Halibut secrets revealed

There is a ray of hope that there will be an ocean recreation and commercial and salmon this year in California for the first time since 2007, despite the fact that only 39,500 Chinook salmon returned up the Sacramento River last fall.

In the past, in a good year the fall run of Chooks up the Sacramento was 800,000 or more. Don't know where the fish are coming from, but a lot of charter and commercial salmon boat owners have some hope in their lives in these parts.

Prospectus for salmon fishing in Oregon and Washington also look brighter.

In California, the rockfish, greenling and cabezon fishery is open for shore fishermen and spearfishermen, but the rockfish season won't open up for boat-based ocean fishing until June 13. For details on what's open and where you should check online at dfg.ca.gov.

Species populations of ocean fish have been fluctuating dramatically in the ocean off California, as El Nino is at work offshore.

Humboldt squid has been the hot ticket recently, if don't mind going out 20 miles or more and teasing up the big fellows (up to 100 pounds) from 1000 feet down or more. There are stories of charter boats catching so many big squid that captains had to stop the fishing for fear the boats would sink due to the weigh of eight-armed cephalopods brought on board.

One species that is helping make up for the lack of salmon and restricted access to rockfish is halibut, the largest member of the flatfish family. There are two species of halibut in the Pacific offshore, Pacific halibut that get upwards of 400 pounds, and the smaller California halibut that normally run 15 pounds or less.

Pacific halibut are found along the coast from the Golden Gate north to the North Pole. Fishing for Pacific halibut in California is closed from Nov. 1, 2009 through April 30, 2010, but when the season opens on May 1, the north coast area from Shelter Cove to Eureka is generally hot.

The fish don't often get to the barn door size of Alaska, but they are plentiful and just as tasty. One-hundred pounders are caught every year in northern California waters.

The smaller California halibut are a gift to fishermen. The season is open year-round. They are found from the Quillayute River in Washington to Baja California. They typically weigh 6 to 50 pounds, and taste just as good as its big brother the Pacific Halibut.

And best of all, California halibut come right into the shallows. These "mini-buts" are starting to show in San Francisco Bay already, providing anglers a very tasty replacement for the missing salmon and rockfish.

Indians of the Pacific Northwest traditionally erect totem poles outside family lodges. Carved from trunk of a red cedar, a totem pole is a group of images of animals and fish stacked on top of each other that is a statement of animals that that family has a special kinship relationship with.

If John Beath of Monroe, Wash., had a totem pole outside of his house, it surely would have to have a huge halibut on it, because this guy knows the king of flatfish like no one else.

President of Outdoor Writers of America, writer/photographer and videographer; Beath is possessed by the halibut spirit. He arth has fished these huge flounders throughout their range and has designed and sells just about every aspect of halibut tackle from the Brite Bite line to FAT Squid & Trophy Torch underwater lights, sounds and killer lures for halibut and other game fish.

He is also co-producer of "Underwater Secrets of Halibut, Lingcod & Rockfish" DVD, which he made in his quest to find the best possible halibut fishing tackle.

When I 've fished for halibut out of Homer on a charter boat, we used salmon heads for bait. We did OK, but John says, "Yeah that will work, because halibut are always hungry and will strike at just about anything they can find," but his underwater video research and personal experience find that if you really want to catch halibut, you need to pay more attention to seducing them.

California halibut, for example, he says, want live, moving bait — herring and anchovies. Dead bait will catch crabs and croakers, but generally not California halibut.

One method for catching California halibut from piers is casting with a lure resembling an anchovy or a squid and/or "trolling" by walking along the pier and jigging your bait up and down. To do this, you need to organize others to your way of thinking and set up a line of trollers walking the edge of pier one after the other.

Big Pacific halibut hang out in deeper waters, 150-400 feet. They like fresh fish; scent is a big factor in attracting them to the bait. Beath recommends Berkeley Gulp as an enticer.

