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Halibut Fishing - Strategies for Finding & Targeting California Halibut [video + article]

Location is the number one challenge in early-season halibut fishing, so to help you score your next legal from the beach we've teamed up with California surf fishing guru Vince Chiofalo - founder of Battlestar Tackle and Vince Goes Fishing on YouTube - for a masterclass article and video on hunting trophy flatfish this spring.

Hunting California Halibut on Foot in Spring

I needed a break from my computer, a change of scenery, some escapism, a little adventure. So I decided to get out of town for a catch and cook get-away, and maybe catch a beautiful halibut in the surf. The video above and article below cover the strategies I used for a successful session.

Halibut Fishing Preparation - Tides and Waves

Before anything else, I checked the surf forecast for Santa Barbara county and noticed there were several consecutive days of consistent small waves. That’s the first thing I look for when hunting halibut on foot.

halibut fishing tides

Then I checked the tides. I could see there were some suitable minus tides in the afternoon, and even better these dates were within a few days of a full moon.

halibut fishing tides

So I made my list, packed the van, and hit the road! I crossed a couple county lines, then got geared up to see if I could hunt down a halibut on foot. I walked about a mile to get to the spot I wanted to try. 

Day 1 - Location, Water Quality and Halibut Fishing

The beaches of each county in CA have their own unique characteristics. In the south facing protected county of Santa Barbara, the water tends to get dirty and murky. And since I had the opportunity to live and fish in Santa Barbara for about a year, I learnt a lot about it.

halibut fishing spots

One thing I’ll share from my own experience is, if you want to become consistently successful at catching all kinds of fish in the surf, one thing you’re gonna need to learn, is how to observe, understand, and respond to WATER QUALITY. And this two-day fishing trip was all about hunting for quality water. 

On the first day of fishing, I didn’t drive to visit multiple beaches, rather I fished both sides of one specific point.

And the water was brown on both sides. So, let’s discuss this brown water in more detail.

If you’re a freshwater fisherman, you may have heard the term “chocolate milk” in reference to brown colored low visibility water which typically happens after heavy rain. But in the CA surf, we have two different kinds of murky water.

And while “chocolate milk” is still considered notoriously bad for targeting most species, this other kind of murky brown water that I call “chocolate shake”, is great for surf fishing. 

Chocolate milk… happens when tiny particles of inorganic silt or clay enters the surf zone, usually through fresh water creeks.

Or washed off loamy bluffs after it rains, like the ones I'm pointing to in the photo below.

These particles are churned up by waves, and because they’re so tiny, they remain suspended for a very long time. If these particles reach a critical concentration it renders the water opaque.

halibut fishing water

Just like a big jar of hot cocoa. It doesn’t clear up in the calm protected pockets or tide pools, which you can see examples of below. 

But, sometimes these particles are not concentrated enough to render the water completely opaque. And in that case, you just get limited visibility.

This would be like if I took my jar of cocoa, and dumped some of it into a 5 gallon bucket of clear tap water. The water may take on a stain of brown, but there’s still some amount of visibility.

If these particles are concentrated enough to render the visibility as low as, I’d say 18”, in my opinion it’s about time to either go look for clear water, or just go home do laundry. 

There’s a second kind of brown water that many surf anglers confuse for chocolate milk. It’s what I call “chocolate shake” and it can be really good for all kinds of surf fishing.

So, when you see cloudy brown water, take a closer look.

Chocolate shake happens when relatively larger particles of inorganic matter, (and this time I’m talking about sand) get churned up by waves. These relatively larger particles will sink faster, so they suspend in the water column for a much shorter period of time.

If I drop a handful of gravel into water you can see how quickly it sinks to the bottom, in just a few seconds...

A handful of sand does roughly the same thing, but you can see how the smaller particles are sinking at a slower rate. It might take 10 or 20 seconds for the water to clear up. This sand is what chocolate shake is made of.  

When we get down to particles as small as silt and clay, their tiny size allows them to remain suspended for longer periods. Water movement from waves prevents these small particles from settling, and the water stays murky, sometimes for days. 

Because the relatively larger particles of sand sink faster the cloudiness tends to clears up in the calm protected pockets and tide pools, often within seconds.

Which means that, if there’s a long period between two waves, the water will be clearing up down near the bottom and halibut may use that as an opportunity to look for food and attack before the next wave rolls through.

I’ve heard some of the best surf fishermen say that fish like to hunt the edge between murky water and clear water. But where do you find that in the surf zone? If the water is chocolate milk, the edge between murky water and clear water might be way out of casting range.

But If it’s chocolate shake on the other hand, you’re likely to find water clearing up in the calmer pockets, and those are usually closer to shore, and within casting range, like the zone in the red circle below.

Let’s add one final dynamic to this theory: sometimes the water can be a mixture of chocolate milk and chocolate shake. So watch for that too. I hope this knowledge empowers you to observe, understand, and respond to whatever kind of water quality you’re looking at. 

