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Inshore Halibut Swimbait Fishing Print E-mail

Written By: Pete Wolf (from http://www.swimbait.com/)



What does light tackle, swimbaits, and a couple of hours at your local beach equal? A quick, low-cost, hassle-free, and relatively simple way to catch quality saltwater fish.

For the purpose of this article, when I say "inshore" I am primarily talking about fishing right at the water's edge out to about 20 feet deep from the surf or small craft such as float tubes, kayaks, surfboards, skiffs, etc. Fishing for California Halibut and other gamefish with artificial lures on relatively light tackle can be extremely fun, challenging, and rewarding. I typically fish from the surf or a float tube so that is what I will focus on.

The three basic techniques I use are:

  1. Surf fishing
  2. Shallow water float tubing (0 to 7 feet deep)
  3. "Deep" water float tubing (8 to 20 feet deep)

The first and probably the most important thing to remember when fishing for halibut with swimbaits is that although they live on the bottom they are not necessarily bottom feeders. They are predators and more often than not they primarily feed by sight. Although they seem to be primarily ambush hunters, they will chase, boil, and even jump clear out of the water in pursuit of prey.

Another thing to remember is that you can never fish too shallow. I have caught many legal sized halibut in extremely shallow water and have startled many more while wading in just inches of water. My largest surf halibut was caught in water that was only about 3 or 4 feet deep.

There are two basic techniques I use when fishing with swimbaits for inshore halibut. I will refer to them in this article as "subtle" and "standard". When surf fishing I primarily stick to the subtle technique. When float tubing I tend to switch between the two constantly so I always carry at least two rods - one for each technique - rigged and ready to go.


Conditions & Locations:

Beaches & Structure - While some beaches may be better than others I have found that nearly all beaches at one time or another will hold halibut. So I usually go to beaches that are easier to surf fish or float tube. Small surf, fewer people, and beautiful surroundings are some main draws. Coves or beaches on the lee sides of points typically offer ideal conditions for float tubing and surf fishing for halibut.

There are basically two things to look for in a beach and each one by themselves or both together will attract fish. First - Sandy bottoms either near some kind of structure or mixed with structure. Some of the best types of structure are eel grass beds, kelp strands, and rocks. Fishing the sand "alleys" inside this type of structure can be very productive. Even variations in the bottom such as slopes or pockets can be considered structure and will attract halibut. Second - the presence of baitfish. Even beaches with almost no structure whatsoever seem to attract halibut if there is a healthy amount of baitfish.

Water Temperature - In the Santa Barbara area I have found the best inshore halibut fishing to be in the late Spring through the late fall when the water temperature is nearing the 60 degree mark and above. Warm periods during the winter season can also help draw halibut to these inshore areas. Colder water seems to cause the halibut to "hug" structure more than they do in warmer conditions. "Bass" fishing close to boiler rocks or eel grass can be very productive for finding colder water inshore halibut and perhaps other species.

Tides - I have caught successfully caught halibut at all tide periods. I have found that the effect tides have on inshore halibut has more to do with the particular beach I am fishing than the fish themselves. Some beaches fish better at lower tides and some beaches fish better at or around the high tide. There are several different beaches I fish near my home and although they are relatively close to each other some fish better around the low tide and others fish better around the high tide. This is something you will need to experiment with at the beaches you decide to fish.

Swell & Current - I prefer a balance between a minimal swell and a moderately moving current.

Subtle Technique:

When surf fishing or shallow water float tubing for halibut I typically use what I call the "subtle" technique. Basically this involves light line and small lures.


Rods - For surf fishing I prefer a lightweight sensitive graphite spinning rod in the 7 to 8 foot range that has an extra-fast or fast action. The rod I currently fish is a 7' 9" extra-fast rod rated for 8-17 lb. test. For float tubing I prefer a similar rod except I prefer casting gear. A lot of rod manufacturers carry rods that they market as "Plug", "Hot Shot", or "Swim Jig" rods. These tend to be very fast action rods with strong butt sections and light tips. I find these rods have a good blend of strength and sensitivity for shallow water swimbait fishing.

Reels - In the surf I prefer a reel that is slightly larger than what is necessary for 6 or 8 lb. test. I use a Shimano Stradic 4000. In the float tube I use a small casting reel that can handle light lines. I use a Shimano Calcutta. With a little care a good quality reel will hold up well in the harsh surf and tubing environment.

Line - I prefer a low stretch high quality line such as Maxima, Izorline Platinum or P-line. From the surf I primarily use 6 lb. test but sometimes I will move up to 8 lb. test. In the tube I use 8 lb. test.

Lures - I prefer Big Hammer swimbaits. The quality is unsurpassed and I have found that they have the best balance between action and durability. I also believe the square tail design "swims" the best - especially at slow retrieve speeds or when the bait is falling.

