Catching Pacific Halibut from a Kayak: the Basics
To get started, here’s a quick preview of what it looks like when a 30 lb halibut pulls on an A1 buoy.
In my mind, this is the pinnacle of fishing in the Northwest. I know that other Northwest fishermen may not agree, but we all have our preferences and mine – by far – is kayak halibut.
If you’re reading this, I sincerely hope it’s because you’re interested in catching halibut from your kayak. The goal of this post isn’t to brag or scare anyone away – it’s to provide information for people who are interested in kayak fishing for halibut. I want to see more people catch halibut from their kayaks.
But I HAVE to say it, because believe it or not, I’ve seen people show up to launch in the morning ready to go halibut fishing with little or no ocean experience and no experience catching large fish from their kayak, which is SO dangerous. So here’s my main thought:
Your maiden voyage kayak fishing with your new kayak shouldn’t be for halibut – But what is an appropriate amount of experience? There isn’t really a clear answer because it depends on what type of experience you have. Through my experiences, I hope to provide interested kayak anglers with some helpful information about targeting halibut from a kayak.
In 2013, my brother and I were staying with family at a rental on the Northern California Coast, and we decided to take a rental kayak out into a small cove to try for Rockfish. We had only fished on a power boat for Rockfish a couple of times in our lives, so when we landed just one small Rockfish from the kayak that day, we were thrilled. That was the birth of our passion for kayak fishing. For some reason, we started with a canoe…
Since then, we have spent quite a bit of time fishing for bottomfish, which leads me to my first pointer for halibut: At the bare minimum, you should have already spent a good amount of time nearshore on the salt on a kayak and you should have an excellent idea of what safety equipment you need. You will almost certainly need to go further from shore to target halibut, and going further away from shore means that if the weather changes or there is some sort of an emergency, it will take a while to get back. Start your ocean fishing adventures (hopefully after plenty of freshwater adventures) by fishing in protected waters where you can get back to shore quickly if something happens, and then gradually work your way further out.
In 2015, Olivia and I moved to Alaska for the summer so that I could deckhand on a charter boat, so we bought a 22-foot travel trailer and a truck, sold most of our belongings, and hastily left home.
We only worked and lived in Alaska for one summer, but thanks to working for a REALLY great charter company (ProFish-n-Sea in Seward, Alaska), I learned a lot about halibut: types of structure they like, what bait and tackle to use, and (especially importantly for kayak fishing) how to deal with large fish. Admittedly (haha), I think back and feel like I wasn’t the best at helping land big fish for clients, but I am definitely a lot better off now trying to do it from a kayak than I would have been without that experience.
This leads me to my second tip: Try to find your way onto a power boat and go halibut fishing and learn the basics. I understand, though, if you don’t have any friends with power boats and don’t want to pay for a guide.
After leaving Alaska, we moved to Oregon. There, we were able to fish for sturgeon and it was our first experience with big fish from a kayak, which leads me to the next tip: You should already have experience catching large fish from a kayak. Sturgeon and Lingcod are a great fish to warm up with. If you haven’t fought and landed large fish, you don’t want to try to deal with one for the first time when you are further from shore.
From Oregon, we moved to Idaho and we were landlocked for a little while. But ever since leaving Alaska, I dreamed about harpooning a big halibut from my kayak. When we moved from Idaho to Washington I knew I might get a chance, so I began to prepare.
I started by doing my homework. I read through websites for Washington halibut fishing areas and studied bathymetric maps. I also used Deep Zoom, an invaluable tool for understanding tides and ocean currents (see our article about Deep Zoom). That’s my next piece of advice: Know the strength and direction of the current. You don’t want to end up fighting it all day and you don’t want to get into trouble. Wind currents and tidal currents can combine and potentially cause more trouble – this leads to another piece of advice: you should have significant experience reading ocean weather forecasts before kayaking several miles offshore. Try to enjoy getting better at reading ocean weather and get to a point where you feel very comfortable on the ocean. Here is an article we wrote about reading ocean weather : Our Favorite Website for Marine Weather Forecasts.
Where to Catch Halibut from a Kayak
From a kayak in the U.S., your odds are probably best in Alaska or Washington. I’ll leave it at that, because there’s tons of information and other resources for specific locations, and I want to focus more on the how to find them once you have a general area in mind.
Halibut are an ambush predator – they usually lay camoflauged on the bottom and wait for something to swim or drift by.
They aren’t a scavenger – remember this and it will help you with bait and tackle as well. They are typically caught in water over 100 feet deep, but can absolutely be found in shallow water. I like to use bathymetric maps to look for mounds, shelves, rock piles, or other structures that are adjacent to large, flat areas or long, gradual slopes.
