Catching the giants of the sea bottom

Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003

Just about this time each year Pacific halibut start to arrive in our near-shore waters. An ominous bottom dweller known to exceed 400 pounds in weight, Pacific halibut are the largest flatfish in the world.

Female halibut grow much larger than males, and the world's record on sport gear stands at 459 pounds for an 8 1/2-foot lady barn-door landed near Unalaska in 1996.

Halibut are highly valuable commercially, with delicious, flaky-white meat, which is popular around the world. Recreationally, their sheer size and power demand respect and anglers find reward not only in delicious meals but in exhilarating and sometimes exhausting battles.

Barn-doors get very old and one female was estimated to be 42 years of age. Normally, halibut spawn in the winter months and do not reach maturity until they are at least 8 years old.

Halibut also require very deep water, usually 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep, for spawning. In the North Pacific, this fact restricts spawning to areas near the edge of the continental shelf; however, a few localized spawning populations exist in the extremely deep waters of Southeast Alaska.

A female halibut may lay millions of eggs and recent studies have shown that the large female halibut are very important in maintaining viable populations as they contribute millions upon millions of eggs annually. This knowledge has many halibut anglers practicing catch and release. For those interested in quality meat, you can't go wrong harvesting fish between 30 and 75 pounds.

After spawning, halibut eggs drift about at the mercy of ocean currents and prevailing winds. Generally, hatching occurs about two weeks after fertilization. Juvenile halibut then swim throughout the water column until reaching shallower water, at which time they begin their bottom-dwelling lives in shallower water until reaching maturity. Once mature, halibut make annual migrations between the shallower rearing areas and the much deeper spawning areas.

Halibut are very aggressive feeders and in this part of the world they seem to concentrate their efforts on more abundant fish, such as rockfish and cod, and invertebrates such, as crab and octopi. Yet halibut are very opportunistic and will do just about anything to get a meal. They will even swim up near the surface to feed on fish such as herring or into brackish freshwater to feed on fish carcasses.

At times halibut can get into a feeding frenzy and I was fortunate enough to witness one years ago in Cook Inlet. My family and I were anchored in about 300 feet of water on a popular hump appropriately deemed "Magic Mountain," near the entrance to Katchemak Bay in Cook Inlet. Everyone was catching fish that day and, as slack tide approached, we began to see halibut swimming below the boat. That day the largest fish landed was hooked no more than 30 feet below the surface.

Anglers often use a variety of methods to catch halibut. Sturdy rods and durable reels capable of holding several hundred feet of heavy line are most often used, but each year it seems some lucky or unlucky angler, depending on your perspective, manages to land a barn-door on salmon gear.

I have refined a few proven halibut rigs over the years, most common of which utilizes a 200-pound monofilament leader with two large J-hooks. The leader is durable enough to withstand the rigors of catching multiple fish over multiple trips, and I hook a very large herring on the double J-hooks. The addition of a couple of large purple spin-n-glo floats above the hooks, coupled with a slip-weight system, serves to float the bait and allows for better feel on subtle bites. The color purple is most visible in the 200 to 300 feet of water I often fish.

If there are too many small halibut, also termed chickens, and I am interested catching larger fish, then I'll place a herring in the mouth of a salmon head. This protects the herring from being knocked off the hook by smaller fish and only the larger halibut can take the bait. Other methods, like stuffing pantyhose with diced herring or using whole fish, can also be effective in weeding out the chicken halibut. Anglers interested in using whole bait should consult their sport fishing regulations because only certain species of fish can be used as whole bait.

Each year I venture out to my secret spot with the hopes of doing hand-to-hand combat with a monumental barn-door, a challenge unparalleled in our part of the world.

Ed Jones is a fisheries biologist who loves to fish. For further information concerning sport fishing opportunities or regulations in the Juneau area, call the Division of Sport Fish at 465-4270.

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