Halibut Fishing in California – A Beginner's Guide

Mar 18, 2022 | 10 minute read
Reading Time: 10 minutes

If you’re looking for a staple fish Californian fish, one that everyone loves, wants to catch and eat, nothing is a better fit than Halibut. Sure, Salmon, Striped Bass, and Sturgeon all have their place here, but Halibut is such a popular fish that a subspecies was even named after the state! It’s easy to understand why Halibut fishing in California is simply fantastic.

A smiling fisherman in sunglasses, standing on a boat, holding a Halibut

Whether you go after the Pacific Halibut in the north, or stay south and get your fill of California Halis, you can do no wrong. But how do you catch them, where are the best spots, and how do you differentiate them? If you plan on booking your trip but you still have all these questions, we’ll help you out.

Two Halis – Double the Fun!

We already mentioned that there are two varieties of Halibut – California Halibut and Pacific Halibut. It’s quite easy to tell them apart.

A smiling angler in a cap sitting on the side of the boat, holding a Halibut, fishing rods around him

First, there are some clear physical distinctions. California Halibut are much smaller compared to their Pacific counterparts. The average weight of Cali Halis is between 5–20 pounds, though there are some bigger specimens out there. 

A fisherman standing on a boat, holding a big Pacific Halibut, blue skies and water in the background

Pacific variations can get much larger, often upwards of 100 pounds, and trophy catches can go up to 300 pounds and 8 feet. There’s a seasonal closure for Pacific Halibut, usually at the beginning of the year, so be sure to check the regulations before you go.

Another easy way to tell them apart is by checking where their eyes are. Pacific Halibut always have their eyes on the right, while California Halibut can have them on both sides. 

California flatties dominate the state’s fisheries, both in numbers and in quality. They make for fabulous table fare and usually aren’t too hard to find and catch. Whichever Halibut you choose, landing them is going to be a blast.

Where are the Halibut in California?

Since they’re named after the state itself, California Halibut can be found all along the coast, and all the way to Baja California. Pacific subspecies stay in the colder waters of NorCal. To get to them, you’ll need to cast your line north of Point Arena. 

A smiling fisherman standing on a dock, holding two big California Halibut

Both Halibut live and feed on the bottom. They’re the ultimate ambush predators, and their appetite knows no bounds. They’ve got large teeth that help them chomp down on anything that unsuspectedly swims nearby, your bait included.

California flatties are more widespread, and you can find them very close to shore, in bays and estuaries. They spawn in shallow waters in spring and spend their fall and winter in the offshore realm.

Pacific Halibut are the complete opposite – they spawn in the coldest days of winter close to the continental shelf. As the weather gets warmer, they come closer to land, where they’ll be feeding until it’s spawning season again.

All Halibut love underwater structure, so it’s always a good idea to look for them around reefs, wrecks, and jetties. They prefer sandy bottoms, but you can easily spot them around rocky surfaces as well – as long as there’s a good place for an ambush, they’ll be there. 

When can I catch Halibut in California?

It’s always a good time to go after some Halibut, there’s no real off-season. 

The best time to go after Halibut in California is in spring, usually from March to June, and in the fall, September–November. This is the optimal time to catch both California and Pacific Halibut not too far from the shore.

Two anglers standing on a boat, holding three Halibut, blue skies and water in the background

Anglers love to fish for Halibut in spring and fall because they flock to the nearshore waters in great numbers. You don’t have to travel far or book long trips to get your share of the state’s favorite Flatties. The fact that they’re among the tastiest catches you can find in the area only makes things more exciting.

While spring and fall mark the peak season for Halibut fishing in California, summertime, and wintertime have their own place. Halis stick around all year, it’s only a matter of finding them.

In the winter, when the weather is fair, head to the waters more than 100’ deep, and your trip should be productive. In the summer, shallow waters get too hot for Halibut, so they migrate to open waters for the season.

How can I catch Halibut in California?

California Halibut is one of the best fish to target if you’re a beginner angler. Pacific Halibut are bigger, and as such, reeling them in requires more experience and strength. Let’s go through some tips on tackle and which techniques work best for tempting that Hali to bite.

