For most anglers going to Norway, catching a halibut is top of their wish list. This is not at all surprising when you consider that they are beautiful and very strong fish which can grow to huge proportions. Not only that, to catch one you often don’t have to go out far or fish too deep, in fact, on the contrary!
Sandy plateaus of 10 to 50 metres deep, often close to islands or the shore are not only the favourite hangout for small halibut, but often also for mega halibuts of over 2 meters and 100 kg+! Fishing for this ‘mega-flounder’ with relatively light spinning tackle is not only highly addictive… but also very effective!
The Atlantic halibut (Lat. Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is for many anglers the holy grail. Not only do they fight extremely hard, halibut can also grow to huge sizes of well over 100 kg, even over 200 kg! Although with medium/heavy spinning tackle you can land halibut to over 50 kg, if you target the real monsters, I would advise to use heavier tackle! 20 years ago, catching a (big) halibut was often a matter of luck, hooking one while fishing for cod. But over the last two decades, specialised fishing for halibut has become very popular.
Not only because fish numbers have grown, because of restrictions in commercial fishing, but also because much more is now known of the behaviour of halibut – where they like to hang out and where they like to feed! Although they spend much of their time in really deep water (especially in the colder months), patrolling near drop offs or deep water plateaus, in summertime from end of May till October, they feed in much shallower water, sometimes no more than 10 meters deep!
To find potential halibut spots, having a look at a detailed sea map/chart will tell you a lot. I always do my homework and have a close look at the free ‘chartviewer app’ of Navionics (webapp.navionics.com) before I go on a trip. The Navionics charts are normally very accurate and you can switch form ‘chart’ to ‘sonar’, giving you an even more detailed map showing flat areas and steep drop offs. Halibuts are not actively hunting all day long, but they rest most hours of the day on flat sandy areas. Sand with some stones/dark patches are their favourite hangout while chilling.
Look for flat areas with ‘S’ (sand) on the map with depths of 15-50 meter (even shallower!), preferably close to deeper water/steep drop offs, like on top of underwater plateaus. But don’t forget to also try shallow bays and desert like areas in between islands, especially if they are situated towards the open ocean!
They like rough, sandy type bottoms, often the kind of spots which are ignored as it might look like a desert on the screen of the fish finder… often these places offer the best chance, especially when they are between 20-50 meter deep, surrounded by deep water.
Most people think a halibut is a huge flounder, so it spends most of its time on or near the bottom. The opposite is true! Halibut are very active hunters, using the whole water column to feed, sometimes even on the surface! To be successful you will have to fish accordingly, looking for the right water depth and (diagonally) spinning with shads has proven to be very effective for that!
The technique we use most for halibut is very similar to the way we fish with softbaits for zander and pike in freshwater. Cast your softbait in the direction of the drift and let it sink until the jighead hits the bottom. Start reeling in a couple of meters with a moderate speed, then make a short stop letting the shad sink back to the bottom again on a straight line. Continue to do this until you are close to boat and let the shad hang for a few seconds at mid-water, before reeling in and casting again.
To fish like this, it is essential that the drift is slowed down by the help of one, often two big drift chutes (see part 1). The advantage of using these is that you not only will stay much longer on a hotspot, but it also allows you to fish with much lighter jigheads which make a huge difference when it comes to presentation. And that also allows you to use a lighter rod and reel.
Of course, you can also fish more ‘vertical’ style, fishing behind the boat, but you will need (much) heavier jig heads to hold/feel the bottom and don’t cover as much water when you cast around. The presentation is also less attractive with a heavier jig head.
More often than not, they will at first follow your shad, sometimes for a while and you might even feel some small taps when they bite the tail of the shad, before they strike. In that case it often pays to stop the retrieve for a few seconds to entice a bite. Sometimes, if they keep on attacking the tail then an extra hook or treble positioned towards the tail can help to get more positive hook ups. The downside of this is that you also hook smaller nuisance fish. That is why I only use a stinger hook with very big baits/shads.
One thing is essential when it comes to halibut fishing – you need a good current! No current or no tide and your chances will be slim to hook one. If there is a good tide running it sometimes feels like a switch has been flicked and suddenly you will hook several halibuts in a row after hours or even days of inactivity.
7 to 8 ft spinning rods of 50 to 150 gram, with a relatively soft tip are ideal for this kind of fishing. Combined with a 5000/6000 model (saltwater) reel with at least 200 meter of 20/25 lbs quality braid, you can catch almost all fish, even big halibuts of over 40-50 kg! You can even fish lighter if the current and depth allow you to. It’s so much more fun to fish with this kind of tackle and also much easier to cast for hours on end!
Rods: My favourite spinning rods are the Daiwa Saltiga Spin 2.13 m, 70-185 gram (sadly no longer available) and Fin-Nor Valhall 2.0 II 40-140g which you also have in a 4 piece travel model – very handy with the airline restrictions these days!
Reels: Shimano Saragossa SW 6000, Daiwa Certate HD 4000H, Penn Conflict II 5000.
Line: 20-25 lbs good quality round ‘8 braid” like Spiderwire Stealth, Daiwa Tournament or the new Berkley X9.
Shads: Gunki G’Bump 20 cm, Daiwa Prorex Classic Shad DF 25 cm, Illex Dexter 25 cm, Iran Claw Slab Shad 21 cm. Mostly in natural colours, but bright UV colours can work very good when the sun is more down.
Jigheads: 3-5 oz (85-140 gram) with strong hooks!
Confidence in what you are doing is needed as often you will be fishing shallow, sandy plateaus where hardly any other fish of great size are found. In these kinds of places, most of the time you will fish for inactive halibut which are resting on the sandy bottom. But halibut are curious and opportunistic predators which often cannot resist an easy meal!
Once you hook a halibut, the party starts! Even a ‘small’ 10 kg halibut will rip meters of line from your spool during the initial run, so you can imagine what a bigger fish of 25 kg+ will do! Don’t panic when this happens, just let it run, follow the fish with the boat if necessary, and wait until it calms down. It will eventually!
If you don’t put too much pressure on the fish, you will find that with a gentle, steady pull you can lead the fish towards the surface but be aware of a sudden burst of energy again when it gets there! These final stages are the crucial part of the fight and when most big halibut are lost.
Big halibut are often landed with a sturdy gaff and lasso around the tail. Be careful if you bring a good size halibut in the boat – most likely it will go berserk and will destroy all your rods if they are not taken care of! But if you handle them with care, they can be returned unharmed.
One of my best weeks when it comes to halibut fishing were my trips to Kastneshamn, beginning of July and my last trip to Senja at the end of June, when conditions (weather and tide/current) were perfect for the last couple of days.
Fishing long days of more than 12 hours on the water, we experienced some great fishing, resulting in over 30 halibut in the boat up to 40 kg at the end of these weeks, most of them on spinning tackle. Great fun! As a bonus, we caught some massive summer cod of well over 20 kg, biggest going 129 cm and around 24 kg. Addictive fishing I can tell you!