Halibut fishing season arrives in Washington
Early April western Strait of Juan de Fuca halibut opener, more consecutive days in Puget Sound, and fishing on Tuesdays out of Westport highlight 2023 opportunities.
Washington’s spring halibut fishing season is here, and the initial outlook appears bright for these denizens of the deep.
Halibut anglers can hit the water beginning April 6 in some Puget Sound and eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca (Marine Areas 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10) locations and unlike in previous years, the early opener also includes Sekiu (Area 5) in the western Straits.
Meanwhile, coastal fisheries at Neah Bay, La Push, Westport and Ilwaco get underway on May 4. A bonus this season at Westport (Area 2) on the southcentral coast is that halibut fishing will be open on Tuesdays in May.
Elsewhere, the coastal scenario mirrors 2022, with Thursdays and Saturdays open at La Push and Neah Bay (Areas 3 and 4), and Thursdays and Sundays at Westport and Ilwaco (Area 1). Each area is also open on certain days during the Memorial Day Weekend (May 27–29).
The Evergreen State’s 2023 sport quota for halibut is 281,728 pounds. That’s part of an overall 1.52-million-pound quota approved by the International Pacific Halibut Commission in January for Washington, Oregon, and California. Each marine area could close sooner once the projected quotas are achieved.
In all Washington waters, there is a daily catch limit of one halibut with no minimum size restriction. Anglers may possess a maximum of two halibut in any form while in the field and must record their catch on a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) catch record card. There is an annual limit of four halibut.
You cannot fish for, retain, possess, or land halibut into a port located within an area that is closed, except anglers can land halibut that were lawfully retained in Area 5 into a port within Area 4 when Area 4 is closed.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound are open April 6–10, April 13–17, April 20–24, April 27-May 1, May 4–8, May 11–15, May 18–22, May 26–28, and June 1–30. The catch quota here is 79,031 pounds and areas could close sooner if that mark is achieved. As usual, Areas 11, 12 and 13 — South and Deep South Sound and Hood Canal — are closed to protect poor rockfish populations.
On the southern coast, Ilwaco is open May 4, 7, 11, 14, 18, 21 and 25, and June 1, 4, 8, 11, 15, 18, 22, 25 and 29. Again, the area could close sooner if quotas are achieved. The nearshore area is open Mondays through Wednesdays beginning May 8. The quota is 18,375 pounds and the nearshore quota is 500 pounds.
Just to the north, Westport is open May 4, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25 and 30. Fishing reopens June 15, 18, 22 and 25, depending on quota availability. Any remaining available fish will go to a northern nearshore fishery open on the Saturday after the all-depth fishery closes and remains open daily until the quota is achieved. The quota is 64,376 pounds.
On the North Coast, Neah Bay and La Push are open May 4, 6, 11, 13, 18, 20, 26 and 28, and June 1, 3, 8, 10, 15, 17, 22, 24 and 29, depending on quota (129,668 pounds) availability.
Fishing regulations include depth restrictions and area closures designed to reduce encounters with yelloweye rockfish, which must be released under state and federal law. Anglers are reminded that a descending device must be on board vessels and rigged for immediate use when fishing for or possessing bottomfish and halibut. A descending device must be on board and rigged for immediate use when fishing for or possessing bottomfish and halibut. More info about descending devices can be found on the WDFW’s website.
As for fishing gear, don’t skimp on anything. Your rod is your best friend when pursuing halibut. Stick with one that is stout (six to seven feet long, with fast/moderate action and heavy/medium power) and rated at 30 to 80 pounds to reel up a big one, yet sensitive enough to feel a weight or jig/bait hitting bottom. A rod should be able to handle a 16- to 32-ounce weight. Ceramic inserts on eyelets are a must for less friction and reducing wear from abrasive lines.
Electric reels are all the rage over a conventional level wind reel. Yes, they’re on the pricey side, but it makes reeling up a fish no problem by simply pushing a button. The other advantage of getting gear to the surface faster means you can set up and drop it back down and be on the drift again. Whichever reel you choose, be sure it has a large handle, a high gear ratio to keep the power in your hands and the capacity to hold 200 to 300-plus yards of braid.
On the topic of fishing line, 50- to 100-pound-test braid mainline is the way to go. It provides a much-reduced diameter with enough sensitivity to get your gear to the bottom with less drag in the water.