Which tackle should I use?

California Halibut usually aren’t very fussy once they’re hooked. They’re known to throw in some fierce headshakes as you get them out of the water, so stay alert as you get them into the boat. Reliable tackle can help you a lot here.

A smiling angler in a cap sitting on the side of the boat, holding a Halibut, fishing rods around him

You’ll need a 6.5 or 8’ spinning/casting rod with fast action – Halibut can nibble on the bait before they gulp it down, so you want to make sure you feel the bite from the get-go. Pair the rod with a medium-size reel that allows a smooth drag, in case you have to maneuver the fish before you get it into the boat. 

When it comes to the line, you can go with a 15–30 lb monofilament or a 50–60 lb braided line. Halibut have sharp teeth that can cut the line easily, so you’ll want a 20 lb fluorocarbon leader, up to three feet long. You’ll also need a sinker to keep your bait close to the bottom. Its weight will depend on the water movement and the type of fishing line.

How the fish will take the bait depends on its size. Bigger fish are greedier, and they get to the offering in one gulp. Smaller Halibut are more hesitant. They’ll play around with the bait first, so you must wait before you set the hook. Otherwise, you might scare your prey away. 

Once you hear that reel screaming and you feel your Hali’s weight on the line, it’s time to get it to the surface. It’s recommended to reel slowly, to avoid your Flatty fighting you every step of the way.

Which live bait should I use for Halibut fishing in California?

A lot of local boat fishermen swear by using live bait for Halibut fishing. California’s favorite Flatties are always hungry, and live bait gets them to bite quickly.

A close-up of a smelt bait fish on a hook

What do they respond to best? It depends on the season, but the truth is Halibut will ambush anything that swims by and looks like food. They love anchovies, smelt, and sardines, but can’t resist greenies, lizardfish, and squid either. In Southern California, grunion works wonders, especially during their seasonal runs. The size of the bait fish can vary, but anything up to 8 inches long will do the trick nicely.

Which lures should I use for Halibut fishing in California?

If you prefer using lures for your fishing expeditions, no worries, Halibut are partial to them as well. Halis rely more on their sense of smell than sight, so choose lures that play into that and you’re bound to succeed.

Two Halibut on a fishing line, in the water, near the water's surface

You’ll want scented lures that aren’t too flashy or noisy because they could scare the fish away. It’s recommended to work the lures in a way that emulates an injured bait fish – it will get Halibut to come closer. 

Jerkbaits are an excellent choice for this, especially ones that resemble minnows.

Jigs are another great choice – they’re heavier and they easily attract the attention of your prey. Gulp grubs work well because of their unique tail movement, which Halis love. If you’re fishing in slow-moving water, swimbaits might be your best option.

When it comes to the color of your lures, match it to the color of the water. If you’re fishing deep dark waters, you’ll want strong-scented lures in more natural green and brown variations. Fishing in shallow bays and in the surf works best with brighter greens and reds.

Best Halibut Fishing Techniques

One of the best things about Halibut fishing in California is that it can be pretty straightforward. As long as you drop your offering to the bottom in the vicinity of hungry Halis, chances are you’ll get a bite. These are some of the most frequently used Halibut fishing techniques in California.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing is the go-to fishing technique for boat fishers, especially if you’re going out with one of the California fishing charters that specialize in Halibut fishing. Because your offering is carried by natural currents, using live bait is more productive. 

An anchored fishing boat on the water, with a crew of anglers on it

Drifting works in almost any fishing condition. You can drift fish along underwater structures, in bays, along reef edges, anywhere where Halibut hunt. You can anchor and explore a larger area around the boat, or use a trolling motor if you want to be more accurate in your casts. 

We already know that Halibut like to nibble on their food before they swallow it. The slower pace of drift fishing allows them to get the bait fully into their mouth. Then you can set the hook and gently, but firmly get them to the surface. 