Yes, Beath has conjured up some special scents of his own that are also irresistible to the big flatsiders — including one that has the combined odors of squid, herring, octopus, shrimp, salmon and crab.

Fish smorgasbord odor helps, but if you are really serious about catching halibut, John says that you need to also put some light right above the bait, especially UV light. Three to four times as many fish will come to your bait when lights announce it. His research with underwater cameras proves this.

We think about sound as spooking fish. Not halibut, according to Beath. Halibut lateral line picks up vibrations out of the water, and they go to where it's happening.

Underwater, sound travels 11 times farther than above water, and it five times as loud. At the least, raise your bait off the bottom and then let it bang down with a thud. Some folks use an old spoon, hitched to a metal spread bar, so that when you bounce the lure, the spoon hits the metal spreader bar. In his studies, John finds that four times as many halibut come to sounds as lines with no sound or light.

So, the key to catching halibut — use attractions that reach every sense — sight, smell, sound, and lateral line.

Most party boats use pieces of fish for halibut bait. Beath says that he prefers to use lures and jigs that resemble squid and candlefish. And for seasoning, add a small piece of smelly bait for odor, or some killer scents.

Drop your offering until it hits bottom. Pull it up six feet or, and then it drop down and hit the bottom again. Using his techniques in some of his favorite places, Beath says he has caught as many 60 halibut in three hours. His biggest Pacific is 325 pounds, which was 7-feet, one-inch long.

His most exciting catch, however, he says, was a 100-pounder on a 10-pound test line.

While Pacific halibut live all along the coast, Beath's favorite waters are Port Alexander out of Sitka, where he recommends the Laughing Raven Lodge. And, if you really want action and calm waters, he swears by Kodiak Island, where he has caught 100-pound halibut and 50-pound salmon within 10 minutes of the dock, and in protected waters.

A place to find current reports on what's biting in Alaska is at Alaska Fishing Reports.net.

Fishermen like to catch halibut because they can get huge, but the real reason for catching halibut is that their firm, flaky white meat is some of the best eating fish in the universe. You will find many halibut recipes at Beath's Web site, and that's just the beginning, as he's currently working on a cookbook.

There are many different ways to cook a halibut, but basically he advises three things to always come up with succulent halibut fillets on your plate.

1) Bleed the fish when it's alive. If it's a big one, bleeding starts when you shoot the fish as it swims beside the boat. Otherwise, cut out the gill rakers, and make an incision right behind the eye when he comes on board to drain blood.

2) Fillet your fish, do not cut through the spine. Spinal fluid alters the taste. And, remove the dark streaks in the flesh next to the spine, which are fat.

3) There are many ways to cook a halibut, but above all, don't overcook. If the recipe calls for 350 degress' at 20 minutes, pump the heat up to 400 and cook it for 12-15 minutes. If you're going to error in cooking a halibut fillet, error on the side of less, John maintains.

Halibut are found in northern waters in the Atlantic and the Pacific. An old Norwegian trick to insure an outstanding taste is to soak fillets overnight in buttermilk, which Beath says will remove any fishy taste.

In Homer, if you hook a 300 pound-plus halibut, they encourage you to take its picture and let it go.

Beath says that while a huge female may have a lot of eggs, the eggs often are not as fertile on the big ones. Gravid females 50-100 pounds will have more fertile eggs. However, when you release a 300-pound halibut, just think of all the other people who can catch that fish and the stories they will have to tell as a result.

Incidentally, if you do keep a big one they are definitely edible, but the 30-50 pounders are especially good, he says with relish.

On my bulletin board hangs one of those huge hooks that reminds me of the last time I was in Seward and I got a couple of those wonderful Pacific halibut to bring home. Just looking at that hook reminds me of my hopes and dreams of making it up there again sometime soon, and while the fish always taste so good, isn't it the hope, dreams and stories that are ultimately the best food for the soul?

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.