Skip to main content

Fishing for California Halibut

  • Author:
  • Updated:

Tortilla Flat(fish)

California halibut move in close to feed in the summertime.

When you hear the word “halibut,” you may picture those massive barndoor-size fish caught in Alaska, but there is another member of the clan that inhabits the lower 48. While they’re not quite as large as their northern cousins, California halibut are serious game fish!

Gary Graham

The Marina Del Rey Anglers Club hosts its annual halibut tournament, June 8-9. Learn how to get in on the action here.

These flatfish grow to well over 50 pounds and range from north of San Francisco down to well past the Mexican border. It is one of the few species on the left coast that has not been slapped with a closed season by regulators. But there is a 22-inch minimum size, with a reasonable bag limit of five fish per angler per day south of Point Sur in Monterey County, and three fish per day north of that point.

Last July a lucky angler by the name of Frank Rivera fishing onboard the Oxnard, California-based sport boat Mirage ( broke the all-tackle record for the species with a 67-pound, 5-ounce monster. In the coming months there’s a good chance that feat of angling prowess could be repeated or even beaten. 

“July and August are the prime months for halibut,” said Capt. Joe Villareal, skipper of the Mirage. “Yeah, we catch them year-round, but summer is when squid move onto the sand flats to spawn and the halibut fishing goes into overdrive.”

Villareal explained that California halibut winter in deep water and then migrate to more shallow haunts in the spring, making them more easily accessible to anglers during the warmer months. They prefer open, sandy bottom, but are usually found near structure, such as dropoffs or depressions—places that attract forage species. Drift fishing with live squid, herring, sardines, or anchovies on a single-hook bottom rig is the basic technique—that is until the squid show up. Then all bets are off!

When the squid run, anglers are wise to match the hatch. “When we get into an area where the squid are spawning the boat gets anchored and anglers cast or drop live squid straight down and usually don’t have to wait very long to get bit,” Villareal said, sounding a little excited about the fishing to come. 

While open boats like the Mirage carry capacity crowds for trips to the Channel Islands during the prime months of the season, private-boat anglers can get in on the action throughout the state. From San Francisco Bay to San Diego and around the islands, halibut are found moving into estuaries and onto nearshore structure. During the famous spring and summer grunion runs spearfishermen pursue these flatfish by wading from the beach, as do surfcasters. 

Fishing with 25- to 30-pound-class conventional gear is the way to go. Rods with a light tip for sensitivity are preferred, but they have to have enough power to be able to handle a big fish. To rig up, slide a 2-ounce egg sinker onto your 20- to 30-pound-test fishing line, then tie on a swivel. To the other end of the swivel tie a 5-foot section of 40- to 50-pound leader with a 3/0 Mustad hook. Hook a lively sardine through the lips and you’re in business.

Halibut are aggressive predators that earn their living pouncing on baitfish and squid and they put up a good fight when hooked, which makes them a lot of fun to catch. They’re also great to eat—another reason anglers love ’em.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.