Pro tip: If you’re fishing for Barracuda in waters up to 100 feet deep, drop some bait to the bottom. Sometimes Halibut gather under the feeding Barracuda because they can get an easy meal, and you can take advantage of that.

Trolling

The more controlled version of drifting is trolling, or slow-trolling to be more precise. Another favorite of Cali anglers, trolling lets you cover more ground quickly, and get multiple catches. The preferred trolling speed for Halibut fishing is around 2–4 knots. Face the incoming current while trolling for Halis for maximum results.

A fishing rod in a holder, on a boat, trolling, with clear skies and water in the background

Both live bait and lures are used when trolling, as well as frozen sardines and anchovies. Some find that lures work better because they’re more durable, and when you’re fishing around structure and reef edges, you want your offering to be sturdier. 

Bounce-balling while trolling is a great way to get Halibut’s attention. You’ll use the speed of the boat and drag your bait along the bottom so that it bounces up and down every 20 seconds or so. The movement, the sound, and the smell are sure to be inviting to Halibut in the vicinity.

Surf Fishing

If you prefer staying on land for your fishing escapades, Halibut surf fishing in California will not disappoint. These fish are one of the most coveted catches among surf fishermen, mostly for the promise of a delicious meal that comes with catching them.

A surf fisherman standing on a beach, mid-cast, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background

The trick with surf fishing for Halibut is knowing how to find them. They camouflage themselves well in sand and mud, so sandy beaches, shallow bays, and muddy flats are often gathering spots. Because they’re ambush predators, rocks or reef edges usually have Halibut around them. Any place where they can hide and wait for food to come to them is a good place to cast your line.

Another perk of surf fishing for Halibut is that there’s no off-season. In spring and fall, those numbers are much higher than in summer and fall, but there’s no bad time to go after these Flatties. You’ll want to use a lighter fishing line for surf fishing (up to an 8 lb test). Live bait works best when fishing from land, but you can use lures too, and even frozen bait in a pinch.

Best Spots for Halibut Fishing in California

Wherever you go on the Golden State’s coast, you won’t be far from Halibut fishing grounds. To help narrow things down for you, here are some of the best fishing spots for catching Halibut in California.

The skyline of San Diego

San Diego: Easily one of the best fishing destinations in the state, San Diego Bay is an epicenter of Halibut fishing. There are plenty of them close to shore, and even more when you head further out, to the nearshore realm.

Santa Catalina Island: This is one of the most famous fishing locales in California. Yellowtail action is one for the books, and Halibut fishing is just as productive. For Southern Californians, this is a great place for some solid winter fishing excursions.

Huntington Beach: Come to the city known for its fantastic surfing, stay for the strong Halibut fishing. Only 37 southwest of downtown Los Angeles, Huntington Beach has a lot to offer to anglers looking to get their hands on California Halibut.

Santa Monica Bay: If you’re an avid fisher, then you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to cast your line in Santa Monica Bay. A lot of big Halibut thrive here, which is why this is such a popular spot for Hali lovers. Head to the flats during the spawning season in spring, and you’re in for a blast!

Channel Islands: This is where trophy-chasers come in search of their next personal record. California Halibut can get really big here, upwards of 30 pounds, and both locals and visiting anglers know it!

San Francisco: Catching a charter out of San Francisco gives you access to both California and Pacific Halibut. The California variation can be found in San Francisco Bay, but for Pacific “barn doors” you’ll need to head to the open waters. The fishing action for both is something that needs to be experienced, not talked about.

Halibut Fishing in California – Beloved Flatties of the West

A man standing on a dock, holding two Halibut, fishing boats in the background

The prolific waters of California are teeming with fish that are a dream-come-true of passionate anglers. Among so many prized species, Halibut holds a special place in the hearts of anyone who targets them. Their year-round availability and tasty meat make them an unmissable target for all fishing enthusiasts. Halibut fishing in California is outstanding, all you need to do is give it a try!

Have you ever fished for Halibut in the Golden State? Did you have a good time? Do you have any tricks and tips to share with the community? Let’s talk in the comments.

Leave a reply
NameRequired *
Your comment Required *