On my computer I use the Navionics Chart Viewer to study bathymetric maps (make sure you to click the button on the bottom left and chose “sonarchart” for greater detail). The website online is free, but the app is REALLY handy to have on your phone because it acts as a backup GPS if your GPS fails when you are out on the ocean. The app is about $30 a year.
Either way, make sure that you have a way to mark your location when you are on the water because the key is to spend time on the water and through trial an error, you will find good halibut areas. Make sure to also take note of the tides and currents because halibut spots are often only good at certain tides, and you will want to know when and when not to come back.
Another thing to know is that halibut like gravel. They can be found in sandy areas or other types of substrate, but the best substrate to look for is gravel. I use the Washington Marine Spatial Planning mapping website, which is free. Navionics also has substrate type, but not in nearly as much detail. Unless you have a good lead on a specific spot, don’t waste your time in jagged rocky areas or expansive flat areas without structure. It’s not that halibut aren’t there, but the goal is to increase your odds.
I also like to target halibut in areas where I can see the substrate changing on the bottom on my fish finder, or where there is bait on the bottom (which can look similar). In the photo below you can see a change in the bottom after I went a long ways with it just being all yellow. When nothing is changing for a long time and it’s just sand or mud, I will often pick up and move until I see bait or a change in the substrate.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to fish where there are other fishermen, but don’t get too close. If there are a bunch of boats in an area it is likely that it’s at good area. Anchored boats are probably chumming and their chum is going down-current. Don’t be that guy who starts fishing their chum line.
What Gear Is Different for Kayak Halibut?
For halibut, you will want to get a few pieces of gear that you may not already have.
Generally speaking, you need hooks and tackle that are big enough for a big, sharp, bony mouth. I like the Gamakatsu Big River Hooks in size 10/0 to 12/0, and I use two hooks where barbless hooks are required. There’s lots of information and different opinions about halibut bait and tackle, but I mainly want to point out the following.
One of the sketchiest parts about halibut fishing from a kayak is getting snagged.
If you are new to using a break-away line, I used 40-pound line but you may want to start with 20-25 pound line and work your way up. I have a hard enough time breaking off 40 that I don’t want to go any higher than that, and I really don’t think I will be able to break 40 with a fish as long as my drag is set appropriately. In places with current – which is almost always the case when halibut fishing – you REALLY don’t want to get snagged and not be able to break off. In my experience this has been one of the sketchiest parts of halibut fishing. If you get snagged, be prepared for your kayak to turn sideways to the current and be ready to balance yourself. You can imagine that in 1-3 knots (or more) of current if your kayak is stuck stationary and sideways because you are snagged, water will be passing under your kayak from one side to the other, and if you lean into the current towards your fishing line, the water will catch the side of your kayak and flip you over very easily. So use a break-away line.
I use a “slider rig” on 250-pound mono (Alaskan rigging is what people in Washington often call it). Spreader bars work well too, but I have never had issues with tangling so I am sticking with Alaskan rigging. The key point is that instead of clipping a weight straight onto the slider or spreader bar, tie a short piece (3″ or so) of 20-pound mono onto the clip and tie the weight to that. This way if your weight gets snagged it breaks off without too much trouble.
I also run a piece of 40-pound mono from the swivel on my leader (250-pound mono) to my sliding rig. That way if the hook gets snagged, I can break it off safely and I still have my lead and sliding rig. I picked up some Booms Fishing Crimping Pliers and some 1.5mm crimps on amazon to make these sliders and leaders. For jigging, I make similar leaders but I use 125-pound mono so that I can tie straight to my jig (I like that better than a snap swivel to 250-pound line, but that would work fine too).
If you are thinking a break-away will make you lose more gear, know that if you can’t break off from a snag, you will have to cut your line and lose all of your gear and a lot of line. By using a break-away, you often only lose one part of your tackle and you’re much safer as well.
Here is a picture of the whole setup I use (in this case not a Gamakatsu Big River Hook which is what I prefer):
I tie a snap swivel onto my main line so that I can quickly attach and detach slider rigs, jig leaders, and spreader bars.
This setup might seam overly-complicated but it has some huge advantages: it is safe, the weakest point between you and the fish is 40-pounds (more than enough for a kayak), and you can make extra slider rigs and leaders ahead of time so that when you are on the water everything can be replaced quickly and easily – I do everything I can ahead of time to maximize the time that my bait is at the bottom of the ocean. Don’t forget to keep some break-away line handy so that if your weight or leader breaks off you can tie a new one on quickly.
One more thing on getting snagged – I keep a Gerber River Shorty Knife attached to my PFD. These are great safety knives and make for a very quick and easy way to cut your line should you not be able to break off. For a long time I was wary of bringing a knife on my kayak and I still strongly prefer to use pliers with cutters for normal line-cutting, but I think that the benefit of having an emergency knife outweighs the odds of cutting yourself if you are careful and only use the knife for emergencies.
