38" California Halibut - An Insane Day From Shore
Updated: Apr 19
Sometimes conditions line up, the bite gets hot, and you want nothing more than to get out there and do it all over the next day. Unfortunately, life doesn't quite work that way. This year, I averaged about three sessions per week. That's a lot of surf fishing by anyone's standards. Nonetheless, some obligations can't (and shouldn't) be ignored. My partner had an important appointment, and there was no way I could live with myself not going. Indeed, there are a few things more important than fishing.
Still, at the back of my mind were my last few sessions up north. Halibut were active, and I hooked into a doormat that revealed its mermaid-esque tail before hightailing it. In addition, I recently stepped on what looked like a forty inch halibut (thankfully it wasn't a ray!). Conditions were even better today. Oh well, wasn't meant to be.
I was preparing for the appointment when my partner walked in. Apparently, her doctor had just called. It turned out that the appointment had to be rescheduled to two weeks from now. We had a discussion, and I got the go ahead. Time to fish.
Shifting gears, I realized this was realistically one of the last chances to catch quality fish this year. 2022 had already been my favorite year of surf fishing ever, with a lot of incredible memories, in particular with my flat friend the halibut.
I arrived at the beach late, only a few hours before sundown. Waves were calm. Conditions necessitated the use of weedless swimbaits.
A bite! Missed it. Another bite. They were active. Within ten minutes, I landed the first quality fish of the day.
I released the fish and kept casting. After a couple of minutes, I got a wind knot. It was bad, taking close to thirty minutes to fix. By the time I was all set up again, the tide was quite low. In fact, it was lower than I'd ever fished this beach. Since I couldn't rely on prior experience, I had to take some educated guesses on where the halibut would be staging. Wading knee deep, the water was absolutely gorgeous.
After identifying a few lanes, I began casting again. More often than not, there was a halibut or two waiting to ambush my swimbait in these lanes. The bite began to resemble a summer bite, not what one would expect in the frigid cold of winter.
Another legal halibut came to play but popped off about halfway in. Several pelicans were diving just beyond casting range, and there were subtle indicators that the surf zone was teeming with life. I got the feeling that anything could happen. Onto the next hole.
The first three casts at the hole resulted in bites. I hooked the third one: a white seabass which I'd estimate to be about 25". No pictures of this fish. My personal philosophy is to release sublegal seabass as quickly as possible, only opting to take pictures of their legal counterparts. I was hoping to hook into the rest of the school, but they were gone just as fast as they came. A little down the beach, I caught another short halibut, this one spitting the remains of a bait fish that had had a particularly unlucky afternoon.
This is where things get real interesting. Several months ago, I set a personal goal of catching twenty-five halibut over 25" for the year. One short of that number going into this session, I had already accepted that I wouldn't reach it. These kinds of goals are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but they can give you something tangible to aim for when you're out there. Another bite. This one felt pretty heavy.
Double legal session! I felt great, even if I hadn't hit my target of 25". Sure, if I bent the tail, it MIGHT have been 25", but that's no way to hit a milestone. Fifteen minutes later I felt a big thump. It was another quality halibut, but didn't quite make it to the sand, coming undone in some weeds about twenty feet in front of me.
The bite was red hot at this point. I opened my tackle box to change out my swimbait hook since it had gotten somewhat dull over the course of the session. I still had a pack of green swimbaits, which I hoped would be enough to last the rest of the session. The wind ever so slightly picked up, but not enough to affect the action or hook set. I started focusing on a flat sandy patch in between some hard structure. After about ten casts, a subtle tap.
I set the hook. It didn't feel heavy at first, offering very little resistance. Over the next couple of seconds, my rod slowly loaded up and I felt its weight. This was a different class of fish. I started to get the sense that it was a beast, so I scanned my environment to figure out how to maneuver it around all the structure and eelgrass. Twenty second in, everything was going to plan. That is, until I saw its tail majestically breach the surface of the water. My knees got weak; I fell. I got up and fell again.
My waders were now halfway filled with the sub 60 degree water, but the fish was still on. She was very heavy, but not putting up much of a fight. She was close. Operating more on instinct than reason, I decided to pull the monster onto a big exposed rock next to me. Bad idea. Once her head came out of the water, she went on a powerful run out to sea. I again maneuvered her, aiming to land her on the same rock. It almost worked this time, but again she went on a run. That's when disaster struck. She swam straight through an outcropping of eelgrass up close. Running perpendicular to the structure, then pulling my rod deep into the eelgrass, she left my line highly compromised. There was no give. Out of desperation, I dropped my rod and searched for my braid on the other side of the grass. It took a few seconds, but I found it and grabbed it. By some miracle, the line hadn't snapped, and the fish was still on.
Things certainly aren't going to plan when you're soaking wet and trying to handline a monster halibut. With a powerful headshake, the braid cut into my finger. I instinctively dropped it, losing sight of it in the two foot deep water. Not knowing what to do, I grabbed the rod, pulling aggressively on the eelgrass with my right hand in hopes of freeing my line. Somehow, it worked! She was still on. This time, she was tired, and I had control of her. Ignoring the once promising rock that had failed me twice, I slowly pulled her back to shore. A BIG halibut, bigger than I thought.
Having never fished for halibut from a boat, this is the largest one I've seen in person. My guess is twenty-five to thirty pounds. There wasn't much time to revel in the catch since she was tired and needed a release. I sat with her for a couple of minutes as she regained her strength. Resuscitating her in shallow calm water, I found myself getting emotional. It was the perfect way to close out the year.
Thankfully, she swam away strong. There was still about half an hour till sunset (which would have theoretically been even better fishing) but it felt right to just end the session then and there. All fish were released.
I still don't think I've fully processed this catch. Those that know me know I've been borderline obsessive about halibut all year. One thing I know for sure is that fishing, surf fishing in particular, has real healing qualities. It's done wonders for me and my general well-being. I hope it does the same for you. Here's to many more fish in 2023!