Halibut Surf Fishing - The Hunt for 30
Updated: Apr 19
Time for another journey down the California coast. We've got big fish, a slippery scare, and just flat-out luck at the heart of today's session. Here's the story.
It was late November. My friend and I made plans to go to the beach. The idea was that I would fish, and he would do some reading in preparation for the next episode of his science podcast. Unfortunately, he cancelled on me the day before. The manner in which he did so led me to believe there was more going on behind the scenes. In turn, I did what a good friend should: I called him. We talked about it, he changed his mind, and off we went to one of my most productive stretches of coastline.
I picked up my buddy. He likes to listen to music (usually rap). However, today he was in a contemplative mood. I had a long day the day before, so I was okay with some silence on the road. There was a little bit of conversation along the way, but the more relaxed vibe ended up being a great setup for the session. The drive was an hour, and surprisingly traffic-free. I was feeling pretty centered and ready to show my buddy one of my favorite beaches.
When we got there, my friend commented that the beach was really pretty. I agreed; it's a slice of heaven, at least by SoCal's standards. He wondered how there could be so many people just miles away, but no one here to appreciate the beauty. I had no good answer.
The session started at low tide. It was one of the higher low tides of the month (around 2'), which meant a fair amount of the structure at the beach was still submerged and not visible. Thankfully, there were a few pockets of good fishable water with the kind of structure ambush predators like halibut prefer. My presentation of choice was a weedless swimbait, Texas rig style.
I started casting in a small channel adjacent to the shallow reef, and caught a sublegal cabezon pretty quickly. A few minutes after that was a 20" halibut. My friend never fishes; he prefers books. It's always interesting to see the reaction of a non-fisherman. In some ways it gives insight into your own thought processes on the water, and even sheds some light on your personal fishing journey. He commented that the halibut was big, which surprised me because it's exactly the kind of fish I look to release immediately, and cast out again in search of a bigger model. As the halibut swam away, it came to me that anything of this size would have been an absolute treasure a few years ago. Back in 2016, when my brother and I first got into surf fishing, a fish of any kind would have had us over the moon. I don't think it's possible to recapture that same wide-eyed enthusiasm, but it's good to remind yourself that every fish is a gift, and that none of these moments are to be taken for granted. With that thought, the bite slowed down. After about thirty more casts, I decided to walk down the beach in search of more fish.
A couple of memories come back to me pretty much every time I walk this stretch of beach. Earlier this year, I caught two 30" class halibut in the same hole about a week apart.
Back when I caught those fish, there was so much bait presence in the water I could essentially feel bait fish tapping my line on every cast. The entirety of that story is for another day, but one thing is for sure: I'm excited every time I'm out there. Arriving at the same hole, my excitement was amplified: the water was clear. This tiny stretch of beach is prone to stained water, so to see an inviting shade of blue was a welcome surprise.
Unfortunately, no bites. In fact, it was getting to about an hour without a bite. I figured a big fish wasn't in the cards for the day. Nonetheless, there were a few more minor holes just a little bit down the beach, so I made my way toward those. I started reframing the day, feeling happy my friend was in a better mood, and accepting that the lower water temperature had adversely affected the rate at which fish were feeding.
Up next is where the story gets interesting. But first I'd like to make a quick note about wading. Sometimes I'll wade out about knee-deep so as to place my swimbait in the "strike zone" as long as possible. I know this beach well, and have never seen a ray while wading. I have, on occasion, seen small halibut dart out near my feet. With regards to today's session, I hadn't seen any halibut or even bait fish of any kind. I had done a bit of wading but nothing too adventurous; it needn't be with the holes being so close to shore.
I arrived at the next hole. Without much thought, I began wading out in sandy bottom. All of a sudden, I felt wobbly. I've felt similar sensations after taking one or two substances I shouldn't have, but this time the effect was not hallucinated. Something slimy was wiggling underneath my right foot, and it wasn't in any rush to get going. I looked down and saw a large brown shape. In an instant, I was terrified. That's when the fish took off and I almost fell head first into the water. Thankfully, adrenaline kicked in and I regained my balance, leaving me with enough time to look at the fish as it swam away. It was a massive halibut, one I'd estimate to be over 35". This fish wasn't in a hole or cut of any sort. It was in flat sand about two feet deep, in close proximity to the reef. Sometimes the ocean amazes you.
With renewed vigor, and in a half shock-like state, I cast into the mini-hole that the halibut swam in the general direction of. After twenty minutes of repeated casting, once again no bites. Though the fish weren't feeding, the sight of that monstrous fish gave me the belief that there were more big halibut in the shallows. In turn, I decided to walk back to the hole where I caught those aforementioned 30" halibut earlier in the year. Slowing my presentation to a crawl, I hoped to elicit the strike of a particularly lazy predator. The hole looked the same as an hour ago, but this time I had evidence that there could in fact be a large fish lurking. Focusing on the deepest part of the hole, I finally had a bite. It was a solid thump. Yes!
I set the hook, and it felt heavy. The fish wasn't in a fighting mood, not resisting in the slightest. That is, until she saw me. She was a sizable halibut, and the moment I got eyes on her she went on a powerful run. The area I was fishing had a lot of hard structure, and with her run she wrapped my line around a large rock. At this point, I was really hoping she was hooked well and wouldn't go on another run. A run of any sort would definitely snap my braid on the obtrusive jagged rock. I quickly waded waist deep to get into a position in which I could free my line from the rock. I did so, and by pure luck the halibut was still on. Over the next minute, I slowly got her onto the sand. I was stoked! She was tied for my third biggest halibut of the year at 29".
At this point, my friend was a ways down the beach, so there was no way I could track him down to take a photo and still safely release the fish. Thankfully, there was a gentleman who had seen me catch the gorgeous halibut. I hadn't noticed him prior to the catch, but he was more than willing to take a photo. The fish swam away full of energy. Success! It feels great to catch a big fish, and even better to watch it swim back out to the reef.
That was all for the session. I went back to find my friend sitting on the beach reading, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.
Considering how slow the bite was, I was quite happy with the one solid catch. In Southern California, halibut roam the surf from San Diego to Santa Barbara County, and are surprisingly consistent in the kind of habitat they prefer. Now that the fishing season is progressing to Winter, it's likely that they will not bite with the same intensity as summer. Fortunately, the size of the average halibut will significantly increase. Let's hope for more doormats! Stay tuned for more adventures.