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Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Wednesday, March 07, 2018
It's Here!
Thursday, March 29, 2018
The bluefin enigma

Channel Islands flatfish
Anglers tend to think of halibut as sedentary, sit on the bottom, wait for prey, kind of hang out in the same zone for life. This is all pretty much the case, but for the last bit. Halibut roam widely from zone to zone. Nothing makes this clearer than the way they show up with sea bass and such to a squid nest.

Yet, there is a strange pattern to their travels, and honestly, I am far from figuring it out. I only know it's not random and not simply following a food supply. I know this if by no other way, than by where all the record catches have been made.

THIS FLATTY BIT on the clicker. While fishing a live anchovy along the bottom edges of a reef, these double-digit bonito showed up and had to be casted at. The 32-pounder scarfed the bait and sat there waiting to be wound up and gaffed, too.

They've come from Santa Rosa Island for sure. And there are a lot of key areas regularly visited by large Channel Islands flatfish. But there is one area in particular where the exceptionally large ones have all come from, in fact one small patch of sand in front of a single thin ridge in 11 fathoms.

We put one in the record book there years ago, only to have it beaten a few weeks later, by an angler in a skiff fishing the same zone. The Mirage has eclipsed that twice with fish from that patch. It's a decent place for numbers of larger fish, those in excess of 30 pounds. But there are others around those islands with a far more productive track record on 20- to 40-pound flatfish. Yet, those 50-plus pound monsters all seem to target that one pocket, like they're their own breed, exceptionally long and thick.

I know of only one really large halibut not taken there, the 72.5-pound spearfishing record taken from a small cove along the north side of Santa Cruz Island in August of 1982. The current reining rod and reel record holder is a 67.25 pounder taken by Francisco Riviera in 2011.

But even at this ‘secret spot,’ 99 days out of 100 nobody's home. They just come when they do, usually in the late spring or early summer.

One of my favorite hali holes was up at San Miguel Island, just at the very north end of Simonton Cove, an area now off-limits within the Harris Point SMR. It was there these flatfish showed me some of their surly secrets.

First and most well known is the big fish aggregate to spawn at certain times and places, but exactly which and when seems not to be consistent from season to season. An astute halibut skipper has to run through his or her repertoire of encounter zones every season.

Sometimes the fish are gathered for food and romance happens. Others, they've moved into the shallows just for the party, but that pattern is as follows.

First to arrive are the big females. Almost all males are under 12 pounds. It will only last for a few days, maybe a week, and the males tend to linger longer. If you get mostly males, it's winding down. Every once in a long, long while I'll see a monster male, a 30 pounder perhaps. Almost all the 20-plus pounders caught are female.

At this particular San Miguel spot the north edge was defined by a rock wall and on the south was a consistent riptide, spilling off the beach where an immense monolith stood out into the surf zone. The big flatfish piled up in the pocket.

Males aggressively hovered over females trying to settle in on top to upload their code. It was common to have follower males on a hooked female, one or two following her up, trying to angle their way in above her.

Here's what's important about that. You can actually meter the males on the "fish finder" and find exactly where the fish are congregated by it. But it takes an otherwise clean water column, like what you find along island pocket beaches in 20 to 50 feet of water.

Another thing I learned there, is halibut are almost always aggressive feeders. The lore about being tentative biters is simply wrong. It's the result of fishing coastal beaches where there are lots of ‘fly-swatters’ with mouths too small to suck down your bait in one fell swoop.

I once watched an elderly angler (not to mention names, but it was Fred Hertzburger) — he pinned a floater starry rockfish onto a giant "J" hook on 60-pound, lingcod style. I shook my head in dismay as I watched it drag along the sand. Then, he was on, and it was BIG! — perhaps 45 pounds. Well, he wound it right up and jerked that thing right out of the water. It exploded of course, and with both thumbs on the spool, he broke it off and started cursing a blue streak.

When the fish aren't in spawn mode or on squid nests, but more spread out, knowledgeable skippers hit little pockets where halibut like to lie in wait. They work their way along trying each, tapping the edge of that rock, the drop off along a sand bank, the turn in a breakwater, whatever.

For private boaters, by far the most productivity for the least amount of local knowledge comes with bounce balling. Basically it's all about covering lots of area in a hurry with really gaudy gear.

The terminal tackle is a de-evolution of salmon trolling gear. One's main line is tied to a three-way swivel. A heavy sinker goes on the second leg and a 5-foot leader with a flasher in the middle and a gnarly trap-rig on the third leg. It's baited with a double hoochie or hoochie and squid or other big bait.

This is slow trolled, just slow enough to keep the sinker bouncing along the bottom, but otherwise as fast as you can go and keep it down there — perhaps a knot or two. A fish, after grabbing at the sinker and the flasher eventually nails that bait, if you get my drift.

Some use rubber snubbers as a shock absorber between the sinker and hook, so the fish don't tear off. Add in a little local knowledge and you can level up to commercial productivity with this method.

I always aim for gaffing a halibut deep in the gut. Anywhere else and they'll freak out and possibly tear off or flip off. If you dump them off the gaff onto the deck they'll flip out as well, so have a plan.

If they're wild on deck, stand back and block the rails until they've settled down. If you try to sit, kneel or step on them, they'll use that leverage to flip themselves clear overboard.

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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