Swimbait and Jig Head size - For the "subtle" technique I stick to the 3 inch Big Hammers with 3/16 oz. jig heads - occasionally dropping it down to 1/8 oz. or up to ¼ oz. I prefer Assalt Darter heads with the thin wire hook for two reasons. I believe the action of the small swimbait in the surf is better with the thin wire and I also believe it is easier to get a good hook penetration with the light line and light equipment in most surf conditions.

Swimbait colors - I will usually go with the "dark conditions = dark bait, light conditions = light bait" theory but am always willing to experiment.  My all around best color that seems to catch fish in any situation is Sea Wolf (#60).  Since Sea Wolf is a darker opaque style bait I always bring along a clear silver flake bellied bait also.  Usually I will go with the Green Sardine (#34).  Then there are the "white" or "pearl" bellied baits that match baitfish very well.  Some of my favorites are: Bay Smelt (#63), Pacific 'Chovy (#7), Mackerel (#12), & Pepper Trout (#27), Another opaque style bait that has worked very well for me is Chovy (#41).

Scent - I highly recommend using a bait scent - there is no reason not too. Even though I believe halibut primarily use sight when attacking a swimbait I also believe scent plays three important roles. 1) It distributes the odor of food throughout the general area you are fishing. This in turn causes the fish in the area to "get into" a feeding mood and look for food. 2) It masks "non-fishy" odors such as human oils, gasoline, sunscreen, etc. 3) It provides a "taste" for the fish once it inhales your "fake" offering. This will cause the fish to hang on to your lure longer - in the surf when you can't always feel your lure this becomes very important. When fishing for inshore halibut I use Pro-Cure's Calico Cocktail or Pro-Cure's Shrimp Sauce.


Surf Fishing Techniques:

 I almost always start my retrieve as soon as the lure hits the water. Listed below are the types of retrieves that I typically use in order of preference:

  1. Straight in grind while constantly shaking the rod tip.
  2. Straight in grind.
  3. Straight in grind with split second pauses every 3 or 4 cranks of the handle.
  4. Straight in grind with pronounced jerks of the rod tip every 3 or 4 cranks of the handle. A variation of this retrieve is to follow the twitch of the rod tip with a slight pause to the let the bait sink for a second.

Retrieve speed will depend on the feeding mood of the fish that particular day. I usually start of with a medium speed retrieve and vary it up with each cast until I find something that is working. From the surf I rarely let the lure hit the bottom or use a "bottom bouncing" type retrieve.

Shallow Water Float Tubing Techniques:

Like I mentioned before when float tubing I consider shallow water to be from about 7 feet deep all the way up to the shoreline. I am frequently reminded how shallow large halibut will go. Most of my retrieves are similar to the retrieves and techniques described above but in this order:

  1. Straight in grind with split second pauses every 3 or 4 cranks of the handle.
  2. Straight in grind with pronounced jerks of the rod tip every 3 or 4 cranks of the handle. A variation of this retrieve is to follow the twitch of the rod tip with a slight pause to the let the bait sink for a second.
  3. Straight in grind.
  4. Bottom bouncing retrieve (bottom bouncing retrieve will be described in the next section).

Again, the retrieve speed will depend on the feeding mood of the fish that particular day. Don't be afraid to experiment - that is the key to fishing with artificial lures.

At times (especially in clear water) this technique is an excellent way to quickly locate fish in deeper water. Since the main retrieves are constant or almost constant you can cover a lot of water quickly. At times when I'm sure the fishing will be good but not exactly sure where they may be I will scan the area quickly using this technique then switch to the "standard" technique once the fish are located.

The Strike:

With the retrieves that don't have any extra action such as the straight in grind or retrieves that have constant action such as the straight in grind while shaking the rod tip, the strike can occur at any time so be ready. With the other retrieves that strikes will usually occur just after the "action". For example, with the straight in grind and split second pauses the strike will usually occur just after one of the pauses. Detecting strikes in the surf can be difficult keeping contact with the lure and watching the line at all times will help. Sometimes halibut seem to jump off the bottom, inhale the bait, and settle back down. If you miss the actual strike it will feel like you are snagged - until the "snag" starts moving.

Standard Technique:

When float tubing in "deep" water for halibut I typically use what I call the "standard" technique. Basically this involves medium or medium light tackle and 4 or 5 inch swimbaits. By "deep" water I am referring to water that is more than 7 feet deep.


Rods - For the standard technique I prefer a fast or extra fast action lightweight sensitive graphite rod in the 7 to 8 foot range. A strong butt section with a fairly light tip is important. The light tip helps detect strikes while the strong butt section helps set the hook and fight the fish. I prefer a rod that fishes 12 - 15 lb. test well. Different companies rate rods differently so I recommend pulling on a few before deciding on one.

Reels - I prefer a medium sized high quality casting reel. Low profile bass reels will work if they have a good drag and are properly taken care of. I use a Shimano Calcutta 250.

Line - I prefer a low stretch high quality line such as Maxima, Izorline Platinum or P-line. I primarily use 12 lb. test but sometimes I will move up to 15 lb. test.

Lures - Big Hammer swimbaits.

