Learn to Kayak Fish for California Halibut

By mid-afternoon, the San Francisco Bay had begun to get choppy. As a first time kayak fisherman, the Whitecaps made me nervous. But my new Old Town Bigwater 132 PDL felt fairly stable and the halibut was biting. I didn’t land them. I had had a few short strikes in the morning. Later I had clung to what looked like a pretty one, but it came out before I could see it. Old Town had organized a day on the bay for me with pro-staff Annie Nagel and Virginia Salvador, co-captain of Gatecrasher Fishing Adventures. They had both hunted California halibut, and I intended to do so as well.

Just when I thought we might need to head back to the boat launch for a day, I felt a tug. I fed the fishing line – halibut are known for their short strikes – and when I started spooling I felt the fish at the end of my line and quickly brought it to the surface. It took a few short runs before he scored. It was then that I saw the lure of saltwater kayak fishing.

California halibut is smaller than its better-known cousin, the Pacific halibut. Hunting California halibut is a great way for novice saltwater kayak anglers to get their feet wet. Fish are often caught in bays – San Francisco Bay and San Diego Bay are two popular bodies of water to target them – which are less intimidating and dangerous than the open ocean. Kayak fishing tactics for California halibut are also relatively simple and don’t require a ton of gear. But fishing can still be a challenge – and hunting California halibut is exciting enough to keep even the most experienced kayak angler engaged. If you’re new to saltwater kayak fishing or trying to get to grips with the bite of summer halibut, here’s what I learned from Nagel and Salvador, two of the best kayak anglers on the Pacific coast .

Climb right

Setting up a halibut rig is simple. You should use a weight heavy enough to reach the bottom, depending on tidal conditions. Having an inline or circle shot mix of 4 oz to 16 oz is ideal. You will want to drop your weight to one side using a three way swivel and attach a mono leader to the other end.

You can jig fish for halibut or use artificial trolling systems, but using halibut bait is the most effective. If you have access to live bait, use it. “There’s nothing quite like catching a minnow alive,” says Nagel. “You’ll feel it floating on your rod, but the halibut will go crazy for it. I would expect to get a lot more action on live bait because the bait does more work.

Nagel likes to attach a bucket with holes to the side of her kayak to keep the bait alive by running water through it as she paddles. Salvador has a portable livewell with an aerator that she can store in the back of her kayak. You can keep it simple and rig live bait with a simple j-hook on the nose.

If live bait is not available, frozen bait will work just fine. Tray anchovies and herring are popular and effective options. You will want to use a two hook rig with a dart, running the top hook through the lip and the bottom hook through the side of the bait. Nagel suggests using a treble hook for the trailer because it improves hookups, but it can make it harder to release the shakers. “Presentation is so important, so change your bait even with the slightest scratch,” Nagel adds.

Fish the bottom

fisherman in kayak with curved halibut fishing rod
Salvador battles a guardian halibut. Annie Nagel

Whether you opt for live or frozen bait, on-water tactics are very simple. You need to slowly bounce your weight against the seabed. Make sure you can feel the bottom with your rod. Halibut are ambush predators and are attracted to the rippling motion of the bait going up and down, but they must be very close to the bottom. You will need to adjust the weight of your ballast according to the tide. If the tide is rising, put on a heavier sinker so you still have a solid connection to the seabed. If not, go for a lighter weight for better feel.

Drift, Troll or both

To get into the fish, try alternating between drifting with the tide and slow trolling. Trolling is often a good way to cover ground and get into an area where the fish are, but once you’ve done that, slow down. There are probably other halibut nearby, and you don’t want to leave fish to find fish. The halibut bite can change from day to day. Sometimes drifting slowly will work best if the fish are not feeding aggressively. Other times you can cover more ground and get into more fish if the bite is wide open.

Team up

two fishermen in a kayak are holding halibut
The author celebrates his first halibut caught in a kayak. Virginia Salvador

Halibut fishing is a team sport – at least it should be. Halibut are a school of fish and tend to congregate. Like flounder, they generally lie flat on sandy bottoms. The more you and your buddies can disturb by drifting into an area where halibut is present, the better your chances of getting a connection.

“There’s a reason charter boats are so good for halibut,” says Salvador. “They have at least six rods at a time, which causes a lot of commotion underwater and activates the halibut.”

If you are fishing with other kayak anglers, group up against each other, effectively mimicking a charter boat. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to fish where charter boats and other anglers congregate, but be sure to maintain a safe and respectful distance.

Timing the tides

Halibut generally like to bite when the tide is slower. “They’re not very active when it’s really heartbreaking,” says Nagel. “One of the best times to fish them is an hour or two before or after a high tide. That’s when it gets really good. Low tide can also provide a good window for halibut as long as the clarity of the water remains good.

Find your honey holes

Halibut like to nest in deeper holes where they can rest against the bottom and then pop up and catch baitfish passing overhead. Use a kayak-ready fish finder, monitor water depth and fish deeper in deeper areas. Another good way to target holes where halibut are likely to congregate is to use digital nautical mapping software such as Navionics, which can give you a detailed understanding of water depth and structure without requiring fish finder.

Be patient on the set of hooks

Halibut will often hit the tail of your bait before engaging it. A halibut will sometimes give you a solid hit, but more often you’ll just feel a bump or heaviness at the bottom of the line. “I always assume it’s a fish,” says Salvador. “I’d rather do that, even if it’s not, than miss a fish.”

Instead of setting the hook immediately, Salvador suggests aiming your rod at the shore, opening your bail, and slapping the fishing line out for 10-15 seconds. This gives the fish enough time to get comfortable enough to take the bait more fully. Nagel does not use this technique. Instead, she lets the rod load, keeping the bait in the strike zone without putting any slack in the line.

fisherman holds halibut from kayak
Live bait works best for halibut, but frozen bait works just fine. Annie Nagel

Whichever method works best for you, neither Nagel nor Salvador recommend giving a set of hard hooks, which can potentially tear the hook out of the fish’s soft mouth. Instead, lift the rod firmly and put constant pressure on the fish. Your goal is to gently lift the fish from the bottom.

Release the drag

Small halibut don’t fight much, but that’s not what you’re looking for. When fishing big halibut from a kayak, you can’t apply the same kind of torque to the fish as you would on a boat, which makes it especially important to keep your drag looser than you think. A large halibut can make lightning runs, potentially break your line, or pull your rod in the water.

Be stealthy on the net

One of the challenges of kayak fishing is catching your fish with one hand while retrieving it with the other. Halibut begin to fight only just before reaching the surface, that is, at this time they often begin to run. When you enter the net, slip it under the fish as stealthily as possible, then pick it up rather than going straight for it. “Try to do it in one quick motion,” says Nagel. “The fish will start panicking right after you catch it.”

Read Next: SoCal Kayak Angler Catches 16.75 Pound Largemouth Bass

Equipment tip: Stay visible


Both novice and expert kayak anglers should always be sure to increase their visibility when in open water, especially if you are near large shipping channels or heavy boat traffic. I recommend the YakAttack VISICarbon Pro light flag. It’s foldable for transport and easily attaches to a kayak gear rail when you’re ready to fish. The flag is clearly visible most days and the 17 lumen LED light can be turned on in extreme fog and low light situations.

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