Rods and Reels
I am not at all a gear-junky when it comes to fishing rods and reels, but I do really like the Cedros SpeedJig rod I use for halibut. It works well for both bait or jigging.
I am still, after six years of heavy saltwater use, using a reel that I got at a garage sale for $20 (Penn 320GT), and it works great. I fill it with 80-pound braid. It’s not that you really need 80 pounds of breaking strength, but on a big halibut run, anything under 80 pounds can bury itself into the spool and break off. I also strongly prefer tying knots and working with 80-pound over lighter braid.
The main point is you don’t need expensive gear for halibut. Last year my friend Nate caught a 40-pounder using a Penn level wind reel and an old rod he bought used that is probably older than him. Just make sure your gear is tested and functional and your drag is set right (err on the loose side from a kayak).
Lures and Bait for Halibut
Again, this general subject is already covered extensively on the internet. I usually bring one rod for bait and one rod that is set up to fish with jigs. I use a variety of soft plastics on lead-headed jigs ranging from 4 to 16 ounces. My favorite colors to use are white and pink.
My bait rod is the main rod that I fish with most of the day. I use 16 to 32 ounces of lead and a variety of bait. I rig a herring or other bait fish so that it SPINS, and then I slowly troll it along the bottom, tapping the bottom occasionally to make sure I am close. Having a spinning bait is key – drifting around with a lifeless hunk of meat can definitely work, but I like to have a good amount of action and if I am moving I can usually cover more ground.
Fighting a Halibut from a Kayak
Hooking and fighting a halibut from a kayak is fairly straightforward. I usually have my rod in a rod holder and I troll slowly. If I get a bite and I am using a regular hook (not a circle hook), I pedal my Hobie with my feet and set the hook at the same time. If I were in a paddle kayak I would probably give a couple of strong paddles or just reel in any slack and then set the hook.
While you are fighting the fish, get your harpoon and other landing equipment ready so you aren’t fumbling around when the fish gets close.
Landing and Securing a Halibut on a Kayak
Unless you feel comfortable shooting a halibut with a gun from your kayak (which some folks do), the harpoon or a similar device is essential for landing a big halibut. There are a few options other than harpoons, but harpoons are the most common. For details on my harpoon setup, here is a separate article that describes it in depth: Halibut Harpoon Setup for a Kayak.
I also bring a floating collapsible gaff that I have had for years. This thing has really held up surprisingly well over the years despite being quite affordable.
You will also need a game clip and some rope or straps to tie the fish down after it’s been dispatched.
Here’s my order of operations once the fish is close to my kayak:
Make sure your drag isn’t too tight – when a halibut is close to your kayak its prone to spook and go for a big run. You don’t want it to flip you over or break the line.
Remind yourself to maintain your balance at all times and be ready to act a lot like a caveman
There’s nothing graceful about this. You’re harpooning a large animal from a relatively small piece of plastic out in the middle of the ocean. You can’t let a fish splashing in your face distract you from hooks, gaffs harpoons, and teeth. Know that as soon as you poke the fish with your harpoon, all calmness will end.
Pedal or paddle a few times to get the halibut flat (they can often be vertical if you are drifting with the current) but DON’T bring it’s head out of the water or it will freak out and run. They stay surprisingly docile if they’re kept underwater at the surface.
Make sure the harpoon line is free of yourself and your kayak and toss the harpoon buoy into the water.
Harpoon the fish – Make sure to wait patiently for a good, clean shot and then hit home like there won’t be a second chance. There probably won’t be. Also before harpooning the fish, make sure you are holding the harpoon so that your hand cannot get caught in the rope. In my case I hold the harpoon so that my hand covers the rubber bands and loop of rope, being careful not to have fingers through the loop.
I aim for the thickest, meatiest area just behind the head/gill plate and above the spine.
When a halibut gets harpooned, it will usually go for a big run. This big run will typically exhaust the fish to the point where it can be reeled in again and dispatched. Still, the fish could take off for another run at any time, so the main thing is to never let yourself get wrapped in the fishing line or harpoon line. In my opinion, one of the biggest dangers kayak fishing for halibut is the potential for getting caught in the fishing line or harpoon line and getting pulled off of your kayak.
Dispatch the Fish
In the video above you can see that I grabbed the fishing line very carefully to cut the fish’s gills. When I bring the fish in after it’s harpooned, I either cut its gills with my gerber shorty knife, or I hit it with my bonker. Both strategies work well and most of the time I will use both. The bottom line is to be ready to let it run again after you poke or bonk it.