Swimbait and Jig Head size - For the "standard" technique I typically use the 4 inch Big Hammers with ¼, 3/8, or ½ oz. Hammerhead Jig Heads or the 5 inch Big Hammers with 3/8, ½, or ¾ oz. jig heads. I try to fish as light a head as possible since I believe the slower the swimbait falls the more attractive it is to the halibut. Occasionally, if the fish are very active and aggressive I will throw a 6 inch bait on a ½, ¾ or 1 oz. head in an effort to weed out the smaller fish. Jig head color is more a matter of personal preference than anything else. I usually fish red, green, or plain with eyes depending on the color of the swimbait.

Swimbait colors - I will usually go with the "dark conditions = dark bait, light conditions = light bait" theory but never forget to experiment. I have used most of these colors with success in most conditions. Some of my favorite colors for the "standard" technique are: Green Sardine (#34), Keylime (#4), Mackerel (#12), Calico Hunter (#45), Lemon Lime (#62), Bleeding Olive Herring (#24), & Pacific 'Chovy (#7).

Scent - I use Pro-Cure Calico Cocktail Bait Sauce or Preditor Bait Paste.


The Retrieve:

After the cast keep the reel in free spool to allow the bait to sink as vertically as possible and keep your thumb on the spool to control the line and feel any strikes that may occur on the sink. When the bait hits the bottom engage the reel. Point the rod toward the bait and slightly raised (about 9:30 or 10:00 o'clock). Without moving the rod quickly crank the handle of the reel two or three times then stop and wait for the bait to hit the bottom. Again - be prepared for strikes. Repeat this retrieve all the way in. When the bait is almost straight below use the rod to bounce it on the bottom a couple of times before bringing it in for another cast.

I mentioned that I like to use as light of a jig head as possible. Sometimes trying to feel when your swimbait hits the bottom can be difficult with light jig heads. If you are having difficulty feeling when the bait hits the bottom watch your line as your swimbait sinks. When it slightly "pops" and goes slack it has hit the bottom. Watching your line is also an excellent way to detect subtle strikes.

An alternate method in areas where the structure is too dense to make long casts is to lighten the bait and make short casts. This is where the 4 inch baits on 1/4 oz. jig heads are great. Use the same type of retrieve but do shorter "hops". Usually only one or two cranks of the handle will do.

A variation of the retrieve is to change the speed of the cranks or how fast the bait "hops" off the bottom.

There are occasions where a straight grind retrieve will produce and allow you to cover more water than with the bottom bouncing retrieve. For the straight grind retrieve choose a jig head weight that will keep the lure just off the bottom. Cast out like before and let the lure sink to the bottom. Then just wind it in at a constant speed - it can't get any easier than that!

The Strike:

Strikes usually occur at two times - on the sink or just as you begin to crank after letting it hit the bottom.

After The Strike:

Setting the hook - You want to set the hook quickly but not immediately. What you want to do is load up the rod, and when you feel distinct pressure, set the hook. With practice you will be able to tell the difference between a fish and a snag.

Landing halibut in the surf - If it is a legal fish and you are going to keep it you can get it in shallow and slip your hand under it's gill plate. If it's a short fish you can usually glide them in with the waves. I larger fish you plan to release can be a little more difficult. A landing device such as a BogaGrip or grabbing them on the upper gill plate just behind the upper eye will work.

Landing halibut from the float tube - First of all, unless you are going to keep the fish you should never use a net unless you have a fine mesh "catch and release" type net. Regular nets will remove the fish's protective slime coating and can cut slits in the tail. Both can lead to infection and death. There is a spot on the upper gill plate just behind the upper eye where you can grab a halibut on each side of it's head and it will for the most part temporarily "paralyze" them similarly to "lipping" a bass. Be aware - it doesn't always work and they can come to life instantly. By far the best, easiest, and safest way to land a halibut from a float tube is with a landing device such as a BogaGrip.



There are many other species of fish that can be caught inshore on swimbaits while fishing for halibut. Pleasant surprises such as white seabass, striped bass, salmon, and even giant sea bass* are not unlikely. And believe me, catching a 50+ lb. fish from a float tube on a swimbait is an experience you'll never forget.

One of the most important aspects of any kind of fishing is to experiment. The techniques and retrieves mentioned in this article are meant to be guidelines offered as a place to start. Always experiment with different depths, retrieve speeds, lengths of pauses, etc. and never give up hope. No amount of information can replace confidence, experience and time on the water.

Click here to view the color and size selections that correspond to the "subtle" technique described in this article or click here to view the color and size selections that correspond to the "standard" technique described in this article.

Questions: Click here.

For more information about float tubing in the ocean visit my leapinbass.com website and Rob Belloni's calfishing.com website.

For more light tackle surf halibut information click here to read the article "Swimbait Halibut From The Sand" by Mike Edwards.

*The giant sea bass in the picture was released in healthy condition.  According to the Department of Fish & Game it was a "clean release".

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