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Bay Area's Best Game Fish

Bay Area's Best Game Fish

San Francisco Bay anglers are hooking into halibut to 30 pounds with these inshore techniques. (May 2008)

Author Cal Kellogg drifted a live anchovy next to the old Berkeley Pier, and this 22-pound California halibut decided to strike.
Photo courtesy of Cal Kellogg.

Ask Bay Area saltwater anglers what their favorite game fish is, and you'll get a number of different answers. Stripers, lingcod and chinook would be at the top of their list.

Here are some of the attributes the best game fish needs to display:

€¢ Strong fighting ability€¢ Potential to attain hefty proportions€¢ Accessible to a large number of anglers€¢ A long fishing season€¢ Topnotch table fare

So is there a Bay Area saltwater species that meets all these criteria?

Absolutely! It's the robust population of California halibut that inhabits San Francisco Bay.

The halibut in the Bay average 10 to 12 pounds and range beyond 30. Halibut have a clumsy appearance, but they're able to put up a spirited fight and can display bursts of lightning speed.


When it comes to good eating, halibut have few rivals. These flatfish yield firm white fillets. Whether baked, broiled or beer-battered, they taste great.

Bay Area halibut are highly accessible. You can target them effectively from your own boat, or from one of the Bay's numerous charter boats. Because you'll be fishing in the Bay, weather is typically not a big factor. This is a welcome contrast to fishing outside the Gate, where wind and swells can keep you off the water.

You can catch halibut all year long, but the prime time for targeting them begins in late April and extends through the end of October.

Trolling and drifting are the two basic approaches to catching Bay Area halibut. Trolling will generally put more fish in the box, but it's tough to match the adrenaline rush you feel when a halibut grabs your anchovy as you drift with light tackle.

1. Live-Bait Drifting
On most charter and private boats, live-bait drifting is the standard approach. If you're fishing on a charter boat, they will supply live anchovies. If you're fishing from a private boat, you'll need to purchase your own live bait. Live anchovies are available at both the Berkeley Marina and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

Another option is shiner perch. You can buy live perch at various Bay Area bait shops. You could also use a light spinning rod baited with bits of pile worm to catch your own perch around piers and other structure.

For the private boaters, perch are actually the best choice. Much hardier than anchovies, they also tend to draw strikes from larger halibut.

When I get out on the Bay to drift for halibut, I take along two outfits. The "all-around rod" needs to be capable of handling sinkers up to 8 ounces. Since bites can be light, you'll want a sensitive stick.

But in its lower section, it'll need enough backbone to lift a husky fish off the bottom.

Your second rod should be a light baitcasting or spinning outfit. Use it when the conditions let you get away with a 1- or 2-ounce sinker. It's quite a thrill to land a good-sized halibut on a black bass rod.

The standard end-tackle for live-bait fishing is a three-way rig.

Attach a 36-inch, 25-pound monofilament leader tipped with a No. 1, 1/0 or 2/0 live-bait hook tied on a perfection loop to one eye of the three-way swivel. Next, connect a short, light monofilament dropper to the second eye of the swivel.

Your sinker will be attached to this dropper. The dropper is light line so that the sinker will pop off if you get snagged on the bottom. That way, you'll have to put on only a new weight, rather than a whole new rig.

Attach the main line to the third eye of the swivel.

When you're ready to fish, pin a live bait on your hook through the tip of its nose. Put the rig in the water and lower it to the bottom. Let out a few more feet of line and then engage the reel.

As the boat drifts, you want to feel the rig dragging across the bottom. Halibut lie on the bottom and ambush baitfish.

If the rod slowly bends into a deep arc, that could be a bite. A halibut might have inhaled the bait and is hooked. When that happens, take the rod out of the holder and start working the reel.

2. Trolling
For decades, commercial anglers have been trolling for halibut. But private boaters and a few charter operators recently have discovered how effective trolling is. It's not as much fun as drifting, but because you'll cover more ground, you can usually catch more fish.

You'll need a beefy rod capable handling a sinker that weighs up to a pound. Match it with a reel loaded with 65-pound braid.

To rig up, tie a three-way swivel to the end of the main line. To one eye, attach a short, medium-weight monofilament dropper. To the third eye, tie in a 48-inch section of 30-pound leader material and then attach an 8-inch dodger.

To the rear of the dodger, attach another 36 inches of leader. At the end of that line, attach your bait.

The most common trolling bait is a frozen anchovy, known locally as a "popsicle," rigged with a pair of hooks or placed in one of the plastic bait-rotators more commonly employed while trolling for salmon.

Fewer anglers use artificial lures, but they can be super-effective.

The best artificial is a white 4-inch swimtail grub with a blue hoochie over the top of it.

Other offerings that work include 3-inch wobbling spoons or 4-inch shallow-running minnow plugs.

No matter what offering you use, the technique is the same. To the dropper, attach a 6- to 16-ounce weight (depending on the current and depth of water) and then free-spool the rig out behind the boat.

If your rig is not dragging across the bottom, you need more weight. For halibut trolling, the ideal speed is between 1 and 3 mph.

Halibut face into the current. Maneuver the boat so it quarters across and slightly downcurrent. This will help you maintain a low speed while presenting the bait in front of the fish.

The strikes you get when trolling are not as violent. The rod will simply bend over as if snagged. That's your cue to pull it out of the holder and begin battling your prize.

San Francisco Bay covers a huge area. There are spots that offer both drifters and trollers a good opportunity for success. Throughout the season, you'll get consistent action at Central Bay locations, such as Angel Island, Paradise Cay, Krissy Field and the Berkeley Flats.

At times, the South Bay plays host to excellent halibut action. Top South Bay spots include the Alameda Rock Wall, the Oakland Airport, Candlestick Point and the area offshore of the Oyster Point Pier. To the north, the lower portion of San Pablo Bay typically yields good fishing during the late summer and early fall.

Whenever you're fishing in salt water, tides should play a role in your strategy. To some extent, tides, will dictate how good or bad the fishing will be. Halibut fishing is certainly no exception to this rule. Halibut are mostly sight-feeders. The clearer the water, the better the fishing.

In the Bay, the clearest water occurs when tides are light. Typically, halibut fishing is best during tides that feature less than 3 feet of movement. Then again, with stronger tides, by all means go fishing. I've caught my share of halibut when the tide was absolutely ripping!

Cal Kellogg is the author of the Trout Fishing Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide For The Conventional Tackle Angler. For more information, or to order a copy, call (530) 320-0368.

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