After I am certain that the fish is unconscious, I run my game clip through its gills to secure it for good – but I don’t tie the clip directly to my kayak yet. First, I attach the clip to a loop in my harpoon line which is attached to my A1 buoy. That way if the fish somehow wakes up and goes on a run, it will be attached to the buoy but won’t flip me over. Lastly, I make sure that the fish is totally and completely dead before bringing it on to my kayak and securing it. This means bonking it a few times and cutting all of the gills. Like I said before – you are a caveman.
Where you secure your fish to your kayak is totally dependent on your kayak. I have a Hobie Revolution and have put smaller fish behind me but I could not get a larger fish behind me when I was alone so I strapped it down underneath my legs (see photo below).
Halibut are known to “zombie”, AKA thrash around even a while after they are dead. Tie the fish’s head and its tail down very securely with strong rope or straps. One good option is to tie the fish’s head to it’s tail directly with a very tight rope and then secure it to your kayak. Here’s what I mean, but on a boat.
How Else to Prepare
So you have all the gear and you have plans where to go. There are still a few more things I would recommend doing to prepare.
First of all, I am assuming you have done some ocean fishing and have experience with landing big fish. The difference with halibut is the potential for retaining a REALLY big fish. This is where the harpoon comes in. Last year before the season started, I let go of my pride and I sat on the garage floor in my kayak and pretended to harpoon halibut. It sounds really ridiculous, and it felt like it, but it ended up paying off big time. When you get a big fish up to the side of your kayak, you don’t want to be fumbling around with your harpoon and trying to do things with your left hand if you’re right-handed, etc. Practicing ahead of time made me realize that I would want to harpoon a fish with my right hand, and would have to switch from fighting the fish on my left to my right side when it got close to the surface. It also helped me with determining my harpoon length, where to stow my buoy, etc.
Here’s how my preparations have paid off:
In early May, I was there for opening day. To my surprise, there was only one other person there with a kayak – he said he had been fishing there for years, and after a quick conversation he launched and off he went. The weather wasn’t at all dreamy. It was marginal. It was early in the morning and the wind was already blowing. I decided to launch and fish in close and just see what I might find, but I ended up with just a few lingcod and rockfish.
Two days later, on the second open day of the season, we had much better weather and we were able to go much further offshore.
There, I caught my first kayak halibut – a 30-pounder. With a smaller halibut I prefer to harpoon or gaff it in the belly area to not damage any meat.
Shortly after landing my fish, my friend Nate caught his first halibut as well, a 40-pounder. The only harpoon that Nate and I had was still stuck to my fish, so we were very grateful to have our buddy Howard nearby with another harpoon. Halibut fishing is definitely best done with a whole crew.
A few weeks later, I decided on a whim to leave after work on a Friday and I drove 4.5 hours for just one day of solo fishing. I started early the next day and peddled my kayak about 3 miles offshore to the same area where we had been successful in May. If you are going offshore, you’d better be comfortable navigating in the fog!
I dropped my line down and immediately hooked into what I would consider to be the fish of a lifetime.
It took me a long time to get it up to my kayak, and in strong current the fish and I drifted about a mile before I first got my eyes on it. My first harpoon attempt was successful, and after a few more big runs I was able to secure the fish to my kayak. By the time I had the fish secured, I was drifting towards some big crashing waves and rocks, so I am very glad that I had a plan and it all came together as quickly as possible. I could see the same situation easily leading to someone having to cut their line or worse. It pays to practice ahead of time and have a plan.
After I took this photo, I lashed the halibut’s head down to the carrying handle on the left side of my kayak and it’s tail down to the handle on the right side of my kayak.
Back at the beach, I measured the fish and it was 55″ long, so probably around 75 pounds. I am not sure that I will ever get to catch a fish like that again from my kayak, but I’ll sure keep trying.
This year, events surrounding the coronavirus outbreak really ruined my hopes for catching a large halibut. I was frustrated but remained very grateful to be healthy and able to fish for halibut close to home.
I was fortunate enough to get a lot of days of fishing in this season but I spent a lot of time catching by-catch. One cool thing about halibut fishing is that you often get by-catch that is still great fun and great eating, like this 36″ ling cod.
I did manage to catch one small halibut that weighed about 10 pounds, and you can see from the photo below that I was very happy to just get that.
Overall, my main advice would be to just spend more time on the water – eventually you will find the gravel patches where they hang out. Halibut are aggressive fish and if you can get a decent bait within their sight, they’re probably going to bite.
Comment below if you have any questions or want more detail on anything specific.
Good luck and stay safe!
If you are just getting into kayak fishing or your starting to consider venturing out onto the salt, here are a few other articles I have written about kayak fishing gear and how to predict tides and ocean weather.