Most anglers use an 8/0 to 10/0 J-hook tandem rig. Others prefer circle hooks, since fish don’t unbutton as easily; 16/0 is a common size or take it up a notch to 22/0 for a “barndoor” size flattie.
Reminder that Barbless Hooks are required for all species in Washington Marine Areas 5 through 13 — including for halibut and bottomfish — except when using forage fish jig gear to target forage fish (herring, sandlance, anchovy, sardine and smelt). See our webpage and Marine Area Rules & Definitions can be found in the WDFW Washington Sport Fishing Rules webpage.
A wire spreader helps prevent your mainline from tangling with hooks and bait. Use a short leader — 15 to 20 inches — from the swivel on the long arm of the spreader. A 12-inch dropper of 25- or 30-pound monofilament or light wire between the cannonball sinker and spreader works well in case you hang up on bottom and prevents losing the entire rig.
When it comes to the size of weight, a lot of it is determined by current, wind and depth. A 16-ounce cannonball sinker is good for shallow areas when the current isn’t running hard. Also be sure to carry a variety of weights from 24 to 32 ounces.
Creating a scent trail with attractants on your jig or bait rig will help attract halibut from a good distance away. Soak salmon belly strips, herring, squid, octopus, anchovies, sardines, and fish skin to create a high-boosted scent bomb. If you don’t have salmon belly strips, you can also buy artificial scented strips. Tip the jig with bait strips and add copious amounts of scent gel. This scent plume bouncing off the bottom should draw in fish.
While metal jigs, white scampi tails, hoochie jigs get their share of halibut, there’s nothing more effective than fresh bait, especially when fishing the deeper coastal waters, where the largest concentrations of fish are often found.
Never use soft, mushy bait, as it tends to fall off the hook. This results in fishing with bare hooks or constantly having to raise and lower gear to check your bait. Fresh herring are tougher than the frozen variety. If there’s no option, be sure to brine large, black-label frozen herring to toughen them up. Remember, halibut are attracted to smell, but rotten or freezer-burnt bait is very unappealing.
When you feel that first bite, do not set the hook. Let the halibut inhale the bait and wait until the rod is bending and then start reeling up gently. Usually, the hook will embed in the corner of the halibut’s mouth as it swims away against the pressure. In some instances, a halibut will let go of the bait after you’ve reeled up. When this happens, drop the bait right back down and chances are you’ll get that same fish to grab it again.
Other key factors to success include fishing during prime tidal periods (stay away from a minus low tide), knowing where to go, avoiding fast-moving currents, watching the weather carefully and knowing whether you should drift or anchor fish.
Whatever style you choose, remember, it’s all about location, location, location! Look for edges, gentle drop-offs near the top of a hump or plateau, or where large schools of baitfish are located. Also, when drifting, bounce downhill from shallow to deeper water until the bottom flattens out.
Speaking of location, here are some of the top spots:
· Neah Bay and La Push: There are plenty of good areas just outside the marina, including Tatoosh Island, west of Duncan Rock and the Garbage Dump. But most anglers make the long haul to offshore areas like Swiftsure Bank, 72-Square and Blue Dot. Tides are key at Neah Bay and the less water movement, the better. Swarms of dogfish can be common and if that occurs, switch from bait to artificial jigs.
· Sekiu and Freshwater Bay: The sandy flats offshore from the mouths of rivers near Sekiu offer snag-free fishing. The shelf along some spots is gradual, so start at depths of 100 to 200 feet and then head to deeper water in the 200- to 500-foot range. Freshwater Bay is sheltered from the prevailing southerly wind, making it a great choice, especially for smaller watercraft. While the bay isn’t noted for halibut, it offers ideal locations heading either east or west.
· Hein, Coyote, Salmon, Middle and Eastern banks: These underwater humps in the eastern Straits can potentially be a haven for halibut, especially along the northern slope of Hein at depths of 200 to 300 feet. The top of each bank can produce halibut; look for baitfish, then stay on top of them. Middle’s west end is a huge flat where you’ll find halibut.
· Partridge Bank: This area can be found on the western side of Whidbey Island; work around the edges of the bank’s eastern side during an incoming tide. Then move to the west side on an outgoing tide.
· Mutiny Bay and the old “Navy Bombing Range”: Catching a halibut can be difficult in these areas, but those lurking around here are usually in the 75- to 100-plus-pound range. Constantly move around at depths of 100 to 200-plus feet and watch your fish finder to locate bait.
(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Communications Manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)