Now, on this first day of the trip, I was seeing a mixture of both chocolate milk, and chocolate shake. The visibility of the chocolate milk varied between 6” and 24” as I made my way down the beach. It was this chocolate milk that had me feeling less than confident, and my response was to walk another mile down the beach searching for the best visibility I could find.

So I walked and walked to the left side of the point, even past what I would consider the bay. And as I exited the section of beach which was protected by the point, the waves got larger and the water clarity was getting worse. 

So, when I got as far as I was willing to walk that day, I turned around and headed back in the direction I came from. When I got to what I call “the belly of the bay” I was surprised to find clear water amongst some churned up chocolate shake.

I finally found what I was looking for!

And, I had probably walked right by it on my way out. So here’s a huge lesson I want to share with you...

When I walked out initially, I was walking way up high on the beach, headed for some structure about a mile down the beach. I wasn’t walking along the edge of the water and watching to see how the water quality changed as I made my way along the beach. THIS was my mistake, and I learned from that experience.

So, from now on, when I’m hunting halibut on foot, I’m going to do all my walking along the waters edge so I can observe the water quality as I make my way down the beach.

That way, if I get all the way down there, and I don’t like how the water looks, I’ll already know how it looks up the beach where I came from.

So then I can make an informed decision: should I walk back to the nice clear water I saw as I walked in? Or should I keep walking and searching for better water quality?

At last, I finally found clear water with some nice chocolate shake. I got hopeful that I might actually find some halibut feeding. But this time, I had a whole different challenge.

This whole area with clear water had surfers passing through every few minutes. I just had to pay attention and be responsible for where I was positioning my line in relationship to the surfers.

As it often goes when setting out with the intention of catching a halibut in the surf, the bite I was looking for just didn’t happen that day. Although I did manage to catch this big beautiful perch, which made a great dinner. 

So, with a catch and cook under my belt it was time to hit the sack. Before falling sleep, I was thinking about conditions tomorrow morning and how I wanted to respond to them...

I knew it would be high tide at sunrise, and then outgoing all morning, so I decided to sleep and focus my energy on the afternoon low tide, and the incoming tide at sunset. I really wanted to catch a halibut, so I fell asleep dreaming about making a cast, and setting the hook...

Day 2 - Making a Halibut Fishing Game Plan Around Tides and Conditions

The next morning I woke up, and spent the outgoing tide thinking through the game plan. Low tide was around 3pm, so I had some time to buzz the county, check in at a few beaches and searching for halibut fishing-friendly clear water.

The first beach I checked was still way too brown. I could see the brown water all the way out as far as about 100 yards, and then it suddenly transitioned into dark blue water way out of casting range. The water didn’t look good so I drove further south.

The second beach I checked had a seasonal creek running and the water was also too murky brown from chocolate milk...

The third beach I checked was also a bit on the brown side, but it looked significantly clearer. I wondered if this might be the best water I could find today.

I decided to go for it, and hoped that I might find clear water up the beach. Lo and behold, as I fished my way up the beach, I found some really clear pockets as I got closer.

The first thing I noticed was just how rocky this beach looked. It had been stripped of nearly all sand due to the big winter swell. As I started reading the water and making a few casts into the protected pockets, I began to wonder if these pockets were even sandy on bottom.

So now that I had found clear water, my search turned to looking for calm protected pockets, with sandy bottoms, within casting range. 

Here’s a great tip: If the beach looks mostly rocky and stripped of sand, and you’re wondering where there may be some sand on bottom out there under the water, look behind you, up on the beach and notice, do you see sand up on the beach? Or is it all rock?

Often times the way I find sandy patches in the water, is by looking for sandy sections of beach out of the water.

Remember: the water is being stripped off in the winter, and redeposited in the summer, so taking that pattern into consideration, I figure, if there’s sand up on the beach, then there’s probably sand down in the water directly in front of it. 

Halibut, as you may have heard, are ambush predators. That means they are going to lay down in one spot, slightly buried, and completely camouflaged in the sand, while they wait for their prey to get very close, and then BAM!

A halibut can jump off the bottom, inhale an entire bait fish whole, and then immediately swim back down to the bottom and bury itself in the sand again, and it can all do this in about 1 second.

So let’s think like a halibut, and see through a halibut’s eyes for a moment… 

You’re laying on the bottom, in the sand, in one of these sandy protected pockets...

There’s a big bar of reef covered in eel grass protecting you from the power of the waves.

There’s some kelp drifting in the current nearby.

You’re waiting for a nice big bait fish to get really close, and along comes this Battlestar 5” Rib Bait, crawling along the bottom and bounces you in the nose… SMACK! 

What a satisfying result - and a good example of why it's important to find quality water for your next halibut fishing session to locate fish like this.

If you like this sort of thing, you can support me by joining our Facebook Group California Surf Fishing (CSF) and by subscribing to my YouTube channel.

You can also buy Battlestar 5" Rib Baits on Amazon and other Battlestar products via our online store. Thanks for reading, watching and supporting my work!

Vincent Chiofalo 


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