I expect halibut to bail from the shallows in September as a matter of course, but it seemed awfully early for them to move deeper than 90 feet.
The tide continued to build, so we gave up and prepared to troll for silver salmon.
I rigged lighter rods and moved close to shore. In short order I was motoring through 30 feet of water with the hooks trailing behind about 10 feet below the surface.
One rod went down so fast and so hard I thought it would break. The fish headed directly offshore so fast that I had to turn the boat after it.
Twenty minutes later we landed a 60-pound halibut!
We were all a little rattled after a heck of a fight on such light tackle, congratulating ourselves that we would have at least one halibut to go with our silvers.
Wham! No sooner did I have the boat trolling when another rod slammed down in a vicious strike.
Same old story and a nearly identical outcome. But this time the halibut weighed 55 pounds.
Over the course of the next hour we never caught a silver, but landed three more halibut in the 20-30 pound range.
That reconfirmed my experience with halibut in September. They may not have moved into deep water yet, but you can count on finding them in unusual places, even as the hot spots are blank.
Over the decades I’ve learned to keep an open mind about September halibut fishing, but I’ve also come to relish it. No, it’s not as easy as fishing earlier in the summer, but it can be wild when you find the fish.
As you move through the water and watch your fish finder, you’ll notice less bait in September than in July and August. You’ll still find concentrations here and there, but not so many and not so large.
And they won’t be in the same places day after day, or even from hour to hour.
In combination with the mixed fishing results, I’m convinced the halibut become really mobile in September prior to their move into deeper water.
My strategy for finding September halibut is visit the vicinity where I last found them, then search for nearby locations with food concentrations.
While I keep one eye on the fish finder, I’m also watching for diving birds. Puffins and cormorants in particular keep close tabs on the bait concentrations, and their presence can be seen at some distance due to the accompanying gulls.
But I also keep track of the currents. If I don’t find halibut feeding on the baitfish concentration, I look for likely bottom both up- and down-current. The bait had to come from somewhere, and the current will certainly take it somewhere else.
If you follow the course of the current you’ll often find halibut waiting for the next school, even if you found the bait between halibut hot spots.
Our experience of catching them while trolling also points out a little-recognized aspect of halibut feeding behavior. If the principal food is off the bottom, they have no qualms whatsoever about rising up into the water to connect with it.
Though we caught the fish while trolling, my more usual routine is to have at least on angler onboard stop a jig 10-20 feet off bottom while others bounce bottom. It’s surprising how often in September the off-bottom jigs connect with the halibut.
As an added bonus, any kings or silvers in the vicinity are likely to be feeding on the same bait schools. And they’re equally prone to taking jigs.
I’m not especially enamored with giant halibut, but late August and early September is a particularly good time to find them in the shallows. They seem to have a sweet tooth for pink salmon and they don’t seem to care whether it’s dead fish washing back out of the river or the last vestige of the run approaching it.
“Big” is a matter of taste, however, and in fact a whole range of sizes seem to relish pink salmon. Even if they can’t manage to eat whole pink salmon, smaller sizes of halibut find plenty of scraps and remnants left by the big halibut and other predators.
I’m certain that those we caught while trolling were still snacking on pink salmon because the largest had remnants of one in its stomach. If we had cared to do so, I’m betting we could have anchored or drifted in the vicinity and caught more with bait on the bottom.
The hallmark of fishing for halibut off river mouths is speed. I’m not talking about the speed of the boat, rather I mean the speed of the halibut. Hook one in the shallows and it will race for the nearest deep water.
Look for halibut off river mouths in 20-30 feet of water, usually right on the margin where sandy bottom gives way to gravel. Sometimes that occurs in water so shallow that you can actually see your bait and the approaching halibut, or watch the halibut rise up off the bottom to strike a jig or spoon.
As September progresses toward October and the rapid cooling of ocean waters, halibut will inevitably begin their move into the depths.
My usual routine is to start fishing where I found them on previous trips. If we don’t connect, I move progressively deeper along natural bottom contours until I find fish. I suspect the halibut still make forays into shallower water for food concentrations, but they spend more and more of their time in deeper and deeper water as the month progresses.
One of our favorite fishing spots features halibut in 30-40 feet of water in August, but by the middle of September they’re usually nearby in at least 90 feet. And by the end of the month we seldom see them shallower than 110 feet. It’s usually a matter of searching progressively deeper water until we find the fish.
I should pass along another insight I’ve garnered over the years.
While we use 1-ounce or 2-ounce jigs in the shallows, we have better luck on 5-ounce to 6-ounce jigs in waters from 60 to 90 feet. And once the fish pass into deeper water the halibut seem to prefer 8-ounce to 9-ounce jigs. That holds true for dart jigs and lead-heads with rubber tails.
You can guess that some of that is due to currents and line drag as the water gets deeper. But there’s more to it than that. Even when there is zero current and we have no difficulty getting lighter jigs into the depths, the size preferences seem to hold true.
I’m guessing that it’s also due to the increasing size of the usual bait fish over the course of the fall. The small baitfish seem to disappear and the larger ones begin to dominate.
If your freezer shelves aren’t comfortably stocked with halibut yet, I’d make it a priority to resolve the issue in the next few weeks. Even now you’ll have to hunt for the fish. But in another month they’ll be in water deep enough to require heavy weights, as well as weather good enough to allow you to get there.