.
Kaspar let us know he had caught a 14” cabezon on bait and wait, which was pretty neat. It wasn’t the tide he typically fishes bait and wait, but he wanted to give it a shot and I’m glad he did since it gave us another data point. That was it for the session. What an incredible day! Thanks to Jason for taking all the pictures. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to target halibut from the surf, so to catch one of this size is almost indescribable. Here’s to more good fishing this year!